In case you haven’t heard, Santa Barbara is one of the hottest places in American wine right now. The unique qualities of the central California coast make for stellar grape-growing conditions and some highly refined wines. It is easily the most exciting stretch in the region’s wine history to date.
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 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, from Temecula Valley in the south to Sonoma up north. 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.
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.
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 and yet prized area vineyard sites. Look out for some small-batch Syrah available now and again at the Los Olivos tasting room.
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.
If there’s a crown for 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.
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.
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.
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 wine-centric Paso Robles as well.
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