As much as Santa Barbara is known for the sea, it’s our ridgeline that really sets the region apart. Rising dramatically to nearly 4,000 feet above the cityscape, the Santa Ynez Mountains are the western terminus of the Transverse Ranges, the only place on the West Coast where the mountains run west to east rather than north to south. That makes for postcard-pretty photos and breathtakingly calm beaches — but it’s even more critical to understanding Santa Barbara wine country.
Lay of the Land
Directly behind the mountains is the Santa Ynez Valley, which opens up onto the chilly, windy, and often foggy Pacific Ocean to the west, but grows steadily warmer the farther east you move. The shifting temperature scale makes for multiple microclimates, providing excellent conditions to grow grape varieties that originally hail from distinct corners of the Old World.
On the cooler west end, Burgundian grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay dominate throughout the Sta. Rita Hills. As it warms up toward the middle, Rhône varieties like syrah and grenache thrive in Ballard Canyon, while Bordeaux, Italian, and Spanish grapes enjoy the climate of the adjacent Los Olivos District, the county’s newest appellation. On reaching Happy Canyon, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc are very happy to bask in the hot sun.
The same geography defines the Santa Maria Valley just to the north. But it’s a wider valley, so the coastal influence persists throughout, hence the preponderance of pinot noir and chardonnay, including some promising sparkling wine projects. Then there are the versatile (though not officially designated) regions of Los Alamos, Foxen Canyon, and Alisos Canyon in between — the latter was recently proposed as its own appellation — and the high desert landscape of the Cuyama Valley behind all these mountains to the northeast, where cult wineries are sourcing grenache and mourvedre, among other grapes.
From the Valley to the Funk Zone
This wild diversity doesn’t stop with grapes. There are myriad methods to exploring Santa Barbara wine country, from traditional estate-hopping to walkable urban trails.
Salty Chardonnay: Zesty Sauv Blanc: Savory Syrah: Piquant Pinot Noir:
Where to find exactly what you’re looking for:
Sea salt from the coast infuses the whites at Sanford Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills.
Find both passionfruit and cut- grass flavors at Fiddlehead in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
Gamey flavors meet with dark berries at Margerum Wine Company in the Presidio Neighborhood.
Exotic spices of all types from multiple producers at Santa Barbara Wine Collective.
Zesty Sauv Blanc:
Piquant Pinot Noir:
Like most wine countries, you can spend your days driving from one vineyard to the next throughout the region, enjoying wines amidst bucolic vineyards. This is easy to do on your own with a designated driver, or by hiring a tour operator. Many a magical hour can pass learning from a wise winemaker about what makes one estate’s limestone-flecked soil or hillside setting different from the rest — and the glasses go down easy when you’re sitting just a few feet from where the grapes are grown.
What’s unlike most other wine regions, however, are the urban tasting experiences, where you can try dozens of wineries simply on your own two feet. (No car needed!)
In the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, there are about 50 tasting rooms in the village of Los Olivos, more than 15 in the Danish-themed city of Solvang, and a growing number in Santa Ynez and Buellton. At the west edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, there are more than 20 tasting rooms, and a number of working wineries operate in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, a convivial collection of converted warehouses.
For those who’d prefer not to stray too far from the sands of East Beach or the shops on State Street, there’s the Urban Wine Trail, where nearly 30 tasting rooms showcase the region’s varied appellations and styles. Most of these are in the Funk Zone, just steps from the beach. But there’s also a handful amidst the red-tile roofs and white-washed walls of El Paseo in the Presidio Neighborhood, located in heart of downtown.
Perhaps the best thing about these downtown settings is that they allow wine tasting to be just one part of a dynamic Santa Barbara day. Neophytes aren’t overwhelmed (and can go shopping or swimming for variety). And those seeking a deep dive into Santa Barbara County wines can get all they desire, catch the sunset, and still make their dinner reservation on time.