17 Dec So you are heading to Santa Barbara and want to know where to taste wine…
I was asked recently about insights into visiting Santa Barbara. My brain goes a little crazy then, filled with all the wonderful options. It’s no secret that I love this area and it’s people. As I set out to jot down some notes, it occurred to me that I am asked this quite often. And while Crushed Grape Chronicles has loads of information on Santa Barbara, I do not have one concise blog post that details the highlights as I see them today. So here I am, putting together my SBC highlight reel. Keep in mind that there will be omissions. Some because there is only so much room in a highlight reel and some because I have yet to discover them. So if you come across one of these omissions, please feel free to add your SBC favs in the comments section!
When you say Santa Barbara, the first thing that comes to mind is the beach, and the city of Santa Barbara. So we will start there. Just know that Santa Barbara is so much more than that.
The City of Santa Barbara
Stearns Wharf and the Beach
Go straight to the beach. You know you want to. You can head out onto Sterns Wharf where there are restaurants and a tasting room. The Conway Family’s Deep Sea Tasting room is a great place to start. They have a variety of wines that they source from coastal vineyards and you can’t beat the ocean view, I mean you are ON the ocean, not just on the beach looking at it! And a meal at The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is perfect, especially on a cloudy day. If you can manage to pack into this tiny place at the far end of the wharf you will indulge in some soul warming seafood.
The perfect place for a quick overview: The Valley Project
But the city beckons and I suggest your first stop be to the The Valley Project– AVA Santa Barbara
This project started by Seth Kunin will give you an overview of Santa Barbara County. This county contains multiple AVA’s (American viticulture Areas), which differentiate climate and soils within wine growing areas. The beautiful Elkpen chalk mural that spans the entire wall behind the tasting room bar will give you an overview and the pourers are there to discuss the differences in the wines and areas with you. Expect them to pull out soil samples to show you.
Super quick tutorial on Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara lies in a unique area that separated from the plates along the coast. Over the past twelve million years this little section shifted and created a Transverse valley. This means that the valley here runs east west as opposed to north south like all the other valleys on our coast. The transverse valley and the microclimates within it led to a place where you can grow an amazing variety of grapes in a relatively small area. On the western edge the valley is cool and is perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As you move east the valley warms by a degree a mile! This makes the middle section perfect for Rhone varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Roussanne and as you continue to the east side where Happy Canyon lies, you have enough heat to support those Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc. Read more about it in The varied and amazing wines and wineries of Santa Barbara County
The Funk Zone and Urban Wine Trail
So now that you are armed with a little background, you can decide where to go next. The Funk Zone is home to lots of little urban tasting rooms. If you are looking to just hang and drink wine and enjoy the sunset in a set of board shorts barefoot, you can march right down to Municipal Winemakers . The funky laid back atmosphere here is ultra relaxing. If this is your style, you can check out our article Municipal Winemakers and the “Funk Zone” wineries
Wine Collection of El Paseo
If you are not in your board shorts there is the El Paseo further up State Street. Here you will find the tasting room for one of the grand daddies of Santa Barbara Wine Au Bon Climat (ABC to those in the know, which now you are!). Margerum Wine Company is located here also, along with Doug Margerum’s restaurants the Wine Cask and the Intermezzo Wine Bar. Grassini, known for Happy Canyon Bordeaux style reds and gorgeous Sav Blancs is also here as well as Jamie Sloane Wines, where you will often find Jamie himself behind the tasting bar pouring. There are a few more tasting rooms here that I have yet to visit.
You can read more about the El Paseo in our post Santa Barbara’s Wine Collection of El Paseo
Into Wine Country
While you found tasting rooms, I bet you didn’t see any vineyards here in town. That’s because you have to drive inland to get to wine country. You have two options, you can take the 101 and head to Buellton or you can take the 154. The 101 will stick to the coast line until Gaviota State Park and then head north to Buellton. The 154 takes you up into the hills above the City of Santa Barbara and along Lake Cachuma bringing you out in Happy Canyon. From there you can choose to head to Solvang (the little Danish town, that is very quaint and contains most of the areas hotels) or to Los Olivos, a town of tasting rooms. Both are pretty drives, the 154 is quieter (and faster and my favorite).
Places to Taste:
Regulations in Santa Barbara are still quite strict in many areas, so you will find many tasting rooms in towns like Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Solvang, Buellton & Lompoc, some of these are wine makers sourcing fruit and some are vineyards and wineries, who according to current regulations are not allowed to have a tasting room at their vineyards. Below is a short list of some of my favorites in each of the areas. As I mentioned before, I have yet to drink through all 300 wine tasting rooms in the valley, so please add your suggestions in the comments section below!
Quick note on tastings:
Many of the places listed below are not open 7 days a week, in fact some are only open on weekends. I have provided links to their websites so you can check on the days and hours before you go as they typically change seasonally. And, always be responsible. Drink lots of water, limit the number of tastings you do in a day (4 is really max) and spend some time in each tasting room. Michael and I typically share a tasting, we make sure we have snacks along the way (pack something!) and don’t be afraid to use the spit bucket! They are there for you to use. You can swish and spit or if that is uncomfortable, you can use it to empty your glass after you have “tasted”. If you walk into a tasting room and find the spit bucket is a tip bucket? You have come to the wrong place, and you should turn and find the door.
The main drag of this small town circles around it’s flagpole. The streets are lined with tasting rooms as well as shops and some restaurants. If you are looking to stroll from tasting to tasting, this is the place I suggest.
Michael and Christina Larner are some of our favorite people in Santa Barbara. Michael championed the Ballard Canyon AVA and he is the founder of the Buellton Bodegas a Wine Cooperative space where wine makers have their individual space but can share some of the big wine making equipment. Their tasting room is on the corner by the flagpole (behind the antique gas station) next to the Los Olivos General Store, a gift shop that Christina runs. During the day you can grab a sandwich from Panino next door and get a glass of wine from the Larner tasting room and enjoy lunch on the patio. Michael has a background in Geology and as such he is an expert on soils. You will find a long list of interviews on many fascinating wine related subjects here we have discussed with him here Larner Vineyard
Larry Schaffer loves making wine and talking about wine. He especially loves Rhones. Typically you will find Maeapple pouring in the tasting room (she is a joy to chat with), but sometimes Larry will roll in from a busy day going in a million directions and will hold court in the tasting room. He is active in the Rhone Rangers, a passionate supporter of screw caps and footstomps his grapes. Oh and he loves baking bread, so if you are exceptionally lucky, you might come in on a day when there is a loaf being shared in tasting room. (the ultimate breaking bread!)
Blair is the Winemaker at Fess Parker. But here he makes his own wines and they are spectacular, with many single vineyard wines. His tasting room staff is well versed in the wines and the local vineyards. We had an exceptional tasting here, talking with the staff as well as several other guests in the tasting room. One guest had a special reserve bottle and busted it open to share tastings of. Yep, it’s that kind of atmosphere here. They mostly produce Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Vermentino and Viognier. Alright…Vermentino & Viognier? That makes me very happy.
Okay, I have yet to visit this tasting room, but I met Mark Horvath the winemaker and tasted his Sta. Rita Hills Syrah (cool climate Syrah) and really enjoyed it. Here he is on the Syrah panel this past spring speaking about this wine. Mark Horvath, Crawford Family Wines on Sta. Rita Hills Syrah
Follow their blog. This place is all about family and Keith Saarloos is a joy to read. The wines here sell out fast, so if you like something, better buy it while you are here.
AND they have cupcake pairings on the weekends! Check out the video here https://www.crushedgrapechronicles.com/video/saarloos-sons-paired-withenjoy-cupcakes/
Bien Nacido has been providing extremely sought after fruit for a while. Au Bon Climat & Qupe built their winery (that they share) on the property to be close to this fruit. If you have ever tasted a Bien Nacido Pinot, you will remember it and be able to pick out this fruit regardless of the winemaker using it. It is distinctive. And now, they not only grow this prize fruit but they have begun making their own wine with Winemaker Trey Fletcher. They also make Syrah. Here is Vineyard Manager Chris Hammel talking about their Syrah and Bob Lindquist’s Qupe Syrah from their vineyards. Syrah Seminar 2016 SB Vintners – Episode 3 Bien Nacido
Mikael Sigouin is also the Winemaker at Beckmen Vineyards (notice a theme?) He is originally from Hawaii and is known as the Grenache King, so I guess you know what you will be drinking here! His tasting room is full of Aloha, I always end up having great conversations with other guests there. Last time, we met some folks from Hawaii tasting, who lived near where I did when I was there growing up. They knew dear friends of ours from when we lived out Makaha way. Small world syndrome at it’s finest. We included Mikael in our Sampling of the Incredible Winemakers of Santa Barbara
This is another tasting room I have yet to visit, but it is on my list for our next trip. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe is now the winemaker and brand ambassador. He can wax poetic on many topics, and is fascinating. I was able to pick Pinot with him during an early morning harvest a few years ago at Clos Pepe. He has helped create an educational tasting room for J. Wilkes and quite honestly I can’t wait to see it! Typically just open on weekends, Wes posts on his and J. Wilkes facebook pages and on Twitter other times when he will be in for tasting and teaching. You can Make a Reservation on the website ahead of time also.
This is where you finish your day. It is the tiniest tasting room in the world they claim, with just 3 stools at a small bar. Luckily, the back patio opens up (and fills up) at the end of the day. The Carhartts, yes, they are those Carhartts, of work clothes fame, grow grapes and make wine as a family affair. This place is casual though, as handsome young men often pad around the back patio barefoot pouring wines. Here is a throwback piece from way back in 2011 when we first discovered them. https://www.crushedgrapechronicles.com/santa-barbara-and-los-olivos-part-2/
If you have seen Sideways, you will know Buellton. The restaurant Miles meets Maya in, is none other than The Hitching Post II. (They, by the way make their own Hitching Post wines). There are several tasting rooms in the area here are two of my favorites.
This is the place if you like cool climate Viognier. Morgan Clendenen (yes, you recognized the name, she used to be married to Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat) pioneered cool climate Viognier, and she also makes Pinot Noir. We had an extraordinary visit with them with Cold Heaven Cellars – Rhone Scent-ual Experience
The Sta. Rita Hills wine growing region was pioneered by Richard Sanford. While he no longer owns and runs Sanford Winery, this legend in this area now has a new winery called Alma Rosa. The tasting room is conveniently located next to Industrial Eats, off of Industrial Way in Buellton. Get a little bit of his history here.
This place looks as different from Wine Country as you can get. When you drive out 246 toward the ocean and Vandenberg Air Force Base, the vines end and you run into an Industrial Park Area. This is the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. The beautiful irony is that Lompoc was first founded as a Temperance Colony back in 1874. The Ghetto has lots of wineries, but further into Lompoc you will find more wineries and tasting rooms.
Rick Longoria is quiet, soft-spoken and decidedly unpretentious. He quietly tries to blend in with the crowd at the Grand Tastings in Santa Barbara. A couple of years ago I had a lovely conversation with him at his table there. And he is a joy to speak with. He beams while telling you about his wines. His vineyard is Fe Ciega in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. In addition to his award-winning Pinot Noirs (Lovely Rita is one of my favorites…a wine that once you taste it, you long for), he also makes a wonderful Albarino sourced from Clover Creek Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Founded by Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton in 1995. Back then they were working at other wineries. In 2005 they started growing their own grapes and 2012 was their first estate vineyards vintage and their 2012 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot was named the #8 Wine in Wine Spectator’s Topp 10 of 2014. Here you will taste Sta. Rita Hills Pinot & Chard. Ask about stem inclusion. You will find an older piece I wrote about a tasting we did at Brewer-Clifton here.
We met Kenneth “Joey” Gummere at an event at Sunstone Winery sponsored by the Santa Barabara Vintners. He and several other wine makers were there showing off some of their wines. He and his wife Sarah are dedicated to making cool-climate Syrah, Pinot and Chard. I had a fascinating conversation with him about temperature control with his wine making process. He’s a really nice human, who is a joy to speak with AND he makes great wine. I will admit that I have not been to the tasting room, but I look forward to getting there!
It’s time to go ghetto, Wine Ghetto that is. In a semi-industrial area of Lompac on the road in from Sta. Rita Hills you will find warehouses with roll up doors housing wineries. The office space next to each warehouse becomes the tasting room. Sandhi and Piedrassi share a winemaker Sashi Moorman, who also is the head winemaker for Pence Ranch and Stolpman. Sashi’s wife Melissa makes bread which is available (and in demand) in the tasting room. Sandhi is a project he works on with Sommelier Rajat Parr and Charles Banks. You will need to make an appointment but it is worth it. While I have not tasted in this tasting room, I was blown away by the elegance of the Chardonnays that I tasted back when they had a tasting room tucked away behind Matteis Tavern in Los Olivos.
Stolpman has their vineyards in Ballard Canyon, but they have a tasting room here in the Lompac Wine Ghetto as well as one in Los Olivos. Tom Stolpman founded Stolpman Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. His son Peter manages the vineyard. Sashi Moorman as I mentioned before, is their winemaker and the Grape Whisperer himself, Ruben Solorzano is their Vineyard Manager. This vineyard did a lot of the beta testing of grapes for Ballard Canyon. They planted everything and waited to see what worked. There’s a lot of patience that goes into that. They found Syrah was the perfect match and indeed Syrah has become the flagship wine for Ballard Canyon. They are not afraid to experiment and they have some huge concrete tanks that they use for wines. Give them a taste and ask for stories and make sure to taste “Ruben’s Block”. In this post on the Syrah Seminar, Peter speaks about the Estrella River Clone from the Zaca Mesa Black Bear Block that is used in the Stoplman’s 2013 Original Syrah.
Foxen Canyon & the Santa Maria Valley
When you hop on Foxen Canyon Road you get more than Foxen Canyon. This road takes you all the way up into some of the great vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley.
Before Au Bon Climat, before Qupe and so many others, there was Zaca Mesa. Many of the greats in Santa Barbara Wines did a stint here before opening their own wineries. You can see more about that in Zaca Mesa University” Santa Barbara Wine Seminar Spring 2015 – The Highlight Reel
Zaca Mesa is beautiful early in the day. When the fog weaves through the big coastal oaks it’s either ethereal or creepy (I vote for ethereal, cause after all, they have wine!)
They are dog and kid friendly and on Saturdays they have baguettes. There is a giant Chess set in the courtyard to play.
What to expect to taste: Roussane, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Syrah (the Syrah from the Black Bear Block is highly sought after and well respected), Grenache, Mourvedre…yep, are you sensing a Rhone theme? And they do have a Pinot.
This is the same winery, just with two tasting rooms, steps from each other. 7200 also known as “The Shack” is in an old blacksmith shop and was the wineries original tasting room. Foxen is at the top of the hill, their solar powered tasting room, where you will find their Rhone & Burgundian style wines. “The Shack” is the place to go for atmosphere. You are open to the elements and often can see the resident bobcat prowling the hill outside. Bill Wathen and Dick Dore founded this winery back in 1985.
Riverbench is on Foxen Canyon Road in the Santa Maria Valley. They grown Pinot and Chardonnay Pinot Meunier and a little Albarino for Kenneth Volk, who is just a stones throw away. Clarissa Nagy is their winemaker. In addition to Pinot and Chard they craft sparkling wines. We spent a morning at Riverbench doing a vineyard tour with Vineyard Manager Rawley Hermreck and learned how to hand dip bottles for the wax cap, which Rawley does mostly himself. We also watched a new block of vines put in out front and have been able to continue to watch these grown. You can read about our tour here https://www.crushedgrapechronicles.com/riverbench-vineyards-winery-tour/ They also have a tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.
Presqu’ile Winery has grown to be one of our favorite spots in the Santa Marie Valley. The winery sits up on a hill and is a gravity flow winery. The view here is stunning, on a clear day you can see the ocean, and this place does hospitality right. If you have an electric car that needs charging, never fear, there are two charging stations. And they have a wonderful light food menu with truly spectacular cheese and charcuterie boards to enjoy with the wine. We spent a morning here for an event which brought together 4 winemakers all making wine from fruit from these vineyards. The event was held on the crush pad at the top of the winery (remember gravity flow). We again attended the Big Bottle Bash at the winery during the 2014 Vintners Spring Weekend in Santa Barbara.
Santa Rita Hills:
This is the Western part of the area, where the climate is cooler and Pinot and Chardonnay thrive. You will find vineyards on both sides of the 246, but for a more complete look at this area, make sure to take a drive on Santa Rosa Road, where the first vineyard in this area Sanford & Benedict was planted.
I spoke about Richard Sanford earlier with Alma Rosa. Here is an opportunity to see the amazing winery he built before Alma Rosa. Now owned by the Terlato Family, the winery retains the beautiful buildings and exceptional vineyards that Richard Sanford built. The tasting room is in the middle of the La Riconada Vineyard on Santa Rosa Rd. Made to be sustainable the walls are adobe bricks and are 30 inches thick to keep the interior temperature cool. The lumber is from recycled timber.
Just down the way you will find the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. The vines here grow some of the most prized fruit in these hills. Sanford & Benedict Vineyard was first planted in 1971 and is home to some of the oldest Pinot Vines in Santa Barbara County.
This stunning tasting room is appointment only, but it is well worth it. John Hilliard and Christine Bruce beautiful wines (John handles the Pinot Noir & Christine the Chardonnay). Be in touch a few days in advance. We had a wonderful visit with them before the winery was even built. The start of the series is here
Santa Ynez Valley/Los Olivos District:
The Santa Ynez Valley, actually covers quite a bit of space! The AVA itself encompasses the entire lower section of Santa Barbara County. Within this AVA you will find the Sta. Rita Hill AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA, Happy Canyon AVA and the newly approved Los Olivos District AVA. The 3 wineries listed below are actually within the Los Olivos District.
Buttonwood is not just a vineyard, it is a farm. They have a farmstand with seasonal fruits and vegetables next to the tasting room. Michael spent a day on a winery & vineyard tour with winemaker Karen Steinwach, followed by chef demo and lunch with Chef Pascale Beale.
Buttonwood Farm, a Hidden Gem in Santa Barbara County
We did a vineyard walk with Steve Beckmen at the Purisima Mountain Vineyard. The event walk us through the vineyard with a bit of education on soil & vine thinning. I was lucky enough to have a great conversation with Steve as we hiked up to the high point. He gave me a run for my money, he is obviously used to climbing these hills! You can see an overview of the hike here, but there are additional videos with Steve speaking on the soils and shoot thinning also.
This is a stunning (no…REALLY stunning) property. I mentioned earlier our visit to this winery when we met Joey Gummere at an event here. This was a Santa Barbara Vintners event for WBC14, with multiple wine makers. We were given a tour by Bion Rice, the wineries President and CEO, of the stunning Villa at Sunstone, which is built from reclaimed materials from villages in Marseille and Provence. We then gathered in the garden to sample wines and speak with the wine makers followed by a family style dinner. This is a premium place for Weddings and the location is stunning (did I say that before?)
Michael and I were lucky enough to spend a weekend in the Los Alamos Valley. That gorgeous photo on our homepage and as the feature image on this page, we took from the top of the Rancho La Cuna Vineyard.
I first learned of Sonja Madjevski when she I came across “The Wine Down” a video series on The Lip.tv where she would have conversations with wine makers and farmers and other interesting Industry people. I loved the show. Sadly, it is no more, but go look it up, there are plenty of old episodes that are fascinating! She is the owner and winemaker at Casa Dumetz Wines as well as running Babi’s Beer Emporium here in Los Alamos. She does a wonderful “Words to Live By” speaker series on Friday’s nights at her tasting room. I have had a few opportunities to speak with her, most recently at the Larner Fete in April (she sources grapes from Michael Larner). Her tasting room is a wonderful welcoming place.
(Yep you can find a location here too, if you didn’t already visit them in the Funk Zone, or if you just need more of their wine)
Places to Eat:
We published this article in April of 2014 and it is a great reference.
9 Great Places to eat in Santa Barbara County
Since then we have enjoyed a few more spots so I’ll include them below. Also, sadly Matteis Tavern is closed and is only available as an event venue.
The Old School Steakhouse that you got to know in Sideways is here putting out classic steak dinners. You are likely to see Frank Ostini the owner and chef and a local personality in his pith helmet.
Jeff and Janet Olsson own New West Catering Company and they have been a stable for farm to table catering in the area for a while. Industrial Eats is their fast casual restaurant where they write the daily menu on the butcher paper hanging from a spool on the wall. The menu changes daily depending on what is fresh and available. It’s great for lunch (and it’s right next to Alma Rosa if you want to do a tasting there!) For a sampling of some of the amazing catering they do, check out the Sta. Rita Hills AVA Dinner that was set here.
Great spot in the center of town for lunch or dinner and you can always pick up a few bottles of local wine. You are very likely to see wine makers here with friends or family. It’s elegant without being stuffy. The patio is covered in wisteria and they do have outdoor seating available. Inside is a wall of wine, a beautiful U shaped bar and fireplace. They serve California/Mediterranean cuisine. They also have a blog where they do interviews with local wine makers that you can find here.
This building was previously a hardware and shoe store owned by Milburn Sides. The Nichols Brothers opened this restaurant with a made from scratch local menu. They cure their own bacon here. You can sit inside or on the front or back patios. They are open for lunch or dinner, but plan ahead, because it gets crowded. The do have a larger restaurant in Santa Ynez called The Red Barn.
Michael tasted a bite of food from this restaurant at the Grand Tasting one year and we decided to head there for dinner. We were not disappointed. They do great Italian dishes. Skip the table and sit at the bar where you can watch the kitchen bustle! These guys make hustle in the most beautifully choreographed manner around the small kitchen.
A newer restaurant, having opened in April of 2013, SY Kitchen serves modern Italian in a beautiful farmhouse. You can dine in the Front room, the porch or the Dining Room of the house. They also have an outdoor Courtyard which is great for cocktails. Executive Chef Luca Crestanelli was born and raised in Verona Italy. His dishes take the inspiration from Italy and compose them from local fresh ingredients. Ask the servers for wine pairings, they will be happy to assist. In addition to lots of local wines, they have an innovative cocktail program and a great selection of dessert wines.
Well, it’s really in the lower part of Ballard Canyon, but that is considered the Santa Ynez Valley. This is the place for a special occasion dinner. We enjoyed the first annual Larner Winemakers Dinner here with Chef Budi creating dishes to perfectly pair with each wine. Again a place you will find tons of local wines.
A great place for burgers, fries and shakes. All-American, kid friendly and locally owned (you will probably see the owner out managing the plethora of teenage staff he teaches and employs as wait staff.)
This bakery becomes a Restaurant on the weekends, and is a frequent gathering place for wine makers. You will find lots of local wines here.
See some of the Video’s we have made on Santa Barbara here.
The Santa Barbara Vintners website is the ultimate comprehensive place for information on the areas wineries. http://www.sbcountywines.com/