In 2004, the movie Sideways brought notoriety to Santa Barbara county wine country, but locals and those in the know have been drinking the grape juice from the area for decades. The title of the movie refers to the unique traverse geography of the area – the valleys run east to west instead of north to south. There are two mountain ranges, the coastal Santa Ynez Mountains and the more interior San Rafael range. This geographic anomaly creates many micro-climates which make it possible to grow a wide variety of grapes including more delicate cool climate grapes like pinot noir.
According to acclaimed wine critic Robert Parker, Jr. ,
“No viticultural region in America has demonstrated as much progress in quality and potential for greatness as the Santa Barbara region, where the Burgundian varietals chardonnay and pinot noir are planted in its cooler climates.”
Updated: March 2017
Where can you taste these great wines?
The first tasting room in Santa Barbara opened in 1962. For forty years, Santa Barbara Winery was the only tasting room in the city. Then, in 2001, a few more more opened. Today, you can spend a day wine tasting at twenty-six tasting rooms in the city of Santa Barbara, all part of what is known as the Urban Wine Trail. Of course I don’t recommend you try to hit all twenty-six in one day!
The Urban Wine Trail and its tasting rooms are concentrated in a couple of neighborhoods extending from upper State Street to the beach, with a few additional tasting rooms in satellite neighborhoods.
It’s a good idea to pick an neighborhood and two or three tasting rooms you’d like to visit in that area. Or, if time is limited and you want to experience a little of what each neighborhood has to offer, you could start at one of the tasting rooms at El Paseo in the Presidio neighborhood, then walk to the Funk Zone where you can find about 20 more tasting rooms to choose from.
I like to plan my tastings around where I want to eat, then chose one or two tasting rooms to visit before dinner. Nothing like a wine tasting to whet your appetite.
Check the URBAN WINE TRAIL map for locations and links to the tasting rooms.
Let’s check out the Tasting Rooms of the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail
Combine history and architecture with your vino, visit the Wine Collection of El Paseo. Here, in the heart of old Santa Barbara, you can experience the Spanish Colonial revival architecture the city is known for. You’ll find restaurants, bookstores, theaters and shops, among red-tiled passageways and cool white stucco.
Check out Cartas Typepad for some really pretty images of the courtyard, plus more on the history and architecture.
There are six tasting rooms which make up the Wine Collection at El Paseo: Au Bon Climat, Magerum, Jamie Slone, Grassini, Happy Canyon and MWC32.
Au Bon Climat has a huge portfolio of wines with a focus on Rhone varietals and some unique to the area varietals like nebbiolo, a grape native to Piedmont, Italy. In fact, winemaker Jim Clemenden is known for his Italian varietals and old world style wines, as well as nicely balanced chardonnay and pinot noir from Santa Maria Valley. A really unique tasting room.
Grassini Family Vineyards produces small lots of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon from grapes grown in the Happy Canyon AVA. Try the cabernet sauvignon with some of their chocolate truffles. Last year, Grassini hosted the finale of Amazing Race, so if you’re a fan, this could be a fun tasting room to visit – aside from the good wines.
Margerum and MWC32 are owned by the Margerum brothers. Doug is the winemaker and Hugh is the artist who masterminded the Wine Collection of El Paseo bringing together all six tasting rooms. If you only go to one tasting room go to Margerum. They produce very small lots of unique wines from the best grapes sourced in Santa Barbara county. Be sure to try the M5 – a Rhone blend that is everyone’s favorite.
MWC32 is their library collection and they also offer some unique (for the area) single varietals like pinot grigio and sangiovese. The day we went, Hugh Margerum was there. We learned a lot, not only about the wine, but about the history of Santa Barbara. You can also admire some of Hugh’s original art, which hangs in the tasting room.
Jamie Slone tasting room is found in the alley called Street in Spain. Slone features Bordeaux, Burgundian, Italian, and Rhone varietals. I haven’t been here yet, but plan to on my next trip.
I paid my first visit to Jamie Slone’s tasting room and brought some friends along. Spanish tile floors, leather barrel chairs and a comfortable sofa and fireplace make this a particularly inviting and cozy tasting room. There is also seating at the bar.
Jamie Slone offered two flight options, the Classic Flight includes two red and two white wines and a rosé, $20. The Red Obsession is six wines, $25. All were a great expression of the terroir of Santa Barbara County.
Happy Canyon Vineyards produces Bordeaux style wines under the guidance of winemaker Doug Margerum. The vineyards are family owned and managed. Another tasting room for me to visit…next time.
Insider tip: You easily walk from one neighborhood to the next. Nothing is very far in this part of Santa Barbara. Other options are to hire a bike or pedicab.
The other neighborhood where you’ll find a large group of tasting rooms is the Funk Zone.
The Funk Zone has a very different vibe than El Paseo or any other neighborhood in Santa Barbara. It’s an old warehouse area turned artist gallery and studio district where you’ll find a more high energy and touristic feeling. At El Paseo you meet the locals. In the Funk Zone, you meet everyone.
Please read my recent article about the Funk Zone to find out about more than the tasting rooms and what’s happening there. The Funk Zone tasting rooms are also listed on the Urban Wine Trail map.
Only two blocks from the beach, you can walk from the Funk Zone to Stearn’s Wharf, and visit the only tasting room on the wharf, and there’s a fantastic view. Conway Family Wines is known for a more modern take on wine making. Bonus: all their grapes are sourced from biodynamic and organic vineyards and all the grapes are hand cultivated, leaving as small a footprint as possible. So you can have your wine and feel good about the environment too.
If you’re visiting southern California, take a detour to the American Riviera, Santa Barbara. Enjoy the red tile architecture, great restaurants, beautiful beaches and unique wines. There are worse ways to spend the weekend.
I’d love to hear from you. Have you been to any of these tasting rooms?
You may also like my article: Explore Santa Barbara with tips on what to do around the city that have nothing to do with wine tasting.