Just as Santa Barbara has landscape varieties aplenty – an elegant mesh of sea, mountains, and urban terrain – the wine varietals produced in the region are equally as remarkable.
So remarkable, in fact, that Santa Barbara County took home Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s prestigious Wine Region of the Year Award in 2021, beating out locales in-state as well as in France, South Africa, and New Zealand.
While the area is renowned for its Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay masterpieces, there are plenty of unique tastes to be had stemming from its seven (yes, seven!) federally designated wine-growing regions (also known as American Viticultural Areas or AVAs). A fun fact for your next trivia night, these regions are Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, Happy Canyon, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita, Santa Ynez Valley and, officially added in 2020, Alisos Canyon.
There are many ways to experience wine in Santa Barbara County. From estate tastings in movie-like settings to a tasting-room-clad small town tucked in the Santa Ynez Valley to an urban wine trail, you can take your pick of wine adventures in The American Riviera. Here is where your vino will be primo.
Explore several stunning vineyards with estate tastings
According to the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, the region is home to more than 275 wineries and 70-plus different wine grape varieties. So, the question becomes where to begin?
For a quintessential Santa Barbara County wine experience, there is nothing like going straight to a vineyard (or five), with tastings typically in the $20 to $30-plus range. Many are accessible within an hour’s drive of the city of Santa Barbara’s urban confines.
If you’re looking to vineyard hop and leave the driving to someone else after multiple tastings, companies like Coastal Concierge, Destination Vine, Rooted Vine Tours and Stagecoach Co. Wine Tours offer day-long private and/or group outings with transportation.
If you’re making your own adventure, pick a vineyard that matches the vibe and varietals you seek, as each has its own flavor, literally and figuratively. Make sure to call ahead to see if reservations are required.
On the modern estate end of the spectrum is Santa Maria’s Presqu’ile. Opened in 2013, this 13,000-plus square foot, stone-clad tasting complex – with wine caves, walls of windows and bright wooden accents – stands out amid its seemingly endless rows of vines. To maximize a visit, book a horseback tour of the grounds or a “Wine & Bocce” experience – yes, there is a regulation-size Bocce court here.
Santa Rita Hills’ Melville offers various 90-minute “Beyond the Barrel” tours that will appease the wine novice and aficionado alike. Beyond simply swirling glasses, you typically get to venture into the vineyards, learning about the soil, climate, process and more along the way. Post-trek, hit the massive Mediterranean-inspired tasting room and park it on the patio for green mountain views.
For Bordeaux and polo lovers, Happy Canyon Vineyard – which is tucked on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley – is bliss with two regulation-sized polo fields on-site serving as the icing on the cake. Private tastings are available at its Piocho Ranch, but you’ll want to book such an exclusive experience two-plus weeks in advance.
In the Santa Maria Valley, Foxen has evolved into a multifaceted powerhouse, with two unique tasting rooms, one of which was once lovingly known as “The Shack” (a wooden, former blacksmith shop) and the other being a solar-powered, modern complex completed in 2009. Impressive buildings aside, its hearty Pinot offerings also dazzle.
Experience small-town charm and new-world wine in Los Olivos
You don’t have to dream of a magical small town with streets lined with tasting rooms and locally bred bistros – it exists in Los Olivos. Geographically in the middle of Santa Barbara County and approximately 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara’s epicenter, you’ll find this wine utopia easily walkable and navigable.
Beyond having a designated driver for your own vehicle, you can easily snag a Lyft/Uber, or companies like Golden Rooster have private shuttles for larger groups.
Along its Grand Avenue main drag and surrounding cluster of streets are more than 30 tasting rooms from some of the region’s heaviest hitters. Among them are Carhartt Family Wines, Dragonette Cellars and Refugio Ranch Vineyards. Amid the more unique experiences, hit Stolpman Vineyards’ outdoor patio for a tasting, which has a covered, garden-like setting.
To make the most bang for your Los Olivos adventure buck, make sure to ask your favorite tasting room about any current in-house and town-wide offers. As with many estates and wine-centric businesses, if you buy a bottle, your tasting (often $20-plus) may be free or discounted. There have also been money-saving programs between partnering tasting rooms (e.g. if you buy a tasting at one spot, you get a ticket for half off at another). The bottom line: Just ask! This town of approximately 1000 residents is as friendly as it gets.
Leave the car at home on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail
While Santa Barbara County’s dreamy estates and Los Olivos provide an opportunity to explore the region’s terrain, you don’t have to leave town to get your wine fix. In fact, there is a Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail centered on Santa Barbara’s tasting-room-heavy neighborhoods – including the Funk Zone and Presidio – as well as select spots in nearby Summerland and Goleta.
In a city that is generally refined, head to the edgy, warehouse-clad Funk Zone for a true urban experience.
Margerum is tucked just off State Street, and you’ll likely want to take home a bottle or two of its celebrated M5 Estate White Rhone Blend. Make sure to indulge in its mega cheese and charcuterie board, while you’re at it. Municipal Winemakers caters to the younger crowd, with conglomerated old filing cabinets as décor, indoor bistro lighting, and big, colorful branding often draping its bottle offerings.
To experience a little bit of all the latest Santa Barbara wine buzz under one roof, hit the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, which builds flights featuring hotspots from throughout Santa Barbara County.
Tasting fees – often running in the $20 to $30-plus range – can add up. If you’re planning to pop in several city spots, the Urban Wine Trail Membership Card can save you some major dough in the long haul. For $200, it gets you a free tasting at all 33 wineries along the trail as well as discounts on bottles. You can order one in advance of your trip or pick one up at a participating winery.
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