Stunning Santa Barbara Wine Country

This region has been planted to commercial grapevines since the 1960s and has transformed into one of the top wine destinations in California.

Published: 6/17/2014

It’s been 10 years since the movie Sideways put Santa Barbara County on the wine map. This region has been planted to commercial grapevines since the 1960s and has transformed into one of the top wine destinations in California, offering an incredible diversity of wines, growing regions, and quintessential Central Coast towns. Here, wine country is packed with lazy roads that undulate into flat valleys and ascend to hilltops where the views of open land, roaming cattle, quail and turkey vultures, verdant vineyards, mature oak trees, and blue skies beckon. Santa Barbara wine country is all things for all people.

From the fog-laden, ocean-adjacent Santa Rita Hills for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to the hot and dry Happy Canyon area for Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon, to the flatlands of Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley, the breadth of wine made here is impressive. Part of the beauty of visiting Santa Barbara wine country is that the area is still agriculturally driven and retains its farming history, and it has always been this way. Mission Santa Barbara established a vineyard and winery in the 1830s. Around 1820, San Antonio Winery was built in what is now Goleta. The Packard Winery was constructed in 1865 near downtown Santa Barbara, and in the late 1890s, grapes were being turned into wine on Santa Cruz Island. Today, there are 65 different varieties of grapes planted throughout the county on 21,000 acres. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties and the wine industry in Santa Barbara County is thriving.

“Every wine made locally inspires all of us to greatness,” says Winemaker Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard & Winery in the new Ballard Canyon AVA. There is a camaraderie of the various regions and winemakers that is infectious. For example, the Santa Rita Hills—the de facto place for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—includes heavy hitters like Foley Estates & Winery, Clos Pepe Estate, Sea Smoke, and Sanford Winery. Winemaker Leslie Mead Renaud applies her deft touch to the wines of Foley and Lincourt with sustainable farming techniques, block harvesting, small-lot vinifications, and the judicious use of French oak barrels. “Since we control both the farming and the winemaking, we are able to pick each vineyard block separately and keep them separate throughout the entire winemaking process,” she says. Although this sounds like the modus operandi of a larger winery, it’s actually true of the smaller, under-the-radar wineries as well. “Our east–west valleys and maritime influences stronger than any other coastal throat on the Pacific Coast makes for long hang times,” says Cloe Pepe Winemaker Wes Hagen. “The poor sandy soil creates tiny berries and thicker skins due to the calcium content of the seabed soils and the wines tend to be very dark, masculine, and brooding.”

But brooding doesn’t define the other diverse tasting regions, like the exciting Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, with players like Westerly Wines, Grassini Family Vineyards and Winery, Dierberg Vineyard, and a small host of others who are turning out amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Theatrical Solvang is home to over 15 tasting rooms, including Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard, Presidio Winery, and Lions Peak Vineyards. Although this quaint town sees a lot of visitors, the tasting rooms do a brisk business, impressing everyone with the quality of wines made here. That’s also true of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, an industrial section of this former temperance community, dotted with small boutique tasting rooms like Flying Goat Cellars and Palmina, among nearly 20 others. Nearby Los Olivos, with its staggering 47 tasting rooms and Western looks, has become a hotbed of wine activity for new wine drinkers to serious collectors looking to stock their cellars. North of Los Olivos, the Foxen Wine Trail boasts winery stalwarts Fess Parker, Firestone, and Zaca Mesa, and then further north, Santa Maria Valley unfolds with even more great finds like Cambria and Riverbench. The area’s bountiful foods and restaurants complement the wines with lots of local produce. But visitors’ tastes are shifting, and the word is that they are looking for new wines, different grape varieties, and authentic experiences.

So might “safe” wines like Chardonnay and Cabernet be losing ground to hipper, lesser known but spunky wines made here, like Grüner Veltliner and Albariño? “I wouldn’t say Chard and Cab are losing their appeal, but people are more willing to be adventurous,” says Santa Barbara–based Sommelier Brian McClintic, star of the film SOMM. “Trends come and go and I think pendulums will cease to swing widely in one direction with a specific style or grape.” And this is where Santa Barbara County excels: The sheer diversity means that whatever your tastes or preferences, you’ll find a wine just for you.

Santa Barbara resident Michael Cervin is a professional wine judge and a freelance contributor to many major wine publications. See more at

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2014 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.


2010 Buttonwood Farm & Winery Cabernet Franc

2010 Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah

2012 Firestone Vineyard Riesling

2010 Foley Chardonnay, Barrel Select Pinot

2011 Westerly Happy Canyon Sauvignon Blanc