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AVA Spotlight: Santa Maria Valley

Want to impress your wine geek friends with a little known fact? The Santa Maria Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the third oldest AVA in the United States and was established in 1981, the same year as the Napa Valley AVA.

“People are always surprised when we tell them how long this AVA has been around,” says Chris Slaughter, Executive Director of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association. “But winegrowing has been a mainstay of the Santa Maria region for decades.”

In fact grape growing and winemaking in the Santa Maria Valley AVA, which straddles both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties on California’s Central Coast, goes back much farther than 1981. As in other parts of California early Spanish missionaries brought along grapevine cuttings to ensure a steady supply of sacramental wine, and when European settlers arrived in the 1800’s and early 1900’s they established farms and ranches and planted the wine grapes they knew from their ancestral homes. By the mid-1960’s the Central Coast-Santa Barbara County area was widely recognized as one of the finest in California for growing high quality wine grapes.

Perhaps the primary reason for this recognition and for Santa Maria’s continued reputation for fine wine is the region’s cool climate, owing to its geography. “We have a unique feature that occurs in only two places on the west coast of North and South America,” says Nicholas Miller, Principal at The Thornhill Companies, which operates grape crushing facilities in the Central Coast and owns and farms the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. “These are transverse mountains that run perpendicular instead of parallel to the ocean. They act as a funnel, bringing in fog that keeps the air cool in the morning and then burns off in the afternoon, allowing temperatures to get into the 70s…just high enough to get the fruit ripe.”

In addition to fog the Santa Maria AVA is cooled by the influence of maritime wind. “The Native American tribe that first settled here, the Chumash, had eleven words relating to the wind,” says Nicholas, a fifth general California farmer whose father and uncle planted wine grapes in Santa Maria Valley in the mid-1970’s, before it was an AVA. “Ishilin (the phonetic spelling is “is-hoo-loon”) is the one that means "wind from the ocean," in other words, the wind we get in the Santa Maria Valley.”

As Nicholas points out, this means the Santa Maria Valley has one of the longest growing seasons – and ripening periods -- in California. That’s why varieties that do well in cool climates – such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – are the most widely planted wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley. Syrah, another variety that is particularly expressive when grown in cool climates, is also popular in the region.

“The extreme coolness of the Santa Maria Valley results in a long, slow ripening process, and with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes, we get wines that are highly concentrated with intense fruit characteristics, but with a beautiful balance of natural acidity,” says Nicholas. “Winemakers from all over the state come here for our fruit.”

It’s therefore fitting that the Santa Maria Valley hosts what LA Weekly recently recognized as one of the “top ten wine events in California,” The Chardonnay Symposium scheduled for July 19-21, 2013, The Chardonnay Symposium, now in its fourth year, draws over fifty Chardonnay producers from around the world along with consumers, industry professionals and media for an insightful weekend of exploration and education.

“Chardonnay is America’s favorite wine, and this is the only Chardonnay-focused event in the U.S.,” says Chris Slaughter, who notes that the 3rd Chardonnay Symposium was a sold-out affair. “As a region known for producing world-class Chardonnay, it seems appropriate for the Santa Maria Valley AVA to give consumers an opportunity to taste and learn more about their favorite varietal.”

In addition to The Chardonnay Symposium, the Santa Maria Valley offers dozens of events each year at the many wineries and tasting rooms that dot the region. Restaurants, hotels, golf courses, and of course beaches also make the Santa Maria Valley a popular getaway destination. But the area’s greatest beauty probably lies in the fact that Santa Maria is part of the “easygoing Central Coast,” a relatively unpopulated area where winemakers can be found in the tasting rooms and restaurant reservations are relatively easy to get.

“This is still an agriculture-dependent area with a laid back vibe, just the way we like it,” says Nicholas Miller.

For information about the Santa Maria Valley AVA, visit

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The cool Santa Maria Valley AVA climate is perfect for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes


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