Since it was founded in 1982, Au Bon Climat has been a well respected producer of Burgundian-styled California wines. Jim Clendenen's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are mineral, focused and restrained in the early going. The renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard, in northern Santa Barbara, and the neighboring Le Bon Climat Vineyard, organic since 2003, are the main sources of Clendenen's grapes. Both are planted to the noble varieties, as well as some Viognier and Pinot Blanc.
Santa Barbara is home to some of California's most picturesque vineyards. The modern era of Santa Barbara wine making started relatively late in this Central Coast region--but it grew quickly. Beginning with a mere 11 acres under vine in 1969, Santa Barbara expanded to more than 7,000 acres by 1980, and it is approaching 11,000 acres. The majority of the vineyards are found in two regions north of the city of Santa Barbara: the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley.
Santa Barbara white wine varieties count for more than 75% of the plantings, the leader being Chardonnay followed distantly by Johannesburg Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are the top the red varieties. The most successful white wines have been Chardonnay and Riesling; as for Santa Barbara reds, Pinot Noir, though erratic, has greatly outdistanced Cabernet Sauvignon.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.