There are two big reasons that people travel to Santa Barbara.
1. College: Santa Barbara is home to a dozen or so colleges and universities within its glorious borders, contributing to a nonstop influx of very smart people.
2. Wine: Santa Barbara County boasts more than 100 area wineries, contributing to a nonstop influx of very smart people with excellent taste.
(OK, we’ll admit it, there’s probably a third big reason: the beach. But if you’re reading this, we’re betting your idea of traveling involves a little more than sunbathing. Not that it’s a bad way to spend part of your vacation.)
So assuming you’re of legal drinking age and not in school at this very moment, let’s take a tour of the 10 best places to taste the amazing array of wines that come from our prized Central Coast grapes.
If you’re in the mood for a road trip, you simply MUST travel the notoriously winding – but very scenic – State Route 154 to Los Olivos. This wine-centric small town has many tasting rooms within a short walk of each other. You should taste the robust blends at Kaena and visit Alta Maria for very expressive, very reasonably priced reds.
Your other option is to explore Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail. This consists of an assortment of tasting rooms, most within walking or biking distance of an area known as the Funk Zone. Municipal Winemakers is probably the most fun and funky of them all, making it a great place to meet (or make) friends.
Corks n' Crowns
Corks n' Crowns is a fun tasting room and wine and craft beer club on the Urban Wine Trail in the Santa Barbara Funk Zone. They offer tastings that represent wines by different makers collected around a theme. The wines and beers they pour change monthly. You can enjoy a tasting, have a glass or buy a bottle (free corkage!) and enjoy it on their open-air patio just a block from the ocean. Stop in during happy hour for great deals on fine wine and beer any Monday through Wednesday from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Free but hard to find parking all around. Many other wineries within walking distance, as well as some great restaurants. (805-845-8600)
This winery and tasting room near Santa Barbara's Eastside is hard to find, just like treasure should be. Tucked away in an industrial part of town, step inside this modern facility to be blown away by flavors cultivated at a variety of local vineyards. The high end tasting room is well-appointed and by appointment only. Absolutely no walk-ins allowed! If you're lucky, your visit will be paired with a tour of the wine preparation and storage areas. Sanguis wines pair excellently with food, making them a wonderful souvenir to bring home now and enjoy with a great meal and good company in the future. (805-845-0920)
Municipal Winemakers is the brainchild of Dave Potter, a well-traveled winemaker who also produces wine for one of the area's largest commercial vineyards. Potter's efforts for Municipal are more intimate, producing 600 or so cases of wine a year, with the goal of making bottles that are both delicious and easily guzzled. Wines you'll want to bring to your friends' houses and buy by the case to serve at parties. Visit Municipal's lively tasting room in the Funk Zone for an enjoyable wine tasting experience you won't soon forget. And don't forget to visit their sister site, Potek winery, for wines you'll want to cellar and drink on special occasions. ((805) 931-6864)
Rusack Vineyards is best known for their red wines, especially Pinot Noir and Syrah. Being on the smaller side for a vineyard (situated on about 48 acres) Rusack crafts their wines using both estate grapes and locally sourced varietals from some of the best vineyards in the area. Visit their website for detailed tasting and crafting notes, including the origin of the grapes and fermenting process. This beautiful, rose-bordered winery has a large outdoor picnic area, but you should call ahead to reserve space for parties of 10 or more. They also have cheese and crackers for sale in the tasting room - in the event of a more impromptu picnic! ((805)688-1278)
The Demetria Estate is hands down the prettiest place to taste wine in Santa Barbara County, and the fact that their wine is delicious certainly doesn't hurt matters. Call ahead to make a tasting reservation. At the appointed time, you will drive a little ways past Los Olivos, enter a secret passcode at a large gate, and then drive another little ways on a narrow lane through some of the most marvelous countryside in the area. You will see goats, maybe hawks, maybe deer. And then, oh then, you will pull up to a large estate, be seated on a sunny courtyard, and enjoy some very fine sips of rosé, Pinot Noir and Syrah, among others. ((805)686-2345)
Kaena Wine Co
Los Olivos may be inland, but that doesn't mean that the mindset of every tasting room is! For some great wine with a hint of, well, Hawaii, seek out Kaena's tasting room. Does this mean there sell wines with hints of pina colada? Heavens no. Instead founder Michael Sigouin, a native Hawaiian, creates delicious wines - many of them blends - using only Santa Barbara County fruit and gives them Hawaiian names like 'Hapa' and 'Hale.' Sigouin endeavors to keep his wines as natural as possible; this means native yeast, no enzymes and no ML bacteria. Try their Grenache Rose for a refreshing treat. Open daily from 11ish a.m. - 5ish p.m. (island time). ((805) 888-4069)
Alta Maria Vineyards
Formed as the result of a longstanding friendship between viticulturist James Ontiveros and winemaker Paul Wilkins, Alta Maria produces small batches of wine using the area's finest grapes. Expressive bottles include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. Their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have repeatedly been ranked above 90 points by various wine critics. Prices are reasonable, and you will be tempted to take home a bottle or two - perhaps even join their rapidly-growing wine club. We recommend you do while they're still taking new members... this winery is one to watch. If you're planning to buy a bottle or more during your trip to Los Olivos, make sure at least one comes from Alta Maria. ((805)6868-1144)
Jaffurs Wine Cellars
Jaffurs Wine Cellars focuses on Rhone-style varietals like Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Viognier and Roussanne. Production is limited, resulting in about 3,500 cases a year. Grapes are sourced from vineyards in Santa Rita, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos and Santa Maria. Then they are crushed, pressed, cellared and bottled right in this very location. A tasting fee of $10 lets you sample current offerings. As this location functions as both a working winery and small tasting room, please call ahead for groups of 6 or more. Free street parking out front. Located not far from bustling Milpas Street and a short drive from the Funk Zone. ((805) 962-7003)
Hard to spot but great to find, Whitcraft Winery is a small tasting room and winery tucked away behind Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. Established by Chris Whitcraft in 1985, Whitcraft Winery produces wines that are a testament to the whims of Mother nature, each vintage celebrated for its unique characteristics. Grapes are hand picked, hand sorted, foot stomped (or lightly pressed), hand bottled and hand labeled, limiting their production to less than 2,000 cases a year. Now helmed by second-generation winemaker Drake Whitcraft, this winery is best known for Burgundian-style Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays; other offerings include French and Italian varietals sourced from the Central Coast area. ((805) 730-1680)
Foxen Vineyards produces highly coveted, sustainably farmed wines that inspire people to take very long journeys on winding roads just for a sip or two. And then, after that first taste, many of those same people will put themselves on a waiting list to become Foxen wine club members so that they can gain access to extremely rare bottles of wine and subsequently brag about them to their friends. Be advised that this winery actually claims two tasting rooms on the same road. The original tasting room, Foxen 7200, tastes Bordeaux and Cal-Ital style wines. Their more recent, solar-powered tasting room (located at 7600 Foxen Canyon Rd.) tastes Pinot Noirs and Rhone-style wines. (805-937-4251)
About Geneva Ives
Geneva Ives moved to Santa Barbara in 2000 on a whim (ok, and to go to college) and never looked back. She loves Santa Barbara because it’s really one of America’s greatest small towns - it just happens to have glorious beaches and celebrity residents, too!
Geneva spent a decade managing an adorable, locally owned boutique in downtown Santa Barbara and met her husband when he was working as a waiter at the Cajun restaurant right next door. Together they go on many adventures trying to find the best activities, drinks and dining experiences in the tri-county area.
Read more about Geneva Ives here.
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