santa barbara wine country

One of the greatest things about living in the Los Angeles area according to writer,  lifestyle expert, and confessed wine lover Martha McCully is the freedom to hop in the car and head north for two hours to be transported to the land of horse (and camel) ranches, citrus, and endless vineyards in time for dinner. Enjoy her front seat ride to Santa Barbara wine country, which happens to be home to 175 wineries and tasting rooms producing some of the best vino in all of CA. Here are a few of our favorites.

Santa Barbara Wine Country Cruising

Santa Barbara County, just two hours from L.A. includes the quintessential California coastal town of Santa Barbara, beloved for its urban tasting rooms, gorgeous weather and Spanish revival architecture as well as Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley home to some of CA’s best wines, winemakers, and vineyards. It’s the sun, fog, and ocean breeze that makes the famed wine regions’ conditions perfect for production. A relatively new wine-making region, though you would never guess that from the old-world style of their signature vino. Wine connoisseurs take note: there are seven appellations or AVAs (American Viticultural Area) in Santa Barbara County with the most recent Alisos Canyon AVA federally recognized in 2020.

Folded Hills Winery, Farmstead and Ranch

Image Courtesy of Folded Hills Winery

If rolling hills, white rail fences, delicious wine, an organic farm stand, and proximity to the 101 are part of your criteria, don’t miss this gem, Folded Hills. Andrew (Andy) Busch of the Anheuser-Busch family traded in his beer-making roots to make award-winning wines when he and his wife Kim bought and rejuvenated the ranch in 2014. Now the wines are blended by Michael Brugheli (Angela Osborne was the winemaker until 2020) and each has a story.  Like the Lily Rosé, named after Andy’s great grandmother Lily Anheuser who married his great grandfather Adolphus Busch, one of 24 children. Try the Adolphus Syrah or the Grant Grenache inspired by Ulysses S. Grant’s homestead in St. Louis, Andy’s hometown. Folded Hills wines are organically grown and naturally made from the 600-acre ranch and available at their tasting room. Make sure to visit and feed George the camel, the two Clydesdales, and Zazu the zebra. It’s the next best thing to experiencing an African safari, with the added benefit of local wine tasting.

McKinney Family Vineyards

Image Courtesy of McKinney Family Vineyards

What happens when a 6’8” professional volleyball champion feels his life passion is to make wine and plants his family’s 10 acre-property in Santa Ynez Valley himself, literally vine by vine? Just what you would expect: Incredibly bold, hand-crafted McKinney Family Vineyards wines, pressed with vigor and blended by intuition. The odyssey of Matt McKinney involves family pride, physical stamina, and a highly talented palate. With names like Siren, Queen Charlemagne, Napoleon’s Secret, and The Beast, every one of their highly sought-after wines tells a story. Reserve the two-hour vineyard tour and tasting hosted by the soulful all-in-one vineyard manager, accountant, and now champion winemaker. Or try the two-hour tasting at The Tasting Room at their winery in Buellton. And if you can’t make the trip, you can join their online wine club.

Dierberg Star Lane Vineyard

Image Courtesy of Star Lane Vineyard

The castle on the hill in Happy Canyon sounds like it could be the setting for a fairy tale, and in a sense, it is. 1500 feet above sea level, Star Lane Vineyard is transportive; you’re not quite sure if you’re still in Santa Ynez or have journeyed to Tuscany or another green planet. Owned and run by Jim and Mary Dierberg the multi-generational estate vineyard is set on150 acres with spectacular views over the Santa Maria Valley. Helmed by winemaker Tyler Thomas, their signature Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are produced by combining scientific winemaking methods and a deep instinctive approach.  “Great wines are discovered, not made,” says Thomas. Visit their Tasting Room at their Drum Canyon Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hill or try the Star Lane Experience, a curated estate tour, and private wine and cheese tasting. Don’t miss their signature cabernets.

Peake Ranch Vineyard

Image Courtesy of Firma Consultants

The Fibonacci design of this new boutique winery’s logo and label hints that you’re about to see how the science of nature comes to life in a wine glass. “One thing leads to another,” says our tasting guide and the director of all things Peake Ranch, Perry Koon, of the Fibonacci philosophy that inspires the winemaking at Peake Ranch Winery. Located in Buellton in the Sta. Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County (well worth the four-mile drive off the 10) the cool Pacific air flows into the Santa Ynez Valley leading to the creation of wine with a deep intensity of flavors. Peake Ranch is known for chardonnay and pinot noir with structured acidity instead of overripe fruit so neither is too heavy. Head to the outdoor tasting patio to enjoy sweeping views of their 50-acre vines and to feel truly feel far away from urban anything. They even allow you to bring in food so you relax back on one of their comfy couches and enjoy your tasting without a care in the world.

Where To Stay in Santa Barbara Wine Country

Image Courtesy of Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort

Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is a classic dude ranch next to Folded Hills and a short drive to many of the area’s best vineyards (not that you will want to leave) that combines an old-world feeling with modern luxury. Riding trails, two golf courses, tennis courts, a pool, spa and a horseback (or hay) ride to a ranch for breakfast are all part of the Alisal experience. They also offer special California weekend cooking events like a BBQ Bootcamp.

Best Places to Eat and Drink in Santa Barbara Wine Country

Margerum Tasting Room, downtown Santa Barbara

The combination of ocean views, Santa Barbara Spanish design, charcuterie boards, prosciutto panini, pizzas (try the GF cauliflower crust) and Doug Margerum’s extensive winemaking experience makes for an unforgettable lunch al fresco at the Margerum Tasting Room. It’s also the place to stock your cellar.  Margerum Wine Company produces limited quantities of wines made from Santa Barbara County grapes including a Riviera Rosé, Uber Syrah, Radian Pinot Noir, and an Amaro that this writer will be packing up and shipping wherever I go from now on. And don’t leave without a bottle (or 3) of Margerum Estate olive oil, it’s outstanding, just like the wines.

S.Y. Kitchen, Santa Ynez

Ask any foodie or local where to eat and they will say S.Y. Kitchen (by the same owners of longtime Brentwood hotspot Toscana). In the heart of the quaint town of Santa Ynez, farm-to-table takes on a new meaning here with outdoor dining that starts with warm Bob’s Well Bread served on a cutting board with Calabrian chili, salt, butter, and extra virgin olive oil. Their wood-fired pizzas, fresh pea salad (in season), and home-made pasta such as wild mushroom pappardelle and maccheroncini al brasato (short rib ragu) are so fresh they’ll linger long in your culinary memory.  Go for lunch or dinner (reserve in advance) and sit outside to feel just how similar California can be to Italy.  

Nella at Fess Parker, Los Olivos

Image Courtesy of Nella at Fess Parker

Step back in time to another classic Western town, Los Olivos. After you’ve done the rounds at town’s many tasting rooms (FYI Carhartt has an entire tasting patio out back) enjoy a memorable meal at Nella Kitchen & Bar at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa, where you can also bed down for the night. Nella is by the same team at S.Y. Kitchen, and here too the focus is on locally sourced ingredients such as grilled Roman artichokes, “pinsa” or pizza and pasta, like homemade spinach tagliolini with the most generous portion of black truffles we’ve ever experienced — ever. Be sure to try their signature cocktails like Wheelbarrow with gin and lillet blanc, local beers by the bottle like Firestone Double Barrel Ale, and of course a glass of local or Italian wine. The profiteroles, recommended by Andy Busch from Folded Hills, are light, not decadent (we’re just telling ourselves that last part.) Sit in the front courtyard to indulge and watch the wine tasters, vacationers, and locals also enjoying their best life.

Merci Montecito

Image Courtesy of Merci Montecito

On your way up to, or back from Santa Barbara, stop at the bright and sparkling Merci artisanal café in the Montecito Country Mart for a homemade slice of banana bread and Bonito coffee to go. Or if it’s lunchtime, order the Persian cucumber salad or Kale Salad with avocado and pistachio. Created by Paris-trained pastry chef Elizabeth Colling, the delicious organic food is the perfect antidote to a wine-rich weekend.

Other places to Eat + Drink

Industrial Eats, Buellton

Full of Life Flatbread, Los Alamos

Bell’s, Los Alamos

Bree’Osh Artisan Bakery, Santa Barbara

Bob’s Well Bread, Los Alamos and Ballard