Updated May 2022. Forbes magazine has called Santa Barbara “the most exciting wine destination in the U.S.” We agree! The valley and hillside wineries cover a large territory, so here is a quick guide on how to explore wine country. This is certainly more than a one-day experience, so book several days to immerse yourself in the full experience! If you want a little help, you can book a Santa Ynez tour that will pick you up right at the Eagle Inn!
To help you decide how you want to tackle Santa Barbara wine country, let’s talk a little about geography.
Santa Barbara Wine Country Geography & AVA’s
Santa Barbara is unique in that it has the longest east-west valleys on the western Pacific coast (Alaska – South America), hence the sideways designation as made famous in the 2004 film. These valleys are sandwiched in between two mountain ranges so that elevations range from 200 feet to 3400 feet. The east/west nature of the valleys creates a funnel so the cool winds of the Pacific push through the valleys keeping them cooler than the surrounding area. That is why the region is known for growing grapes that flourish in a cooler climate. The grapes ripen without developing excessive sugar, which gives them an elegant and special taste.
Santa Barbara’s wine country has 7 AVA’s (American Viticultural Area). For wine geeks, this means that there are seven areas that have been designated by the federal government to have specific climate or geographic features that differentiate them from a surrounding area. In Santa Barbara, they are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Alisos Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon.
The most commonly planted grapes in Santa Barbara wine country are:
- Chardonnay (approximately 7500 acres)
- Pinot Noir (approximately 5500 acres)
- Syrah (approximately 1900 acres)
- Sauvignon Blanc (approximately 800 acres)
Certain regions inland are warm enough to ripen Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Viognier). So where should you travel?
Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria has some of the oldest vines planted in the area, the longest growing season (about 125 days), and the coolest temperatures (average 64 degrees). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are at home here. The Chardonnay flavors to look for are lemon zest, nectarine, and pear. Pinot Noirs are aromatic (spices, roses, violets) with savory undertones. Wineries to consider:
Cambria Estate Winery, 5475 Chardonnay Lane, Santa Maria. Phone 805-938-7318
Owned and led by women, this winery has 1600 acres of sustainably farmed grapes. Cambria has award-winning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Presqu’ile Winery, 5391 Presqu’ile Drive, Santa Maria. Phone 805-937-8110
Housed in a stunning mid-century modern building, this family winery has changed the caliber of Chardonnay in the valley. They also have Pinot Noir, and sparkling wine.
Riverbench, 6020 Foxen Canyon Rd, Santa Maria. Phone 805-937-8340
Although Riverbench began producing its own wines in 2006, it has been growing and selling grapes since 1973. Look for highly rated Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines.
Here is a full list of wineries located in Santa Maria Valley.
Santa Ynez Valley
Santa Ynez is the largest AVA with over 77,000 acres planted in a 30-mile span from east to west with over 30 different varietals. If you travel from west to east, you will find some distinct climates–first, chilly and foggy (good for Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay), then dry and warm (better for Zinfandel and both Bordeaux and Rhone blends). When you visit, make sure you stop by Solvang, a town with Danish architecture, windmills, and great pastries! A few wineries to consider:
Brander Vineyard, 2401 N Refugio Rd, Santa Ynez. Phone 805-688-2455
With a century-old tradition of winemaking, Brander has a reputation as one of the best wineries in the country. They are best known for Sauvignon Blanc.
Sunstone Winery, 125 Refugio Rd, Santa Ynez. Phone 805-688-9463
Sunstone is an organic winery with a beautiful French-style courtyard. They have over 20 different wines, including a Bordeaux blend and a Brut Rose.
Here is a list of wineries in Santa Ynez Valley.
Sta Rita Hills
The Sta Rita Hills (pronounced Santa Rita, but spelled this way because of a dispute with a similarly named area in Chile) has a cooler climate due to its proximity to the Pacific. One of the smaller AVA’s it is home to 59 wineries planting predominantly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and 18 other cooler climate grapes. Many of the wineries have tasting rooms in the fun town of Lompoc (the area is known as the Wine Ghetto). A few wineries:
Babcock Winery, 5175 Hwy 246, Lompoc. Phone: 805-736-1455
Winner of local awards, the winery has big time vintage vibes with vinyl records and other cool finds. Enjoy Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Strange Family Vineyards 1062 Drum Canyon Rd, Lompoc Phone: 310-750-1722
A newer organic vineyard specializing in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.
Here is a more complete listing.
Ballard Canyon is in the middle of the greater Santa Ynez appellation and is a small area of only about 550 acres. There is 50% of Syrah planted and 30% of the remainder is planted with Rhone-type varietals like Grenache, Viognier, and Roussane.
Larner Vineyards, 955 Ballard Canyon Rd, Solvang. Phone 805-688-8148 (tours only); tastings 2900 Grand Ave, Los Olivos 805-688-8148
Small producer of Syrah and Bordeaux blends
Happy Canyon is on the far eastern border of the Santa Ynez Valley. This area is unique with hot daytime temperatures and soil that rates high in magnesium. Grapes grown in the area are Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. In addition, they grow smaller amounts of Grenache and Syrah.
Alisos is one of the new AVA appellations and is located in a sandy canyon cooled by Pacific winds. Currently, there are 240 acres of grapes planted, primarily Syrah, Grenache, and other Rhone grapes.
Dovecote Estate Winery 9229 Alisos Canyon Rd, Los Alamos. Phone: 805-570-0443; reservation required
This is a small vineyard that handpicks and presses wines in the European style. Grenache Blanc and Syrah are exceptional.
Los Olivos District
Los Olivos is the newest sub-appellations, located between Happy Canyon and Solvang. There are 1100 acres planted in 47 vineyards concentrating on Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Rhone varietals.
Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, 2860 Foxen Canyon Rd, Los Olivos Phone: 805-688-1545
This is a large producer with an emphasis on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.
Let’s Make it Easy
This is a lot of wine and a lot of wine information! If you are a wine novice and find this a bit overwhelming, there are a couple of ways to approach this and make it a bit easier.
- Download the map for the Urban Wine Trail, and begin your walk from your room at the Eagle Inn. The tasting rooms will give you a great idea of the types of Santa Barbara wines that you enjoy. Then, plan a winery trip from there (or go back for more wine tastings within walking distance).
- Take a tour—that way the driving and the deciding have been made. There are a number of different tour operators; we are happy to help if you need some guidance.
In any case, Santa Barbara wine is fantastic, no matter how you decide to explore wine country; with food or as an adventure. Make sure you leave yourself enough time on your getaway to enjoy many of the things that make us the American Riviera! Let us help you plan your stay!