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A Tasting Room Tour of Santa Barbara

In this beautiful seaside town, you can taste many of California’s most exciting wines without ever getting in your car

Santa Barbara is known for many things—the beautiful Spanish-style buildings, the sunny beaches, the famous residents (Robb Lowe, Cat Cora, Oprah). But recently the city and its surrounding area have become famous for something else: fantastic wine. In the past decade, Santa Barbara county has become arguably the most exciting wine region in the United States. With five distinct AVAs, the West Coast’s only east-west transverse mountain range (the Santa Rita Hills), and a supportive environment in which the best winemakers collaborate rather than compete, the area produces everything from bright sauvignon blancs to rich syrahs, and even some unusual sparkling wines.

It used to be that you had to drive around the county or book a pricey tour to enjoy all of this vinicultural bounty. But in the past few years, many of the best wineries have opened tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara. Now you can try many local wines just by taking a leisurely stroll. Here are seven of the most interesting tasting rooms in town.

1. Au Bon Climat 

The tasting room and wine library at Au Bon Climat
Jim Clendenon has been making wine in Santa Barbara County since 1982, long before the world started to take notice of the region. Before opening his winery, Clendenon studied with Louis Jadot and other winemakers in Burgundy, and his wines show the restrained, balanced style that he learned there. Au Bon Climat’s tasting room is located in a vine-covered Spanish-style building in the Presidio neighborhood. It doubles as a wine library for their older vintages—which can’t be found anywhere else—and offers tastings of the winery’s acclaimed chardonnays and pinot noirs, like the bright, crisp, and slightly oaky Santa Barbara County chardonnay and the bold but balanced Isabelle pinot noir.

2. Margerum Wines

The M5 at Margerum Wines
Although Doug Margerum only founded his winery in 2001, as the former owner of the award-winning Wine Cask Restaurant and an adjacent wine store that championed local wines, he has been an important figure in the Santa Barbara wine community for decades. At the Margerum tasting room, next door to Au Bon Climat, you can try wines like his acclaimed Sybarite sauvignon blanc, which has the bright acid and minerality typically associated with New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc balanced with the fuller bodied stone fruit flavors, and the M5, a rich blend of grenache, syrah, and other red varietals with notes of dried cherries and balanced tannins. Then pop back to the newly opened Reserve tasting room, just a few steps away, where you can try wines from Margerum’s Barden label, all made from grapes grown in the Santa Rita Hills AVA. 

3. Santa Barbara Winery

Tasting among the barrels at Santa Barbara Winery

Many of the city’s tasting rooms are clustered in the Funk Zone, a rehabilitated industrial zone near the beach. One of the biggest is Santa Barbara Winery, which is also the oldest winery in the county. Started in 1962 by Pierre Lafond (who has since opened another winery, as well as restaurants and shops, in the area), it was the first winery to open here since prohibition and had to use grapes shipped from northern California—until Lafond also planted the first vineyard in the region, in 1964. These days the winery makes a wide variety of wines, from the chardonnays, pinot noirs, and syrahs the region is best known for to less common varietals like langrein and primativo. Their white wines are made just behind the busy tasting room, and on weekends you can try wines like their Great Oaks sauvignon blanc, which has citrus blossom aromas and hints of grapefruit, at tables set up among the casks.

4. Pali Winery

Pali's Santa Barbara Tasting Room

Just across the street is the tasting room for Pali Winery, which opened in 2005 and specializes in pinot noir. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and large patio, the spot feels like a cross between a traditional tasting room and a wine bar and is a favorite place for locals who want to grab a glass and hang out for a bit. Try a flight of pinots to learn about all the ways this one grape can be used, from the Huntington, a medium-bodied wine that tastes of ripe red fruits with a hint of smoke, to the Durell, which has a complex, smooth flavor with hints of plum and black currant. Then grab a glass from the winery’s Tower 15 label, which makes a wider variety of wines, including a delicious, fruity rosé. 

5. Riverbench Winery

Champagne-style wines at Riverbench

A block away is the small, comfortable tasting room for Riverbench Winery, which specializes in pinot noirs and chardonnays from the winery’s vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. The tasting room offers flights of five different chardonnays or pinots, and it also offers a flight of its champagne-style sparkling wines—some of the very few sparkling wines being produced in the county. There’s the Cork Jumper blanc de blancs, which is bright and crisp but has a surprising smoky bacon flavor on the finish; the blanc de noir, which has a hint of licorice on the nose and a rich flavor of pear, apple, and lemon; and the demi-sec, which has hints of peach candy and a surprisingly light finish.

6. The Santa Barbara Wine Collective

The Santa Barbara Wine Collective
Tucked behind Riverbench, away from the street, you’ll find the spacious tasting room for The Santa Barbara Wine Collective, which showcases the wines of six different local wineries: The Pairing, Sandhi, Fess Parker, Babcock, and Ca’Del Grevino. The Wine Collective’s goal is to teach visitors about the unique terroir and microclimates of Santa Barbara County and to demonstrate how those qualities affect the area’s wines. The extremely knowledgeable staff can take you through a tasting of wines from one winery or just one varietal—showing you, for instance, the full range of chardonnays produced in the area. Alternatively, they can design a curated tasting to explore just one corner of the county and teach you how winemakers can produce wildly different wines from grapes grown only yards apart.

7. Jaffurs Wine Cellers

Jaffurs Wine Cellers
A mile away, in a quieter part of town, Craig Jaffurs, the owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellers, is making some of the best wines in town. The tasting room is among the presses and barrels in the industrial-feeling winery. (Watch out for forklifts in the small parking lot.) For a tasting fee of only $10 you can try wines like their viognier, which tastes of honeysuckles; their jammy, smoky, slightly spicy grenache; and, if you’re lucky and they happen to have it open, their reserve Upslope syrah, which has a rich, spicy flavor with notes of dried cherries and oak. 

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