Haven’t made a wine pilgrimage in a while? Pack your bags without concern for the TSA and jump in the car before Friday traffic—we’ve got the perfect itinerary for wining and dining in beautiful Santa Barbara County.
With apologies to tenacious Temecula to the south and to our own burgeoning local Malibu AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), a weekend in Los Angeles’ wine country still usually means Santa Barbara County. It’s been a few years since Sideways irrevocably transformed both pinot noir and the Santa Barbara areas where it flourishes. Comprised of three main wine-producing sub-areas, this formerly sleepy agricultural region is now one of the most dynamic and diverse in California.
A caveat on Santa Barbara: the city itself hosts quite a few tasting rooms these days but is situated at a substantial distance to the south of most of the best wineries. Unless you plan to taste like a pro and spit every last drop, consider hiring a driver for the day, as it’s easy to drink more than you intended. The advantages of setting up shop in town are many, however, not the least of which is the opportunity to stay at the fabulous Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. Consider playing hooky on Monday in order to take advantage of the free third night the Biltmore is currently offering, a huge savings for a property that defines luxury on the Central Coast. (1260 Channel Drive in Santa Barbara, 805-969-2261, fourseasons.com/santabarbara)
If you feel like tasting locally, check out the brand new Kunin Wines tasting room just a block off the beach in downtown Santa Barbara. Winemaker Seth Kunin crafts profound wines from Rhône varietals like syrah, grenache and viognier in addition to being one of the nicest guys in the business. There’s a reason why sommeliers adore this guy and his vinos. Ask him where to find the best cheap tacos too—he’ll know. (28 Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara, 805-963-9633, kuninwines.com)
Also worth a visit is the laid-back tasting room for Jaffurs Wine Cellars. Here, surfboards adorn the walls, and tastings are done in an industrial warehouse setting where great wines, not silly wine gadgets and grape-festooned trivets, rule the day. Try their single-vineyard syrah from the south-facing Thompson plot in Los Alamos or their fantastic white made from nutty roussanne grapes. (819 East Montecito Street in Santa Barbara, 805-962-7003, jaffurswine.com)
A weekend in Santa Barbara for me isn’t complete without dinner at Bouchon, where local proprietor Mitchell Sjerven and executive chef Greg Murphy continue to define wine country cuisine in Santa Barbara County. The expert wine list features lots of local favorites by the glass too, just in case you choose to let the wines come to you rather than seek them out on your own. If you’re really feeling AWOL, stick around for Chef Murphy’s “Foodie Stroll” through the Tuesday afternoon farmers market, where he’ll show you how all that amazing produce is transformed into dinner. (9 West Victoria Street, 805-730-1160, bouchonsantabarbara.com)
A new contender for both fine dining and luxe accommodations has also arrived in Santa Barbara’s wine country. Chef Bradley Ogden is one of the more unsung greats in American cooking. To his collection of outlets in Northern California and Las Vegas he has now added the fantastic restaurant Root 246, a pun on the road that winds into Solvang from the 101. Kitschy in a lovable way, what Solvang has lacked is a “real” fine dining experience, and Root 246 delivers that while maintaining a low-key, wine-country vibe. (420 Alisal Road in Solvang, 805-686-8681, root-246.com) It’s located in the Hotel Corque, which is also a welcome contrast to Solvang’s collection of quirky Danish motels and B&Bs. Sleek and modern, the Hotel Corque is centrally located for exploring some of Santa Barbara’s very best wineries.
If you head north from Solvang, consider visiting long-time favorite Rusack Vineyards, where winemaker John Falcone makes wines that are as memorable as the picturesque picnic area. Try a glass of Rusack sauvignon blanc with lunch al fresco. (1819 Ballard Canyon Road in Ballard, 805-688-1278, rusackvineyards.com) Head east on 246 towards Buellton to stop at Cold Heaven Cellars, where winemaker Morgan Clendenen has single-handedly put viognier on the map in California. How can you not love a lady winemaker who quotes Yeats on her website? (92 A Second Street in Buellton, 805-686-1343, coldheavencellars.com)
Lastly, if you head north up to the cluster of tasting rooms in the scenic village of Los Olivos, visit tiny Dragonette Cellars before the groundswell that’s mounting turns these guys into wine rock stars. At Dragonette, micro-production and meticulous technique are creating wines that are the generation-next for Santa Barbara’s industry. Buy these wines while you still can afford them! (2445 Alamo Pintado Avenue in Los Olivos, 805-693-0077, dragonettecellars.com)