Santa Barbara County is located about two hours north of Los Angeles. Driving into the region made me feel a bit like driving into ranch country. I half expected to see cowboys and cattle herds, instead of pinot noir and wine barrels. It is also home to Vandenberg Air Force Base, the West Coast center for space travel. More recently, it is the setting of the well-known movie Sideways that brought pinot noir to the spotlight for all wine drinkers.
The wine culture in Santa Barbara is different from any other place I’ve visited for wine, though I think it’s probably safe to say that for every wine region. As far as wine production goes, it is relatively small--about half the production of Napa, despite being much larger in total area. It is primarily planted to pinot noir and chardonnay with a good amount of syrah. There are also a number of producers focusing on sauvignon blanc and viognier for whites and cabernet franc and grenache for reds. In general, it’s a very cool region due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. The mountain range (which I can barely spell, much less pronounce) located just inland sort of traps the cold air from the ocean and this is where the winegrowing areas of Santa Barbara are concentrated. This makes it perfect for grapes that prefer the cold like pinot noir and chardonnay.
Because the area is so spread out and the terrain a bit difficult to navigate, many wineries have opened tasting rooms in the various towns that dot the region. So instead of driving from winery to winery, you can pretty much drive to a town and then walk from tasting room to tasting room. It certainly makes for a convenient trip, especially if you are just interested in tasting the wine. And once you’ve seen one fermentation tank you’ve seen them all, right? Personally, though, I prefer to visit the actual winery. I like to see where it all happens. Maybe there’s something romantic about it or maybe it just feels more intimate, like seeing where the wine in my glass comes from helps me connect more to it.
We didn’t arrive until late afternoon in Lompoc, where we were spending the night. We had just enough time to visit one or two wineries before they closed for the day as most of the wineries were on the same 11-5 schedule. In Lompoc, most of the tasting rooms are consolidated in what they call the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Essentially, this looks like an industrial park where instead of--or really right alongside of--manufacturing and fabrication companies, there are wineries. Most of these were just tasting rooms but a few of them actually were production facilities. We ended up stopping by two different wineries. First up was Tyler Winery. I had the opportunity to taste these wines with winemaker Justin Willett at the In Pursuit of Balance tasting I attended back in February. Justin wasn’t there this weekend, but we got to taste through the wines all the same. This was also one of the wineries that combines their tasting room with their production facility. They were in the middle of bottling so stacks of empty cases consumed the floor space as barrels were preparing to be emptied.
From there, it was recommended to us that we drive down the street and stop at Piedrasassi, a winery run by Sashi Moorman, a man I’m quickly learning has much influence in the Santa Barbara region. The smell of not only wine but freshly baked bread greeted us as we entered. Not only do they make wine there, but they are known for making their own bread as well. We got to taste the Piedrasassi lineup of syrah as well as the Domaine de la Côte Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the syrah and ended up bringing home a bottle. I’m a big fan of the pinot noir and chardonnay coming out of Santa Barbara, one of the reasons I wanted to visit. And I’ve had several syrahs from this area but have rarely found them to stand out. It was refreshing to have one that I thought was well-balanced and worth having again.
Another winery I had hoped to visit was Liquid Farm. They weren’t around that weekend, unfortunately, but they did give me a great list of recommendations. It was this list that suggested Santa Ynez Kitchen as a great spot for dinner. They couldn’t have been more right. After driving through the strange Danish town of Solvang, we arrived in the quaint town of Santa Ynez. Opening only in the Spring of 2013, it’s a relatively new restaurant. It has a very rustic feel that is quite homey, but sophisticated. The wine list was great with tons of good local bottles. And the food was all incredibly fresh. Everything was beautifully prepared and was just the right size. I went to sleep that night very content and excited for day two in Santa Barbara.