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Check out our wine travel guide to Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Santa Barbara County may be the most fascinating wine region in California. The types of wineries range from urban to micro, boutique, and family-owned, with varying levels of output that can be as little as a few hundred cases per year. The relatively low cost of wine production by California standards lowers the barriers to entry for young, bootstrapping winemakers. This is most evident in the town of Lompoc where many winemakers rent warehouse space to use as winemaking facilities or tasting rooms. There is electricity in the air as an abundance of veteran experience and young talent keep the wine scene fresh.
Because of the excellent balance of geology, climate, soil, and water, Santa Barbara County is among the world’s most versatile grape-growing regions with a wide array of microclimates. The primary wine grape varieties grown are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a good portion of cultivars that originated from Bordeaux, Rhône, and Italy.
The baseline of wine quality is high across the board and there’s at least one outstanding wine to be found at every single winery. This is good news for the visitors as there is no need to search for the best producers but instead, the focus can be shifted to personal preference in wine. Whatever your preference may be, Santa Barbara can deliver on it.
Tips for Your Visit
- Visiting a wine region for the first time is exciting but can also be a daunting experience. It can be challenging to remember and make sense of the appellations, geographical characteristics, soil types, and climate differences. For a start, we recommend that you take note of or ask the staff about the vintage of the wine, the grape variety/varieties used in the wine that you like, and the location that the grapes are sourced. These three factors form the “holy trinity” that will determine the taste and the style of a wine to a large extent. It would also help you to understand what you like and why you like what you like.
- Take note of the winemaker’s name as well. The winemaking community is relatively small in the county and you’ll soon learn that the same winemaker may be making wine for Winery A a few years ago but has since moved on to Winery B, or is consulting three or four different wineries in the county simultaneously. Sometimes, you might end up liking the signature style of a winery and sometimes you might be partial to the craft of a specific winemaker. Among the first generation of winemakers that arrived in the county were Bill Wathen (Foxen Vineyard & Winery), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Bryan Babcock (Babcock Winery & Vineyards), Chris Whitcraft (Whitcraft Winery), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Richard Sanford (now Alma Rosa Winery), Rick Longoria (Longoria Wines), and Lane Tanner (now Lumen Wines) to name a few.
- Santa Barbara County offers both novices and aficionados the opportunity to learn something new. Be open-minded and ready to delve into the diversity of the region, even if you prefer a specific style of wine or a specific variety prior to your trip. Try to taste wines from each of the AVA in order to get a sense of each place and its microclimate. At 3,729 square miles in size, Santa Barbara County has given birth to six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas): Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, Los Olivos District, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez Valley, plus one pending AVA in Alisos Canyon.
- Do plan ahead and map out a route. Santa Barbara County is a big area but some tasting rooms may be just a few meters apart. There are several towns in the county that have clusters of tasting rooms. With advanced planning and scheduled appointments, you can expect to visit three to six producers in a single day.
- The towns within the county are relatively close in terms of driving distance. For example, from the city of Santa Barbara, it is about a 45-minute drive to Buellton along Highway 101 and to Santa Ynez via 154. Once you’re in the county, expect to spend 10 to 45 minutes driving from one town to another.
- In Santa Barbara County, you’ll spend most of the time visiting tasting rooms as opposed to winery visits; most of the wineries are not open to the public. Some wineries have their own tasting rooms while others use wine bars and shops to showcase their wines. Most of the tasting sessions are priced between $10 to $20 per person. Sometimes, there’s also the option of trying library wines, which would then add to the cost.
- If time and budget permit, it’s always wise to opt for the most comprehensive and premium tasting option on the menu. Due to the small productions, most of the wines in Santa Barbara County are not exported out of the region and are mostly sold through mailing lists. This means that the best time to try the wines of the county is when you are visiting the wineries or tasting rooms.
- Make sure you have a designated driver. Chances are you will end up tasting more wine than you expect and those few sips can really add up.
Charine and Matthew have captured Santa Barbara Wine Culture with passion and aplomb, making recommendations that are amazingly sympatico with my local favorites. As a Santa Barbara winemaker since 1994, I offer enthusiastic praise for ‘Sipping Santa Barbara’ and would offer it to friends and family as a one-stop guide for planning and executing an amazing trip to one of the most underrated and bucolic wine regions on planet earth. If this publication doesn’t get you fired up for a trip to our Wine Country, nothing will!
Being from Santa Barbara, I have a lot to say when the topic of Santa Barbara wine producers comes up in conversation. Sipping Santa Barbara is going to be the primary source document I recommend everyone pick up when desiring to learn more about Santa Barbara Wine Country. From the formative producers to the most important newcomers, Charine Tan & Dr. Matthew Horkey paint a full picture of the diverse winegrowing that happens from the Southern tip to the Northern most point of Santa Barbara County.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article are personal opinions and are not associated with any sponsors or business promotions.