The Ethical Cellar recently visited Santa Barbara County and its Santa Ynez Valley because the area shelters a vibrant community of organic, Biodynamic, and natural winemakers. Just 90 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the county is known for its varied, natural beauty. The mountains almost literally meet the sea and the east-west inland valleys benefit from the constant sea breezes, which expose the grapes to varying temperatures.

Santa Barbara boasts microclimates within microclimates and, as new regions are planted, new AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) are created for them. Based on the soil, orientation, wind, temperature, and humidity there are now seven nationally recognized AVAs, which is why “micro-producers” abound. Our overall impression after spending two weeks in this area is that the small coterie of ethical winemakers has found a good home and is making wine their own way.

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This is what attracted Rajat Parr, arguably the most famous sommelier in the United States. We spoke to him as he drove between vineyards, sometimes in cell tower range, other times not. He is the co-author of the James Beard Award-winning Secrets of the Sommeliers, as well as the The Sommeliers Atlas of Taste. At one point, he traveled the world while overseeing the wine list for 20 prestigious restaurants in the Michael Mina group. Now, he prefers to hand-feed baby goats and work in the soil. One of Raj’s vineyards, Domaine de la Côte, is in Santa Barbara County. His newest venture, Phelan Farms, is just north in San Luis Obispo. Their website lists only a shortened version of his first name, Raj, and his job simply as “farmer,” which he told us defines “the third chapter of my life” (after a childhood in India and his fame as a sommelier).

“I’m more interested in healing the planet, for example, with dry farming and cover crops, than in making the best wine. Healthy soil produces wonderful wine. I could hire a winemaker, spend more money, and make a great wine. That’s not my goal.”

He told us, “I practice a Buddhist philosophy, but admire other religions. The same with farming. I respect Biodynamics but prefer to follow my gut. So, I accept some aspects of their teachings, like following the cycles of the moon, but refuse to fine and filter the wine, which they allow. I experiment. For pest control, one year I sprayed with cinnamon oil; another year I tried turmeric.” 

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His methods are working because, despite being unsulfited, his wines travel well. “I just did events in Stockholm and London and the wines we opened were perfect.”

There are several other leading lights in Santa Barbara’s ethical wine movement. Lenka Davis’ name came up repeatedly. As the wine director of Barbareño, a popular restaurant with a focus on natural wines, and Good Lion Hospitality, which operates several wine bars, Lenka was happy to share her philosophy on exposing the sometimes reticent public to natural wines. “True natural wine enthusiasts have a tolerance for things other consumers don’t, like hazy, unfined, unfiltered wines, and wines with unique, sometimes barnyard characteristics. I try not to include the latter on my lists. I want to convert drinkers by showcasing approachable examples.”

Another prominent figure is Drew Cuddy, owner of downtown Santa Barbara’s Satellite, a “farmer to table, farmer to glass” restaurant, bar, and natural wine store. Drew is a die-hard proponent of low-intervention wine, believing that his customers will appreciate wines that others may find difficult. Drew steered us toward Roark Wine Co’s entry-level “Vino,” a vintner’s blend described as “elegantly energetic” as it’s full of robust ripe fruit.

Gretchen Voelker of Luna Hart, Photo by Deborah Grayson

On a field trip to the increasingly popular Santa Ynez Valley, we visited Ballard Canyon where Gretchen Voelker simultaneously makes wines under her own label, Luna Hart, and manages the winemaking for Piazza Family Wines. This past February the canyon was shockingly green as the relentless rainfall that caused mudslides and evacuations had also turned the rolling hills verdant. The color change was noticeable from outer space.

The Ballard Canyon AVA is known for its cool salty ocean breezes and fog which Gretchen harnesses to create a portfolio of elegant, aromatic varietals.

While not certified Biodynamic, Gretchen follows some of their principles. “I plant and vinify with intention. If the moon is furthest from the Earth, its gravitational pull is the lowest. I rack my wines then so the sediment settles faster.” 

She pointed out that Santa Barbara County has the largest percentage of female winemakers in the world and observed, “Instead of competing with each other, we support our vineyard neighbors.” We observed this surprisingly generous attitude over and over during our Santa Barbara stay.

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Anna and David DeLaski of Solminer, Photo by Deborah Grayson

A few miles away, on the outskirts of Los Olivos, is Biodynamically certified Solminer Wines, the creation of husband and wife team Anna and David DeLaski. Because of her Austrian background, their focus is on little-known varietals including Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, as well as the better-known grapes Syrah, Pinot Noir, Muscat, and Gruner Veltliner. Their 5-acre vineyard, Anna told us, benefits from her insistence on employing regenerative agriculture, a holistic process that heals the soils.

Not content to follow established pest control methods, Anna recently ran an experiment. Reasoning that vines mount a defense when attacked by insects, she sprayed ground chitin (insect exoskeletons) on them. It worked. Last year’s grapes were pest free. Other (living) animals assist. Sheep, chickens, donkeys, and bees are all part of the Biodynamic zeitgeist.

We sampled Solminer’s 2020 Grenache and found it bright and explosive with a final note of ripe fruit. Their wines are in high demand and are primarily sold through their wine club.

Completely off everybody’s radar is Blue Truck Wines, which we discovered while shopping at the thrice-weekly Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market which supports a large community of organic purveyors, some of whom have been farming this way for generations.

Blue Truck Wines & Santa Barbara Pistachio Company at Farmer’s Market, Photo by Deborah Grayson

An organic pistachio vendor, oddly, had wines on display. We learned pistachio matriarch, Gail Zannon, had some idle land on her 1200-acre farm and decided to try her hand at grape growing, because, according to her son, Tristan, she “likes wine people.” With Tristan acting as the farmer, they’ve planted three acres with Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Less than 600 cases are made annually so distribution is limited. We were fortunate to drink their Syrah and thoroughly enjoyed the spicy, ripe fruit richness. At half the price of most other local wines, it was a delicious bargain.

The above is not by any means an exhaustive list of what Santa Barbara County has to offer the ethical wine drinker. It’s our quirky selection. There are other well-known ethical wineries in Santa Barbara. For example, Beckmen, the first Biodynamically certified winery in the county. And the Budweiser family heirs own the organically farmed Folded Hills. 

Santa Barbara County’s ethical cellars are many and varied. Most are open to the public. We encourage you to explore the area’s charms and happen upon wineries to put on your own quirky list.