Long before the wine industry exploded, Santa Barbara excelled at the tourism game. Set between the deep blue Pacific Ocean and the sharply rising Santa Ynez Mountains, the city, resplendent with Spanish-Colonial architecture and almost always basking in ideal weather, is a sight to behold.
Today, its streets are lined with shops and feature more than two-dozen tasting rooms, particularly in the Funk Zone, a recently redeveloped neighborhood of food-and-drink establishments near the waterfront. The live music, theater and visual arts scenes are booming, and a festival of some sort takes place every month.
Over the mountains in the Santa Ynez Valley, cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir as well as warm-weather varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon thrive. Those diverse growing conditions are present thanks to the valley’s east-west topography that opens onto the sea. It delivers windy and chilly weather on the western side that neighbors the Pacific, and much hotter temperatures in the eastern reaches. Cycling and hiking options abound, and the towns of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Buellton and Lompoc offer an array of dining and overnight options.
Heading north, the town of Los Alamos buzzes with culinary creativity. Some of Santa Barbara County’s best restaurants and bars line the same street. A less-known foodie scene exists just up the road in Orcutt, while estate wineries flourish in the Santa Maria Valley, where commercial winemaking started in the region nearly half-century ago.
The Pacific Ocean borders the county to the west and south, complete with beaches—some quite remote, while others are packed with sunbathers. Inland, Los Padres National Forest offers endless camping and hiking options. Across the Santa Barbara Channel sits the Channel Islands National Park, one of the least-visited preserves in the country, yet remarkable for its natural beauty, rare species, sea caves and empty shoreline.
The Region’s Top Grapes
Bright, crisp, pithy and saline, Chardonnay bottlings from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley create excitement.
From black cherry and cola in the Sta. Rita Hills to strawberry and clove in the Santa Maria Valley, this region presents a wonderland of Pinot-bilities.
Peppery and savory in cooler zones, this Syrah shows richer and more fruit-driven flavors in warmer areas. Ballard Canyon offers a middle ground between the styles.
Happy Canyon is hot enough to produce nuanced bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon that blend rich fruit with herbal intrigue.
This Sauvignon Blanc grape displays a range of styles, from mowed lawn and lemongrass freshness to passion fruit-laced tropical bliss, as well as nuttier, creamier versions.