This Unique Land – A True Cool Climate Appellation

Much of the singularity and excellence of the Santa Maria Valley appellation is due in great part to the East-West transverse valley that runs through it. This transverse valley acts as a funnel, channeling in cool maritime influences and depositing them throughout the wide valley that is Santa Maria. Ocean temperatures just off the coast of Santa Maria are typically about 15 degrees C (55 to 59 F). The Coriolis effect, an upwelling of deeper, colder waters, further cools the ocean breezes coming in off the coast of the Pacific and into the Santa Maria Valley. The cool winds entering from the Northwest, coupled with the Coriolis effect, serve to push cold ocean water to the surface. The transverse valley then allows these cold water winds to funnel into the Santa Maria Valley, cooling it substantially.

If the Santa Maria Valley was not situated at this southerly latitude, it would not be warm enough to ripen grape varieties to full maturity. It is, therefore, this singular combination of elements that allows Santa Maria Valley to produce wines of such distinction and typicity.

The number of days between bloom and harvest is approximately 125, on average. Though day time temperatures rarely exceed 75 degrees F, the long growing season provides substantial heat units throughout the year to fully ripen Pinot Noir, and other varietals that do very well in the Santa Maria Valley. Maritime fog usually cools the grapes in the evening, until approximately 10:00 am. When the sun breaks, the grapes receive substantial heat units to ripen, but it is never so warm in Santa Maria Valley that the grapes begin to “shut down” from excessive heat. These mild temperatures, coupled with a long growing season, allow for grapes that possess great aromatics, distinction, a lively fruit component and balanced acid levels.

Yields in Santa Maria tend to be average to low, due to excessively cool spring temperatures. Poor set on the vines often results from days that do not warm much past 65 degrees F. Pollination can be adversely affected by these cool temperatures. But, the strain of poor pollination on the vine, ironically, results in smaller clusters with intensely flavored berries. These small berries usually provide for greater color and complexity in the resulting wines.

The average annual rainfall in Santa Maria is approximately 14 inches. The rainy season begins in mid-November and continues until the beginning of May, when it lessens considerably to only about .2 inches of rain a month in the very first days of spring.

The oldest commercial vineyard in all of Santa Barbara County is located in Santa Maria Valley. The Nielson Vineyard was planted in 1964. Today, vineyards such as Bien Nacido Vineyards (named on of the Top Ten Vineyards in the World by Wine and Spirits Magazine), Solomon Hills, Julia’s Vineyard, Rancho Ontiveros and the Foxen Estate Vineyard have garnered national recognition for their individual expressions of numerous varietals, not the least of which is Pinot Noir.

Santa Maria Valley soils are marine-based, and can be variously described as sandy, sandy loams, clay loam, shaley loam, loam or shaley clay loam. Numerous series of soils exist in Santa Maria Valley, but the most common are the Chamise soils, which are, typically, well-drained and rest above deep gravelly beds of silt, clay and sand. The other soil series that is widely found in Santa Maria Valley is the Elder series. These originated from alluvium deposits derived from sandstone. The Elder series occurs on alluvial fans and in flood plains. Most of the soils in which vineyards are planted throughout Santa Maria Valley are considered to be of low or moderate vigor. They purposely stress the vines somewhat, resulting in grapes of greater flavor and concentration. While the yields in Santa Maria Valley tend to be low to moderate, the concentration and extraction of the grape materials tends to be intense and quality-driven.

For these reasons, many winemakers from throughout the Golden State have sourced their grapes from Santa Maria. They have come to Santa Maria Valley because of the long-running history of quality fruit emanating from this appellation. Winemakers such as Chuck Wagner (Caymus Vineyards) has sourced grapes from Santa Maria Valley for his Belle Glos and Mer Soleil projects; Jed Steele has sourced Pinot Noir for his Steele portfolio; Maggie Harrison has sourced Syrah from Santa Maria Valley for her critically acclaimed project, Lillian (a small lot collection named for her grandmother); and Manfred Krankl has sourced numerous varietals from Santa Maria Valley and continues to do so, for his world-famous Sine Qua Non project.

Never a region to rest on its laurels, the growers of Santa Maria Valley continue to experiment with clonal materials, always searching for better and truer ways to express the varietals of their choice, whether it be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, cool climate Syrah, Merlot, Roussanne, Mourvedre, Grenache or other grapes about which they are passionate. Because of its geographical and topographical diversity, there are numerous varietals that excel in the soils of Santa Maria Valley.