The Essential Santa Barbara Wine Tasting Itinerary and Guide

Last Updated: October 30, 2019
Guide to Santa Barbara Wine Tasting and the Best Wineries to Visit in Santa Barbara |

The Santa Barbara wine country is a beautiful and unique area due to Mother Nature. Since the mountains run east to west, instead of north to south, Santa Barbara has numerous micro-climates that allows all six of the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) to thrive in their diversity.

Because of this geologic oddity, the ocean breezes sweep eastward, channeled by the hills and mountains that ring the region. Heading east into the foothills, the temperatures are warm during the day and very cool during the night, whereas the vineyards that lie westward toward the ocean enjoy a mild and moderate climate.

“Our area is the most diverse in geology, people, and wine,” remarked Alison Laslett, CEO of Santa Barbara Vintners for the past year. “Every one of our AVA’s has legendary people making legendary wine.”

Santa Barbara Santa Maria AVA Wine Tasting |
Stunning view of the Santa Maria AVA. Photo credit: George Rose.

Santa Maria Valley

Consider Santa Maria Valley, the northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County. The region’s first officially approved AVA enjoys extremely complex soil conditions and diverse microclimates. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two varieties that especially benefit from the ocean’s influence, and are this AVA’s flagship wines. Other great varieties such as Syrah and Pinot Blanc grow amazingly, too.

World class winemakers like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Bob Lindquist of Qupe make their wine here and have been around since the beginning of Santa Barbara wine renaissance. Another set of legendary winemakers, Bill Wathen and Dick Doré, found Foxen in 1985. Foxen and their tasting room appeared in the world-renowned movie, Sideways, which placed a large spotlight on the Santa Barbara wine country. Other wineries that are from here doing exceptional work are Byron, Gainey, Riverbench, Cambria, Presqu’ile Winery, and Ca’ Del Grevino.

RELATED: Learn More About Santa Barbara Country Wine Country

Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Santa Barbara |
Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Santa Barbara. Photo credit: George Rose.

Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley

The Santa Ynez Valley is a long, east-west corridor, with very cool temperatures on the coast that become progressively warmer inland. Consequently, several varietals do well, from Pinot Noir in the west to Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc in the east. Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Viognier also thrive in the Santa Ynez. One of this area’s icons is Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards. Other notable wineries are Zaca Mesa, Demetria, Rancho Sisquoc, Fess Parker, Margerum Wine Company, and Koehler.

Best Wineries in Sta Rita Hills, Santa Barbara California |
Sta Rita Hills AVA. Photo credit: George Rose.

Santa Rita Hills

Santa Rita Hills is actually within the Santa Ynez Valley appellation, although its unique soils and climate distinguish the grapes grown there from the ones in the warmer vineyards to the east. A typical day in Santa Rita Hills starts with marine layer clouds and fog, which burns off by 10am; there is then two or three hours of calm sunshine until the on-shore winds pick up, cooling things down again. This maritime influence, combined with the sedimentary soils, complete with patches of limestone makes it the perfect place to grow the appellation’s hallmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The true trailblazer in Santa Rita Hills is Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards. Richard was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills, along with his former partner, Michael Benedict. Wineries that are a must visit while in Santa. Rita Hills, is Sanford Winery & Vineyards, Babcock Winery & Vineyards, Melville, Pence Vineyards & Winery, Brick Barn Wine Estate, Spear Vineyards & Winery (appointment only), Dierberg Vineyard, and Foley Estates Vineyard & Winery, which is owned by the same family that owns the Las Vegas Knights that went to the Stanley Cup finals this year.

On the west edges of the Santa. Rita Hills, there is a cluster of tasting rooms dubbed, The Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Don’t let the industrial setting fool you, there are wines of great prominence here. A lot of the Santa. Rita Hills winemakers make their wine, and have tasting rooms here. Wineries such as Palmina, Piedrasassi, Sweeter, Fiddlehead, Flying Goat Cellars, Sweetzer Cellars, Kessler-Haak, Transcendence Winery, Zotovich, Tyler, Holus Bolus, and Stolpman Vineyards.

RELATED: A Wine Lover’s Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary

Happy Canyon AVA in Santa Barbara, California | Best Wineries in Happy Canyon |
Happy Canyon AVA, Santa Barbara, California.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Located in the far eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara delves into the San Rafael Mountains just northwest of Lake Cachuma. Its inland position means a significantly warmer climate that ensures complete maturation for later ripening varieties. The rolling terrain, high slopes and varied​ ​soils of this region are best suited for growing Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc, creating rich, concentrated wines. Syrah and other Rhône varieties also flourish here. Amazing labels like Grassini Family Vineyards and Star Lane Vineyard make beautiful wines.

Ballard Canyon

Ballard Canyon lies in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA where the unique soils and climate of the Canyon create a great environment for producing distinctive wines from red grapes such as Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and white grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne. This AVA is becoming more universally known for their Rhone varietals due to the work of folks like Stolpman Vineyards, Beckman Vineyards, and Larner Vineyard & Winery.

Los Olivos District AVA

The Los Olivos District AVA, a broad alluvial terrace, between the Purisima Hills above Solvang and the western flank of the Happy Canyon area, is a unique geographical & geological feature distinguished by its relatively uniform topography, geology, and soil profile. Boundaries encompass the townships of Ballard, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang. Here, Sauvignon Blanc, and Rhone varietals such as Syrah and Grenache take prominence. Fred Brander, of The Brander Vineyard, has placed himself in legendary status due to his long history in the area, and for his beautiful and distinct Sauvignon Blancs. Los Olivos also has numerous tasting rooms located in their historic downtown that are all walkable and open during the day and on weekends.

Wineries including Dragonette, Tercero, Brewer-Clifton, Story of Soil, Refugio Ranch, SAMsARA, Kaena, and Tensley have storefront tasting rooms in Los Olivos​. If hungry, make sure to visit Bear & Star, Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café, or Sides Hardware and Shoes a Brothers Restaurant. For dinner, an absolute must is Hitching Post II. This is the landmark restaurant started by Frank Ostini and also featured prominently in the movie, Sideways. Larner also has the Los Olivos General Store and Larner Tasting Room right in the center of town.

Los Alamos Valley

Los Alamos Valley lies between Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. With warm days and very cold nights, the fruit from this region achieves incredible concentration and balance. Its slight, well-drained soils and a wide range of microclimates allows for a diversity of varietals. Because Los Alamos Valley is not an official appellation, you won’t see it on a wine label – “Santa Barbara County” is used instead. But you should not be surprised to see Los Alamos Valley vineyard names specified on the label.

This part of town is buzzing with new culinary options. Only a few minutes from Los Olivos and Buellton, places to visit for lunch and dinner are Pico, Bell’s, Plenty, and Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. There are also tasting rooms open in Los Alamos, including Lo-Fi, Bedford Winery, and Municipal Winemakers. And of course there’s the city of Santa Barbara itself.

Things To Do in Downtown Santa Barbara

If you’re staying in downtown Santa Barbara, there are plenty of great places to visit for Santa Barbara wine. Jaffurs Wine Cellars, Grassini Family Vineyards, Au Bon Climat, Margerum Wine Company, Happy Canyon all have tasting rooms downtown surrounding The Wine Cask, long a wine mecca in the region and Intermezzo, a fun wine bar and eatery​. ​

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Another area that is exploding is part of town called, The Funk Zone. Wineries such as Riverbench, Pali Wine Co., The Valley Project, DV8, Paradise Springs Winery, and Santa Barbara Wine Company have tasting rooms minutes from all the hotels and beach and it’s only a few minutes walk from the Santa Barbara Amtrak station, that makes the entire area easily accessible from all of Southern California by train, while Santa Barbara Airport makes it reachable by air with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Frontier, Sun Country and United all offering service from destinations in California and the western USA.​ You can signup for flight deal alerts with Airfarewatchdog.

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