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Wine Geek on the Road – Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County

One of the nicest things about the world’s nicest wines is that—almost invariably—they are grown in some of the most BEAUTIFUL parts of the world. Think of Tuscany, Burgundy, New Zealand, Napa, South Africa, Greece… even Traverse City, Michigan (not exactly Queenstown, N.Z., but not too far off).

Santa Barbara vineyard with oak Canstock sm

Many, many of our friends and associates have visited Napa and/or Sonoma, some of them many times. Next on the list of visited wine destinations (other than Northern Michigan) would likely be Monterey, or the Willamette Valley, or possibly Tuscany. Rarely do we hear however, of anyone going to Eastern Washington, Mendocino (great!), Monterey, or Santa Barbara which we think is a great miss. Nothing against Napa/Sonoma of course—though the crowds and the prices seem to be ever-increasing—but these other areas have likely just as much to offer, albeit a different experience; Santa Barbara is a prime example.

A couple of hours north of Santa Monica—and a beautiful drive by the way—when you arrive in the city of Santa Barbara (and nearby Montecito), you’ll immediately know why Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Anniston, Fred Couples, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Steven Spielberg, Charles Schwab and Ronald Regan (to name a few)  all live or lived there at one point. It is absolutely beautiful, with landscape ranging from beach-y,-seaside coastal plains to rugged back-country forests and mountain ranges (the Santa Ynez and Sierra Madre ranges) which reach almost 7,000 feet. Littered with towns and villages that seem more 19th than 21st century, it’s a benign land waiting to be ‘discovered’. And if by chance you are a Cabernet lover, worry not—Santa Barbara isn’t just about Pinot Noir anymore.

Transportation: Unlike the other destinations explored here by Wine Geek, Santa Barbara is in the good ‘ol USA, so none of the challenges/time considerations one would run into going to say, Sicily for example. That said, there are no ‘direct’ flights to Santa Barbara: it’s connect thru Phoenix, San Francisco or L.A. or better—drive up from LA (but please—do it in the AM or the two hour drive will turn into four). One needs a car when visiting wine country anyway, and doubly so in spread out Santa Barbara. Of course, renting a convertible makes lots of sense—if you go from July thru October (May & June typically feature the dreaded ‘June Gloom’), but if you do rent a ragtop, be sure to pack very light—have you looked in the trunk of a convertible lately?

Hotels: though we mentioned that Napa/Sonoma are getting prohibitively expensive, this doesn’t mean that Santa Barbara is cheap—au contraire. There are numerous options for those on a budget, but for the full effect, one should take the full assault on their credit card. Some geography first: there really aren’t any wineries in Santa Barbara proper (well there are some ‘urban’ producers, but far from their fruit source). That said, if one wants to stay out among the vines, the options are limited, and it can be very quiet there at night. The opposite of quiet however is the ‘Funk Zone’ in downtown Santa Barbara; a couple of streets that are like a wine Mardi Gras—every day. It’s actually a zone that happens to have more than a dozen tasting rooms, wine bars, and funky restaurants all side by side. Park the convertible and walk back to your hotel if visiting here. Best in-town Santa Barbara hotels are: The Canary Hotel—with a way cool rooftop bar and the Harbor View Inn. Just outside of Santa Barbara are two of California’s great hotels: The Biltmore Four Seasons and the newly refurbished El Encanto. Out in wine country, it’s the Santa Ynez Inn in Santa Ynez, the luscious Fess Parker Inn in Los Olivos—a very cool town, or Hotel Corque in Solvang.  You won’t want to come back home.

Restaurants: Where there is wine (and money), there are great restaurants. Lots of great options throughout the zone. Here are some top picks: in Santa Barbara/Montecito—#1 is Julienne; a James Beard Award winner… fabulous. A close second is Bouchon (not affiliated with the Thomas Keller Bouchon in Yountville) with a great wine program as does the iconic Wine Cask (owned by a noted retailer). Their sister restaurant Intermezzo is very cool as well. Out in wine country, the #1 pick is Sides, Hardware, & Shoes in Los Olivos—fun name, great food & vibe. There is also the infamous Hitching Post—as seen in Sideways the movie; simple but good and lots and lots of Santa Barbara wines. Mattei’s Tavern is a great stop as well (). Of course, you’ll see all manner of food trucks on your travels—we’ve yet to try a bad one!

Wineries: Of course the list is endless, but to name a few top stops… Sanford Winery in Buellton; not only the one that really started the Santa Barbara wine scene, but made famous in Sideways. Jonata in Buellton, the sister winery of Screaming Eagle; winemaker Matt Dees is as good as it gets—making wine in an industrial park yet still alluring! (which is the norm in Santa Barbara). Bridlewood Winery is very picturesque and has a fabulous staff. Palmina in Lompoc is a wine nerds’ paradise—making mostly Italian varietals. And last but not least—Sandhi, the project started by celebrity Somm Raj Parr of the Mina Restaurant Group… fabulous wines.

Needless to say, we are always happy to help our clients secure appointments at our wineries.

Go see the world!

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