If you are looking for the best wine-based vacation within driving distance of Tucson few can argue that Santa Barbara County, California shouldn’t be at the very top of your list. A 10-hour drive from SaddleBrooke, the City of Santa Barbara has been called America’s Riviera. Residing on California’s central coast, Santa Barbara is known for its sophistication, scenic beauty, world class restaurants and most importantly, surrounding wine region.
Currently there are just over 21,000 acres of wine grapes planted in Santa Barbara County and 200+ wineries that are distributed across six distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The most commonly planted grapes in the county are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, although a broad diversity of other varietals are found here as well. What makes Santa Barbara County a superior wine grape growing area is the relatively cool climate; low rainfall; optimal & varied soil types and, transverse (west to east) valleys, which draws Pacific ocean breezes and fog into the growing areas at night. Enthusiasts should have no difficulty finding their wine preference, from the cool climate, elegant and aromatically intense Chardonnay & Pinot Noir of the Santa Maria AVA in the north, to the ripe, dense & spicy Syrah from the eastern-most AVA: Happy Canyon.
Travelers will find a broad variety of lodgings from budget friendly motels, to stunning rental homes that will accommodate small groups. Excellent restaurants can be found throughout the County and if looking for activities beyond wine exploration, the City of Santa Barbara, as well as the charming communities of Solvang and Los Olivos, offers plenty of shopping, art galleries, golf and other activities.
I recently visited the area and recommend the following wineries & tasting rooms that provide both a diversity of wine styles and a sense of the evolution of this industry in Santa Barbara County:
Zaca Mesa, located on Foxen Canyon Rd. in Los Olivos, has an impressive history with a long lineage of famous winemakers that developed their skills here. Former winemakers include such greats as Ken Brown (Byron & Ken Brown Wines), Bob Lindquist (Qupe) and Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat). Zaca was the first winery in the area to experiment with Rhone varietals. They currently have approx. 150 acres under vine and some of their wines can be purchased locally. Must-try tastings include their Viognier, “Z 3” reserve blend and Mesa Reserve Syrah. The grounds of the winery are beautifully maintained and a good spot for a picnic.
Another winery with a Rhone focus a just a short distance down the road from Zaca Mesa is Andrew Murray Vineyards. Murray, the owner and senior winemakers spent time working in both France and Australia, has instituted a very hands on culture among his staff and a focus on continuously improving his product line. His new world style Watch Hill Syrah is rich, complex and has a great finish. The Esperance GSM is a Rhone blend well worth sampling.
Two wine tasting rooms in Buellton that merit your attention are:
Ken Brown Wines – Brown, a senior statesman in Santa Barbara County with over 40 harvests under his belt, is focused on the crafting of small lot Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The majority of his 3,000 case production is sold directly to consumer. All his Pinot is excellent, but I was especially drawn to his Rita’s Crown, which was incredibly bright, possessing great red fruit flavors and crisp minerality.
The Tasting Room of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyard, located nearby on Industrial Way is a delightful space, complete with an olive tree growing in the center of the room. Alma Rosa, founded in 2005 by Richard and Thekla Sanford, is another stop for fans of Pinot Noir, but they also produce a broad variety of white wines as well. My favorite was their La Encantada Pinot Noir, an elegant, light-bodied wine which is incredibly floral on the nose. While you are visiting don’t miss the chance to have lunch next door at a local favorite: Industrial Eats.
Just up the road from Buellton, Los Olivos has a quaint downtown with a number of restaurants and tasting rooms. The tasting rooms of Tensley Wines and Stolpman Vineyards are worth a visit.
Downtown Santa Barbara has a number of tasting rooms, but from my perspective the best is Au Bon Climat. Founded in 1982 by Jim Clendenen and Adam Tolmach, ‘ABC’ focuses on Burgundian style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with much of their fruit sourced from the Santa Maria Valley. His ‘Isabelle’ and ‘Runway Vineyard’ Pinot Noirs are stunning and have the structure to age gracefully for years to come. The winery also produces wine under the ‘Clendenen Family Vineyards’ label; small lot production wines with a wider spectrum of varietals and styles.
These are just a few of the many high quality tasting opportunities that Santa Barbara County offers. The Santa Barbara Vintners Association website: sbcountywines.com is a great resource to begin planning your trip. More about Santa Barbara County in next month’s issue.
Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England and is available to answer your wine questions at email@example.com