Santa Barbara Wine Country
Best Things to Do
Discover this wine country located along the central California coast.
Santa Barbara's wine country has hit its stride. The first post-prohibition winery, aptly named Santa Barbara Winery, started in 1962 and slowly grew quietly until the Oscar-winning film Sideways placed Santa Barbara squarely on the map. But that has been more than a decade and the region has shed its Hollywood association and matured into a viable world-class wine region.
Hip boutique shops and fine dining restaurants replaced many of the kitschy tourist attractions that used to prevail here, and wine bars and tasting rooms have proliferated. Not all the locals are happy with the surge in popularity, but considering the economic boom it's unlikely this rural stretch of Santa Barbara County will ever regress to its folksy past. The Santa Ynez Valley is the inland yin to Santa Barbara's coastal yang, a landlocked flipside — just a 30-minute drive from the Waterfront — where coastal moisture gives way to a dry, chaparral-scented breeze and cowboy boots are still as common as flip-flops.
From Highway 154 atop the San Marcos Pass, the Valley spreads out as the ocean and islands disappear in the rearview mirror. Gnarled oaks mix incongruously with ruler-straight rows of grape vines, and the mirrored surface of Lake Cachuma replaces the blue Pacific. The unusual east-west orientation of the mountains allows coastal fog to filter through the valley — creating some of the coolest viticultural areas in California. The extended time on the vine allowed by this climate helps develop the acids, flavors and tannins needed to produce wines of distinctive character. More than half of the grapes grown here are purchased by vintners outside the area who have developed a taste for the fruit of Santa Barbara County's wine growing appellations: Happy Canyon, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.
Once home to just a handful of vineyards, it has come into its own and now boasts more than 120 wineries, and it keeps on growing. Keep in mind that its wine-making history dates back more than 200 years when Spanish missionaries planted vine cuttings here for sacramental wine and for sale as raisins.
Even if you're not a wine lover, you'll enjoy the soothing landscape. In addition, you'll find diverse restaurants, charming inns, unique boutiques, art galleries and tiny museums, as well as an Indian casino and a cowboy saloon tucked into the scenic countryside. Recreational options range from golf and horseback riding to glider rides and hiking trails, while scenic back-country roads offer idyllic bike rides. Indeed, the valley has hosted the Amgen Tour of California professional cycling race. While swimming is not allowed, Lake Cachuma does offer boating and fishing, with rentals available. While going from tasting room to tasting room is the most popular pastime, there is plenty to be savored between sips.
Six towns dot the valley map: Ballard, Los Alamos, Buellton, Santa Ynez, Solvang and Los Olivos. Each has a distinct character and flavor. Buellton, located where Highway 101 converges with State Highway 246, is the commercial gateway into the valley, but Los Alamos, just up the road, is actually the northernmost point of entry.