When talking California wines, many begin north of San Francisco, home to Napa Valley, Sonoma, and numerous small towns that feature oodles of fabulous vineyards. About 350 miles south, however, is Santa Barbara, located on the Pacific Ocean, with the Santa Ynez Mountains as its backdrop. Because it is north of an east-west coastline, there is a wind tunnel-like jet stream that creates various microclimates that are perfect for grape growing, including some that are similar to the French Mediterranean, thus earning Santa Barbara the nickname of the “American Riviera.”
In addition to being a popular tourist destination, the region boasts more than 50 varieties of grapes that thrive there, contributing to some of the finest wines in the country. Santa Barbara County is home to about 200 wineries, and with so many from which to choose, it’s all but impossible to say which are the best to tour, so we calculated our rankings by compiling top 10 lists from seven different reputable, local sources. Here are the results:
Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard
Actor Fess Parker bought this 700-acre ranch in the rolling hills of Foxen Canyon in 1988 and began the vineyard a year later. “The winery sits amongst all this beauty. There are large lawns and beautiful patios where you can sip wine and enjoy your surroundings,” says californiawineryadvisor.com. “Fess Parker is leading the way in Santa Barbara with unique wine tasting experiences.” Today the winery produces award-winning, small-lot wines made from high-quality Rhône and Burgundian varietals and was named in the top 10 by five of our seven sources.
Hidden in the Central Coast hills, on a rare limestone outcropping that is unobstructed from the ocean winds, Stolpman Vineyards resides on one of the most unique viticultural sites on earth, ideally suited to grow syrah and roussanne grapes. The owners believe in natural, dry farming and taking care of their workers. “The tightly knit family operation [is] dedicated to making world-class wines,” says vinesse.com. “The team never rests in pushing the envelope of quality through organic dry farming and the meticulous work of Stolpman’s vineyard crew, ‘la cuadrilla.’”
Saarloos and Sons
This family operation started small and grew slowly, always with producing a great grape as its focus. Those grapes now produce great wines—wines that are not cheap but are worth the price. “This winery tasting room needs to be on any top 10 list because of its great design,” says californiawineryadvisor.com. “Walking into Saarloos and Sons feels like you’ve been invited over to the neighbor’s house. That’s assuming your neighbors have really cool houses and endless bottles of amazing wine.”
Foxen Vineyard and Winery
Foxen has two great tasting rooms for different wines and an engaging staff for each. “[They] produce highly coveted, sustainably farmed wines that inspire people to take very long journeys on winding roads just for a sip or two,” says 10best.com. “And then, after that first taste, many of those same people will put themselves on a waiting list to become Foxen wine club members so that they can gain access to extremely rare bottles of wine and subsequently brag about them to their friends.”
This boutique winery and vineyard is nestled among the oak-studded, rolling hills of Ballard Canyon and is known its for award-winning reds, especially pinot noir and syrah. “This beautiful, rose-bordered winery has a large outdoor picnic area,” says 10best.com. “Being on the smaller side for a vineyard [about 48 acres], Rusack crafts its wines using both estate grapes and locally sourced varietals from some of the best vineyards in the area.”
Andrew Murray Vineyards
With two tasting rooms, Andrew Murray has focused on Rhône varieties and green business practices for the last 20 years. “Andrew Murray is on a roll,” said Robert Parker Wine Advocate. “All of the wines have distinctive, individual characters and are impeccably made. In addition, they all represent killer values. If you haven’t tried the wines from here yet, now is certainly time to taste for yourself!”
Bridlewood Estate Winery
While Bridlewood can be found in grocery stores under the Gallo umbrella, the immaculate winery is a popular destination for travelers and has numerous tasting-room-only offerings—including syrahs, Rhône blends, and pinot noirs—that are phenomenal. “Visitors of the distinctive, red-tile-roofed Spanish mission-style winery, with its triple-bell tower, often opt to taste out in the courtyard beside the fountain,” says foodandwine.com, “and to take advantage of the educational wine and food pairing programs.”
Sunstone Vineyards & Winery
The oldest continuously organically grown vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Sunstone has been honored many times as “Santa Barbara’s favorite red wine” and the “best Santa Ynez Valley tasting room” by Santa Barbara Independent reader polls. “There is a distinctly old-world vibe at Sunstone,” says californiawineryadvisor.com. “This extends from their winery grounds and buildings to their wines. Sunstone features a wide range of varietals for you to choose from. This makes it fun for groups with varying tastes.”
In 1962, the Gainey family purchased 1,800 acres of farmland, and in 1984 they opened the winery, producing small quantities of high-quality, Spanish-style wine. “The winery’s Spanish-style tasting room offers several ways to sample the all-estate production,” says foodandwine.com, “including barrel tastings ($15) and special weekend tastings at the old farmstead with a Jeep-ride vineyard tour ($15).”
Au Bon Climat Winery
Au Bon Climat has been creating internationally acclaimed chardonnays and pinot noirs since 1982, and today it has more than 70 offerings. “For 35 years, Jim Clendenen’s pioneering Santa Barbara County winery has been producing wines that set the standard for the region, and for California in general,” says thedailymeal.com. “He makes memorable wines with skill, wit, and, above all, remarkable consistency.” While the winery is only open to the public a few select times a year, it has a wonderful tasting room downtown.
Tips from the locals
- Plan ahead and check tasting room hours. Your two favorite wineries may be several hours apart, so either choose options that are close together or plan for driving times.
- Please drive carefully and courteously. A designated driver is encouraged, or consider a transportation service or tour guide.
- Gas up before you head out to the country. It may be a long distance between service stations.
- You may want to bring a picnic lunch on your wine tasting adventure. Wineries do not generally serve food, but many have beautiful picnic areas.
Courtesy of Santa Barbara Vintners, sbcountywines.com