A Wine Lover's Guide To Santa Barbara, California

Jannin Acres II | © Harold Litwiler/Flickr
Jannin Acres II | © Harold Litwiler/Flickr
Stretching for over 50 miles, Santa Barbara County encompasses traversing valleys, rolling hills, coastal mountains, and sandy shorelines. As the coastline jets inland, the mountains find themselves situated in a rather unusual orientation: from west to east. This unique topography opens up the valleys of the wine region to the Pacific Ocean, allowing for cooler temperatures, morning fog, and ocean breezes to filter through the mountains. Considered one of the coolest wine growing climates on the planet, Santa Barbara County is known for producing grapes with a longer ‘hang time’ (left on the vine for longer), which – along with distinct soils and geological traits – have led to world-class wines that rival even those of the French. Wine lovers, rejoice: here is your ultimate guide.

Info & Tips

Santa Barbara County boasts nearly 120 wineries across six appellations and several micro-regions, not including tasting rooms and wine shops, and even though the area produces top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Viognier, there are more than 45 other varietals. Visitors can book a tour, which will give you a look at how and where the wine is made, accompanied by tastings; tour prices range from complimentary to $45 and are best reserved ahead of time. There are also several companies that provide transport to and from wineries, privately or with a group. Many of the vineyards are open for tastings, but some are closed throughout the week (or are available by appointment only), so always call ahead, especially if you have a large group. And for vineyards that do not have their own tasting room, head to a wine tasting bar or shop such as Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafe and Santa Barbara Wine Collective.

Santa Ynez Valley © pfly/Flickr

If you’re only in the area for one day, as many as four wineries can be explored (three to four per day is recommended), but if one day’s worth isn’t enough, there are plenty of accommodations for booking a weekend getaway. There are hotels in Los Olivos, Solvang, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, Buellton, Santa Maria, and Ballard. For a luxurious stay, head to Solvang’s Wine Valley Inn or Santa Barbara’s Bacara Resort & Spa; for a quaint bed & breakfast, book a room at The Upham Hotel or Mirabelle Inn; or discover Western life at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort. Be sure to book in advance as many weekends sell out.

Santa Ynez Valley Vineyard © Harold Litwiler/Flickr

Wine Trails

Should you opt to tour the region on your own, or on a tour, the wine trails are the best way to hit up several vineyards along a designated route. This is especially important for newcomers who are unfamiliar with the region and are unsure of where to begin.

Buellton Wine Trail

Located in the middle of the Santa Ynez Valley, Buellton is a quaint, little town just five minutes from Solvang. Situated right off Highway 101, this convenient trail is easily accessible. Plus, most tasting rooms are located within the town, so visitors can walk from tasting to tasting – no previously booked transport is required. And restaurants are close-by so that tasters can stop for lunch or stay for dinner. Along the trail, find wineries such as Cold Heaven Cellars, Crawford Family Wines, and Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards.

Alma Rosa Cacti © TheSquirrelfish/Flickr

Foxen Canyon Wine Trail

The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail is a beautiful route that travels through the Santa Maria Valley, boasting scenic vistas of the mountains and surrounding wilderness. Here, discover some of the most diverse wines in the region before heading into Santa Maria for some down-home BBQ. Or take a drive down Foxen Canyon on the way to Los Olivos, a picturesque wine town. Along the route, find wineries like Zaca Mesa Winery, Fess Parker, and Firestone Vineyard & Winery.

Foxen Canyon Lupine_1 © Anita Ritenour/Flickr

Lompoc Wine Trail

Known as the ‘City of Arts and Flowers,’ Lompoc is an eclectic town with a bustling wine scene. In the ‘Wine Ghetto’ – an industrial area filled with wineries and tasting rooms – find names like Palmina, Clos Pepe Vineyards, and Turiya Wines. Walking is the preferred method for getting around, especially because a stroll around town will provide views of more than 60 murals painted on the buildings by local artists. Lompoc is easily reached by Highways 101 and 1.

Lompoc Flower Fields © Anita Ritenour/Flickr

Los Olivos Promenade

Los Olivos is a charming town nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley. Once a stagecoach stop and railroad terminus, Los Olivos is teeming with history. And this can be seen with a quick stroll down its streets lined with art galleries, boutique shops, chic restaurants, and cafés plus several wineries such as J Ludlow Vineyard, Tercero Wines, and Consilience, Marianello & Tre Anelli. Los Olivos is best experienced by foot, so park your car and stay awhile.

Los Olivos, June 2014 © Abi Skipp/Flickr

Santa Barbara Urban Trail

Dubbed ‘The American Riviera,’ the city of Santa Barbara is a beautiful seaside village with an eclectic restaurant scene, high-end shops, and a vibrant downtown. Visitors can head through the ‘Funk Zone’ – an area filled with tasting rooms (think Au Bon Climat, Santa Barbara Winery, and Carr Winery), breweries, and restaurants – or opt for a tasting at the historic ‘Wine Collection of El Paseo‘ before heading to the beach to catch some rays. For incredible sunset views accompanied by vino, head to Deep Sea Tasting Room located on the Wharf.

Santa Barbara Winery © Tom Hanny/Flickr

Santa Ynez Wine Trail

One of the region’s most popular trails, the Santa Ynez Wine Trail is a peaceful region located along country roads, dotted with picturesque horse ranches and rolling vineyards. Many of the wineries are set on massive estates, with manicured gardens and picnic areas for snacking while you taste, so be sure to pick up some goods or pack a lunch before popping in. Wineries found here include Bridlewood Estate Winery, Rideau, and Rusack Vineyards.

USA-53, Santa Ynez Valley © Corey Spruit/Flickr

Solvang Wine Walk

Solvang, the ‘Danish Capital of America,’ is a unique little village in the Santa Ynez Valley. Known for its Danish architecture and authentic Denmark eats (try the aebleskiver!), Solvang is also a go-to destination for wine tasting. There are several tasting rooms – including Toccata, Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, and Presidio Winery – tucked along the streets of downtown, all of which are within walking distance from one another. Plus, there are shops, parks, bakeries, farm-to-table restaurants, and plenty of hotels. Park for a day, or stay the night.

City of Solvang © Sodanie Chea/Flickr

Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail

Just east of Lompoc, the Santa Rita Hills Wine Trail is famed for its appearance in the film Sideways. With its extremely cool climate, Sta. Rita Hills vineyards mostly produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – Babcock Winery & Vineyards, Sanford Winery & Vineyards, and Lafond are prime producers – but there are many other unique wines up for grabs. This wine trail is easily accessible via the 246 Highway.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Santa Barbara County, California, USA © radfordschultze/Wikicommons