There is nothing terribly surprising about the growing season of vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Vines flower in early spring, tiny grape clusters begin to form as early as March and full bunches develop throughout the summer. Depending on a variety of factors such as rainfall, average temperature and so on, the grapes are harvested in August and possibly into the early fall. While a visit to Santa Barbara wineries is possible any time of the year, the vineyards are but twisted dry bark vines devoid of grapes during the winter months. The tasting rooms, however, remain open year round and pour more frequently than the sun shines in SoCal.
Santa Barbara County AVA is spread out across winding hills, small pastures and narrow trails throughout five sub-regions. We suggest choosing Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon as your main stomping grounds, and plan to travel first to the winery with the furthest distance from LA and then work your way back towards the city. While a day of shopping and wine tasting sounds amazing, we suggest to plan a second trip, to shop or dine. We’re drinking today. The wineries are outside of Santa Barbara itself, and take another 20-45 minutes to travel to. So while “visit two vineyards, drive into the city for lunch, then back out to another wine trail to wrap up the day,” sounds tempting, it doesn’t make for a relaxing or well-paced day trip.
Choose an area, plan to see as many wineries as you think you’ll have time for and consider screen capturing directions in between wineries, these rural areas have a tendency to make phones lose reception and therefore, access to Google Maps.
There are all types of online resources to find wine trails as well as info on specific wineries and vineyards. You’ll want to find wineries that specialize in what you like to drink.
Are you looking for small family producers who have some of the most nuanced versions of a Bordeaux right bank-style wine? Buttonwood Farm winery is the place to taste. Not only is their staff friendly and hip, they have some excellent wines – both reds and whites. The 2010 Trevin is a Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec blend. Expect dark cherry and plum aromas followed by top soil and a touch of smoke. Palate is similar and one of the most unique wines around, with the fruit now accompanied by notes of vanilla, licorice, white pepper and leather.
Do you want to see an elaborate tasting room and bar atmosphere? Fess Parker is the place to go. They have a seductive dessert wine, the Finale. It’s a Sauternes-style Semillion that is just mesmerizing. Enjoy chilled or room temperature, with notes of honey, apricot, peach and just enough refreshing citrus to lure you in for another sip. Fess also has an incredible Sta. Rita Hills 2012 Pinot Noir that is incredibly complex and a Rhone-style red blend appropriately named The Big Easy that has black fruit, floral and some yummy organic notes on the nose. The palate has black currant, blackberry, and mushroom that fill your mouth followed by chocolate and a hint of tar that drips down your lips. The wine is perfectly balanced and ends with a long peppery finish.
Water. That is the first thing you’ll want to bring. Bring at least a liter (preferably two) of water that is pre-cooled and ready to drink. This serves many purposes, from staying hydrated to staying sober. Bring a lunch. This is the perfect setting for a picnic lunch for two or four (or more). You’ll have access to world-class wine and you’ll just need to pack the cheese, bread, turkey breast, glazed ham, cranberries, cherries, pastries, cookies and chocolate. Don’t forget two cotton napkins and utensils if you need them. There are amazing outdoor venues to eat at, on the lawn, in a set-aside area, or out back on the patio.
Bring your camera. Most wineries don’t mind you taking pictures in their laid-back tasting rooms and each has a special character you will want to capture.
Bring a designated driver. We know this goes without saying but you could consume a lot of alcohol during multiple 6-8 flight tastings. We recommend spitting after each tasting. You can call it expectorate in front of your friends and they’ll think you are sophisticated. At each winery, spoil yourself and purchase the top tasting. If you consume 1 – 2 oz. of wine at 6 places tops, that’s equal to 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 glasses over the course of the day – and probably the most you’ll want to consume if you are the driver back to L.A. You can enjoy and gauge the quality of a wine (to include its finish) even if spitting it out. As for your partner or friends who aren’t driving, cheers!
As we said, Santa Barbara County is split into Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon. You’ll first reach Santa Ynez Valley which has Sta Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon stretched across it from west to east. Each area has its own microclimate and therefore specializes in a different style of wine. Sta Rita Hills, situated by the costal region, is cool and optimal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Santa Ynez is diverse and has the highest concentration of wineries. Everything from Italian style wines to California Cabs can be found here along with a variety of winery types, from corporate-sized operations to small family-owned winemakers. Ballard Canyon is optimally-situated with a moderate climate and distinct soils for Rhone varieties. Happy Canyon is the furthest east and has a warmer climate perfect for the growing of Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. A few miles north of this area lies secluded Santa Maria Valley, a long stretch of land that has both continental and marine influences. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the flagship grapes in this appellation, but there are also great examples of California red blends and white varietals. No matter which area you start with, you should find four to six wineries you’d like to visit in that general area. Order them in priority but remember to start with the location furthest out. Again, this will efficiently work you closer to LA as the end of the day draws near. If you are running behind schedule skip a lower-priority winery and go to the “must-visit” ones.
As in every wine region, there are some wineries that simply should not be missed. Here are our three wineries that experts consider worthy of a trip. In Santa Ynez, there is a small Danish town named Solvang where one of our favorite vineyards and wineries is located, Rideau Vineyard. This special Mardi Gras-themed winery features multiple venue rooms that can be used for eating or drinking, and is one of the only African American female-owned wineries in Santa Barbara County. Rideau not only has one of the best room hosts in the business, Dee, but they also have some downright elaborate wines. The Cheateau Duplantier Cuvée 2011 red is not to be missed. This Old World Rhone blend is outstanding.
When in the Santa Maria Valley, you absolutely have to stop by Foxen Vineyard’s 7200 property, AKA The Shack. It is easily the most fun we have each trip to Santa Barbara County. The staff is young and fun and intelligent. The pours are generous. And the wines are awesome sauce. If Danny Trejo and the Dos Equis had a baby, they would name him Guillermo Grosso, the moniker of their 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Sangiovese blend. Nose is black plum, cherry and dried figs. The palate is dark fruit dominated by tobacco leaf and cracked black pepper that hits your tongue like daggers. The structure tells a compelling story.
On the same amazing wine trail as Foxen Vineyards is Riverbench. If you are a Pinot lover, please stop here. They use clones of the Pinot Noir grape from vineyards found in Pommard, a famous area in Burgundy, France. Their 2011 One Palm Pinot Noir has the elegance of an Old World wine with brilliant and fresh fruit shining through. Blueberry, smoke and earth on the nose develop into a smoky-earthy baked pie. Creamy texture, medium body, balanced structure and a long finish creeps under your tongue, the flavor slowly enveloping your mouth as if from a volcano.