Image: At Beckmen Vineyards
Published: August 30, 2021
A recent two-day swing through Santa Barbara wine country was inspiring. It it is one of the most interesting wine regions around. A fair share of big “California-style” wines are produced in the region, but there are also all kinds of producers, big and small, that are doing innovative, unique, and creative things. Many are leading the way on organic, biodynamic, and regenerative farming. There are producers who are experimenting with unexpected varietals, and many are exploring the interaction between grape, vine and terroir. As you drive through valleys, you are reminded that this is still a diverse agricultural area. Vineyards are common, but they are not omnipresent like Napa. There are ranches, horse farms, ostrich farms, and lots of rows of lettuce. Whether you go to get a snapshot of the moment or to watch it develop over time, there are good reasons to visit. When you throw in what Santa Barbara offers in addition to wine it is a pretty good trip to consider.
WINE LOVER’S VISITORS GUIDE
Below we offer some insights based on a few visits over the years as well as what we gleaned researching for this last trip. We share it the hopes it will be helpful and that some of you will consider a trip – or just picking up a few bottles from the winemakers of the region from your local store (or online). This guide is not a replacement for a traditional food/lodging/attractions guide. It is intended to help those who love wine organize a trip that puts wine front and center.
MAP and GEOGRAPHY
To get you started, we offer two ways to think about the region. You can orient yourself by the “map” of the roads and towns or by the “geography” of the land. Both will lead to many of opportunities to taste lots of great wine.
The road map of the region is defined by an archipelago of small cities and towns that stretch up and out from the city of Santa Barbara. Unlike other wine regions, tasting wine is done in these towns – especially Los Olivos – more than on-site at the vineyards. Instead of swinging through town on the way to the wineries you drive past the vineyards to get to the wines. There is no Hwy 29 monorail like in Napa either. That does not mean there are no beautiful wineries located among the vineyards where you can taste wines on location, there are many of those too, but they are not as central to the experience as elsewhere.
The other perspective is the geography that shows the landscape that makes Santa Barbara different. There are several AVAs in the region. Running west to east and roughly parallel to each other are the two oldest and larger ones: the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley.
They both funnel into a gap to the east that has the towns of Buellton, Solvang, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez. At this end of the mountains are several of the subregion AVAs of Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos, Happy Canyon, that are within the overarching Santa Ynez Valley designation. The most renowned AVA is Sta. Rita Hills that covers the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley. The most notable thing about the Santa Barbara wine region is that the mountains are transverse meaning they run “sideways” from the ocean rather than parallel (east/west rather than north/south like most West Coast wine regions). This allows the cooler air to blow straight up the canyons, moderating the impact of the California sun and adding salinity to the soil and grapes several miles inland. This gives winemakers great flexibility in how they grow and when they pick. There are also bands of growing regions for specific grapes, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominant closest to the ocean, Syrah and other Rhone varietals further inland, and Cabernet Sauvignon in the most eastern district of Happy Canyon.
To plan a trip, start with the map view of the towns and cities. These will be the anchor points where the restaurants, hotels and tasting rooms are (if you want to understand why, click on our History of the region). So, let’s begin with overview of those.
THE TOWNS AND CITIES
Los Olivos is one of the smallest dots on the map, but the center of gravity for tasting rooms. There are about 30 such spots in a couple square blocks. As a general rule the ones found on the main street (Grand Ave.) or just around the corner on Alamo Pintado are some of the most established names: Evans Ranch (from Gainey), Andrew Murray, Stolpman, Brewer-Clifton, Larner. These wines also tend to be bigger (though not uniformly so). We took a shine to the Larner wines which is in the iconic Los Olivos General Store on the corner. One block over on San Marcos you will find some of the newer crew (although many of them have been at it for years): Story of Soil, Future Perfect, Storm. Other places that you might want to drop in on to get your bearings: Dragonette, Holus Bolus, and Liquid Farm. Solminer, on the south side of the four-way flagpole stop, is doing interesting work with Austrian varietals.
On the outskirts of Los Olivos are a bunch of wineries in the flats as you head south towards Santa Ynez. It includes the Ballard Canyon AVA with their focus on Syrah and the Los Olivos AVA that is taking advantage of the alluvial soil to experiment in all kinds of ways (see our history for more on the AVAs of the region). Brander (notable white wines) and Roblar are off Hwy 154, as you head down to Santa Ynez. Going into the backroads you get to Beckmen, founded nearly 30 years ago by Tom Beckmen (who made his fortune with the Roland keyboard company). Tasting through the wines, made by his son Steve, it should put to rest the idea that natural wines can’t be as powerful as an 80s hair band (though those bands lacked a natural element that Beckmen retains). Also on these backroads are Lincourt (estate wines from Bill Foley) and Rusack (heirs to the original Ballard Canyon Winery vineyards established in 1974).
Heading north a few minutes, you can do outdoor dining and tasting at Petros that sits on the splinter of Foxen Canyon Road after Foxen Canyon merges with Zaca Station Road near Andrew Murray up the valley. Petros is a chef/owner restaurants in Santa Barbara and Manhattan Beach that do Greek cuisine and his wines are from Greek varietals.
These two towns are a few feet from each other, but totally different. Solvang is a unique mid-20th century creation in which a handful of Danish settlers built out a town with Danish themed architecture. Following World War II, it became an “It’s a Small World” tourist destination of cute buildings, shops, and bakeries. Like many things that were embarrassingly kitsch at one point it now seems charming in a slightly ironic way. Its numerous motels and restaurants make it a good spot to spend the night that is less expensive than downtown Santa Barbara. Buellton has little of the charm but several national chains of motels/hotels. There are only a few tasting rooms in Solvang. Buellton has a few more (including some from wine legends like Alma Rosa, Ken Brown, Lucas & Lewellen), most near the CHP headquarters on the west side. There are several good restaurants with wine lists to sample from. Buellton has the famous Hitching Post steak house and the farm-fresh Industrial Eats. If you are all wine-d out, there is a Firestone-Walker taproom, from the brewery just up the coast that is often cited as one of the best beermakers in the country (it originated on the grounds of the Firestone Winery). There are also lots of fast food places to get your fix of that. The most notable spot in Solvang for eating is a new spot: Coast Range, which is from winemaker/sommelier Raj Parr (more on him later). Its Vaquero Bar is a gathering place for locals (as we write the final touches are being made to the inside of the restaurant). There are a couple of nicer places that seem to have good reputations: First & Oak (in the Mirabelle Inn), Mad & Vin (in the Landsby Inn), Succulent. Good Seed is a local favorite for coffee and breads in the morning.
In other parts of California, to say someone went to Lompoc has an ominous meaning because of the penitentiary located there. For wine-lovers, now there is a nicer and slightly-less compulsive reason to go to Lompoc. A few years ago, in the business park on the east side of town winemakers who bought grapes from vineyards throughout the region set up facilities to turn that juice into wine. Given the unfortunate name of the Wine Ghetto, today it is a destination to sample some serious wines. The most acclaimed wines come from the team of Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman, who make the allocation-restricted Domaine de la Côte and the only slightly less sought-after Sandhi. Moorman, who worked at Obelisk in D.C. years ago, also has a label with former Obelisk (and current 2 Amy’s) owner Peter Pastan called Piedrasassi that focuses on Syrah. We did the tasting at Piedrasassi and the wines were the highlight of the trip. There is also a bakery, also called Piedrasassi headed by Melissa Sorongon (Sashi’s wife) next to the tasting room – make sure you ring the right bell!
Other notable wineries with spots in Lompoc are Fiddlehead from winemaker Kathy Joseph (you may pass the Fiddlestix vineyards from which they source on the way into town), Palmina, founded by Steve Clifton (of Brewer-Clifton), that makes Italian varietal wines like Nebbiolo and Barbera, and Holus Bolus which several locals spoke respectfully about (tasting room in Los Olivos). Likewise, Brewer-Clifton has a facility in Lompoc, but the primary tasting room is in Los Olivos. Richard Longoria, who was one of the first wave of winemakers in the seventies, has a location a few blocks away from the business park. There are several places to stay in Lompoc, and the food choices are more standard.
This small town, located where the 135 meets the 101, is just a few blocks long. There are a handful of notable tasting rooms. The legendary Lane Tanner (who created the Hitching Post label in the 80s) is now at Lumen (that is connected by location and family to the Pico restaurant). A Tribute to Grace works with Grenache. Casa Dumetz, from Sonja Magdevski, has a celebrity connection that you have to dig a little to find. Magdevski also owns Babi’s Beer Emporium next door. Bedford is from the winemaker who was half the team that started the Thompson Vineyard at the center of the nearby Alisos Canyon AVA (and then-named Bedford Thompson Winery) in 1994. The appropriately name Lo-Fi Wines is making fun (“not over ripe and it is not over priced”), low-intervention wines from Cab Franc, Chenin Blanc and even Gamay.
Los Alamos has several notable spots for eating. Bob’s Well Bread Bakery does breakfast and lunch (they also have a location in Ballard). A ham sandwich we got for the road was nearly gone before the ignition was turned on. Bell’s is a restaurant of note that combines funky California with classic French. Pico, named for a local legend and located under the General Store signage, also takes advantage of the local agriculture. There are a couple places to spend the night, including the old school “motel” that has been spruced up. Los Alamos is also a reminder that this is agricultural land, with the shiny pickups being the fanciest thing you’ll likely spot. (Though there is a chance you could see a repeat of the ad hoc semi, Silverado, Bentley parade we saw in Solvang one morning).
Santa Maria is a sizable city that is the gateway to Vandenberg Air Force Base (if you are lucky, you can catch a rocket launch light up the sky). Like Lompoc or Buellton there are several lodging options. On the wine front there is one place to draw your attention to. The Miller family owns the legendary Bien Nacido Vineyards down the road that gave birth to the wines of Qupé and Au Bon Climat. The winemakers from those two labels were not the only ones taking grapes from the vineyard, so the Miller family built a facility for others to use. It is a large warehouse-like building near the airport that provided a launching pad for a slew of prominent winemakers over the years. Current there are only two wineries using it, Paul Lato and Tatomer.
We did not try the Lato wines, but we did try the Tatomer ones and they are excellent. If you go, you will likely be taken care of by either the owner/winemaker Graham Tatomer or his assistant Alice Anderson (who we found out about later and not from her we should be clear – has her own nascent label. Santa Barbara is that kind of place). If you are coming from the north, Santa Maria is the entrance to the region. From here you can take Foxen Canyon Road southeast to see and visit some of the most famous wineries (see below for a summary of the Foxen Canyon route). That road (or the speedier 101 that will take you past Presqu’ile) will lead you to the cluster of Los Olivos, Solvang and Buellton, with the roads tracking the northern “funnel” to the east.
Largely a residential area, the town of Santa Ynez has a preserved Old West section and a large casino. There are a couple cute places to stay in town and a fair number of good restaurants. According to a couple trusted local sources these include the Red Barn, and the Gathering Table at Ballard Inn. The Longhorn Coffee Shop is a good greasy spoon spot. SY Kitchen is part of a respected group of Italian restaurants in the region. There are a few wineries on the outskirts, including Brave and Maiden and Sunstone to the south. Gainey on the eastern edge is one of the oldest wineries in the region and the first to be built specifically for customers to visit.
Despite giving the wine region its name, the city Santa Barbara proper is actually a different world. The wine country towns are situated in warm (sometimes downright hot), rolling hills of brush and dried grass in the northern part of the county. Despite the new money behind the wineries, these towns retain a working class feel. The city of Santa Barbara is far from working class, in fact its nickname is the American Riviera. It is a small – but cosmopolitan – coastal city with a large UC campus just outside of town. Once you cross over the mountains and drop down to the coast, you leave the vineyards behind and enter into the land of shops, high-end restaurants, funky taco places, and grand tasting rooms. The kids are riding surfboards, not horses. Depending on the kind of experience you are looking for you can home base out of here or just bypass it and head straight to the hills.
There are a ton of places to stay depending on how close you want to be to the beach, how much you want to pay, and how many amenities you are looking for. We stayed at one of the B&Bs in town, Bath Street Inn. It was a bit of a walk to the main attractions but quiet and relaxing. And the walk helped with the food and the wine consumption.
As with lodging, there are many options of different kinds when it comes to food. There are two places we can vouch for. First is Lama Dog in the wine district, called the Funk Zone (see below). This tap room will give you a reprieve from the wine, but there is also Nook, a stand alone counter inside doing casual lunch and dinner with finesse from a master chef.
Also in the Funk Zone is the buzzy, New American restaurant The Lark that pulls in locals and tourists alike. If you can’t snag a reservation there is a large bar and a communal table. We asked the locals for recommendations, and they offered up a few additional ones to consider: Arigato for sushi; Barbareño for classic California cuisine; Santa Barbara Craft Ramen; D’Angelo Bakery for breakfast; East Beach Tacos. There is a Bouchon here. Raj Parr is also behind a new Indian spot that is getting some acclaim called Bibi Ji.
A few years back, a section of town that was a bit more industrial (Lockheed was born there), started to transform. Although it is wedged between the highway and the railroad tracks, it was just too close to the water to resist development and so began the Funk Zone. Now wine and beer are central to these few blocks. Old store fronts were converted to tasting rooms, and one stretch that housed a fish processing plant was completely overhauled for shops and restaurants, including The Lark mentioned above. There are several tasting rooms in and around these few blocks and more than 20 in the city. Three spots we would flag to get you started.
First, Riverbench, whose winery is located at the western end of Foxen Canyon (where you can also do tasting by appointment). They make a range of Pinots that are well-constructed while retaining strong fruit notes (and their winemaker has her own label as well). Second, is Kunin, a leader in experimenting with Rhone and other grapes. When we walked past this trip it looked like the tasting room had been combined with Kunin’s other effort, The Valley Project around the corner. The third spot is the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, which is a wine bar offering flights from various wineries in the region.
The first of the modern-era wineries, Santa Barbara Winery is in this area (though moving from its original location). Wineries with national recognition like Melville and Margerum have tasting rooms on the other side of the tracks (literally and figuratively). Both of them are more balanced versions of California wines, and in the case of Margerum many of them are surprisingly restrained (you can probably discern our bias by now).
THE VALLEYS, CANYONS and HILLS
With the towns and cities mapped out as reference points, we now turn to the land. There are many wineries doing on-site tasting. For wine nerds there also is something enjoyable about seeing the vineyards as you drive by even if you can’t get on the grounds and have to settle for a picture through the fence of a famous vineyard.
Starting at the northwestern point as you leave Santa Maria, as Foxen Canyon Road turns to Santa Maria Mesa Road, you immediately pass some larger corporate entities as well as legends. Bien Nacido Vineyards, owned by the Miller family (referenced above) for years has provided grapes to several prominent producers in the area, including two of the legendary wineries, Qupé and Au Bon Climat, that have facilities next door. Two of the big dogs, Cambria and Byron (both part of the Kendell-Jackson conglomerate), are on your left. Bryon got its fame under winemaker Ken Brown, then for 16 years Jonathan Nagy took over. He recently moved up the road to work for the Miller family at Bien Nacido and is married to the winemaker for Riverbench just down the road (just to give you a sense of the winemaking community around here). You will pass Rancho Sisquoc, one of the old school places with winemaking dating to the 1970s and a historic chapel on the property dating to the 1870s. They produce a range of affordable bottles and have an on-site tasting room. Then you hit the more expensive but also with a national reputation Foxen founded in 1985. If you take a right on Alisos Canyon Road it will send you down to the 101 between Los Alamos and Los Olivos, but keep going because further down Foxen Canyon is more history. Zaca Mesa is notable for at least two reasons. Then-winemaker Ken Brown put in the first Syrah vineyards in the area, now called the Black Bear Block (click through to find out why). It was also the spot where the guys behind Qupé and Au Bon Climat met as young winemakers. Turning the corner, you come to a stretch of old and new(er). Demetria started in 2005 taking over vineyards dating back a couple decades. Fess Parker is a larger winery founded by the fifties television actor who bought the property in the eighties. It is now with the next generation. Coming down the last stretch is the winery of one of the more prominent and respected winemakers in the area, Andrew Murray. That is followed by Firestone, which was one of the pioneers in the early seventies. There are a couple more tucked in along the way if you want to keep your eyes peeled for signs.
Santa Rita Hills
There are two roads you can take through this area, with Lompoc and Buellton at either end of both. This region is deep in history. Hwy 246 heads straight out of Buellton then curves slightly at the end into Lompoc. Along this road are some names you might recognize including, Foley, Melville, and Babcock. Two others to flag are the Dierberg vineyard (that also has the Star Lane vineyard in Happy Canyon) and Tyler Winery. Tyler, from winemaker Justin Willet, sources from all over, but he started a project growing his own vines on the Mae Estate a few years back. Tasting at Mae is by appointment and you get personal attention. Sitting on the back deck of the building your host can point to the specific rows stretched below you that produce some of the wines you are tasting.
Santa Rosa Road is the other option. It is not as well lined or paved and there are only a few wineries that you can visit. What the road has is the founding history of the region with both the LaFond winery (one of the first you hit coming from Buellton) and the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. Between the two is the aughts’ cult classic Sea Smoke vineyards. Fiddlestix Vineyard is here too, though the tasting room is in Lompoc. As you get closer to Lompoc you’ll pass D’Alfonso-Curran with a more rustic tasting room, and The Hilt (along with sister winery Jonata – owned by billionaire Stan Kroenke) which is a bit more refined. Around various corners as you head west are some of the more prominent vineyards used for sourcing in the area including La Rinconata, Rancho la Vina, La Encatada. Bentrock and Radian vineyards are on the Hilt land. On the other side of the river are the legendary Mt. Carmel vineyards with a crazy story behind it. Finally, right before you get to Lompoc, there is a spot over the river where Domaine de la Côte’s vineyard sits at the westernmost perch. Years ago, pioneering winemakers would travel with a thermometer out the window to gauge the temperature change as you move up and down the valley. Now you can use your dashboard one to track the decrease in temperature as you head toward Lompoc.
The rolling hills of Sta. Rita and Foxen Canyon lead to the basin at the east end of the Santa Ynez Valley that contains many of the towns discussed above (Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Solvang). The land flattens out and there is more development. There are some wineries scattered about that do on-site tastings (see the Los Olivos section above). To get back to driving among the hills you need to drive a couple minutes up into Happy Canyon and the Happy Canyon AVA. There are a number of celebrated (or celebrity) vineyards up there growing Bordeaux varietals, but very few that offer tastings or are open to visitors. Star Lane (the other half of Dierberg in Sta. Rita Hills) offers on-site tours (not cheap). Crown Point was bought a few years ago with the intention of making a 100 point wine with Bordeaux varietals, and the tasting experience reflects that exclusivity. Happy Canyon has a polo field, an owner of some notoriety, and a tasting room in Santa Barbara.
We hope the guide above helps get you started. Whether you visit for a couple days or a couple hours, we also hope that you come away as enthused about the wine as we are.
Our guide and the linked history references dozens of wineries, winemakers and a few vineyard managers. But with the number of wine labels approaching 300 we could not list (let alone taste) all of them. But we asked those that we talked to in the course of the trip for suggestions and they threw out a few more names – some of which don’t have tasting rooms, so look for them in stores, restaurants, or buy direct from the online. Here are a few more to continue exploring:
Where to Find the Wines in D.C.
Some of the wines from the regions are distributed nationally, especially those owned by bigger houses. Cambria, Byron, Foley are widely available. Not much effort will turn up Brewer-Clifton, Qupé, Au Bon Climat, Melville, Pali or Ojai. Stolpman, Dierberg and Beckmen are popping up more frequently. For our local readers in D.C., we did a search of some stores and store websites to see what could be found. The following list (from west to east roughly) is obviously just a snapshot and calling ahead will ensure you don’t waste a trip (if you could ever waste a trip to a wine store).
MacArthur – Has several of the big names, plus Crown Point, Sanguis, Liquid Farm, Samsara.
Calvert Woodley – Has some staples (Au Bon Climat, Brewer-Clifton, Beckmen) plus some rarer stuff like Sandhi, Piedrasssi – even a couple bottles of Domaine de la Cote.
Ace Beverage – Several labels, including Crown Point, and a range of Brewer-Clifton.
Pearson’s – many of the big names, but also lists a couple Tensleys.
Domestique – Not surprisingly has a couple small producers like Scar of the Sea/Lady of the Sunshine.
Wardman – Dierberg, Stolpman sub-label Combe,
DCanter – Melville, Margerum, and Stolpman
Schneiders – Some big names and J. Wilkes, Jonata, Stolpman. The website also lists back vintages of some others, including one now closed.
For a place closer to you, check out our D.C. Neighborhood Wine Store Guide.
The purpose of the guide was to introduce wine lovers to the region and point you in some good directions. But we only scratched the surface of what you need to know and what is important to understand. Here are some other great sources:
Brenna Quiqley’s Podcast provides a history much, much older than the missions and lots of local insights.
Matt Kettmann did an overview piece for Wine Enthusiast. Kettmann is an editor at the Santa Barbara Independent who has covered the region for 20 years. Nearly every time we were looking for more information to fill out the history post there would be a Kettmann article. He just came out with a beautiful book celebrating the region and the people called Vines and Visions.
On Levi Dalton’s wonderful podcast, I’ll Drink to That, he has done interviews with Bob Lindquist, Jim Clendenen, Graham Tatomer, Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr. Erin Scala (who is in Charlottesville!) did a look at Rhone varietals in California.
Antonio Galloni took over reviewing California wines at the Wine Advocate for Robert Parker. He has been a champion of Santa Barbara wine (he broke them out into their own category from Central Coast) and continues to be so at Vinous. Here is his list of recommended wines from the 2018 vintage.
Brenna Ritchey takes a tour of Sta. Rita Hills with Michael Benedict.
Bloomberg did a piece in August 2020, geared to its demographic.
Decanter gives an overview of the region and a few wines it recommends.
Thanks for reading! It was certainly a fun project to research and experience.
We fear that there are many errors (we already found one egregious misspelling right after posting – sorry
Beckman, Beckmen), so if you see one that you feel must be corrected reach out to us here or on the gmail at 17degreesdc.
If you ever make it to Washington, D.C., then please check out our dining guide to the city with more than 300 recommended restaurants in D.C. You can sort by cuisine, neighborhood, and current operating status (dine-in and/or take-out, etc.) in either LIST or MAP format.
Be safe. Don’t drink and drive. Support what you love.