Known as “The American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is a vibrant city with the ease of California cool. This dreamy beach destination with red-tile roofs and Spanish-inspired architecture offers nearly 200 local wineries that produce some of the best wines in the world.
Santa Barbara’s topography creates a unique place to grow wine because of how its valleys and mountains follow the coast, funneling cool air from west to east creating a lot of microclimates. The varied terrain is exceptional for growing varietals, actually more than 50 different varieties are grown here.
The Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains’ cool temperatures positively affect the grapes’ natural growth and taste, as well. There are over 27,000 acres of grapes planted in Santa Barbara County, which is half the size of Napa. The three top varieties in Santa Barbara County are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
A great place to begin your exploration of Santa Barbara’s vineyard countryside is in the Funk Zone. Just a few hours from LA, you can ride Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner north and end up in the heart of Santa Barbara. A quick walk from the train, the Funk Zone is a lively, eclectic neighborhood that’s overflowing with wine-tasting rooms, artists’ studios, street art, craft breweries, boutiques, surfboard shops and eateries. The neighborhood of 12 square blocks east of State Street is perfect for a leisurely afternoon of exploring, meandering and most importantly, sipping wine.
Start your wine sips early with brunch at the centrally located Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, with over 400 selections of wine. Bruch menu items to rave about include: the fried chicken with cheddar-jalapeno biscuit and sausage gravy plus an over easy egg, gruyere waffles and house-made ricotta and mixed berry jam on brioche toast.
You can also sip vino at their tasting bar with shared plates. We recommend the Pinot Noir from Whitcraft Winery.
Additionally, check out The Lark, Loquita and The Lucky Penny as other lunch alternatives — all in close proximity to the Funk Zone. The Lark’s indoor-outdoor space offers a shared dining experience using seasonal ingredients from the central coast.
The Lark is the name of an all-Pullman supper club train that used to stop in Santa Barbara on its way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The decor alone will dazzle you with one building covered in pennies, carefully-crafted industrial style designs and vintage pieces like an antique stove. Its 100-year old Catholic confessional and its sunny, open air rooms are fascinating. Don’t miss the booths; they are designed to feel like a vintage train car.
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Loquita offers tantalizing, unusual Spanish-style tapas to delight your taste buds. Every Sunday you’ll find an a la carte menu for brunch and live flamenco dancing. Don’t miss the bright green gazpacho Bloody Mary, Sangria, paella and, of course, their Santa Barbara and Spanish wines. Sit at the bar, people watch, make new friends or dine outside. The $10 Frose (rose, strawberry, lemon, tarragon) or frozen Sunflower (orange flower water, white cranberry, orange juice, ginger) sound like the perfect weekend, too.
Walk over to Riverbench Santa Barbara Tasting Room to sip a sparkly rose. Near Riverbench, the Santa Barbara Winery tasting room awaits where you can enjoy the 2013 Grenache from Lafond Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. Next up on your vino tour should be The Valley Project, also close by. Marvel at the hand drawn topography mural that explains the viticulture areas of Santa Barbara while sipping a 2014 Kunin Chenin Blanc “Jurassic Park” from the Santa Ynez Valley. This casual, dog-and-kid-friendly area is close to busy State Street where you can browse more shops and restaurants after a few tastes.
Explore the Presidio neighborhood of El Paseo. A few blocks in the heart of Santa Barbara, El Paseo is centered on the historical site of the last of the Spanish fortresses, or presidios, to be built in California. Don’t miss the historic El Paseo courtyard filled with eight local wine tasting rooms. They are all members of the Urban Wine Trail made up of 29 wineries. Novices and aficionados together can taste wines of many different styles from the county’s best vineyards.
El Paseo began with three wineries in 2012 and now the Wine Collection consists of Au Bon Climat (Say Yes to the 2013 Pinot Noir from Clendenen Family Vineyards in Santa Maria), Grassini Family Vineyards (Hmm 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon), Happy Canyon Vineyard (polo-inspired decor and ask for the 2010 Piocho Reserve), Jamie Slone Wines (2012 Super Tuscan from Santa Ynez), Margerum Wine Company (don’t miss the Riviera BROse), and MWC32. We learned Sauvignon Blanc should be tasted from Happy Canyon due to its unique growing area. The tasting rooms are open every day from 12 – 6 pm with last tastings at 5:30. Learn more here.
…and that’s not all! Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of all things Santa Barbara wine!
Feature Image via Madison Holmlund