Santa Barbara Wine Country
It’s been more than 15 years since the Oscar winning movie Sideways put Santa Barbara wine country on the wine map. This region has been planted to commercial grape vines since the early 1960s and has transformed into one of the best wine destinations in California offering incredible diversity of wines, growing regions, and quintessential Central Coast towns. Santa Barbara wine country is full of lazy roads, which undulate into flat valleys, ascend to hilltops where the views of open land, roaming cattle and mature oak trees make you feel like you’re in a time warp. Unlike France’s Loire Valley, these wineries make for an easy day trip from Los Angeles, but if you plan to drink a lot of wine you may just want to play it safe and pack for a weekend trip. Typically, Santa Barbara wine tasting room costs range from $10 to $20 per person for five wines. Some places offer simple cheese and meats for purchase, but this isn’t Napa and there are no restaurants attached to wineries.
Santa Barbara Wine Country Contains Many Different Ecosystems
From the fog-laden Santa Rita Hills for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to the hot and dry Happy Canyon area for Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon, to the flatlands of Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley, the breadth of wine made here is impressive.
Part of the beauty of visiting Santa Barbara wine country, located over the mountains from downtown Santa Barbara and a mere 30-minute drive, is that the area is still agriculturally driven and retains its farming history. Mission Santa Barbara established a vineyard and winery in the 1830s. About 1820 San Antonio winery was built in what is now Goleta. The Packard Winery was constructed in 1865 near downtown Santa Barbara, and in the late 1890s grapes were being turned into wine on Santa Cruz Island. Today there are 55 different varieties of grapes planted throughout Santa Barbara wine country on 21,000 acres. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties but on the watch list is Vermentino, Barbera and Riesling, among many others.
The Santa Rita Hills is the de facto place for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and includes heavy hitters like Foley, Sea Smoke, and Sanford. “Our east-west valleys and maritime influences – stronger than any other coastal throat on the Pacific Coast – makes for long hang times,” says J. Wilkes winemaker Wes Hagen. “The poor sandy soil creates tiny berries and thicker skins due to the calcium content of the seabed soils and the wines tend to be very dark, masculine and brooding.” But brooding doesn’t define the other diverse tasting regions, like Happy Canyon with players like Westerly, Grassini, Dierberg and others who are turning out amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Wine Tasting Rooms Abound in Santa Barbara Wine Country
Even theatrical Solvang is home to over 15 tasting rooms including Buttonwood Farm, Presidio Winery who farms biodynamically, and the 1950’s themed Sort This Out Cellars. That’s also true of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an industrial section of this former temperance community, dotted with small boutique tasting rooms like Flying Goat, and Palmina among 20 others. Nearby Los Olivos with its staggering 48 tasting rooms and Western feel has become a hotbed of wine activity from new wine drinkers to serious collectors looking to stock their cellars. Definitely check out Tessa Marie Wines for Sangiovese and Vermentino, and Dragonette Cellars for Syrah and Pinot. Just north, Santa Maria is more splayed out incorporating the Foxen Wine trail and need-to-stop tasting rooms like Kenneth Volk, Riverbench, and Koehler wineries, all with picnic areas, and vineyards nearby, not to mention Andrew Murray for a chocolate and wine pairing. The area restaurants are finally achieving a level of success, complimenting the wines utilizing lots of local produce.
Trendy Wines in Santa Barbara Wine Country
Are wines like Chardonnay and Cabernet losing ground to hipper, less known wines made here like Grüner Veltliner, and Albariño? “I wouldn’t say Chardonnay and Cabernet are losing their appeal, but people are more willing to be adventurous,” says Santa Barbara based sommelier Brian McClintic, star of the film SOMM. “Trends come and go and I think pendulums will cease to swing widely in one direction with a specific style or grape.” And this is where Santa Barbara wine country excels – the sheer diversity means that whatever your preferences, you’ll find a wine you love. But you’ve gotta get out of your house and get there.
Santa Barbara is 90 miles from Los Angeles by car. Also consider taking the train, which drops you off a block from the beach in downtown Santa Barbara. There are also a handful of flights into the Santa Barbara Airport from cities including LA, Dallas, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.