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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 17th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 10

From vine to label

The Santa Maria Valley name is gaining traction in the wine industry


Fog creeps uninterrupted into the Santa Maria Valley. Every morning and evening, it’s funneled from the Pacific Ocean into vineyards by the hills that run from east to west.

The wind that blows off the coast and kicks up dust on strawberry fields helps keep the climate mild and prevents mildew from resting on the skin of fragile wine grapes. Wind and fog alone might not make the valley a special place to grow grapes, but the east-west facing vineyards make Santa Maria an area unlike any other to grow chardonnay and pinot noir.

And while residents, sommeliers, winemakers, and very serious wine drinkers probably know what makes Santa Maria a fantastic area for wine, the general wine-drinking public might not have that information quite so handy.

“People just don’t know Santa Maria,” said Chris Slaughter, executive director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association. “It is this hidden place.”

It’s hidden, comparatively speaking, as opposed to an area such as Paso Robles, which sits north and has specially allocated hotel taxes to spend on marketing its wine culture to the rest of the world. It’s also hidden compared to Santa Barbara, the tourist destination of the county that is its namesake. Just hearing the city’s name conjures up images of beaches, resorts, and that classic California lifestyle.

As a recent article written by Richard Jennings and published on The Huffington Post’s website earlier this month said, “Sadly the vast majority of consumers don’t know where Santa Maria Valley is or why it’s so special.”

Jennings prefaced the statement by saying that marketing consultants advise the area’s wine producers to highlight Santa Barbara County and/or California on their labels instead of the Santa Maria Valley.

However, some calls made by the Sun to local wineries revealed that there are plenty of producers who do, in fact, label their wines as coming from the Santa Maria Valley. Slaughter of the wine association said that while maybe Jennings’ claim was once true—the area’s winemakers were encouraged to label their wines as something more “recognizable”—but that’s no longer the case.

“Now it’s rare to see a Santa Maria Valley wine that doesn’t say ‘Santa Maria’ on it,” Slaughter said. “And consumers are starting to see the value of Santa Maria wine.”

Cambria and Riverbench vineyards produce and bottle their own grapes in the Santa Maria Valley. They’re part of the growing number of Santa Maria-labeled wines that showcase the quality of valley-grown grapes.

The wineries that do label their wines as Santa Barbara County vintages generally do so because of the type of wine they produce or where the grapes are sourced. Rancho Sisquoc is technically in the Santa Maria Valley, but the winery puts the county’s name on its labels.

Winemaker Alec Franks said that while putting the county name on the bottle was a marketing decision, it also made sense because the winery produces wines for which the Santa Maria Valley isn’t necessarily known. The 300-acre vineyard is right on the edge of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys.

It has a special climate: warmer than Santa Maria and cooler than Santa Ynez. Heavier, warmer-weather grapes like Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignon are what Franks said the winery is known for, so it made sense to use Santa Barbara

“Pinot noir and Santa Maria Valley—those go together,” Franks said. “So we’re kind of on our own out here.”

Vines have produced commercial grapes in the area since 1964, when the Nielson family planted the county’s first commercial vineyard on what’s become part of the Byron vineyard property. In 1981, the Santa Maria Valley was the third American Viticulture Area to be established in the United States, and that’s also the same year Napa Valley officially became one. Big-time wine producers have bought Santa Maria grapes for decades and blended them into wine with other Central Coast-, Santa Barbara-, and California-grown grapes.

Much like the average consumer’s wine palate has changed over the last three or four decades, so has the way Santa Maria vineyard owners and winemakers view their product. There are a handful of vineyards, such as Cambria, that have always grown their own grapes for estate-produced wine to be labeled accordingly. Others have transitioned from purely production vineyards for other wineries to saving the best-grown grapes for themselves.

Cambria winemaker Denise Shurtleff said the transition within the valley is being noticed by the outside world.

“In my travels around the U.S., I’ve found that more and more people are aware of the Santa Maria Valley,” Shurtleff said. “It takes time to get that word out.”

That’s partly because it’s only in the last decade or so that boutique wineries have started popping up among the valley’s vineyards and that some well-established vineyards have started making their own wine.

Riverbench Winery is a good example of the valley’s transition. The vineyard has produced grapes for 40 years, but it’s only been a winery for the last eight years. Riverbench viticulturist Jim Stollberg said he’s seen the wine business explode in the valley over the last 10 years.

He said the transition started in the mid-’90s with vineyards like Kenneth Volk, Bien Nacido, Foxen, and Cambria.

“They were the only guys here,” Stollberg said. “They saw the potential.”

Now there are at least 20 wineries producing wine in the valley from valley-grown grapes, and in 2011 the Santa Maria Valley American Viticulture Area was expanded by almost 19,000 acres. There are more grapes in the ground, more Santa Maria Valley-labeled bottles on the shelf, and more stops on valley wine tours.

“Because [the potential of] our climate has been realized by producers and growers,” Stollberg said, “we see the Santa Maria Valley [label] as a great way to market the wines.”

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at

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