Travel Tip: Exploring Santa Barbara Wine Country

From town to country, the Southern California region spreads its wings with exciting new tasting and dining destinations for wine lovers
Travel Tip: Exploring Santa Barbara Wine Country
The Fess Parker Winery pours wines from their vineyards in Foxen Canyon. (Peter Malinowski)
May 22, 2017

Note: This tip first appeared as a feature in the June 15, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "Andy Beckstoffer."

Santa Barbara County offers visitors to Southern California diverse temptations for a weekend of wine touring and relaxation. Santa Barbara's wine culture is vibrant, vital and growing at a smart clip. Amid its 27,000 acres of vineyards are more than 200 wineries, many of which offer inviting settings in which to enjoy the region's wines. Leading the way are steely Chardonnays and crisp Pinot Noirs; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah also thrive.

The city of Santa Barbara is the southern gateway to local wine country. Residents like to call the region the American Riviera, and for good reason: Majestic palms and stately Mission-style mansions back up to miles of sandy beaches and coastal bluffs. There are no notable vineyards here (though there are a handful of working wineries), but there are plenty of tasting rooms downtown and in the artsy district known as the Funk Zone.

The city is tucked between the azure Pacific Ocean and the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise almost 4,000 feet to create a dramatic backdrop.

Most Pacific Coast wine regions (such as the Napa and Willamette valleys) are defined by a north-south orientation, but Santa Barbara's vineyards lie on an east-west axis, flanked by the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Vintners are eagerly exploring the multitude of microclimates and terroirs that lie throughout the county's almost 4,000 square miles. The mountains fade into the Pacific at Point Conception, to the west. North of that, cool Pacific waters promote summer fogs that blow directly inland and help moderate what otherwise would be a near-desert climate; on average, Santa Barbara receives only 12 inches of rain per year. This means it can be in the 60s or 70s in the Sta. Rita Hills close to the coast, where cool climate–loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive. Inland locales such as Happy Canyon, which can top out in the 90s, are better suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Visiting Santa Barbara wine country is a bit like stepping back into old California, with towering oaks interspersed amid rolling vineyard tracts. Santa Barbara's strict land-use controls make the sprawl common to many other parts of California less evident here; even roadside billboards are mostly banned.

Those controls are a double-edged sword for some vintners. County planners have clamped down on the spread of tasting rooms to more remote locales in an effort to curb growth and traffic. But the effect is profound. There's an uncluttered aspect to most of Santa Barbara that makes it an easygoing wine country to visit.

Another incentive for visiting: Wine pricing is moderate, with many top cuvées costing less than $40 a bottle. And tasting-room fees are modest as well, mostly in the $15-to-$20 range (and many wineries waive the fee with a bottle purchase).

Many smaller vintners depend on visitors (75 percent of whom are from Southern California) to help make ends meet. To augment sales, Rhône specialist Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company recently opened a tasting room at his winery in an industrial park at the wine-country crossroads into Buellton. He also has tasting locations in downtown Santa Barbara. Vintners such as Margerum gain by bypassing the bite of the distribution chain; he currently sells 30 percent of his wines directly.

"The urban tasting-room phenomenon has been strong here," says Margerum. He adds that Santa Barbara is an affluent community accustomed to having ready access to the best local wines.

The locals may not have it so easy in the future, Margerum notes, as he points to new money and investment in local vineyards. Napa wunderkind Joe Wagner, Orin Swift's Dave Phinney and billionaire Stan Kroenke of nearby Jonata and Napa's Screaming Eagle are all working on new projects nearby.

There's pressure from leading wineries in the northern part of the state for more grapes as well, Margerum says. "Grape prices are up 20 to 40 percent over the past few years [in Santa Barbara County], though prices are still much lower here than the North Coast for quality fruit."

Yet there's still plenty of opportunity for journeyman vintners and novice winemakers alike. "It's an honest place to grow wine," says Wes Hagen, winemaker at J. Wilkes in the Santa Maria Valley and a key force behind the establishment of many local appellations, including the Sta. Rita Hills. "It's a beautiful land and an easy place to grow fruit. We do everything pretty well."

According to Matt Dees, who makes wine at Jonata and the Hilt, the boom that followed the release of the 2004 hit film Sideways, which was filmed at the local wineries and vineyards, has never really ended. "It was the Wild West until recently, and it's attracting lots of interest," Dees says. "It's an exciting time."

 

Santa Barbara City Tour

Wine touring in urban Santa Barbara counts as one of those rare experiences in Southern California when you're not chained to the car. Once parked, you can stroll from wine bar or tasting room to casual restaurant and even to the occasional winery. Nearly 30 local wineries are members of Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail.

Downtown's State Street is the historic heart of local wine culture. The Wine Spectator award-winning Wine Cask restaurant was for many years the setting for the Santa Barbara futures auction, and leading wineries such as Margerum and Au Bon Climat operate tasting rooms nearby.

But there is a new locus of activity. Just a few blocks south of downtown toward the harbor is the Funk Zone, which has recently evolved beyond its bohemian origins to encompass exciting wining-and-dining possibilities.

Beginning two decades ago, city planners sought to redevelop the decaying area by encouraging artists and galleries to put down roots. That gentrifying impulse has accelerated within the past few years with the opening of tidy complexes housing wine bars, tasting rooms, brew pubs and even bakeries and art galleries under the same roof. Because of Southern California's warm Mediterranean climate, even on a late winter's day, doors are wide open to let in the sun's rays. Well-kept alleyways course through the Funk Zone, providing uncomplicated access to the various wine and food concessions.

The Waterline is a cluster of venues occupying the former site of a military-weapons cache. Today, the Waterline's more than 10,000 square feet have been transformed into an open-air bazaar that houses the Fox Wine Co. tasting room, Topa Topa Brewing, a restaurant called the Nook and pop-up artisan stalls, all of which feature Santa Barbara-made goods.

"The Funk Zone has really ramped up in the past year and a half or so," says John Goodman, part of the local partnership that developed the Waterline. "We knew it would catch on but not quite so quickly," he adds. "Most of the people in here feel it is a community space where they can see friends and neighbors."

Goodman admits that city planners didn't know quite what to do with the multipurpose space when they first considered it. They eventually gave their approval, but there are strict limits about what can be drunk where—beer cannot be taken into the adjoining wine-tasting bar and vice versa—lest the management face a $10,000 fine. "We went through hell figuring out seating and spacing," says Goodman. "But we play by the rules, and city staff now come in and have a glass of wine."

And the lack of a full liquor license contributes to a convivial atmosphere. "The beer and wine licenses allows for families with kids and dogs to come in," Goodman says.

The opening of the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in 2014 was key to igniting the rush to local wine appreciation. Here, five local wineries, including nationally known ones such as Fess Parker and Babcock, pour flights of wine for between $12 and $25. Food can be ordered from neighboring restaurants, and bottles of wine purchased on-site can be consumed alongside.

The Santa Barbara Wine Collective adjoins Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, which is a good place to compare Santa Barbara wines with some of their French counterparts from Burgundy, the Loire and beyond. A wall of wine bottles showcases what's for sale, and with a long copper bar, communal farm table and intimate banquettes, there are plenty of inviting spaces in which to imbibe.

Whitcraft, northeast of the Funk Zone, offers the opportunity to experience a working winery. Only 1,000 to 1,500 cases are made here per year, and most are sold out the door or through the mailing list. Assistant winemaker Chris Bacon mans the small tasting room, which is right next to the minimalistic fermentation and aging cellar; he is a font of information on the local wines. Whitcraft specializes in fresh-tasting Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, most of which are neither fined nor filtered and come from organically grown grapes.

At Jaffurs, which sits at the edge of a residential area, you can gain hands-on (or feet-on) experience during harvest. "We invite our visitors to foot-stomp. They [get to help] make wine, and they walk away happy," says tasting room manager Miranda Mendibles. The tasting room inside the winery extends to tables set up amid the barrels, and a large roll-up metal door opens to the driveway, which doubles as the crush pad during harvest.

Those looking to spend the night in luxury should consider the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. (Businessman Ty Warner owns it, as well as the nearby San Ysidro Ranch, which is home to Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning restaurant the Stonehouse.) Beautiful and secluded, the 90-year-old Biltmore, about 4 miles east of downtown, is just steps away from an esplanade overlooking the waves of the Pacific; its Spanish-Moorish revival architecture is surrounded by thick groves of banana trees and palms that ensure privacy on the lush 22-acre property. The grounds include exclusive bungalows, a spa, two swimming pools and three tennis courts.

Executive chef Marco Fossati fashions smart pairings with local wines both at the casual Award of Excellence–winning Bella Vista restaurant next to the lobby and at Tydes across the street, which offers a view of the Pacific. The hotel concierge can also arrange tours to wine country, the Funk Zone and other attractions.

 

Buellton and Sta. Rita Hills

Traveling west and then north along the Santa Ynez Mountains from Santa Barbara, it takes about 45 minutes to reach the heart of wine country. The first sizable town off Highway 101 is Buellton, which borders the Santa Ynez River. Don't be misled by its nondescript environs—there are treasures to be found. That's because for many local vintners, it's a better option to open a tasting room within the city limits here (or in one of the nearby towns of Los Olivos or Lompoc) than to struggle with the more stringent planning regulations in rural zones.

The well-appointed tasting room of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards is located in a low-rise industrial park on Buellton's west side. Santa Barbara wine pioneer Richard Sanford and his wife, Thekla, founded the winery in 2006. Sanford was instrumental in establishing key vineyards such as Sanford & Benedict and has been making wine here since the 1970s. But he faced bankruptcy in 2012 after taking on too much debt. Fortunately, local investor Bob Zorich bought out Sanford and has since made further investments, including the recently remodeled tasting room. Sanford now holds an advisory role at the winery.

Alma Rosa welcomes visitors with an interior design defined by multiple skylights, an open-hearth fireplace, modern art and woodwork made of salvaged old-growth fir. "I didn't want a place where you walk in and belly up to the bar. So here, instead, the servers can interact face-to-face," Sanford says.

Alma Rosa specializes in pure-tasting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills. The organically farmed El Jabalí estate-bottled 2015 Chardonnay features a Meursault-like elegance for just $30 a bottle.

Indeed, the affordability of Santa Barbara wines is a major enticement. Land costs are a fraction of what they are in Napa and Sonoma, which helps make Santa Barbara wines extremely well-priced for the quality. There's also opportunity for newcomers, and experimentation. Sanford, for instance, makes a rich Pinot Blanc.

The cutting-edge Sta. Rita Hills appellation lies west of Buellton. Its rolling hills are filled with diatomaceous earth and sandy loams laid down eons ago. In mid-February, copious rains broke the previous drought, so the countryside shimmers an emerald green. At the western edge of the appellation is the town of Lompoc, where you'll find another concentration of urban tasting rooms.

Brewer-Clifton winery's sleek tasting room has a Zen-like aesthetic. Winemaker Greg Brewer is an intense and articulate spokesman both for his wines and for the appellation.

"My mindset is French, and I'm from the Sta. Rita Hills. I'm defensive and proud [of the region]," Brewer says. His model for Chardonnay is Chablis, where acidity-driven versions dominate. Visitors to Brewer-Clifton are offered a full range of tasting choices, including a private session with Brewer in the barrel room, seminars on grapegrowing and a vertical tasting from the winery's library. A tour of the winery's Machado vineyard can also be arranged, supplemented with a picnic lunch.

 

Los Olivos and Santa Maria Valley

Northeast of Buellton, the climate warms and opportunities for alfresco wine tastings increase. These are centered in the village of Los Olivos, whose downtown is densely packed with tasting rooms, making it a fine base for exploring the area.

The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa lies in the thick of the tasting action on the village's main street, Grand Avenue. Just north of Los Olivos in Foxen Canyon, the 714-acre Fess Parker home ranch includes 110 acres of vineyard; Parker draws from throughout the county to make its approachable reds and whites. Founded in 1989 by the actor Fess Parker, the winery expanded its outdoor visitor facilities two years ago to provide seating for private tastings. "We want to have picnics, but we want to have opportunities to expand the experience," says winery president Tim Snider. As of press time, a new restaurant, the Bear and Star, was slated to open at the inn in May.

If you are looking to taste right next to a vineyard, Rusack in Ballard Canyon is the best bet. Wines can be sipped on the large deck adjacent to the tasting room, shaded by a copse of live oaks and overlooking the 48 acres of vines. Syrah and Zinfandel are the big draw, but Rusack makes a half dozen or so varieties overall.

"Santa Barbara can be a really fun place for a winemaker because there are so many climates. We make Syrah from the estate, Cabernet from Happy Canyon and Pinot from Sta. Rita Hills," says winemaker Steve Gerbac.

North of Los Olivos, the hills and side canyons give way to the broad expanse of the Santa Maria Valley. This is the home of famed vineyards such as Bien Nacido and Tepusquet, which helped fuel the rise of Santa Barbara beginning in the 1970s, when wineries such as Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer started vying to tap Santa Maria's vineyards.

Another large estate that has risen to prominence is Riverbench, which comprises about 200 acres of vines on the banks of the Sisquoc River. Four local families bought the site in 2005; they sell most of their grapes but do make small amounts of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wine, which they pour at the winery. The drive up Foxen Canyon to Riverbench is one of the most beautiful in the county, and the tasting room is a remote gem in a fertile countryside, with raspberries and a variety of row crops growing near the vineyards. The spacious grounds at Riverbench are shaded by a grove of sycamores, and a pizza oven on the patio is fired up for visitors.

Over the hills to the south is the up-and-coming destination of Los Alamos. Formerly a rough-and-tumble one-horse town, it's coming into its own with a growing collection of restaurants, antiques shops, wineries and tasting rooms.

A lively tasting address is Casa Dumetz, which occupies an inviting 19th-century storefront on the village's main street. It is run by the vivacious Sonja Magdevski, a former journalist who decided to ditch the drumbeat of deadlines for crafting her own wines, beginning in a garage in Los Angeles in 2004. Today, she makes about 1,000 cases a year of Grenache, Syrah and other Rhône varietals.

Magdevski presides over Casa Dumetz with aplomb, and visitors can choose single pours or flights, augmented by light snacks and charcuterie. She can also arrange vineyard tours. There's a whimsy here that harks back to the Old West roots of Los Alamos. Casa Dumetz takes its name from the Franciscan missionary Francisco Dumetz, who is apocryphally credited with planting the first grapevines in California.

"Los Alamos was always the step-town to Los Olivos and others in the Santa Ynez Valley, but now that is changing, and more people are coming from Los Angeles to buy second homes," Magdevski says. Los Alamos is only a two-hour drive from L.A., but it seems a world apart.

"It's a really fun spot, and it's a town [where] you can always find a place to park," Magdevski says with a laugh. "I wanted to make wine in an open environment where I can be totally experimental and free," she adds. "When I'm in the tasting room, I don't see people on cell phones. They are talking, and they're engaged."

It's a philosophy that Magdevski shares with many of her winemaking peers, and it's an important part of what makes Santa Barbara a special place to visit. That and the quality of its wines, which can be tasted in town or country.

SANTA BARBARA CITY

1. FOUR SEASONS RESORT THE BILTMORE SANTA BARBARA
1260 Channel Drive, Santa Barbara
Telephone (844) 638-1544
Website www.fourseasons.com/santabarbara
Rooms 167
Suites 40
Rates $595-$6,000

2. FOX WINE CO.
The Waterline, 120 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara
Telephone (805) 699-6329
Website www.foxwineco.com
Open Monday to Thursday, noon to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.
Cost Tastings $12-$15

3. JAFFURS WINE CELLARS
819 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara
Telephone (805) 962-7003
Website www.jaffurswine.com
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $15

4. LES MARCHANDS WINE BAR & MERCHANT
131 Anacapa St., Suite B, Santa Barbara
Telephone (805) 284-0380
Website www.lesmarchandswine.com
Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

5. SANTA BARBARA WINE COLLECTIVE
131 Anacapa St., Suite C, Santa Barbara
Telephone (805) 456-2700
Website www.santabarbarawinecollective.com
Open Sunday to Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.
Cost Tastings $12-$25

6. WHITCRAFT WINERY
36 A S. Calle Cesar Chavez, Santa Barbara
Telephone (805) 730-1086
Website www.whitcraftwinery.com
Open Friday to Monday, noon to 4 p.m.; Tuesday to Thursday, by appointment
Cost Tastings $20

WINE COUNTRY

BUELLTON

7. ALMA ROSA TASTING ROOM
181-C Industrial Way, Buellton
Telephone (805) 691-9395
Website www.almarosawinery.com
Open Spring and summer: Monday to Thursday, noon to 6:30 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Cost Tastings $15

8. MARGERUM WINE COMPANY
59 Industrial Way, Buellton
Telephone (805) 686-8500
Website www.margerumwines.com
Open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $15

LOS OLIVOS

9. FESS PARKER WINERY AND VINEYARD
6200 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos
Telephone (800) 841-1104; (805) 688-1545
Website www.fessparkerwines.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; veranda seating by reservation
Cost Tastings from $14

10. FESS PARKER WINE COUNTRY INN & SPA
2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos
Telephone (800) 446-2455; (805) 688-7788
Website www.fessparkerinn.com
Rooms 12
Suites 7
Rates $345-$935

LOMPOC, LOS ALAMOS & SOLVANG

11. BREWER-CLIFTON WINERY & TASTING ROOM
329 North F St., Lompoc
Telephone (805) 735-9184
Website www.brewerclifton.com
Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Monday and Thursday, by appointment 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, private tours and tastings by appointment
Cost Tastings $10-$20

12. CASA DUMETZ WINES
388 Bell St., Los Alamos
Telephone (805) 344-1900
Website www.casadumetzwines.com
Open Thursday, noon to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Monday to Wednesday, by appointment
Cost Tastings $15-$18

13. RIVERBENCH VINEYARD & WINERY
6020 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria
Telephone (805) 937-8340
Website www.riverbench.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost Tastings $15

14. RUSACK VINEYARDS
1819 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang
Telephone (805) 688-1278
Website www.rusack.com
Open Daily, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost Tastings $15

You Might Also Like

Italian Foods and Drinks We Love

Italian Foods and Drinks We Love

From pizza to gelato to coffee, our editors share some of their favorite delicacies to …

Jun 7, 2022
Naples & Campania

Naples & Campania

Diamonds in the rough

Apr 30, 2020
Rome & Lazio

Rome & Lazio

Urban cool, resurgent wines

Apr 30, 2020
Florence & Tuscany

Florence & Tuscany

From the Renaissance city to hills of Sangiovese

Apr 30, 2020
Bologna & Emilia-Romagna

Bologna & Emilia-Romagna

Culture, cuisine and industry

Apr 30, 2020
Venice & the Veneto

Venice & the Veneto

A serene city of water in a sea of wines

Apr 30, 2020