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A guide to the many gems of Santa Barbara wine country

Want to check out one of the most exciting American wine scenes? Go to Santa Barbara

Sanford Winery vineyard.
Facebook/Sanford Winery

California has it good. From pristine coastlines and great weather to remarkable wine regions, it’s hard not to love the place. Santa Barbara in particular touts all of the above and is, among other things, one of the most buzzed-about American wine areas at the moment.

It’s home to great winemakers and bottles that won’t break the bank. The scenery is stunning and it’s all headquartered around a couple of big cities. That means you can taste by day and explore town by night.

For those who don’w know, Santa Barbara town is set along the Pacific about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The surrounding wine country is set a bit inland, encompassing a total of seven AVAs (American Viticultural Area), including the esteemed Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley appellations. One of the most interesting components of the area is the pronounced maritime influence courtesy of several valleys that jut straight out to the ocean. That means a tempered climate that appeals to many types from wine grapes, from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Rhone varieties like Syrah. You’ll even find great Chenin Blanc, Gamay, Picpoul, Semillon, and many more in this wildly diverse American winemaking zone.

California has a lot to offer as the nation’s leading wine producer. Just ask Temecula Wine Country or the Sonoma County wine scene. But the Santa Barbara region may be the most intriguing of them all, especially right now. Here’s how to enjoy all it has to offer.

Alma Rosa

The vineyard at Alma Rosa Winery.
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One can practically taste the ocean air in the work of Alma Rosa. The label, rooted in the rich soils of the Santa Rosa Hills, focuses on elegant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines (with a few Rhone varietals sprinkled in for good measure). The tasting room in Solvang is a lesson in how to do things open-air style. The sprawling courtyard is extremely inviting, and guests can even arrange private tours of the stunning vineyard, set a few miles away on a 628-acre ranch.

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Fess Parker

The Fess Parker estate in Los Olivos.
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This family-run Los Olivos winery specializes in Burgundian wines. The label got its start back in the late 80s when the family bought the Foxen Canyon Ranch. Wine writers have since likened the vineyard to the esteemed grand cru sites of France, meaning it’s prized for its wine-friendly climate, soils, and topography. It’s a great stop for graceful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along with deftly-made Viognier, Riesling, and Syrah. Guests can pick from a trio of tasting experiences that take place at the ranch, home to the label’s gorgeous tasting room and surrounding gardens and great views. There’s an urban tasting room in Santa Barbara called the Funk Zone as well.

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Zaca Mesa

The vineyard at Zaca Mesa Winery.
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Now 50 years old, Zaca Mesa has helped carve out the great reputation Santa Barbara is now enjoying. It’s set just down the road from Fess Parker and goes Rhone with wines like Syrah, Mourvèdre, Roussane, Grenache, and more. There’s lots of history here, as it’s Santa Barbra’s third official winery, with vines dating back to the late 1970s. They grow fruit sustainably, source from a variety of different vineyard blocks that stress the dynamic nature of the appellation, and have earned some great critical acclaim over the years.

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Sanford Winery & Vineyards

Sanford Winery & Vineyards tasting room.
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Set beside one of the most revered vineyards in the nation, Sanford offers a Burgundian spin on the west coast wine scene. Here, you’ll enjoy tremendous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along with sparkling wines that pop with life and texture. There are a host of cool tasting options, including one that involves an ATV ride, and you do it all in the company of some of the most sought-after vines in the area. First planted in 1971, the site is home to the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the county, which thrive in the calcium-dominant soils set just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

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Brewer-Clifton vineyard view.
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Founded by Greg Brewer in the mid-1990s, Brewer-Clifton embodies the very potential of the Sta. Rita Hills. The wines are nuanced and reflect various aspects and locales within the appellation. You can taste the relationships the winemaking crews have with its four different yet prized area vineyard sites. Look out for some small-batch Syrah available now and again at the Los Olivos tasting room.

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Jaffurs Wine Cellars

Jaffurs Wine Cellars tasting room crowd.
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Set right downtown in Santa Barbara, Jaffurs is all about the Rhone way of wines. That means elegant Syrah, especially, along with Roussanne and Viognier, and a dessert wine made from the latter grape. The label also turns out some Chardonnay and makes its wine right out of the same compelling structure that it pours from. So, if you’re looking to please the senses and sip on the scene while watching it unfold, this is a great spot to do so.

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Tatomer Wines

Tatomer Wines wine tasting.
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If there’s a crown for the top Riesling producer in the area, it probably ought to go to Tatomer. The Santa Maria winery makes an excellent family of dry Rieslings, along with some fantastic Grüner Veltliner. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that the winemaker spent a long spell in Austria working closely with beloved producer Weingut Knoll. Production is small at about 4,000 cases per year, so get it while you can. The guided tasting is very vineyard driven, so if you want to see how land and climate shape one of the wine world’s most famous varietals, this is a must.

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Au Bon Climat

Au Bon Climat tasting room.
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Chat up the wine lovers of the central coast, and they’re likely to drop this name. Au Bon Climat specializes in beautiful white blends that often showcase Pinot Blanc, along with single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir options galore. The label, an inverted triangle, is immediately recognizable and has come to stand for real quality in the Santa Barbara wine circuit. Tasting, of course, is half the fun, and the label’s airy and inviting bar right in Santa Barbara is a great place to spend some time. Better, it’s home to a few other sibling labels by the pour (library releases, too), along with a well-curated bottle list if you need some for the road.

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Rusack Vineyards

Rusack Vineyards tasting deck.
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Set in Ballard Canyon, Rusack is a gem in multiple ways. First, the scenery is stunning — a 48-acre estate surrounded by hills speckled with oak trees and artistic shadow play. The outdoor tasting experience on a remarkable oak deck is top-notch. Look out for lovely estate Sauvignon Blanc, along with lovely Cabernet Sauvignon. They even make a Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay from fruit sourced from a vineyard in the remote Santa Catalina Island.

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Beyond Wine

There is no shortage of great things to see and do in Santa Barbara. Eaters have their work cut out, from the classic Mexican grub at La Super-Rica Taqueria to the amazing pizza at Bettina. Cocktail fans are advised to check out Test Pilot and its crafty tiki beverages. Beer drinkers will appreciate the craft scene, with plenty of options right in town. Check out Figueroa Mountain for a nice lineup of IPAs and a refreshing Mexican lager and citrus ale.

Where to lay your head? Well, we like The Eagle Inn, set in the heart of the West Bench neighborhood. For something closer to wine country, try the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. Beyond the city limits, there’s plenty of outdoors fun to be had at nearby Los Padres National Forest. Those looking to relive Sideways can push farther north to adorable Solvang and Paso Robles wine country as well.

Need more reasons to visit? Check out our Santa Barbara travel feature.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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