Pioneers of Santa Barbara’s Wine Culture

Pierre Lafond and Bruce McGuire are largely responsible for the “wine country” culture that exists in California’s Santa Barbara County today.

They’re also largely responsible for my personal interest in dessert wines. More on that in a moment…

Lafond, an architect-turned-businessman who moved to Santa Barbara in 1957, founded Santa Barbara’s first post-Prohibition winery in 1962. While the venture was successful, 10 years would pass until a second winery was opened in the region. Today, there are more than a hundred.

Sometimes, even good ideas take a while to catch on.

Two years after founding Santa Barbara Winery, Lafond moved it to its present location in the downtown area—at Yanonali and Anacapa, two blocks from the beach.

Then in 1971, he planted grapevines on a 65-acre plot in the Santa Rita Hills, at the western tip of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Lafond always had other business interests as well, so in 1981 he made a decision that would positively impact the winery for the next 30 years: He hired Bruce McGuire as winemaker.

After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, McGuire spent several years working for wineries in Northern California. Since taking over winemaking duties for Santa Barbara Winery, the estate has received countless awards, and his abilities have garnered national recognition.

McGuire is one of the pioneers in the development of Pinot Noir and Syrah in Santa Barbara County. In fact, when he first arrived at the winery, he asked that Pinot Noir be planted in the estate Lafond Vineyard.

Lafond granted the request, and Pinot Noir—largely ignored in most of California at the time—has found its true home in Santa Barbara County.

As winemaker, McGuire today controls the total process, from the selection of varieties and clones in the vineyard to farming practices, cultivation, pruning and when to pick. Accordingly, the wines reflect his style and philosophy of winemaking—a style that has become wildly popular among wine aficionados.

In 2001, Lafond’s instincts about the potential of the Santa Rita Hills vineyard were recognized when the area was granted official American Viticultural Area status.1 The area is defined by its cool climate, which is why McGuire wanted to plant Pinot Noir there.Today, McGuire not only is the winemaker for Santa Barbara Winery, but also its president. And Lafond, never one to simply sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor, has developed a second estate. He tapped his architectural skills to design the Lafond Winery, which opened to visitors in 2001 after a successful first harvest in 2000.

Over the years, Santa Barbara Winery has become a popular attraction among visitors to the coastal community. Its proximity to the ocean is helpful, although finding a parking space can be challenging during the summer months.

The labels that adorn the winery’s bottles are an attraction in and of themselves, beautifully and tastefully decorated with floral illustrations.

And then there’s the selection. While McGuire makes some very “serious” wines—particularly his bottlings of Pinot Noir—he also crafts a number of “fun” wines, including perfect-for-the-summer blushes and decadent dessert wines. As one visitor to the tasting room put it, “If you can’t find a wine that you like here, you don’t like wine.”

That was my experience when I first visited the tasting room in 1986 or ’87, not long after I had graduated from those ubiquitous wine coolers of that time to “real wine.” Remember Bartles & Jaymes? I still love their commercials.

The atmosphere in the Santa Barbara tasting room—then, as now—reflected the beach vibe: casual and laid back. Visitors were (and still are) welcome to taste any number of wines, including virtually all of the current releases.

It was during that first visit that I discovered sweet wines didn’t have to be syrupy or soda pop-like. I believe it was a late harvest Zinfandel that made the case to my taste buds, and I’ve been a fan of well-made dessert wines ever since.

But Santa Barbara Winery probably always will be best known for its Pinot Noir, a variety that McGuire helped pioneer in Santa Barbara County and that was “immortalized” in the movie “Sideways”.

For those desiring a behind-the-scenes look at the operation, private tours are available for groups of six or more. The tour includes a tasting of current releases, accompanied by a selection of cheeses, bread and fruit. Think of it as in indoor picnic with really good wine.

The cost for the private tour and tasting is $25 per person, and a one-day notice is required.

Today, several wineries operate tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s downtown area, but Santa Barbara Winery always will be the first.

WINERY 4-1-1

Santa Barbara Winery
202 Anacapa St.
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Open Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tasting Fee: $5


Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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