October 2019 California’s Finest: In Santa Barbara Wine Country, the Glass Is Always Half Full

California’s Finest: In Santa Barbara Wine Country, the Glass Is Always Half Full

On the vine in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
On the vine in Santa Barbara Wine Country.
Photo by Blake Bronstad
The people are friendly, the climate is sunny, and the pours are world-class.
Tell people you’re headed to California wine country, and they immediately assume you’re talking about Napa and Sonoma. True, these two NorCal valleys have long reigned as the state’s wine-region royals, but if you’re looking for a lesser-explored spot, an even more laid-back vibe, and – many would argue – wines every bit as impressive, head down the coast to the seaside city of Santa Barbara and its surrounding wine country.

Less than 100 miles north of L.A., “Santa Barbara Wine Country is like Napa and Sonoma 25 to 30 years ago. The people are unaffected, and the wines are amazing,” says my companion for the day, Melanie, a local oenophile and guide with Virtuoso on-site American Excursionist. She’s picked me up in town at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara for a day of wine touring in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley. Made famous by the 2004 cult classic film Sideways, this bucolic valley is the largest of Santa Barbara Wine Country’s six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), which collectively comprise one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the U.S. The valley itself runs “sideways” (east to west, rather than north to south), resulting in distinct microclimates that allow vintners to grow a wide variety of grapes.

On this sunny summer day, we concentrate on Happy Canyon, a sub-AVA that lies on the easternmost edge of the Santa Ynez AVA. With its hot daytime temperatures and high concentration of magnesium in the soil, it’s the sweet spot for grapes such as syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc, as well as petit verdot, grenache, and cabernet franc. Fortunately, my visit includes tours and tastings at two family-owned and-operated wine estates not open to the public.
Touring Happy Canyon Vineyard.
Touring Happy Canyon Vineyard.
At Happy Canyon Vineyard, located on the expansive Piocho Ranch, I catch a glimpse of a polo practice during a driving tour of the property with winemaker Sean Pitts. (The ranch includes two regulation-size polo fields, a nod to the owner’s passion for the sport.) Later, Pitts and I sit down to a one-on-one tasting of six wines – beginning with a bright 2018 sauvignon blanc and concluding with a 2015 cabernet sauvignon, blended with small amounts of merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot – on the shaded porch of the ranch’s family home.

Things only get happier at our next stop, Grassini Family Vineyards, a private estate where a picnic straight out of a Monet painting awaits. But first, there are wines to taste. Choosing a favorite is no simple task, but the 2016 Articondo Proprietary Blend hits an especially high note. Named after Articondo Grassini, the first member of the Grassini family to leave Italy and start a new life in America, it’s a cuvée of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. And, like all Grassini wines, it’s made entirely from estate-grown grapes.

On our drive back to Santa Barbara, mellowed by good wine and drinking in the seductive scenery of rolling hills, well-tended vineyards, and sprawling ranches, I remark how approachable everyone seems to be. “People here are very welcoming,” my guide agrees. “While this area makes world-class wines, you can still sit down with the winemakers during a private tour and tasting at many winery estates. You’ll find small-town experiences and down-to-earth people around every corner. There’s nothing pretentious or corporate about this place.”
Pouring it on at Grassini Family Vineyards.
Pouring it on at Grassini Family Vineyards.
In the city itself, you can taste wines born in the Santa Ynez Valley and neighboring AVAs via the easily walkable (or bikeable) Urban Wine Trail. Created by eight like-minded winemakers in 2007, it showcases more than 30 intimate tasting rooms in several different neighborhoods. One must-visit in downtown’s Presidio neighborhood is El Paseo, a complex of historic adobe buildings housing half a dozen tasting rooms. Among them: Happy Canyon Vineyard, with a polo-inspired interior; Grassini Family Vineyards, where leather chairs and a fireplace invite tasters to linger; and Barden Wines, which focuses on wines made from grapes sourced from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (of Sideways fame).

The trail extends to Santa Barbara’s waterfront, through the artsy Funk Zone. This once-neglected, now lively warehouse district holds more than half of the Wine Trail’s tasting rooms. Don’t miss The Valley Project, Santa Barbara Wine Collective, and Margerum Wine Company’s new location across from Hotel Californian; if you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll meet award-winning winemaker Doug Margerum, a well-known name in Santa Barbara’s wine and food circles, and a perfect example of the affable people who define the region’s wine culture. A tasting with him is like having a glass of wine in a friend’s kitchen. During my visit, Margerum talks about his desire to create wines that are both food- and wallet-friendly, shows me photos of his beloved dogs (yes, his tasting room is
also canine-friendly), and proudly shares that one of his sauvignon blancs was served at President Obama’s final state dinner in 2016. He sends me off with restaurant recommendations and the location of his hands-down favorite place to get ice cream – Rori’s Artisanal Creamery (the vanilla bean and black pepper pistachio alone are worth a visit to Santa Barbara)

Town and country winetasting aside, Santa Barbara (aka the American Riviera, due to its coastal vibe and pleasant Mediterranean clime) makes for an intoxicating vacation for a number of other reasons. “My clients – many from Los Angeles or Orange County – love Santa Barbara because it has so much to offer, including a handful of lovely hotels,” says Kimberly Gavin, a Virtuoso travel advisor.
A must-visit on the Urban Wine Trail: Margerum Wine Company’s tasting room.
A must-visit on the Urban Wine Trail: Margerum Wine Company’s tasting room.
“Beyond winetasting, you can relax by the pool or beach for a few nights, go whale-watching, or take a boat ride to the Channel Islands offshore. And, of course, there’s always a new restaurant to try.” One of her favorites: Caruso’s, with its surfside setting on Montecito’s upscale Miramar Beach and dishes featuring ingredients from local farmers, fisherfolk, and ranchers.

Indeed, Santa Barbara is garnering recognition for its rising culinary scene. This past June, 11 local restaurants were awarded a Michelin Plate (the Michelin Guide’s new designation of quality), including four at Virtuoso hotels: Bella Vista at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, Hotel Californian’s Blackbird, The Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, and the dining room at Belmond El Encanto. Now there’s even more reason to raise your next toast in Santa Barbara.

Best Bets for Savoring the American Riviera


Your travel advisor can work with Virtuoso on-site connection American Excursionist to craft exclusive and customizable experiences in Santa Barbara Wine Country. Highly recommended: a private tasting with a renowned winemaker and a horseback excursion on Santa Ynez Valley ranch trails. Contact your travel advisor for details.


Overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands, just steps from famous Butterfly Beach, the 206-room Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara has long been a favorite of Hollywood’s elite, thanks to its 22 acres of lush landscaped grounds and secluded (shhh ... we won’t say you’re here) accommodations. Dine on Italian-inspired, California coastal cuisine at Bella Vista, indulge in an 80-minute vinotherapy treatment in the spa, and see why Ty Lounge’s Biltmore Fuerte was named Santa Barbara’s 2018 Official Drink. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 spa credit.


Traveling round-trip from Los Angeles, Oceania Cruises’ seven-day Stars of the Vine voyage features a call at Santa Barbara. Shore excursions from the 684-passenger Sirena include a day in the Santa Ynez Valley for exclusive tastings at two of its most celebrated wineries, followed by a picnic lunch. Departures: December 7 and 14, 2019.

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