Diet, schmiet: My New Year's resolution this year (like every year) is to drink better wine. Toward that end, I'll redouble my resolve to sniff my way around the globe in search of little-known gems and bargains, renewing my vow to remain open to every grape from every place. Last year we found amazing wines in Greece, Austria and the interior of Spain, and -- who knows -- maybe this will be the year for Outer Mongolia. However, I'll also remember to keep an eye on what's happening closer to home, and a great place to start looking for great wine is beyond the beaten path in California.

Southern California, that is. Although everybody thinks about California first when thinking about great American wine, almost nobody thinks about the southern part of the state. (How do I know? Every year at least 100 people ask me where to go in Napa, but nobody has ever asked which wineries to visit during their trip to Los Angeles.) Nevertheless, many of America's best wines are being made in Santa Barbara County.

There's no shame in being unaware of this. Most of us hold a mental image of Santa Barbara involving swaying palms and sunny beaches, whereas we think of vintners working in caves when they're not out fighting frost and hail. Unlikely as it may seem, though, the coastal region north of the city of Santa Barbara produces wonderful wines that are distinctive precisely because the area is unusually cool. The ocean currents along this portion of California are quite chilly, and they send frequent fogs and cool air inland because the coastal mountains turn from their typical north-south line to run eastward.

As in most other cool California regions, producers in Santa Barbara County started by planting lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in an attempt to replicate the magic of Burgundy. The resulting wines are often outstanding if not quite Burgundian in delicacy, as the famously intense California sunshine manages to burn off the fog and ripen the grapes to levels rarely seen in central France. This outcome has prompted plantings of a wide range of grapes, and Syrah has shown exceptionally strong results. Certain areas (especially to the east and south) are warm enough for Bordeaux grapes, and it now appears that enough different microclimates are available to grow virtually any variety within the confines of Santa Barbara County.

I've tasted scores of delicious Santa Barbara wines in recent weeks, and the number and range of wines worthy of a recommendation here stands as a testament to the region's versatility. Top wines appear in order of preference within categories, with approximate prices and D.C. distributors indicated in parentheses:


* Foxen 2000 ($23, Constantine): With fantastic complexity and balance, this is one of the five best Chardonnays I tasted last year.

* Byron Vineyard Nielson Vineyard Chardonnay 1999 ($40, National): Deeply flavorful with lots of little nuances.

* Lafond Vineyard 2000 ($20, Franklin): Rich -- even fat -- but effectively balanced with spicy oak.

* Costa de Oro Gold Coast Vineyard 1999 ($24, Constantine): Fully mature, with interesting notes of butterscotch and peaches.

* Zaca Mesa Winery 2000 ($16, Bacchus): Ripe, soft, and tropical.

Also tasted: Fess Parker Winery 2000 ($19, DOPS); Bedford Thompson Winery 2000 ($22, Constantine); Foley Estates Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay 2000 ($27, National); Santa Barbara Winery 2000 ($13, Franklin); Babcock Winery & Vineyards 2000 ($20, Constantine); LinCourt Vineyards 1999 ($16, National); Fess Parker Winery "Select Cuvee" 2000 ($13, DOPS).


* Fess Parker Winery 2000 ($20, DOPS): A very big, very dramatic wine featuring honeysuckle, peaches and spicy oak.

* Zaca Mesa Winery 2000 ($14, Bacchus): Juicy and delicious, with just enough acidity.


* Babcock Winery & Vineyards "Eleven Oaks" 2001 ($25, Constantine): A stunning Sauvignon that combines the weight and richness of a California rendition with the acidity and varietal character of a Loire wine.

* Firestone Vineyard 2001 ($11, Bacchus): Very clean and fresh despite full ripeness.


* Babcock Winery & Vineyards 2000 ($25, Constantine): A remarkable wine with huge fruit and interesting earthy complexities.

* Fess Parker Winery 2000 ($20, DOPS): Rich and soft in texture, but still bright and well balanced.

* Qupe Bien Nacido Vineyard 2000 ($32, Constantine): Deliciously pure and very well integrated.

* Bedford Thompson Winery Thompson Vineyard 2000 ($25, Constantine): A powerhouse with very intense, black fruit.

* Zaca Mesa Winery 1999 ($17, Bacchus): Stylish and subtle, with excellent integration of components.

* LinCourt Vineyards Syrah 2000 ($23, National): Big blackberry fruit with a bright future.

* Lafond Vineyards 2000 ($20, Franklin): Very big and dense, but soft in texture.


* Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Vineyards "Knox Alexander" 1999 ($52, Constantine): Gorgeous fruit and lots of smoky, spicy oak.

* Babcock Vineyards 2001 ($25, Constantine): Soft, sweet and seductive.

* Lafond Vineyard 2000 ($20, Franklin): Deeply flavored with fine balance and length.

Also tasted: Foley Estates Santa Maria Hills Vineyard 2000 ($30, National); Byron Vineyard 2000 ($25, National); Fess Parker Winery 2000 ($21, DOPS); Santa Barbara Winery 2000 ($21, Franklin); LinCourt Vineyards 2000 ($22, National).


* Io Red Wine 1999 ($66, National): A sensational blend of 80 percent Syrah, 11 percent Grenache and 9 percent Mourvedre, with very deep flavors and just the right touch of spicy oak.

* Foley Estates Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 ($33, National): Dark and intense but remarkably bright and fresh.

* Foxen Merlot 1998 ($28, Constantine): Intriguingly soft, delicate and, um, foxy.

* Bedford Thompson Cabernet Franc 1998 ($25, Constantine): Very complex and interesting, with especially impressive aromatics.

* Firestone Vineyard Merlot 1999 ($16, Bacchus): Much more subtle and Bordeaux-like than the vast majority of North Coast Merlots.

* Di Bruno Stolpman Vineyards Sangiovese 1998 ($23, Constantine): This is too massive to be confused with a Tuscan wine, but it does have very appealing Sangiovese flavors with nice grip and acidity in the finish.

* Foxen Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 ($28, Constantine): Delicate, nuanced California Cabernet? Believe it!

Note: There will be no online wine discussion today.