Santa Barbara County may be rightly famous for its reliably mild weather and sun-splashed scenery but these enviable assets have also made it a prized destination for wine lovers. Geography tells the story.
Several million years ago, the mountains that rose along the Pacific Coast of North America mostly ran from north to south. But here in what’s now Santa Barbara County, the nascent peaks decided to veer off course and sprinted the opposite direction: east to west.
This extraordinary geographic anomaly created a protected south-facing pocket of paradise, tucked between soaring peaks and offshore islands, where visitors and residents revel in a balmy climate amid stunning natural scenery.
It also gave birth to an exceptionally diverse grape-growing region that lured winemaking pioneers starting in the 1960s. The towering peaks and sloping hillsides funnel cool winds and fog nearly 40 miles from the ocean through river valleys. The result? Myriad microclimates and a superior environment for premium wine grape cultivation.
Santa Barbara County eventually earned an international reputation for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Fast-forward to 2021, when Wine Enthusiast lauded Santa Barbara County as the world’s Wine Region of the Year.
No matter what varietal your palate prefers, you’ll probably find it here. Santa Barbara County vineyards produce more than 70 varietals, primarily Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet, in seven approved AVAs (American Viticulture Areas). More than 275 wineries speckle the landscape in rural northern Santa Barbara County and line the streets of cities, towns, and villages.
How to Choose With so many choices, what’s a wine lover to do? Start with a virtual visit to Santa Barbara Vintners, where you’ll find loads of info, including trails, maps, tours, and brief winery descriptions with links to websites.
Regional wineries range from rustic cottages to palatial manors. In recent years, the area has become known for its sustainable farming methods and holds a plethora of biodynamic, organic, and regenerative vineyards.
Short on time? Head to the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail, with more than 30 wine-tasting rooms in six neighborhoods on the South Coast. Many wineries have two tasting locations: downtown Santa Barbara and another close to north county vineyards.
Want someone else to do the driving? Check out these wine tour companies.
You can also maximize your time by focusing on tasting-room hubs. More than 40 tasting rooms line several walkable blocks in historic Los Olivos, a throw-back pioneer town about a 40-minute drive from The Leta Hotel.
Standouts include Coqueliquot, Larner, Future Perfect, Holus Bolus, and Blair Fox Cellars. Wineries also cluster in Lompoc, about a 50-minute drive from Goleta in wine country’s far western edge in the Santa Rita Hills.
Those in downtown Santa Barbara, just a 12-minute drive from The Leta Hotel, are a quick and popular option to try new regional wines, such as Melville, Santa Barbara Winery, Riverbench, and The Valley Project.
Select vintners will offer tastings on Friday evenings at The Leta Hotel from May through the summer. Past wineries have included Grassini, Fess Parker, SAMsARA, Carr, and Santa Barbara Winery. In addition, The Leta Restaurant serves several Santa Barbara County wines, including J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc, Jackson Estate Chardonnay, Point & Line Sauvignon Blanc, Carr Pinot Gris, Nielson by Byron Pinot Noir, Zaca Mesa ‘Z’ cuvée, Margerum M5 Rhône blend, and Refugio Ranch Barbareño. The VIP amenity wine is a Pinot Noir that comes from the oldest winery in the region, Santa Barbara Winery.
Wineries to Visit Here are a few top picks to inspire your adventures and give you a small taste of the amazing depth and breadth of Santa Barbara County wine country. Be sure to check hours and whether reservations are required or recommended.
Alma Rosa In 2005 pioneering winemaker Richard Sanford and his wife Thekla severed ties with their namesake winery and launched a new venture at their El Jabali vineyard estate in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation: eco-friendly Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyard. The Sanfords no longer own the winery and vineyard, but still play important roles as consultants and hosts. Winemaker Samra Morris, who hails from Bosnia, crafts small lots of single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Rhône varietals, and sparkling wines. Sample them in a stunning new tasting room with indoor/outdoor seating in downtown Solvang, a 40-minute drive from Goleta. Try to book a private tasting at the historic ranch house on the 628-acre estate, where the Sanfords planted the region’s first certified organic grapes in 1983. You can also sign up for vineyard hike-and-taste experiences.
Babcock Bryan Babcock has made wines since the early 1980s and helped establish the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. He’s also widely considered one of the best winemakers in the county and has won numerous awards for estate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other wines. The family-run enterprise sits on Highway 246 near Lompoc on the western edge of wine country. This is a don’t-miss experience, not only because you’ll taste top-notch wines, but also amble around the hip and quirky tasting complex, which includes a huge, repurposed warehouse filled with an eclectic array of vintage furnishings, clothing, décor, and collectibles. Babcock continues to pioneer new techniques, most recently in regenerative farming.
Folded Hills Descendants of the famous Anheuser-Busch empire founders run this small winery, ranch, and farmstead in a magical country setting right off Highway 101, 30 minutes from The Leta Hotel. Wine grapes grow alongside 18 acres of organic row crops, fruit orchards, and a collection of animals that range from Budweiser Clydesdales, sheep, and goats to a camel and a zebra. The winery specializes in Rhône varietals and pours tastes in a contemporary space amid oaks and redwoods at the ranch, and in an upscale tasting room in Montecito, close to downtown Santa Barbara.
Gainey Vineyard The fourth generation of the Gainey family currently runs the vast Gainey Ranch, which encompasses nearly 2,000 acres of farmland and vineyard estates. The Home Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley produces Bordeaux varietals, while a property in the cooler Santa Rita Hills vineyard focuses on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Try the various vintages at the Spanish-style hacienda or outdoors on the expansive lawn or arbor-shaded veranda — a fantastic spot for a picnic.
Buttonwood Winery & Vineyard Sip wine and picnic amid orchards, gardens, and groves of native buttonwood trees (aka sycamores) at this 106-acre working farm-turned-winery on Alamo Pintado Road, a five-mile country road that connects Solvang and Los Olivos. Buttonwood grows sustainably farmed Bordeaux and Rhône-style grapes in its 39-acre vineyard, and longtime winemaker Karen Steinwachs has transformed them into quality wines since 2007. Buttonwood’s flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernets.
Zaca Mesa The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, which begins in Los Olivos, wends its way for 20 miles through some of California’s most scenic countryside. Chance Corbin, The Leta Hotel’s food and beverage general manager, says “Foxen Canyon is really the main trail in wine country. I always recommend it as it’s really popular with guests.” Zaca Mesa — a star along the trail — is a 1,752-acre property on a wild and rugged site the native Chumash called zaca, or “restful place.” The family-owned and -operated winery, established in 1973, specializes in handcrafted, single-vineyard Rhône-style estate-grown wines. In 1978 Zaca Mesa planted the first Syrah in Santa Barbara County; this vineyard block still produces low-yield grapes with intense flavor for the winery’s coveted Black Bear Syrah.