A Wine Lovers Guide to Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara County is a gleaming gem in the Golden State. Its 50 miles of gorgeous coastline offer breathtaking views, and the area has long been a gathering place for food and wine lovers, artists, celebrities, and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s easy to see why it’s been nicknamed the “American Riviera.”
In 2021, Wine Enthusiast named Santa Barbara County Wine Region of the Year. But wine lovers have had this destination on lock for a long time now. You probably remember the 2004 movie Sideways, which put Santa Barbara’s Wine Country and its spectacular Pinot Noir in the spotlight (and also unfairly maligned Merlot). Since then, wine tourism has exploded in the county, and so has the number of producers.
If you love wine (the beach, art, great restaurants, insane views, and perfect weather), you’ll love Santa Barbara County. Happily, there is an abundance of diversity so everyone from experienced to newb is likely to find something that suits their palate. Here’s our guide to get you started on your wine tasting adventure in the American Riviera. Let’s go!
Learn More About Santa Barbara Wines
Like much of California’s Wine Country, the missions first started growing winegrapes in Santa Barbara in the 1700s. During the next century, there was actually a small amount of wine being grown commercially in the region, but prohibition effectively destroyed the industry statewide in 1918. It wasn’t until 1975 that production started again, and over the next few years, the number of wineries grew to 13. By the end of the 80s, there were 29 growing winegrapes on over 9,600 acres. In 1981, the Santa Maria Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), the second oldest in the state, was established, followed by Santa Ynez Valley in 1983.
More than 70 varieties of winegrapes are grown in the region, with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah making up the majority. Rare traverse valleys that run east to west allow cool ocean breezes an easy path inland (and are also, incidentally, how Sideways got its name). This ideal climate and unique topography allow for a longer growing season, so wines are well balanced with bright acidity.
If you’re interested in sustainable wines, you’ll be happy to know that Santa Barbara County is a leader in sustainability with many wines being certified sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and/or regenerative. The region also boasts the highest percentage of female winemakers in the Golden State, and several wineries offer profit-sharing or educational opportunities for their farmworkers.
Today there are over 275 wineries on over 14,000 acres with seven approved AVAs. The Santa Maria Valley is the northernmost AVA. Ocean fog and wind, plus complex soil conditions create microclimates where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrive. Below, the Santa Ynez Valley is an overlying AVA that comprises four sub-AVAs (West to East): Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
- The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is heavily influenced by morning and afternoon fog and has sedimentary soils with diatomaceous earth and limestone providing the right environment for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
- Ballard Canyon is the smallest AVA accounting for only 7,800 acres of winegrapes. Its north/south oriented canyon drives wind and weather conditions making it ideal for growing Rhône varieties; over 50% is Syrah, and an additional 30% are Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache.
- The most recently approved sub-AVA of the Santa Ynez Valley is the Los Olivos District, located between the Purisima Hills above Solvang and Happy Canyon. Unlike other AVAs in the region, the Los Olivos District is a broad alluvial terrace with relatively uniform topography, geology, and soil profile. With a total acreage of 1,121, most of the grapes grown here are Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rhone varieties.
- Located at the far eastern end you’ll find Happy Canyon. The weather in this AVA is much warmer which creates ideal conditions for later ripening varieties. Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc thrive on its rolling hills with high slopes and varied soils.
The newest AVA, Alisos Canyon, is located near Los Alamos, a tiny historic town that’s made its mark as a must-visit foodie, (and if we’re really being honest, hipster) destination. The weather there is heavily influenced by its proximity to the ocean. Its unique soils which include sandstone and shale, coupled with a rare strip of limestone, make this appellation ideal for Rhône varieties.
Where to Taste Wine in Santa Barbara
With so many choices, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when planning a wine tasting adventure in Santa Barbara. Don’t worry – we’ll help you make sense of it. Its Wine Country is sprawling, and many of the wineries located north/east of the city of Santa Barbara. If you’re arriving from the north or south, wineries are accessible from Highway 101. Alternatively, if you’ve been staying in Santa Barbara you can take Highway 154, a picturesque drive through the mountains above the city into the Santa Ynez Valley. There are several wine trails to explore, all offering unique experiences. There is no way you’ll be able to do it all in one visit, or will you? (And if you decide to accept the challenge, hire a driver!)
Buellton Wine Trail – The gateway to the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, you’ll find everything from estate vineyards to “garagiste” tasting rooms here. There is plenty of lodging and easy access off of the 101, making this ideal for a road trip stopover. Wineries to visit:
Foxen Canyon – A winding country road that heads from Los Olivos towards Los Alamos with plenty of estate vineyards offering tastings. Wineries to visit:
Lompoc Wine Trail – Most of the wineries here are conveniently located together in an industrial park. Lompoc is a beautiful town known as the “City of Arts and Flowers.” Be sure to check out the many murals by local artists painted throughout the town. Wineries to visit:
Los Olivos Promenade – This quaint and historic town, once a stop on the Wells Fargo Stagecoach Line, is now a hub for several tasting rooms, art galleries, boutique shops, and excellent restaurants. Everything is within walking distance, so plan to spend an afternoon taking it all in. Wineries to visit:
Santa Maria Valley Wine Trail – The Santa Maria Valley has one of the coolest climates due to the unusual east/west orientation of the valley (and the reason the aforementioned movie is called Sideways). Enjoy a tasting at some of the many heritage vineyards, and don’t forget to stop for a taste of the world-renowned Santa Maria style Barbecue – Jocko’s is a great option (make a reservation and be prepared to wait anyway. It’s worth it.) Wineries to visit:
Santa Ynez Wine Trail – Here you’ll find both vineyards and horse ranches on this picturesque trail. You can taste in the town of Santa Ynez itself, or grab a picnic from one of the local delis and head out to one of the estate wineries along the country roads. Wineries to visit:
Solvang – AKA the “Danish Capital of America.” This quirky 100-year-old village has shops, hotels, bakeries, and restaurants. It also has several tasting rooms. Don’t sleep on their trademark aebleskivers – we think they pair especially well with mimosas. Wineries to visit:
Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay rule the roost in this cool climate appellation, but you will also find other interesting wines there. Head west on Santa Rosa Road from the 101 towards Lompoc, then make the return trip to Buellton on Highway 246. Wineries to visit:
Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail – The city of Santa Barbara has several eclectic wineries and tasting rooms to choose from, many of which are located in the “Funk Zone.” in the past few years, this artsy downtown area has seen an uptick of wineries, breweries, and distilleries, as well as chef-driven restaurants. The nearby historic El Paseo also offers more wine tasting opportunities along with shopping, dining, art galleries, farmers’ market, and theaters. We recommend starting or finishing your tour of Santa Barbara County wines with at least one night in the beautiful American Riviera. Wineries to visit:
Where to Eat in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is an ideal foodie destination where you’ll find everything from taco stands to fine dining. Some of our favorite Santa Barbara restaurants that boast an excellent collection of local and California wines include:
Santa Ynez Valley Area Restaurants
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a huge tourist destination, and unfortunately for the budget traveler, the prices reflect that. What you will find are a good number of boutique and luxury hotels with amenities to match. Many have excellent restaurants and bars on-site offering a great selection of California wines.
Santa Ynez Valley Inns