Moving Beyond “Sideways”: The 5 Santa Barbara Wines You Need to Try Now

Sommeliers Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback share their favorite recommendations from Cali’s underrated region

Let’s face it: Even though Angelenos think Santa Barbara County is wine-tastic, it’s the red-headed stepchild to Napa/Sonoma. But Master Sommelier Brian McClintic and Food & Wine‘s 2014 Sommelier of the Year Eric Railsback, who together co-own Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant and Vallin Wine, make compelling cases for why the beachside county has more going for it than proximity to L.A. I chatted with the two at the 2nd Annual Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting.

“Santa Barbara County will always be underrated, but it’s a good thing because to me it allows us the opportunity to not grow faster than press,” said McClintic. “Press when it’s too soon can be a bad thing because then people will plant things in the wrong places and try to capitalize on it. The emphasis now is on quality.”

“I think the potential here is huge just in terms of the temperature, the climate, the soils as well,” said Railsback. “It’s the only place in California that there’s a transverse valley that goes east and west so the airflow is really different from Sonoma and Napa. In the daytime you get really great sun but at night the temperatures cool down a lot. You get your phenolic ripeness, good alcohol, but then at night the vines can take a break so they’re not perspiring off acidity, which keeps good freshness and balance.”

Sure, Napa’s tourism is based on wine, but “we have some high-level wine here that’s built to age,” adds McClintic. The annual Santa Barbara showcase gives oenophiles a sneak peek and taste of the area’s unreleased wines from the upcoming vintage. With a mix of O.G. vinters like Au Bon Climat and young upstarts like Rajat Parr’s Sandhi, everyone is sure to discover some new favorite. But here are the somms’ personal Santa Barbara picks.

Tyler Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
“Most people associate Santa Barbara County with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, and for good reason. It’s probably one of the coolest regions on earth. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are cool-climate grapes and like to thrive in that area. And Tyler is at the forefront and he’s making wines to age that are really incredible,” said McClintic. While Railsback singles out Tyler’s old vine Sanford & Benedict: “It’s the original vineyard from ’71 and to see that every year in and out, there’s definitely a different texture to those wines that’s really superior from all of his other pinots.”

Tatomer Kick On Riesling
“For whites I really love Tatomer Winery, Graham Tatomer does a really killer Riesling, Gruners, Austrian-style wines,” said Railsback, an Austrian whites fanatic. “For me his Kick On Riesling is his main, high-end riesling. He holds it for two years before he releases it, which is super rare for a white. Those wines are pretty great, they show the potential of a varietal.” McClintic admires Tatomer’s dedication to the wine. “He actually went to Austria and studied under two of the best domaines there, Franz Hirtzberger and Emmerich Knoll,” he continues. “These are the best producers in the world for this grape. It’s a very, very serious project and it’s kind of an homage to the fact that we can grow a ton of different grapes here.”

Ojai Vineyard
“The wines from Ojai are pretty fun because he’s a producer that started old school,” said Railsback. “Then he started making things a little bit more modern, richer, rounder, more alcohol. But four, five, or six years ago he went back to the older style of winemaking, which is super tough, because people criticize you a lot when you go back and forth. It was great to see him go back to what he really believed and go away from the Parker-point style wine making.”

Qupe Bien Nacido Hillside Syrah
“Qupe, another old school guy who shares the winery with Jim Clendenen. But their Bien Nacido Hillside is really epic,” said Railsback. “The Bien Nacido Hillside is year in and year out super Northern Rhone style, very aromatic and pretty exciting. They just sold six months ago to the Terroir Capital Group, so it’ll be fun to see what they can do with a little more finances on their side.”

Vallin Syrah
This is Railsback and McClintic’s celebration of Syrah. The duo teamed up with Tyler’s Justin Willett and Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson of Eleven Madiscon Park because “We feel that Syrah of all grapes is kind of an unsung hero,” explained McClintic. “Syrah is one of those wines where it really thrives in a cool climate but people like to plant it in a warm climate like cabernet and then it becomes a fruit bomb-y cocktail that really is nondescript, it doesn’t have an identity. And when syrah is made in a cool climate and you back off of the oak and extraction it has more character than probably any grape around. It’s spicy, it’s meaty, it’s olive-y and it’s incredibly versatile with food.”

If you missed the tasting, you can still purchase the featured futures online for 20% off through May 31.