If you’re looking for your next wine adventure, Santa Barbara wine country might be the destination for you.
This gem caught the eye of wine lovers thanks to a little Hollywood magic from the movie “Sideways.” And snagging the title of Wine Enthusiast’s 2021 Wine Region of the Year sealed the deal.
If you’re planning a visit, you’re in for a treat. Santa Barbara is known for its world-class wines, especially cool-climate favorites like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Plus, the vibe is much more relaxed (and wallet-friendly) than northern neighbors like Napa.
As an American Wine Expert who’s personally toured the region, I’m sharing the inside scoop. So, you’ll be in the know for your wine getaway.
Santa Barbara Wine Country at a Glance
- First Wine Grapes Planted: 1782
- First AVA Established: 1981
- Climate: Cool to Moderate Mediterranean
- AVAs: 7
- Wineries: 275+
- Grape Varieties: 70+
- Top Wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache
History of the Santa Barbara Wine Region
Let’s take a quick trip back in time to see how Santa Barbara turned into the wine region it is today.
It all started with a few vines planted by a missionary nearly 250 years ago.
- 1782 – Father Junipero Serra brought Mission grape vine cuttings from Mexico. These were the first wine grapes to be planted in what’s now Santa Barbara’s Milpas District.
- 1800s – The first Vitis vinifera vines were imported from France by Justinian Caire and planted on Santa Cruz Island. By the end of the century, there were 45 vineyards and 260 acres of grapes.
- Early 1900s – Prohibition put a cork in wine production, bringing a dry spell to the wine industry.
- 1960s – The first commercial vineyard was planted by Uriel Nielsen and Bill De Mattei in Santa Maria Valley. And Pierre Lafond founded the first post-prohibition commercial winery, Santa Barbara Winery.
- 1970s – Winemaking began to pick up speed with both large commercial wineries and small producers opening up shop.
- 1980s – Santa Maria Valley was recognized as the first AVA in the region (and second in California). Santa Ynez Valley was added soon after.
- 1990s – Wine became the county’s largest agricultural sector.
- 2000s – Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon joined the AVA lineup. The film “Sideways” turned the spotlight on Santa Barbara and its Pinot Noir, sparking a surge in tourist interest. And giving Merlot an undeserved bad rap.
- 2010s – Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos District got their own AVA status.
- 2020s – Alisos Canyon became the seventh AVA. The number of wineries has grown to more than 275, with 70+ grape varieties.
Santa Barbara Climate and Terroir
Santa Barbara County wine country is sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo County, along California’s central coast. Just east of the city of Santa Barbara, this wine region stretches 69 miles long and 45 miles wide.
Unlike the rest of California where north-south mountain ranges protect vineyards, Santa Barbara’s run east to west. The Santa Ynez mountains and San Rafael mountains lie sideways (hence the famous film’s name). This setup funnels cool air and morning fog from the Pacific Ocean into the transverse valleys.
While the ocean influence makes Santa Barbara one of California’s coolest wine-growing regions, it’s still a Mediterranean climate. That means warm, dry summers and mild winters. The lack of rain allows for a longer growing season, with grapes lingering on the vine.
And as you move inland, temps rise one degree for every mile. This creates many different micro-climates, perfect for a variety of wine grapes.
Stroll through the coastal vineyards, and you’ll find cool-climate Burgundian grapes thriving in the morning fog and afternoon sun. Head inland, and it’s like stepping into another world, perfect for the sun-loving varieties from the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux.
Down below, there are almost as many soil types to choose from as micro-climates. From limestone that helps grapes hold onto their zingy acidity to diatomaceous earth that intensifies wine flavors. Clay loams keep roots quenched for water-loving varieties. And sandy soils bring out fruit flavors.
This wonderful mix is why you can sip on all sorts of wine styles here. There’s something for every taste!
Santa Barbara Wines
Santa Barbara is one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in the world. The many micro-climates make it possible for more than 70 grape varieties to be grown here.
The cooler coastal areas are perfect for ones found in France’s Burgundy region, with Pinot Noir claiming over a third of plantings.
The style varies, but it often has ripe red fruits like cherries and strawberries. And sometimes herbal, floral, or spice notes. Plus, a freshness from the cool-climate acidity.
Chardonnay comes in at a close second. I find them zestier and more elegant compared to the buttery Chardonnays of warmer California regions.
You’ll also see Syrah and its Rhône buddies like Grenache, Viognier, and Mourvèdre. Santa Barbara’s Syrahs are some of my favorites. The dark berries and peppery notes are balanced by lively acidity and smooth tannins.
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Grenache Blanc
- Pinot Gris
American Viticultural Areas of Santa Barbara
Now, let’s get to know Santa Barbara’s AVAs. Each of these seven spots has a unique climate, geography, and soil. That means they’re each great at growing certain types of grapes and making different styles of wine.
If you’re into wines that are more on the light and elegant side, the coastal AVAs will be your go-to. Love something with a bit more oomph? The inland AVAs are best for bold, sun-loving grapes.
It’s all about finding the places that make the wine you’re into. And in Santa Barbara, you’re pretty much spoiled for choice!
Santa Maria Valley AVA
Wine Varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Sparkling Wines
Overview: The Santa Maria Valley, right at the top of the county, has been growing grapes since the mid-1800s. The cold air and fog from the Pacific work well for cool-climate wines.
Santa Ynez Valley AVA
Wine Varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir near the coast; Bordeaux, Rhône, and Italian varieties inland
Overview: Stretching across 30 miles, Santa Ynez Valley starts off cool and foggy but gets warmer and sunnier the further inland you go. This means you get a bit of everything here.
Sta. Rita Hills AVA
Wine Varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah
Overview: Tucked within the Santa Ynez Valley and closest to the coast, Sta. Rita Hills is one of the coolest and foggiest AVAs. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah love it here. Fun fact: Santa was abbreviated to Sta. in 2006 when Chilean producer Viña Santa Rita claimed the AVA’s name infringed on their trademark.
Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA
Wine Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Grenache
Overview: Over on the east side of the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon is the warmest and sunniest region in Santa Barbara County. This makes it a great spot for warmer-climate varieties.
Ballard Canyon AVA
Wine Varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Grenache Blanc
Overview: Ballard Canyon might be the smallest AVA, but it’s got a sweet spot in the middle of the valley with just the right kind of weather for Rhône grapes, especially Syrah.
Los Olivos District AVA
Wine Varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Tempranillo
Overview: Nestled between the cooler Ballard Canyon and the warmer Happy Canyon, Los Olivos District gets the best of both worlds. Cool nights and occasional foggy mornings give way to sunny days. And the geography and soil are unusually consistent for this area.
Check out my picks for the best Los Olivos wineries.
Alisos Canyon AVA
Wine Varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc
Overview: The new kid on the block, Alisos Canyon is sandwiched between the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys. It’s making a name for itself with Rhône-style wines that thrive in its unique climate and geography.
Potential Future AVAs
Foxen Canyon – The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail is a connector between Los Olivos and Santa Maria Valley, known for varieties like Syrah, Riesling, and Sangiovese.
Los Alamos Valley – Tucked between Santa Maria and Buellton, this hilly area grows a variety of grapes like Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.
Santa Barbara Highlands – A high desert area in the county’s northeast, showing promise with Rhône wines and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Santa Barbara Wine Country Towns
In addition to Santa Barbara’s seven AVAs dotted with winery estates, the county is also home to a number of picturesque small towns. Many of these are filled with wine tasting rooms that are just a stroll away from each other.
Plus, you’ll find even more urban tasting rooms in the city of Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail.
Downtown Santa Barbara Areas
There are three main neighborhoods for wine tasting:
Funk Zone: 10 blocks of converted warehouses with wineries, breweries, shops, and restaurants.
Presidio: Historical site of the Spanish fortresses, home to some top wine producers and high-end dining.
Midtown: Industrial area with a mix of 6 wineries and several breweries.
Wine Country Towns
Los Olivos: More than 40 tasting rooms in downtown Los Olivos, plus another dozen or so nearby.
Solvang: Danish-style town with 20+ tasting rooms and additional Solvang wineries in the area.
Santa Ynez: A blend of sophistication and cowboy culture, with numerous wineries.
Los Alamos: Old West ambiance with saloons and wineries circling the town.
Buellton: Hosts more than 10 tasting rooms and a selection of craft breweries.
Lompoc: Known for the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, featuring 20 urban wineries in an industrial setting and numerous estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills area.
Santa Maria: The northernmost hub with 30+ tasting rooms in and around the town.
Planning Your Trip to Santa Barbara Wine Country
- Best Time of Year to Visit: Spring or fall for less crowds and nice weather
- Closest Airport: Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA)
- Drive Time to Wine Country: 45 minutes from Santa Barbara, 3 hours from Los Angeles
- Where to Stay:
- Top Wine Tasting Tours:
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