There is no more dynamic of a wine-tasting scene in the world than what can be experienced in Santa Barbara County right now. Thanks to the Transverse Range, the mountains and valleys on this southwestern corner of California run east to west, rather than north to south — it’s the only place on the West Coast of the Americas where this geographic anomaly occurs.
Viticulturally, the significance is that the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys open directly onto the frigid Pacific Ocean, and then snake inland, where the climate grows warmer each mile as the impact of fog and wind dwindle. That means while cool-climate varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can thrive near the coast, grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that enjoy a bit more heat can excel in the deeper areas. Almost every popular grape variety in the world can find a happy home in Santa Barbara County, meaning that there’s a wine for every preference.
But the wine diversity is only part of the story. The Santa Ynez Mountains also create a dividing line between the bucolic ranchlands of North County — which are reminiscent of wine countries the world over — and the more developed, beach-hugging communities of the South Coast. This is where the city of Santa Barbara reigns as a historically imbued, architecturally magnificent specimen, full of cosmopolitan opportunities yet almost entirely walkable.
So in the span of one day, a visitor could begin the morning by walking through the acclaimed Pinot Noir vineyards of the Sta. Rita Hills while sipping on a glass of racy Chardonnay from the same property. All around is the beauty of nature: graceful foothills extending toward dramatic limestone-flecked peaks, red-tailed hawks swooping in line with vultures and bluebirds, the gentle sunshine cutting through the salty fog.
Come lunchtime, after a bucolic drive through the Syrah vines of Ballard Canyon, the quaint country streets of Los Olivos offer an endless variety of wines, with more than 50 tasting rooms packed into a few blocks. Taste more Pinot and Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley, or explore cooler-climate Rhones from Alisos Canyon, dive into the richer Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon, or go geeky on Blaufrankisch grown within the Los Olivos District just a few blocks away.
But don’t overdo it, because by late afternoon it’s time to settle into the urban scene of Santa Barbara, a 40-minute drive away. Home to world-class restaurants, live performance venues, art galleries, and a buzzing evening scene, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone and downtown neighborhoods boast more than two dozen tasting rooms, not to mention a bevy of breweries. Sip a glass of rosé on the pier while watching the sunset light up the American Riviera.
At dinner, peruse the wine lists at restaurants where sommeliers run the show. It’s easy to find an older vintage Santa Barbara County wine that will knock your socks off. You’ll soon wonder why this isn’t the usual wine country way.
The wine history of Santa Barbara County
As in many of the California coastal regions, grapes were introduced to Santa Barbara by the Spanish missionaries of the late 1700s. They planted vineyards throughout the region around the missions of Santa Barbara, Santa Ines (which is adjacent to Solvang) and La Purisima, near present-day Lompoc. By the late 1800s, Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara, was home to one of California’s most important vineyards, growing about 150 acres of more than 20 different varieties. But a bad economy in the early 1900s and then Prohibition ended commercial grape-growing in Santa Barbara for decades.
The modern era began in the 1960s, with plantings in the Santa Maria Valley, and then Pierre Lafond opening Santa Barbara Winery in 1962, though his early vintages focused more on fruit wines. Vineyards expanded throughout the 1970s, with the Santa Maria Valley becoming a preferred source of Chardonnay for vintners from Napa and Sonoma.
A critical development was the 1971 planting of Pinot Noir (among other varieties) by Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict along Santa Rosa Road, southwest of Buellton. That grape’s success in this cool climate eventually spurred the widespread planting of Sta. Rita Hills, today considered one of the sweetest spots for Pinot Noir cultivation in the world.
By the early 1980s, the federal government granted American Viticultural Area status to both the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, which would later be carved into the Sta. Rita Hills (2001), Ballard Canyon (2013), Los Olivos District (2015) and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara (2009) AVAs. There is also a proposal for a new Alisos Canyon AVA, which extends along Alisos Canyon Road east of Los Alamos.
And no Santa Barbara wine history conversation can cease without mentioning the impact of the 2004 Hollywood film “Sideways.” The road trip buddy movie, which was set in the Santa Ynez Valley, popularized the region, as well as American Pinot Noir, in immeasurable ways.
Wine style to watch
Due to the unique microclimates of the west-to-east oriented Transverse Range, which opens onto the cold Pacific but warms up considerably on the 25-mile march inland, the array of wine styles that can be grown in Santa Barbara County is unparalleled.
On the western side of the Santa Ynez Valley in the Sta. Rita Hills, and throughout the Santa Maria Valley, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive. They can be produced in light, bright and minerally styles, or as more powerful, richer versions full of fruit and spice.
Between the towns of Solvang, Buellton and Los Olivos lies Ballard Canyon, considered the only American appellation fully dedicated to Syrah, although other Rhone varieties are also widely planted. The region is a Goldilocks location for the grape, warm enough to produce lush ripeness yet cool enough to guarantee peppery spices and savory notes.
Moving inland is the newest appellation, the Los Olivos District, where Sauvignon Blanc and numerous other varieties — including Italian and Rhone grapes as well as outliers like Tempranillo and Blaufrankisch — grow on an alluvial fan that slides from the slopes of Figueroa Mountain down to the Santa Ynez River. And the deepest, warmest part of the Santa Ynez Valley is Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, an appellation dedicated to Bordeaux varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.
When to visit Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County’s weather is pleasant almost every day of the year. There is fog in the mornings and wind in the afternoons, but the temperatures never grow too hot or too cold. Just be aware of the occasional super-hot summer day, especially in warmer parts of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the much-needed though sporadic rain showers in the fall, winter and spring. The landscape does grow more beautiful in the late winter and early spring, as the hills explode in vibrant green with splashes of wildflower blooms.
The city of Santa Barbara plays host to numerous large festivals each summer, most notably Summer Solstice in late June and the Old Spanish Days Fiesta the first weekend of August. They don’t tend to affect wine country hotel vacancies much, but they do make for packed hotels on the South Coast.
Beyond the tasting room
A globally renowned tourist destination for the past century, Santa Barbara County is full of fun beyond tasting wine. Though a small city, Santa Barbara boasts a very cosmopolitan vibe, with ample live music venues, art galleries and theater companies that compete with cities 10 times its size. The restaurant scene has never been better, and the Tuesday and Saturday farmers’ markets are legendary.
Beaches and ocean-related activities abound on the South Coast, from Carpinteria to Gaviota. There is also deep sea fishing, kayaking, whale watching, sailing and much more to do out of the Santa Barbara Harbor. But keep in mind that beaches in North County tend to be very windy and the waters often quite dangerous, though skilled surfers will find some of the most exciting rides of their lives.
The Los Padres National Forest consumes much of the mountainous landscape, and is filled with hiking and mountain biking trails. Many of these start within Santa Barbara city limits.
In wine country, the towns of Solvang, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Lompoc and Buellton offer all that a traveler needs, from restaurants to movie theaters. The tiny hamlet of Los Alamos is a particular gem these days, with many restaurants lining its main drag. All of these places offer quality restaurants — plus there are several breweries and distilleries to explore as well.
Getting around Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara County is only 90 miles from Los Angeles — though traffic can make that a much longer experience — and about five hours from San Francisco, so many visitors drive themselves to town. Others use the extremely convenient Santa Barbara Airport, located about 40 minutes from the heart of wine country and 10 minutes from downtown.
The main thoroughfare is Highway 101, which runs through both wine country and the main cities. There is also Highway 154, which curves through the Santa Ynez Mountains, and Highway 246, which runs from Santa Ynez to Lompoc.
The Amtrak train is a very popular means of transportation, particularly for those coming from Southern California. It drops off right in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, just blocks from the bustling Funk Zone, where tasting rooms, restaurants and galleries abound.
For exploring wine country, there are numerous wine tour companies that do the thinking and driving for you. If you do plan to drive yourself, keep in mind that the distances between tasting rooms can be considerable, so make sure someone is the designated driver. Uber and Lyft are also options but can be spotty in the rural reaches of wine country.