The Santa Maria Valley, stretching from the Santa Lucia Mountains toward the Pacific Ocean, was the homeland of the Chumash people for several thousand years. These now nearly vanished Native Americans made their homes on the slopes of the surrounding hills among the oaks, on the banks of the Santa Maria River among the sycamores, and along the coast. They had unique plank-built boats, called Tomol, which they used for ocean fishing.
In 1769, the Portolà Expedition passed through the Santa Maria Valley during the first Spanish land exploration up the coast of Las Californias Province. Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was established just north of the valley in 1772, and Mission La Purísima Concepción was established near present day Lompoc in 1787. Rather than rich soil, white settlers were attracted here by the possibility of free land. In 1821, after the Mexican War of Independence, the mission lands in Santa Maria Valley were made available for private ownership under a Mexican land grant called Rancho Punta de Laguna. At the end of the Mexican War in 1848, California was ceded to the United States.
In the late 19th century, after California gained statehood in 1850, the area’s rich soil attracted farmers and other settlers. By the end of the century, the Santa Maria River Valley had become one of the most productive agricultural areas in the state. Agriculture is still a key component of the economy for the city and the entire region.
Between 1869 and 1874, four of the valley’s settlers, Rudolph Cook, John Thornburg, Isaac Fesler (for whom Fesler Jr. High School is named), and Isaac Miller, built their homes near each other at the present corners on Broadway and Main Street. The townsite was recorded in Santa Barbara in 1875. The new town was named Grangerville, then changed to Central City. It became Santa Maria on February 18, 1885, since mail was often being sent by mistake to Central City, Colorado. Santa Maria was chosen from the name Juan Pacifico Ontiveros had given to his property 25 years earlier.
Oil exploration began in 1888, leading to large-scale discoveries at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, Union Oil discovered the large Orcutt Oil Field in the Solomon Hills south of town, and a number of smaller companies also began pumping oil. Two years later, Union Oil had 22 wells in production. Other significant discoveries followed, including the Lompoc Oil Field in 1903 and the Cat Canyon field in 1908. Over the next 80 years more large oil fields were found, and thousands of oil wells drilled and put into production. Oil development intensified in 1930s, with the discovery of the Santa Maria Valley Oil Field in 1934, right underneath the southern and western parts of the city of Santa Maria, which spurred the City’s growth even further. By 1957 there were 1,775 oil wells in operation in the Santa Maria Valley, producing more than $640 million worth of oil.
Just the Wine
This appellation is the oldest in this portion of California. Grape growing in this region dates back to the Mexican Colonial period of the 1830s. In the late 1960s commercial vineyards were planted to supply wineries around the state. Since then, vineyards in the valley have come to encompass 7,500 acres of Santa Maria, along with the neighboring Lompoc, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez Valleys, combine to create one of the nation’s largest wine-producing regions, referred to as Santa Barbara Wine Country.
The often foggy and windswept Santa Maria Valley is the northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County. The region’s first officially approved American Viticultural Area (AVA) enjoys extremely complex soil conditions and diverse microclimates. Chardonnay and Pinot noir are two varietals which especially benefit from the ocean’s influence, and are the flagship wines of this appellation.
Santa Maria Valley grapes are also used by wineries throughout Santa Barbara County and at many wineries outside of the county. The Santa Maria Valley name is used on labels from wineries that are based far away from the Santa Barbara County sunshine. The Santa Maria Valley appellation is bounded by the San Rafael Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west.