The wines of the Santa Ynez Valley are enhanced by regional characteristics unique to this area. In 1983 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) recognized this and approved the Santa Ynez Valley as a viticultural area.
The Spanish name “Santa Ynez” was given to the mission established in 1804 by the first European settlers in the valley. This mission, dedicated to Saint Agnes, or “Santa Ynez,” was the name also applied to the town, river, and valley.
Topography and geography distinguish the Santa Ynez Valley viticultural area from surrounding areas. The valley itself surrounds the Santa Ynez River and is defined by mountains to the north and south, by Lake Cachuma and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by a series of low hills to the west.
To the west, the Santa Ynez Valley narrows, and the Santa Rita Hills separate it from the Lompoc Valley. To the north, the Purisma Hills rise from 1200 to 1700 feet in elevation, and separate the Santa Ynez Valley from the Los Alamos Valley. Similarly, the San Rafael Mountains separate the valley from the Santa Maria Valley, previously approved as an American viticultural area. These mountains generally range in elevation from 1400 to 2600 feet.
The Santa Ynez Mountains on the south separate the Santa Ynez Valley from the Pacific Ocean; these mountains range in elevation from 800 to 2500 feet. The Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains form an untypical coastal range that is singular to the state. It is the only east-west running valley on the Pacific coast. This allows the flow of fog and offshore breezes to temper the climate.
The Santa Ynez Valley ranges from a cool Region I to Region II based on the University of California, Davis heat summation scale. Solvang, in the center of the valley, registers an average of 2680 degree days. This contrasts with the 1970 degree days (Region I) in nearby Lompoc, and with 2820 degree days for Santa Barbara, south of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The Santa Rita Hills to the west block the colder ocean air, prevalent at Lompoc, from entering the Santa Ynez Valley and act to moderate the valley’s climate.
Rainfall averages 16 inches within the Santa Ynez Valley although it is variable from year to year. Fog also plays an important factor in the climate of the viticultural area by keeping the valley cool and moist during the growing season. Nearly all vineyards are influenced by it.
Northern Santa Barbara County contains 14 major soil associations, by the Santa Ynez Valley contains only seven major associations. Vineyard plantings are confined almost entirely to three of these soil associations. Basically they are well drained, fine sandy loam soils; well-drained to excessively well-drained, fine sandy loams to clay loams; well-drained shaly clay loams and silty clay loams.
Grapegrowing and winemaking were extensive in Santa Barbara County prior to Prohibition. The Santa Ynez Valley itself contained hundreds of acres in vineyards. Prohibition ended the industry in the valley and the vineyards were not replanted after repeal.
In 1969, the first commercial vineyards since Prohibition were planted just east of Solvang. Additional acreage was planted during the next decade, especially 1972-73, by winemakers attracted to the climate of the valley, and its remoteness from urban encroachment. Today there are over twenty vineyards encompassing over 1500 acres within the viticultural area. Major grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, White Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir.
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