One of my favorite wine regions in the United States and in California is Santa Barbara. The city center is small and welcoming, just the right place for a weekend wine tasting trip. You’ll enjoy wandering from winery to winery, discovering little gems hidden in cute shopping centers, and sitting in sun-filled tasting rooms sipping wine.
When you want to head outside of town, there are plenty more Santa Barbara wineries to discover in the surrounding countryside. Due to the various micro-climates, Santa Barbara has one of the most diverse wine regions in the world.
There are two mountain ranges (Santa Ynes and San Rafael) between which the Santa Barbara valley is nestled, creating both an ocean-cooled and mountain-terrain climate where grapes experience vastly different growing conditions.
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Santa Barbara Wine Tasting
There are currently seven recognized AVAs in the Santa Barbara wine region and you’ll find quite a variety of different wines from each. The cool, moderate climate produces excellent Pinot Noirs, while the rolling hills produce varietals like Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Grenache.
It’s worth your time to visit as many of the different AVAs in Santa Barbara. They are: Santa Maria Valley, the second oldest AVA; Santa Ynez Valley, which is broken down into four sub-AVAs: Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon. Alisos Canyon is the newest AVA, in Los Alamos.
How to Get to Santa Barbara Wine Country
Santa Barbara is located 90 miles north of Los Angeles, which equates to a less-than-two-hour drive, but if you’re coming from the city there are other, more relaxing ways to reach the area. My favorite is Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs up and down the coast and drops you off directly in the center of downtown Santa Barbara, called the Funk Zone. It’s a comfortable, fast and convenient way to go.
If you’re flying in, I would recommend the Burbank airport for domestic flights when possible, since it’s closer to Santa Barbara, avoids quite a bit of traffic and is a smaller, more convenient airport than LAX.
If you want to get around to the various AVAs and experience the countryside, not just the city, a car would be advisable, but there are plenty of great Santa Barbara tasting rooms and things to keep you busy in the town center.
Wine Trails & Wineries in Santa Barbara
Now let’s get down to the all-important question of where to go wine tasting in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara wine region spans 50 miles, so be prepared with a plan before setting out in the car for a day of tasting.
Check out the wine routes suggested by Santa Barbara Vintners. They include maps, wineries to stop at and will keep you within range of what’s doable in a day. They currently feature 9 different wine trails in the region. Each route can take a full day or more to explore. The trails include:
- Foxen Canyon
- Los Olivos
- Santa Barbara Urban Trail
- Santa Maria Valley
- Santa Ynez
- Solvang Wine Walk
- Santa Rita Hills
Our favorite Santa Barbara wine tasting areas are the downtown area’s Urban Trail and the Foxen County wineries. These two areas tick all the boxes. You’ll get a feel for the town of Santa Barbara, where many of the top wineries have tasting rooms, and you’ll get a chance to drive around the countryside and see the vineyards and wineries that are spread throughout the region to the northwest of Santa Barbara.
Be prepared for the unique expressions of the terroir and specific vineyard climate that makes Santa Barbara such a diverse growing region.
Santa Barbara Urban Trail
In the downtown area, there are dozens of Santa Barbara tasting rooms to visit on foot, which is always a good idea when there’s drinking involved. Downtown you’ll find a collective of tasting rooms in an area called El Paseo.
We stumbled upon this enclave and were delighted at the variety of wineries. This is where you’ll find Happy Canyon, Jamie Slone and Grassini.
In the Funk Zone, you’ll find tasting rooms like Riverbench and Santa Barbara Winery — both have some terrific Pinot Noirs to try — and The Valley Project, a modern tasting room with an incredible map of the region displayed on their back wall. It’s a must for newbies to get the lay of the land.
Foxen Canyon Wine Trail
I’m always a big fan of Highway 101. It’s one of the best drives in the United States, and there are a handful of wineries to stop at along the route from Santa Maria south to Los Alamos. However, the majority of the wineries in this area are located along Foxen Canyon Road.
One of our favorite wineries in the Foxen Canyon area (which also has a tasting room downtown) is Riverbench. They have some of the best Pinot Noir in the area, in my opinion. You’ll also find the Foxen Canyon Winery in this area.
If you like spicy wines, you’ll want to make a stop at Cambria Winery. Their coastal terroir and old vines lend a unique spiciness to the wine that livens up their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If you’re looking for a good place to stop for a picnic, Fess Parker has a lovely outdoor area. They also have a tour and tasting experience.
Santa Barbara Wine Tours
If you don’t want to drive yourself around to the outlying wineries, try one of the Santa Barbara wine tasting tours. You can join a walking tour, a private day tour, or even go on a tour that includes a picnic lunch. Book your tour here. (These are affiliate links. If you book with these links we’ll receive a small commission, at no extra charge to you):
- Santa Barbara Wine Country Tour: This tour stops at a mix of family-owned vineyards and small-production tasting rooms – 4 in total – along with a picnic lunch in the Santa Ynez valley.
- Authentic and Boutique Santa Barbara Wine Tour Experience: this is a private tour that you can customize to your desires and it includes a picnic lunch at one of the wineries.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Be prepared for the high prices in Santa Barbara, even for the most basic hotel stay (seriously, even Motel 6 is over $200). The proximity to the beach and the perfect weather draws crowds, and prices tend to stay high year round.
For a truly luxury experience, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore exudes Santa Barbara charm, with its Spanish-colonial architecture right on the ocean. The Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort and Brisas Del Mar are both right on the beach and very nice.
If you want to get a little closer to the vineyards, there’s a Holiday Inn Express in Solvang or the Santa Ynez Marriott.
- Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay on Expedia
- Brisas Del Mar ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- Santa Ynez Marriott ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay on Expedia
Where to Eat in Santa Barbara
In downtown Santa Barbara, there are endless choices for where to eat. Just walking along the main street introduces dozens of great casual choices you can stop off at whenever you get hungry.
For a more formal affair – tasting menu and pairings included – make a reservation at Bouchon. In the heart of the Funk Zone, you’ll find The Lark with an outdoor space and a menu that will make choosing what to eat very difficult.
Near the El Paseo wine area, you’ll find The Black Sheep, an unassuming little gem with impressive small plates to share. There are a couple of breweries that serve a good casual meal: The Cruisery and The Brewhouse.
I also love the Santa Barbara Public Market for either a quick bite on the go or a big bowl of ramen from Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar.
Have you been to any Santa Barbara wineries? Tell us what you love about it and where you’ve been for wine tasting.
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