Prior to the arrival of Spanish maritime explorers in Northern California, the coast from what is now Malibu to San Luis Obispo was occupied by the Chumash, an indigenous people who were skilled hunter-gatherers but had no formal system of agriculture. Agriculture, and with it wine-growing, was established in Santa Barbara County with the arrival of the Spanish military and the Franciscan missionaries who accompanied them.

The land where Mission Santa Barbara now stands was occupied by the Spanish when a presidio was built near the harbor in 1782 to protect the California coastline. Political wrangling between the church and the state delayed the building of the mission and Father Fermín Lasuén began construction in 1786, two years after the death of pioneering missionary Father Junipero Serra. Mission Santa Barbara became the tenth of 21 missions that were connected by the El Camino Real.  

From the years 1787 to 1834, the mission recorded significant harvests of grain, legumes, fruit and grapes from vineyards, which established a timeline for winegrowing in the region. The Santa Barbara Mission had three vineyards: Mission Canyon, La Cieneguita and San Jose, an eight-acre lot named for the San Jose Creek that ran along its eastern border in the hills of present-day Goleta. Like all mission vineyards, they were planted with cuttings provided by missions with well-established vineyards of Listan Prieto which came to be known as the “Mission” grape.

Winegrowing in early 19th-century Santa Barbara isn’t solely accredited to Franciscan monks. As the pueblo of Santa Barbara grew up haphazardly around the presidio, residents began planting vines as well. The presidio’s Comandante, Felipe de Goicoechea, who served from 1784 to 1802, planted vines on what is now known as De la Vina Street.

The Mexican War of Independence (1822) saw the end of Spanish rule and by 1833, the Mexican Secularization Act marked the Rancho Period of California history. Even after the missions were secularized, the Catholic Church continued to tend the San Jose vineyard, maintaining a winery there between 1824 and 1834. 

A firsthand account of the winemaking process at San Jose noted “well-bathed Indians” foot-stomping fruit as it sat in steer hides. The must was left to ferment in wood vats for two or three months, producing a weak, flabby wine, and the pomace was distilled for aguardiente.

Under Mexican administration there was an expansion in grape growing and ranching in the region. The Ortega family planted grapes at Refugio on the Gaviota Coast, and Irishman Nicholas Den planted 40 acres (16 ha) at Rancho Dos Pueblos, a 15,000-acre (6,070 ha) tract of land granted to Den by Governor Juan Alvarado in 1842.  

By 1843, the Santa Barbara region was the state’s third largest producer of wine, with 260 acres (105 ha) under vine and 45 different vineyards. Even among California’s earliest winemaking efforts, wine produced in the region was considered “notable.” Records indicate that by 1845, the San Jose vineyard had over 2,200 vines. An adobe construction at the site, built by the native Chumash, survives to this day as Goleta’s oldest manmade structure.  

Shortly after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago ended the Mexican-American War, California became the nation’s 31st state in 1850. Immediately after both Santa Barbara City and County came into being. The Gold Rush brought with it settlers and a short-lived period of lawlessness and violence to the county but the region’s relative isolation kept population and development in check. 

When immigrants from Europe began to arrive, the region’s wine industry received a boost in plantings and technology. In 1856, the Catholic Church leased the San Jose vineyard and winery to an Irish immigrant named James McCaffrey who expanded the winery and increased the size of the vineyard, which thrived under his care.

During the same time, winemaker Pascual Botiller, a Californian of French descent, is credited with bringing the first wine press to the area. His winery survived until the 1890s. 

McCaffrey eventually purchased the San Jose vineyard in 1871 from Bishop Thaddeus Amat, the first bishop of Los Angeles. He expanded the vineyard to over 6,000 vines and continued successfully until the mid-1890s, becoming well known for his fine wines.

But it was an American, Albert Packard, born in Providence, Rhode Island, who founded Santa Barbara’s first major commercial winery, housed in a massive purpose-built adobe building on West Carrillo Street in about 1865. Packard is believed to have taken over Goicoechea’s grapevines and to have planted some of his own.  

Packard branded his wine El Recodo or “The Corner” and made about 30,000 cases a year, which is a considerable amount, even by today’s standards. Packard sold his wine from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, and it even found its way to Texas. His vines succumbed to phylloxera in the 1880s. 

During the latter half of the 19th century, extreme weather events, including drought which brought about the demise of the cattle industry and flooding, had a greater impact on the people of Santa Barbara County than the distant Civil War (1861–1865).

In 1884, a Frenchman named Justinian Caire planted a 150-acre (61 ha) vineyard with 20 different grape varieties that he imported from France on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast. Caire’s vineyard became one of the more important sources of wine in the state until economic woes and Prohibition eventually wiped it out. 

Long before the completion of the railroad connecting Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in 1887, Santa Barbara’s scenic coastline and balmy climate made it a fashionable resort destination. By 1901 the railroad from Santa Barbara to San Francisco was completed and the county could be accessed both by rail and sea.

Despite phylloxera, which claimed most of the region’s vineyards, McCaffrey’s San Jose Vineyard seemed immune and in 1895 he leased the San Jose winery to one of his employees, an Italian immigrant named Michele Cavaletto. The winery flourished under Cavaletto, who then purchased the estate in 1900 and sold grapes and wine to buyers throughout the United States.

Recognizing the historic importance of the original San Jose adobe, Cavaletto constructed a building around it to protect it from the elements.

The Cavaletto family continued to operate the winery until Prohibition began in 1919. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 did not, however, lead to a revival of the region’s wine industry: Unlike the wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, which survived Prohibition by selling fruit to home winemakers and producing sacramental wine, Santa Barbara’s commercial winegrowers replaced their vineyards with avocado and lemon orchards.

Winemaking returned to Santa Barbara County in 1962 when Canadian Pierre Lafond, an architect who moved to Santa Barbara in 1957, founded the Santa Barbara Winery.

Initially, Lafond sourced fruit from nearby Templeton until wine-growing was reestablished in the county by UC Davis graduates Uriel Nielsen and Bill DeMattei who planted the first commercial vineyard – the Nielsen vineyard - on benchland in the Tepusquet region of the Santa Maria Valley in 1964. 

The Nielsen Vineyard is sited 18 miles (29 km) from the Pacific Ocean, rising from 500–800 feet (152-244 m) on alluvial, sandy loam, decomposing rock and Elder soils. It’s currently planted to 23 different clones, including Dijon clones 114, 667, Pommard, Swan, 2A and 828, as well as the Wente and 95 clones of Chardonnay.

The history of the iconic Nielsen vineyard is closely tied to Byron Kent Brown, who upon graduating with an enology and viticulture degree from Fresno State, became the founding winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos in 1977.

In 1984, Brown, his wife Deborah and their partners started Byron Vineyard & Winery, producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Byron purchased the 125-acre (51 ha) Nielson Vineyard, adjacent to the winery in 1988. After the Mondavi family purchased the Byron Winery from them in 1990, Brown continued to run the winery for the next 14 years before starting his own label, Ken Brown Wines in 2003. The vineyard changed hands again in 2006 when Jackson Family Wines purchased Byron from the Mondavi family as part of a $97-million, multi-property deal.

Viticulture in Santa Barbara County expanded cautiously during the 1970s, producing several of the region’s most iconic vineyards. Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict established their Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills in 1971. Pierre Lafond planted his eponymous vineyard there as well.

In 1972, Louis Lucas and Dale Hampton would plant what would become the famous Tepusquet Vineyard which now stands in the Cambria Winery and vineyard facility on the north bank of the Sisquoc River. 

A year later, the Miller brothers, Stephen and Robert, would begin Bien Nacido, today the most widely recognized vineyard in the valley. The Millers chose a site on the historic Rancho Tepusquet, a 2,800-acre (1,133-ha) property they purchased in 1969. Rancho Tepusquet took its name from the Chumash word for “fishing for trout” and spanned 9,000-acres (3,642 ha) when it was granted to Tomas Olivera in 1837. The first record of grapes being planted there dates to 1857 and the original adobe built by Olivera still stands, having been lovingly restored by the Millers.

Bien Nacido is noted for a large percentage of own-rooted vines planted to its three distinct soil types. The Millers initially established it as the largest certified nursery-service-plus-vineyard in the state. Although they no longer grow budwood, there’s a Syrah clone now referred to as “Bien Nacido.” The vineyard’s fame was established over the following 20 years by Central Coast winemakers, including Qupé’s Bob Lindquist and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, who produced single-vineyard designates of such high caliber that consumers began asking for Bien Nacido wines by name. 

The 1975 vintage marked the release of Santa Barbara County’s first estate wines, produced by LaFond’s Santa Barbara Winery and the Firestone Winery.

The 1980s were a pivotal decade for wine-growing in Santa Barbara County. The region’s first AVA, Santa Maria Valley, was granted official status on August 5, 1981 (expanded in January 2011), making it the second oldest appellation after Napa Valley in California. The AVA includes the oldest contemporary vineyards in Santa Barbara County, including Bien Nacido, but has historically received less attention for Pinot Noir than its southern siblings in the Sta. Rita Hills.

In 1982, pioneering winemaker Jim Clendenen founded Au Bon Climat and began sourcing fruit from Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict. The Burgundian-focused Clendenen listed the vineyard names on his labels and his lauded wines generated international attention.

Qupé Winery was founded by Bob Lindquist that same year and, in 1989, Lindquist joined forces with Clendenen, a fellow Zaca Mesa Winery alum, in a partnership to source fruit from Bien Nacido. 

The following year, 1983, Santa Ynez Valley became the county’s second AVA.

As the Winkler Index further validated the region’s potential for ultra-premium, cool-climate Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, more vineyard plantings followed. The acclaimed Dierberg Vineyard was established in 1996 by Jim and Mary Dierberg.  Solomon Hills, Santa Maria Valley’s most westerly vineyard, also owned by the Miller family, was planted in 1999.

In 2001, Sta. Rita Hills joined the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley AVAs. Almost a decade transpired before a quick succession of AVAs -- Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (2009), Ballard Canyon (2013), Los Olivos District (2015) -- was approved, followed by the more recent addition of the Alisos Canyon AVA (2020), bringing the region’s total to seven.

Wines sourced from some of Santa Barbara County’s youngest vineyards, those planted in the early 2000s, are now among the top-scoring wines for the region. These include Duvarita, a cool site west of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc and the La Purisima Mission, which was planted in 2000 by former Presidio Winery owner Doug Braun and his partners and purchased in 2012 by Brook Williams. 

Radian, a 100-acre (40.5 ha) site with unique diatomaceous earth soils, was planted on the coolest and most exposed site in Sta. Rita Hills in 2007, as was Presqu’ile, a 73-acre (29 ha) site in the hills of Santa Maria Valley. 

Santa Barbara County’s pioneering winemakers Richard Sanford, Ken Brown, Rick Longoria, and Fred Brander continue to pursue their craft, as do a second generation of winemakers who trained under them, including Bob Lindquist, Jim Clendenen, and his original partner Adam Tolmach. Now a third generation, some of whom, including Sashi Moorman, apprenticed with the second, and talents like Ernst Storm and Matt Dees, are generating even greater acclaim for the region.