With harvest about to kick off, Santa Barbara County wine country is undoubtedly a gorgeous weekend destination for southern California residents and tourists alike, but the actual city of Santa Barbara is often bypassed by folks en route to Solvang, Santa Ynez, and Los Olivos. Only ninety minutes north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara boasts fabulous beaches, hiking, historical architecture, and dining, endless possibilities for the curious traveler. And, for a little wine adventure away from the Harvest Festival crowds, eleven tasting rooms are hidden among otherwise industrial and residential areas, making up the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail.
To spend a day touring these urban wineries is one sans picnic, but with the unique feel of city-meets-country: the wineries along the “trail” often lack the facilities to welcome guests closer to the vineyards, and instead opt to open warehouse space or host tastings inside a hip beach-adjacent bungalow.
Just as traffic starts to pile up on the 101 North at the edge of the city, Jaffurs Wine Cellars (819 E. Montecito St., 805-962-7003) is a short drive from the Milpas Street exit and the best way to start your urban wine journey. Winemaker Craig Jaffurs focuses on Rhone varietals from select vineyard sites throughout Santa Barbara county, critically praised for being true expressions of their unique origins. Tucked into a residential street, the Jaffurs tasting room is a small warehouse marked by a stack of wine barrels outside. Cases of viognier, roussanne and syrah surround two tasting counters, where Jaffurs’ passionate and knowledgeable staff lead you through an ever-changing tasting lineup for a $10 fee (glass included.) Take home a bottle or two (or a case) – and if it’s a hot day, they’ll hold your purchase until the tasting room closes.
A visit to Whitcraft Winery (36 A S. Calle Cesar Chavez; 805-730-1680) is perfectly suited for both nerdy oenophiles and folks eager to learn more about the region’s best varietals. Winemaker and owner Chris Whitcraft turned a favorite hobby into a full-time endeavor in 1984, previously spending a decade as host of a local wine radio show. Citing California greats as chief influences—including Joe Heitz of Heitz Cellar and Burt Williams of Williams Selyem—Whitcraft has been described as a “mad scientist” for his ability to make beautiful, Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, whilst also making a domestic Lagrein, an odd Italian varietal grown in the famous French Camp Vineyard. Finding the winery can be tricky as the Whitcraft facilities are located in an industrial park, and the small tasting room can fill up quickly. Of course, the wines speak for themselves here, no fancy adornments necessary.
On a breezy day the city just feels relaxing—so a great spot to enjoy a casual lunch among the locals is The Brewhouse (229 W. Montecito St., 805-884-4664.) Menu musts include beer-battered local Halibut fish tacos or the grilled eggplant sandwich with Fontina cheese and roasted peppers. Dine al fresco or a la booth in the very casual, energetic interior. While local wines make up most of the list, a beer is a welcome refreshment; try the Brewhouse’s own Buster Brown, a robust and rich dark ale. Lighter fare can also be a good option, and lunch on the Courtyard Patio at the legendary Wine Cask (813 Anacapa St., 805-966-9463) boasts both wine-related history and a wonderful menu. Local winemaker and industry luminary Doug Margerum reclaimed the Wine Cask in 2009 after a two-year break in ownership, reinstating the Cask’s reputation for creative and delicious food matched with an outstanding wine selection. The Courtyard Patio is open for lunch Monday through Saturday, with Farmers’ Market fresh salads, flavorful flatbreads and even a Croque Madame rounding out your choices. Try the prosciutto and arugula flatbread alongside a glass of Santa Barbara syrah – divine.
Conveniently, your next stop on the Trail is right at the Wine Cask: Doug Margerum’s own Margerum Wine Co. tasting room (813 Anacapa St., 805-845-8435) is located near the front of the restaurant facing Anacapa Street. The bright, cheerful space is welcoming and unpretentious, with the tasting lineup noted on a large chalkboard. Recommended pours include SYBARITE Sauvignon Blanc ($21) and the “Uber” Syrah ($35), as well as selections from Doug’s additional winemaking endeavor, Happy Canyon Wines.
Save the best for last as the afternoon slows down, and venture over to Kunin Wines (28 Anacapa St., 805-963-9633) which is settled in a beach bungalow with a hip, modern vibe. Seth Kunin makes truly killer Rhone-style wines and has a fantastic, educated tasting room team. There is ample bar space, along with a table that seats about six for a group tasting. In addition to Santa Barbara County Syrah and an awesome southern Rhone-style blend called “Pape Star,” Kunin also makes Sauvignon Blanc and a Paso Robles-sourced Zinfandel. Cool tip – choose between the featured and library tastings, or do both (but spit!) to really get a feel for Kunin’s winemaking style.
Whether your beach retreat is for a day or a long weekend, Santa Barbara’s urban wineries offer a sampling of the region’s famous wines in a fun, approachable setting, proving that wine is so much more than a little bit country.
Written by Erin McGrath. A Los Angeles resident for nearly a decade, Erin McGrath works in the E-Commerce department at a renowned Los Angeles wine retailer. A veritable woman-about-town and lover of libations, Erin keeps up with the L.A. and Pasadena wine and dining scene, blogging at Vintwined as well as various online wine publications, including Palate Press: the Online Wine Magazine.
Main image: Wine Cask