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Cool Pacific breezes kiss valley vines of decent chardonnays


Let me introduce you to a couple of Valley girls -- Maria and Ynez. Sometimes they might seem as if they're in a fog, but they're cool, really cool.

And that's why they make such radical chardonnays.

The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys are the two best winegrowing areas of Santa Barbara County, a few hours up the road from Los Angeles but a good 300 miles south of San Francisco.

It is one of the geographic oddities of California that its coolest winegrowing regions lie a full day's drive south of its most famous growing regions -- Napa and Sonoma counties.

But as anyone who's visited California quickly learns, the Pacific Ocean is in charge of the weather and geography bows before her will.

Unlike the Napa, Sonoma, Alexander, Dry Creek or Russian River valleys -- all familiar names to California wine enthusiasts -- the Santa Maria Valley and the lower end of the Santa Ynez Valley run east to west.

Instead of becoming heat traps, the way the north-south valleys do, Maria and Ynez act as giant funnels for the cold air and fog coming off the Pacific. If you visit, even in August on a day trip out of Los Angeles, take a jacket.

About 15 years ago, the results of trying to grow grapes in such climates were often downright comical. Fiercely vegetal sauvignon blancs vied with weedy cabernet sauvignons to see which could be more loathsome.

But Santa Barbara County vintners quickly learned that the chardonnay grape thrives in such conditions. A native of the northern French region of Bourgogne (Burgundy), chardonnay apparently found something in the Santa Barbara valleys that reminded it of home.

(Pinot noir, the red grape variety of Bourgogne, has also excelled in Santa Barbara County, but that's another article.)

Santa Barbara County chardonnays have a definite style all their own -- far removed from the sometimes bombastic power of Napa Valley chardonnays. Indeed, if you stick to Santa Barbara chardonnays for a while, even a well-made Napa chardonnay can seem shockingly crude and alcoholic on the palate. It isn't so much a matter of quality but of style. (Sonoma County's often excellent chardonnays tend to fall in the middle.)

The "feel" of Santa Barbara chardonnays is different -- closer to white Burgundy than other California chardonnays but by no means a replica. A good Santa Maria or Santa Ynez chardonnay will have no less flavor intensity than a comparable North Coast counterpart, but it will seem less heavy and have more natural acidity in the finish. There's a breezy, cool, crisp quality to the Santa Barbara wines that you seldom find up north.

For now, here are some of the better Santa Barbara chardonnay producers on the market. They range in price from moderate to very expensive, and some bottles -- notably those of Au Bon Climat -- might be hard to find.

* Sanford Wines (Buellton): In recent years, Sanford has emerged as one of California's greatest wineries. Sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, chardonnay -- they're great, they're fun and they're ready to drink now. The chardonnays are especially impressive. The 1992 "regular" Santa Barbara County chardonnay, which sells for about $20, is a marvelous wine that balances tangy apple-lemon fruit flavors with toasty oak and smoky, yeasty flavors. Despite the full body and intense flavors, it has a cool, fresh edge.

The 1992 Reserve chardonnay from Santa Barbara County ($35) turns up the intensity just a notch, adding even more yeastiness and a wonderful nutty quality. One could question whether there's $15 worth of difference between these two wines, but that's more a credit to the less expensive wine than a criticism of the reserve.

* Au Bon Climat (Los Olivos): Classic Burgundian methods and style are the hallmarks of this impeccably run winery. The 1992 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($25) is a classic, well-balanced, subtle wine that doesn't overwhelm you with its power but seduces you with its grace.

* Byron Vineyard & Winery (Santa Maria): The appley, spicy, toasty 1993 Byron Santa Barbara County chardonnay ($18) grown in the Santa Maria Valley reveals exceptional complexity in layer after layer of flavor. Its finish just doesn't seem to ever want to stop. Wow!

* Qupe (Los Olivos). Best known for his excellent Rhone-style wines, Bob Lindquist has also fashioned a superb 1992 chardonnay ($18) from the Sierra Madre Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. It's a crisp, appley wine with exceptional intensity and enchanting nuances of peach, yeast, lemon and oak.

* Zaca Mesa Winery (Los Olivos): Could this notoriously inconsistent winery have hit its stride? It seems to, with chardonnay at least. The 1993 Santa Barbara County chardonnay from the Zaca Vineyards ($15) is a very pleasant, medium-bodied wine with a lightly herbal quality and a fine toastiness. But the 1992 James G. Clendenen "Alumni Winemakers' Series" chardonnay ($22) is a classic Burgundian wine with intense, complex and lingering flavors of lemons, nuts and yeast.

* Cambria Winery (Santa Maria). The 1993 Cambria "Katherine's Vineyard" Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley, often priced as low as $10, is one of the best chardonnay values on the market today, with its appley-toasty flavors and cool-breeze finish. For a real treat, try the 1993 Cambria Reserve, also from Santa Maria, a $25 wine with a complex melange of apply, oak, honey and spice flavors.

* Meridian Vineyards (Paso Robles): The Meridian 1992 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($12) is a typically excellent value from this reliable producer. It's a yeasty, toasty, slightly earthy chardonnay that could easily be mistaken for a fine white Burgundy.

* Firestone Vineyards (Los Olivos): The 1993 Firestone chardonnay from the Santa Ynez Valley ($13) isn't the most complex to come out of this region, but its has a creamy feel and generous fruit that terminate with a typically crisp Santa Barbara finish.

* Kendall-Jackson Vineyards (Lakeport). The well-known Kendall-Jackson winery from far up north in Lake County thinks so much of Santa Barbara County fruit it went all the way to the Santa Maria Valley for its 1992 Camelot Vineyard Chardonnay ($18). This creamy, rich wine offers pleasant nuances of lemon and vanilla, but also Kendall-Jackson's trademark touch of residual sugar. The finish doesn't live up to the up-front flash, but it's a fun wine.

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