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Wild and wise in Santa Barbara.

Paris, circa 1920. Though no one knew precisely why, the most avantgarde artists and writers in the world gathered here. It was a magical and almost mystical time. Paris had become a mecca for mavericks.

Santa Barbara County, the present. The same thing is happening - but this time the draw is wine. Seemingly inexplicably, dozens of America's most wild and imaginative winemakers have gravitated here. If Steven Spielberg were a winemaker, you can bet he'd be making wine in Santa Barbara County.

Does all of this creativity affect the actual taste of the wines? I think it does. Santa Barbara County wines are sassy, daring, a little reckless and unpredictable. Miss Manners probably wouldn't like them.

Not that any winemaker in the county would care. These are the sort of men and women for whom the phrase conventional wisdom is an oxymoron. More often than not, winemaking here means shooting from the hip.

What's amazing about this to me is that it works. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara County, I could not believe the sheer number of fantastic wines I found. Bottle after bottle (I tried some 200 wines) turned up one great surprise after another.

But before I tell you about them, a word about the unique and spectacular geography that helps make these extraordinary wines possible.

Santa Barbara County, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, comprises two main valleys - the Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez. These valleys in turn are made up of undulating hills, deep canyons, and windswept mesas.

Most important, both run east to west, opening with total vulnerability right onto the Pacific. You can actually taste the ocean in the air.

Why does this matter? Because the proximity to the sea means that both the soil and the climate are uniquely suited to producing wine. (Bordeaux, for example, would not be Bordeaux were it not for the influence of the nearby Atlantic Ocean.) Cold air sweeps off the sea and barrels down the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys as though they were wind tunnels.

Much to the thrill of the vines. Certain vines, anyway - notably Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Syrah. These grapes not only thrive in coolness but virtually require it if they are to be made into elegant wines.

Elegance. That's the other thing. The best wines from these valleys exude elegance. No muddled flavors, no overwrought bodies, no components sticking out like sore thumbs. They exist in Zen-like refinement.

Pinot Noir is the leading star. These are earthy, smoky Pinots laced with chocolate, tangerine, and spice flavors. Their texture is pure silk.

Listing every excellent Santa Barbara Pinot Noir would be impossible, so instead I'll give you my personal A+ list of producers whose Pinots I can't get enough of (even at $25 to $50 a bottle):

* Au Bon Climat

* Babcock Vineyards

* Byron Vineyard and Winery

* Foxen Vineyard

* Hartley-Ostini

* Sanford Winery

* Santa Barbara Winery

Pinot Noir, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys also produce some of the world's most devastatingly creamy, lemony versions of Pinot Gris and opulent, honeyed Pinot Blancs. (Both of these white wines make a terrific change of pace from Chardonnay.) The three top producers of Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are Babcock, Byron, and Au Bon Climat.

I could write a whole story on the excellent Chardonnays, Merlots, Rieslings, Cabernet Francs, and Cabernet Sauvignons made in the region. And I could write another story about the up-and-coming Italian varieties - especially Sangiovese - now being planted in these valleys.

But the one wine I must tell you about here is Syrah. Santa Barbara County is simply packed with sensational Syrahs, as well as other Rhone varieties. These are wildly spicy, howling-with-pepper, full-of-personality Syrahs that detonate on your taste buds with flavor.

Exactly what the winemakers of Santa Barbara had in mind.

THE MOST OUTRAGEOUS OF ALL

It's almost impossible to choose just a few favorite wines from the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys in Santa Barbara County. But the following are absolute standouts:

* Babcock Pinot Gris 1996, $15. As light and elegant as lemon sorbet.

* Byron Pinot Blanc 1996, $16. Gorgeous, rich. Lemon drops drizzled with honey.

* Gainey Chardonnay 1996, $15. Packed with style, energy, and pizzazz.

* Au Bon Climat "Isabelle" Pinot Noir 1995, $50. Very expensive, but a treat you should have at least once in your life. Earthy, sexy, complex.

* Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon "Ma Mere Vineyard" 1995, $40. Primordially intense, deep, and lush.

* Zaca Mesa Syrah 1995, $20. The delicious confluence of boysenberries, tar, and leather.

* Andrew Murray Syrah 1995, $25. Prototypically sassy and reckless - just right for Clint Eastwood.

K. M.
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Title Annotation:wines in Santa Barbara County in California
Author:MacNeil, Karen
Publication:Sunset
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:785
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