Roberson on the Road: Santa Barbara

Roberson on the Road: Santa Barbara

Join Keith, Sara, and Josh on Roberson's Annual Trip to California. In Part 1, we dive into Santa Barbara, catching up with some of the stars of our California Portfolio. 


Here at Roberson, we're BIG on Californian wines - so much so, we've bagged Decanter's ‘USA Specialist of the Year’ award seven times. We make the transatlantic journey at least once a year, eager to check in with the winemakers we admire, scout for new talent, and keep our finger on the pulse of the trends shaping this dynamic wine scene.

Many of our regulars are already well acquainted with the New Wave style of winemaking that we've become known for championing and introducing to the UK. This movement, heralded in Jon Bonné's seminal 2013 book, "The New California Wine – A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste," signals a shift towards elegance, restraint, and sophistication in Californian wines, a style that once stood in the shadows of its over-extracted, oak-heavy counterparts. This New Wave leans towards higher acidity, lower alcohol content, and a nuanced expression of terroir.

Far from being a 'new' trend, this revolution has been decades in the making, and all indications point towards its ever-increasing influence on the California wine scene. Despite the challenges the region has faced - including devastating wildfires in 2017 and 2020, recent floods, as well as a late fruit set this year - the resilience and innovation we've witnessed over the last years has been inspiring. Winemakers, unfettered by the traditions and rules, are freely experimenting, pushing boundaries, and crafting daring wines.

Our sizeable portfolio meant this year's trip was no leisurely tour, but a whirlwind adventure that clocked some serious miles. Under Keith's experienced guidance, Sara and I, first-timers in the Golden State, navigated from the sun-drenched slopes of Santa Barbara to the rugged landscapes of Napa's Atlas Peak. We braved ocean fog and heat spikes, armed with a car radio blasting classic rock and a generous stash of Cheetos. But this wasn't just a road trip; it was a classic Roberson-style twist on the conventional, and an unforgettable journey into the heart of California's exciting wine revolution. So, pour yourself a glass of Californian, turn up the Springsteen, and read on for the highlights.

 Part 1: Santa Barbara Wine Country 

Kunin Wines, Tatomer Wines, Donnachadh, Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte, Piedrasassi

Our adventure began and concluded in Santa Barbara County, a vibrant embodiment of Bonné's 'New California'. A scenic drive from the frenetic heartbeat of LA, the laid-back spirit of Santa Barbara presented a much-welcomed change of pace. This coastal city, fondly dubbed 'America’s Riviera', has long-been a magnet for celebrities such as Oprah, Jeff Bridges, and even Harry and Meghan. Bursting with bustling farmers' markets, incredible restaurants, inviting coffee shops, and a thriving community of ground-breaking winemakers, its allure is undeniable.

The county's unique geography is its secret sauce. Its east-to-west transverse valley, the longest of its kind on the western Pacific coast, acts as a conduit for cool ocean breezes to course into vineyard regions like the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley. This cool zephyr extends the growing season and yields wines of balanced acidity and ripeness. Trust us, you can feel it in the air – and in the glass.

Santa Barbara is a wine lover's paradise, offering sophisticated wines that retain a fresh minerality. Though Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah dominate, the warmer inland areas also cultivate successful Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. Our early visits took us from Kunin, in the city, to Graham Tatomer's vineyard in the lofty Sta. Rita Hills. After navigating Napa, Sonoma, and much of the Central Coast, we looped back to Lompoc & Los Olivos in Santa Barbara. Here, we caught up with the family behind Donnachadh - a rising Sta. Rita star. Our journey ended with a stop at the doorstep of Sashi Moorman, the visionary winemaker behind Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte, and Piedrasassi. With a subtle yet profound influence, Sashi's thoughtful approach to winemaking is having a ripple effect on California's wine trajectory and its standing on the global stage. 

Kunin: Rhône and Loire-Inspired Wines from the Heart of Santa Barbara

Kunin Wines' new tasting room is nestled in Santa Barbara's historic Presidio neighbourhood. Here, amidst the city's classic Spanish architecture, we were left as impressed as ever by Magan Eng’s Rhône and Loire-inspired wines. Thrown into the deep end following her husband Seth’s untimely passing in 2017, Magan has taken the reins and shown herself to be a force to be reckoned with. Under difficult conditions, she's not only upheld Seth's legacy but has also managed to take Kunin to even further heights. High praise and top scores since her first vintages, alongside the increased recognition Kunin receives each subsequent year, are testament to her grit and the exciting path she's charting in the winery. 

Tatomer: Cool Climate Favourites From The Back of a Pick-Up, California Style 

The ever-enthusiastic Graham Tatomer greeted us at the foot of San Sebastiano vineyard, high up in the breezy Sta. Rita Hills. Driving up amongst steeply sloped vineyards, we were given a stark reminder of the 2020 wildfires – swathes of blackened ground painting a dramatic backdrop. It was there, straight from the back of his pick-up truck - under the bright Californian sun - where we tasted his stellar range of wines, all testaments to his exceptional winemaking talent. A lover of Austrian styles, Graham's passion lies in crafting wines that highlight the unique qualities of their cold sites, resulting in Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir filled with light, nuanced flavours, and bracing acidity.

DonnachadhA Rising Sta. Rita Star

Under the hot California sun, we were greeted by Drew, Laurie, and Vilma at the base of their Sta. Rita Donnachadh estate. Despite the heat and the steep, sweat-inducing incline, we decided to brave the 40% slopes to the top of the vines. Climbing up the hill was a workout we hadn’t signed up for, but the payoff? Panoramic views of vineyards sprawling across Santa Barbara. Having caught our breath, we tasted through their line-up of wines, expertly crafted by winemaker Ernst Storm. The hype is real; critics and wine buffs are calling Donnachadh future superstars. We’re proud to represent them in the UK – they're definitely worth a climb. 

Sashi Moorman: The Winemaking Wizard Behind SandhiDomaine de la Côte, and Piedrasassi

Meetings with Sashi Moorman always deliver. This winemaking maestro has been impressing us with his tireless passion and talent for a decade, and our latest encounter in Lompoc was no exception. Greeting us with his usual warmth, Sashi led us on a tour of the stunning Sta. Rita Hills, his expert commentary bringing the region's diverse terroir to life. We hung on his every word as he detailed the crafting of his Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi range - exceptional wines we're proud to have imported for years. As business partners, Sashi and the famed sommelier Raj Parr are a formidable duo, their commitment to the expressive, 'New California' style of winemaking evident in every bottle produced. Sashi's zeal is more than just talk, it’s an infectious enthusiasm that can be tasted in each sip.