Welcome to the “American Riviera,” an apt designation for paradisiacal Santa Barbara, based on the Mediterranean climate, abundant beaches, lush landscape, trendy restaurants, and stunning Spanish architecture. Oh yeah – wine. Santa Barbara makes really good wine!
Santa Barbara wine country has five distinct appellations and numerous microclimates, ranging from Pacific Ocean-cooled to eastern inland valley hot. The abundant fog and ocean breezes claim credit for most of the region’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while the warmer land offers up yummy white and red Rhones.
Wine country is a 45-minute-ish drive from downtown Santa Barbara. Although you can easily find large clusters of freestanding tasting rooms in Santa Barbara, Los Olivos, Solvang, Buellton, and Lompoc, we’re going to highlight producers that welcome visitors to the winemaking facility and vineyards in this alphabetically sorted list. Many of these wineries do, however, also maintain satellite tasting rooms in the nearby towns where you might have the chance to taste a whole different selection of wines.
No matter where your tasting adventures take you in the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, and Ballard Canyon AVAs, make it a priority to pack up your favorite bottles, cheeses, and breads when you’re done for the day, and spread a blanket on one of the many heavenly SB beaches. The sight of the ocean sunset reflecting off of the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountain backdrop is unforgettable. Santa Barbara is one of my favorite destinations and I have years of time spent to prove.
Here are our top picks in alphabetical order.
1) Andrew Murray
Beat a fast path to Andrew Murray, because the recently remodeled Winery and Visitor Center serves generous pours of such desirables as estate-grown Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc for a measly $15. Pay $5 more for the Chocolate Flight pairing with truffles. The private, 45-minute Grape to Glass tour includes a progressive tasting of the current releases for $20, and if you’re not into a tour, grab a carafe of rosé (on tap!) and picnic under the ancient oaks.
2) Babcock Winery
Babcock is an early pioneer in the Santa Rita Hills and boasts “the grooviest tasty room” winemaker Bryan Babcock has ever seen. We agree. Super friendly servers pour the award-winning Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Syrah in the middle of a huge collection of antiques and super cool retro gear, all stuffed inside a gigantic warehouse.
3) Beckman Vineyards
A lovely feather in Beckman’s cap, the winery’s 2007 Estate Grenache was paired with the main course at the 2009 White House State Dinner for the Prime Minister of India. You can stop by and enjoy a flight of six estate-grown wines for $20. If you’re a Rhone red blend fan – and who isn’t? – don’t miss the signature Cuvee Le Bec. There’s an hour-long Experience Beckmen daily tour that covers the biodynamic growing process and provides six wine samples for $25. Reserve one of the four gazebos for an ultra-romantic picnic.
4) Cambria Estate Vineyards and Winery
Enjoy a 20-minute stroll of Cambria’s property nestled in the Santa Maria benchland drinking in sweeping valley views followed by a facility tour and an estate tasting flight for $15. Owner and Founder Barbara Banke’s family-owned vineyards are sustainably farmed to yield several 100 percent estate-grown Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, with a Syrah, Pinot Gris and Viognier singing back-up.
5) Cottonwood Canyon Winery
Wine cave trailblazer Cottonwood Canyon boasts the first cave in Santa Barbara County, dating back to the 1990s. Tour the rustic caves and do some barrel tasting on weekends, or weekdays by appointment, for $29. Your fee includes a full tasting flight. Cottonwood has a huge portfolio that contains several red Bordeaux blends, two sparklers (de Blanc and de Noir), and a yummy dessert Syrah.
6) Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard
As you might guess, the winery associated with the beloved 1950s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone star is popular and often crowded. But you have to stop in and see this landmark facility that traces its origins back to 1988 when the late Fess Parker purchased a 714-acre ranch for his family. The Fess Parker Classic Tasting offers six wines for $14 in a tasting room with a gorgeous stone fireplace, stone floors, and a wraparound veranda set in the middle of picture-perfect landscaping. The actor’s memorabilia is on display for an intoxicating dose of Americana nostalgia.
7) Foxen Vineyard and Winery
Solar-powered, sustainably-grown, and a history that reaches back to the 1980s, this boutique winery that will celebrate its 32nd harvest this year is responsible for some of the region’s best bottles. You’re in for a double treat when you stop at Foxen. The original tasting room, a 1860s shack, still serves pours of Bordeaux wines and Italian varietals, while just up the road, the 2009 solar-powered winery addition offers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone varietals.
8) Gainey Vineyards
One of the (many) nicest spots to picnic, Gainey offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains from the vineyard garden tables and is a popular venue for summer concerts. The warm, stucco- and tile-filled Spanish-style tasting room with massive chandeliers offers a six-wine flight and/or a barrel tasting for $15. Come spring, Gainey offers guests an intimate tasting experience at the winery’s barn in the Home Ranch vineyard accessed via Cloud Climbers Jeeps.
9) Kalyra Winery
Kalyra has a distinctive claim to fame. Remember “Sideways”? The movie company remodeled Kalyra’s tasting room so that Jack could meet Stephanie, his pourer, there. Australian-born owner and winemaker Mike Brown produces wines made from Australian grapes here, as well as two lines with grapes sourced from selected Santa Barbara vineyards. The open and laid-back tasting room offers gorgeous rolling vineyard views and a very popular reserve dessert wine and port tasting for $14, along with a Kalyra sampler tasting for $12.
10) Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Prolific winemaker Ken Volk (founder of Wild Horse Winery) is renowned for his world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but his order list looks more like a restaurant’s wine list and includes such rare and esoteric “heirloom” offerings as Blaufrankisch, Negrette, Verdelho, and Aglianico. The winery feels strongly about advocating for these obscure but worthy grapes, and for the education alone this winery merits a stop. For the chance to sample some of the best wines in the area in a private setting, consider booking a Tuesday or Wednesday one-on-one, customized-for-your-palate tasting that pairs a flight of six KVV wines with cheese. Bucket list worthy!
11) Koehler Winery
Certainly one of the most relaxing and beautiful stops on the Foxen Canyon Trail, Koehler offers several idyllic places to sit outside the tasting room and sip with a stunning vineyard view. Wildflowers, 200-year-old oak trees, and 130-year-old olive trees surround the large deck with comfy lounge furniture. Sample six limited production wines for $15, or six estate offerings for $10, and go home with a Koehler Winery logo glass. Interesting blends include the Magia Nera (Sangiovese, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc) and the Quartette White (Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier). Numerous estate-grown varietal choices make this a must-stop destination.
12) Lafond Winery
Syrah lovers beat a trail to Santa Barbara Winery owner Pierre Lafond’s much smaller Santa Rita Hills facility where small amounts of single-vineyard Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are grown. Spring for a private tasting in the Lafond Winery Barrel Room or VIP Room and Patio accompanied by cheese, bread and fruit for $35 per person. White lovers should look for the late harvest Riesling and stainless steel Chardonnay sourced from the Lafond Vineyard.
13) Martian Ranch & Vineyard
Named in honor of her sons, Martin and Ian, Nan Helgeland’s Martian Ranch & Vineyard boasts a delicious line-up of estate-grown Mourvedre, Grenache Noir, Tempranillo, Albarino, and Grenache Blanc, to name just a few. First come, first served hour-long tours are offered on the weekends, whisking you through the vineyard and pond on a 4-wheel drive golf cart, regaling you with biodynamic principles and wildlife spotting. Or, just pop into the Los Alamos tasting room Wed. through Sunday.
14) Melville Vineyards
Combine your visit to Babcock with a stop at beautiful family-run Melville – a fantastic picnic spot, a picture-perfect Mediterranean winery, and a luscious Pinot Noir producer. If you’re looking for an in-depth tour while visiting SB County, Melville offers a behind-the-scenes walking tour and tasting on weekends that covers the Santa Rita Hills AVA along with the winery’s estate vineyards and wine crafting philosophy. You’ll sample six estate and limited production wines. For $25 per person this is a great opportunity to learn from the pros.
15) Mosby Winery
When your fatigued palate needs a wake-up call, make your way to Mosby. Retired dentist, full-time winemaker Bill Mosby has carved out a unique niche specializing in Italian varietals. In the red barn tasting room that dates back to the 1800s, you’ll find a refreshing Cal-Italia assortment that includes Mosby’s Dolcetta, Primativo, Teroldego, Pinot Grigio, dessert wine, and brandies.
16) Presqu’ile Winery
Sleek and modern, this striking state-of-the-art Santa Maria winery showcases exquisite stonework and a super cool tasting bar where you can try the $15 tasting or a $20 single-vineyard, reserve flight. A $45, 90-minute tour and tasting walks you through the Presqu’ile estate, winery, and caves as you sip samples throughout. Finish up with a side-by-side tasting of three Pinot Noirs with snacks. Seek out the Rosé of Pinot Noir.
17) Rancho Sisquoc Winery
Rustic, peaceful, and very welcoming, you’ll find the Rancho Sisquoc tasting room at the end of a two-mile-long winding road. Bring your picnic or buy it there, and savor your choice of six of the numerous small batch estate wines from this longtime producer. Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sylvaner samples are yours for just $10, and you leave with the glass.
18) Refugio Ranch Vineyards
You’ll need an appointment, one hour, and $35, but it’s worth it to experience the Ranch’s nine varietals on the 415-acre historic property with rolling hills and romantic views. Your trail ends at a picnic area where you’re treated to six Santa Ynez AVA wines. You’ll find Refugio’s two tasting bars, VIP lounge, and a large deck tucked inside a well-preserved 1900’s warehouse in Los Olivos. Delicious red blends contain Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Grenache, and the winery bottles a flagship white Rhone named “Ineseño” that’s nearly equal parts Roussanne and Viognier.
19) Rideau Vineyard
Home of high-end Rhone varietals with a special fondness for Syrah, you’ll find Rideau’s tasting room inside a refurbished 1884 landmark known as the Alamo Pintado Adobe. This once-thriving guest ranch was located along the bustling stagecoach route that stretched between Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara. The current New Orleans vibe is owner Iris Rideau’s contribution. Viognier lovers will find a reserve and a stainless steel option, and the red varietals and Rhone blends are plentiful.
20) Riverbench Vineyards
Although the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards were planted in 1973, Riverbench sold grapes to other wineries until 2004 when they began producing limited quantities under their own label. Despite the heavy emphasis on Chardonnay and Pinot, you’ll find five sparklers on the purchase list along with a late harvest Riesling, an off-dry Riesling, and a rosé of Pinot Noir. This is a great picnic spot that offers a horseshoe pit and a bocce ball court for a bit of head-clearing physical exertion before getting back in the car. The tasting room resides in an impeccably restored 1927 craftsman style house. Riverbench is a close neighbor of Rancho Sisquoc, so add this one to your visit list.
21) Rusack Vineyards
This boutique winery and vineyard is well worth the backroads drive and is one of only two tastings rooms open to the public in the Ballard Canyon AVA. This is Syrah heaven, but you’ll also find a Zinfandel, a Sangiovese, and Anacapa – a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Belly up to the Arts and Crafts-style tasting bar, fork over $15, and sip away. You get to keep your crystal logo glass, so buy a bottle and enjoy yet another of the area’s most eye-popping picnic venues. Stainless steel fermented Sauv Blanc fans will find one here.
22) Sanford Winery & Vineyards
Sanford gives you so many exciting tasting options in their two locations that allow you to creatively explore their stellar line-up, but we’re going to highlight our favorite. Head to the winery tasting room in the Sta. Rita Hills where the massive front and back covered terraces provide 360-degree views of the vineyards. You can take a tour, but we suggest you splurge (it’s Sanford, after all!) and go for the seated, one-hour vertical Pinot Noir extravaganza. If sniffing and swirling is totally your thing, and you love to linger in the sensory evaluation nuances of wine tasting, the chance to compare different vintages of Sanford’s estate-grown Pinot Noirs in a relaxed and unhurried setting for $85 is a steamy deal. Just do it!
23) Scott Cellars
To say winemaker Peter Scott Fraser is a passionate man is an understatement. He’s got a great story about how he got where he is, and he is especially dedicated to giving Sangiovese an American voice. Scott Cellars handcrafts only about 1,000 cases annually, and the tasting tours are in-depth seminars led by the winemaker himself. If you’re a Sangiovese fanatic, this is your chance to spend an hour with the winemaker exploring terroir- based barrel tastings of vineyard designate Sangioveses for a paltry $20 per person. Call the winery to make your appointment.
24) Sunstone Winery
Escape to Sunstone and you’ll swear that you’re in France, thanks to the tranquil, Provence-like vibe of the courtyards, gardens and tasting room. Locals repeatedly vote Sunstone “Best Santa Ynez Valley Tasting Room” and “Santa Barbara’s Favorite Red Wine.” The reds are king here. The Rice family planted the 28-acre vineyard in 1990 with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier — one of the first organic vineyard estates in Santa Barbara County. Taste a $12 classic flight or $15 reserve flight, stroll around the 5,000 square feet of stone barrel-aging caves, or grab one of the winery’s gourmet boxed picnic lunches, head to the picnic area, and stay a long while.
25) Zaca Mesa Winery
It’s fitting to conclude our list with Zaca Mesa, because this Rhone-focused winery has been around since forever. The first vines were planted in 1973, making Zaca Mesa only the third winery in Santa Barbara County at that time. Today’s rustic and spacious tasting room offers $10 flights that change every few weeks, but might include samples of the winery’s large fleet of Syrahs, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache, and Mourvedre. An hour-long, by appointment tour passes through the Grenache Blanc vines and covers winemaking 101. The charming picnic area includes a life size chess game, and at the risk of repeating ourselves, this is a great spot for a picnic!