Santa Barbara Wine Country Tasting Tips

Mo Wine Please

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara has a well-deserved reputation as a fun and gorgeous place to visit. In addition to the beautiful beaches, the great restaurants, and possible sightings of Oprah, Santa Barbara and the outlying areas provide for some fabulous wine tasting.

The movie “Sideways” was filmed in the Santa Barbara area. This great map shows the local sites that appear in the film.

The Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) stretches from San Francisco down to Santa Barbara County but the areas around Santa Barbara boast some features making it unique.

The coastal range of mountains that runs north to south on most of the west coast takes a turn in Santa Barbara County with a 50-mile east-west jog. This creates almost a wall that has a dramatic effect on the climate. Fog rolls in over a very specific path and the combination of the cool ocean breezes and the elevation climbs of the hillside make for dozens and dozens of microclimates within a small geographic area. There can be a ten-degree temperature swing between vineyards that are only a couple of miles apart creating some very interesting opportunities for winemakers.

And some pretty amazing wines.

The sport of wine tasting is a bit different in Santa Barbara County than in Napa or Sonoma Counties.

Yes, there are some wineries that have a tasting room on site right by their vineyards and production barns. But there are also lots and lots of very small wineries who own some acreage on which they grow their grapes, but their tasting room is located “in town”.

From Santa Maria in the north to the city of Santa Barbara in the south, there are a number of spots which feature storefront tasting rooms scattered among the restaurants and gift shops. Many of these are owner-operated but there are also a few co-ops at which a group of very small wineries share the space giving visitors the chance to taste wines from lots of producers in one stop.

A few tips:

Before You Go

Visit the Santa Barbara Vintners website. It is jam packed with all the information you will need to plan an amazing trip. The first thing you should do is ask them to mail you their touring guide.

Santa Barbara Vintners Touring Guide

Excuse me?!  What are you talking about?! Isn’t there an app for that?

Actually the Santa Barbara Vintners do have an app and I recommend downloading it before you go.

You can also download the maps and lists from the website but the Touring Guide that the fine folks at Santa Barbara Vintners will mail to you – actual snail mail – is much, much easier to read and it is awesome.

Trust me.

Once you have the Touring Guide (because I’m really not going to let you plan your trip without it) the fun begins.

The Touring Guide provides information about the wineries including a description of the wine produced, location of the winery or tasting room, if an appointment is necessary and the hours of operation. Everything you need to select the places you’d like to visit and map out your days.

Where To Stay

Where you stay really depends on how you want to spend your days.  We stayed in Santa Barbara and made the hour or so drive up to Solvang/Los Olivos/Buellton one day and Lompoc another day.

But there are lots of hotels in the Solvang/Los Olivos/Buellton area if you prefer to not make the daily drive from Santa Barbara.

Solvang, in particular, has a bustling downtown area.  You can step out of your hotel and stroll the town shopping, dining and sampling lots of different wines in the storefront tasting rooms.

No need to worry about a designated driver!

Perhaps you want to spend one night in downtown Santa Barbara and another night or two in the country. The world is your oyster.

But plan ahead. Hotels book up and rates rise around the time of special events.

Specific Wine Tasting Sites

As your Touring Guide will show you, wineries and tasting rooms are spread all over the area but there are a couple of notable spots to consider.

The Wine Ghetto in Lompoc – really just an industrial park, this VERY unassuming spot is home to quite a number of tasting rooms for small wineries.  Our favorite was the Santa Rita Hills Tasting Room where, for a $10 tasting fee, you are treated to wines from five or six different wineries from the Santa Rita Hills area.

Urban Wine Trail – This is a section in downtown Santa Barbara – a few square blocks – that boasts a collection of hip and cool tasting rooms. It is like a neighborhood full of chic bars, but each bar serves only their own wines.

Our favorite spot on the Urban Wine Trail is the AVA Santa Barbara. This tasting room features wines from The Valley Project – an exploration of all the different growing areas in Santa Barbara Wine Country.  While the Santa Rita Hills Tasting Room in Lompoc lets you taste wines from the same area but produced by lots of different winemakers, AVA Santa Barbara lets you taste wine from lots of different locations but all produced by the same winemaker.

The owner of AVA Santa Barbara is Seth Kunin (of the also excellent Kunin Wines).  Since Kunin Wines focuses on Rhone varietals, Seth created The Valley Project so he could experiment with lots of different wines and use the entire box of crayons that the growing areas around Santa Barbara County provide.

And check out the amazing, hand drawn chalk map of the entire Santa Barbara Wine Country which graces the wall of the AVA Santa Barbara Tasting Room walll.

AVA Santa Barbara Map

General Tasting Tips

Be Responsible!

Of course the most important, A#1 thing to do while you are wine tasting is to be responsible.

Enjoy a leisurely time at each winery/tasting room. Limit yourself to three or four spots over the course of an entire day.

Consider bringing along a designated driver or hiring a limo.

Share a tasting between two people.

Use the spit bucket. If the idea of a communal spit bucket grosses you out, ask for a plastic cup to use as your own personal spittoon.  It’s a little easier to discretely sip and spit when you aren’t spitting into the giant silver bucket on the bar.

Buy some wine!

It is fun to pick up a couple of bottles of the wines you liked along the way. Virtually all wineries will send the wine back home for you if, and this is a biggie, if your state’s laws allow it. Best to check this out ahead of time.

Let’s say you are picking up a bottle here and a bottle there and want to put them all together into one big shipment at the end of your visit.  There are places in the area who will do this for you (if your state allows it).

But be very certain to confirm the hours of operation so that you don’t arrive on a Sunday with two cases of wine to ship only to discover that you misread the hours and the place is, in fact closed. Not that anything like this happened to us…

Most airlines will allow you to bring wine on board as CHECKED luggage. Some wineries will sell or give you a case box in which you can collect your treasures. Or you might want to purchase one of the travel bags sold at many winery gift shops that is advertised to be “airline approved”.

Bringing your wine as checked luggage is a great option if your state does not allow shipments. Also, the checked bag fee will almost definitely be less than the cost of shipping your wine and you will not have to worry about the climate conditions affecting your wine as it travels across the country in a UPS truck.

Protect your wine!

If you are collecting bottles along the way, remember that wine DOES NOT like extremes in temperature, especially heat.  Always, always bring a cooler or insulated bag with lots of ice packs to keep the wine cool.  I pack a good supply of Ziploc bags to make ice packs using ice from the hotel’s ice machine.

Stash the bottles in your cooler until you get back to your hotel at the end of each day.


Santa Barbara lives up to its reputation. With gorgeous scenery everywhere you turn, delicious, well-crafted wines and a laid back feel, this wine country is worth the trip.

Even if you don’t get to see Oprah.

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Thanks for stopping by!


  1. I want to go!!! I think I will tell Chris that he should plan a trip for us soon:)
    Kim recently posted…The Good and the Bad = LifeMy Profile

  2. GREAT post! Now if I could just get out to California for a wine trip! Have a great week, Mo!! xoxo
    Sandy recently posted…Virtuoso Travel Week!My Profile

  3. Santa Barbara + wine tasting + Oprah= my utopia. Sounds like a great time. Great informative post, Mo. I love California. Have a wonderful week!

  4. I *loved* Sideways! I had no idea (or I’d forgotten) that it was filmed in Santa Barbara! I also didn’t know that tastings were handled a little differently in Santa Barbara than Napa or Sonoma. Good to know! AND THEY HAVE AN APP FOR THAT!! They are on the ball! Awesome!
    Also “Urban Wine Trail” is a fantastic name! (and that chalk drawing is FANTASTIC) but most of all…delicious wine!! YUM!!! –Lisa
    The Dose of Reality recently posted…Back To The Old SchoolMy Profile

  5. We stopped in Santa Barbara for the afternoon last summer with the kids – sadly, no wine was involved. Didn’t see Oprah, but did see Jason Segel – and I NEVER see celebrities!
    Dana recently posted…Always, my babyMy Profile

  6. i need to go back! my sister went to college at ucsb and i used to spend my holidays, hanging out with her. good times! dean and i did the urban wine trail not too long ago. swear to God, we tasted wine out of the back of this guy’s truck and it was amazing! i can’t make that story up.
    catherine gacad recently posted…These Are a Few of My Favorite ThingsMy Profile

    • I love stories like that! My favorite part about on-site wine tasting is learning the stories behind the people and the winery. Those stories and memories of the tasting bring added enjoyment to drinking the wine!
      Mo Lux recently posted…Making MemoriesMy Profile

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