Santa Barbara’s wine country comprises both rural estates in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys and urban wineries in towns like Solvang, Buellton and Lompoc. The Santa Ynez is the longest east-to-west valley on the western Pacific Coast, with a microclimate that is ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That has not stopped vignerons there from producing an incredible array of wines, including Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. There are nine wine-tasting routes that can be followed, but my preferred strategy is to pick a winery and have the staff at the tasting room recommend my next stop based on my obvious preferences.
Set on a 55-acre estate about 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara, this winery prides itself on being one of the first organic vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. The vineyards were initially planted in 1990 and are owned and maintained by acclaimed winemaker Bion Rice. We entered via a winding drive through the vines, ducked under a trellis heavy with grapes and found ourselves in the center of a courtyard where picnic tables were shaded by mature oaks. The air was filled with the scent of lavender, and we were overwhelmed by a feeling of tranquility as we soaked in impressive views of the valley. The winery produces Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, and the tasting room is housed in a villa made from reclaimed limestone imported from France. The property also has a separate Tuscan-style villa encompassing five guest suites that is ideal for family gatherings.
Sunstone Vineyards & Winery
125 Refugio Road, Santa Ynez. Tel. (805) 688-9463
Discreetly tucked within the cool Santa Rita Hills, Melville grows all of the grapes used to produce its mineral-driven Chardonnay, fruit-forward Pinot Noir and peppery Syrah. Founded in 1989, this family-owned winery has overcome the challenges of very dry conditions. The grounds of its Pinot plots are primarily sandy with elements of clay, while its Syrah is planted entirely in sand. This has enhanced the rich magenta color of the wines and helped to create those with prominent minerality, balanced acidity and herbaceous flavors. The Chardonnay, though appearing light and refreshing because of its pale color, is especially buttery. A new tasting room has just opened in downtown Santa Barbara in the vibrant Funk Zone arts district.
5185 East Highway 246, Lompoc. Tel. (805) 735-7030
Hidden away in oak-studded Ballard Canyon, Rusack sources some of its grapes from a vineyard plot on Santa Catalina Island. In 1919, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. purchased a sizable part of Catalina and created El Rancho Escondido, a center for Arabian horses. As time passed, the family decided to surround the facility with 5-plus acres of grapes, predominantly Zinfandels. The current owner, Wrigley Jr.’s great-granddaughter Alison Wrigley, married Geoff Rusack, and together they have been producing wines that employ the grapes from their island plot, as well as those from their 48-acre estate and other locally sourced varietals. In 2003, they made the bold move of replanting their estate vineyards to prioritize varietals best suited to the microclimate of the canyon. Rusack may be small, but its wines have developed a reputation for consistency and elegance. An inviting redwood deck encircled by oaks is a wonderful place to enjoy a picnic (cheese and cracker samplings are available for purchase in the tasting room) and spend the afternoon sampling well-balanced wines in an idyllic setting.
1819 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang. Tel. (805) 688-1278
Recommended to us by the staff at Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, this small vineyard on the western edge of Santa Barbara County proved to be our favorite stop on our wine-tasting tour. The 200-acre estate not only comprises around 40 acres of vineyards, primarily Pinot and Chardonnay, but it also raises Angus cattle. In addition, it includes an equestrian facility, olive groves and an organic vegetable farm. We were led into the tasting room housed in a 1907 homestead and graciously welcomed by the owner and winemaker, Blair Pence. His passion for winemaking is contagious. When we eventually departed, we left with a deeper understanding of arcane subjects such as the benefits of aging grapes on lees without stirring and which vintages can be enhanced by stem inclusion. Pence is energized by how best to cultivate Chardonnays on his land, where the soil is rich with both limestone and clay, and the climate is cool at night. Appointments are required for tastings.
Pence Vineyards & Winery
11909 West Highway 246, Santa Rita Hills. Tel. (805) 735-7000