Santa Barbara is a lovely, historic city on California’s Central Coast region. It has a growing number of interesting boutique wineries/tasting rooms in the “Funk District” and tasting rooms of some of our favorites Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley wineries. That is more than enough incentive to return to one of our favorite small cities. And this doesn’t even begin to account for the city’s restaurants, fresh seafood.
We divided our time in the city among restaurants, walks through the historic district, and of course, many wine tastings.
Santa Barbara Wine AVA
Santa Barbara is in The California Central Coast Wine region. The city has many tasting rooms and wineries that address all of the grape varietals grown in the area. These include, but are not limited to Burgundian, Bordeaux, Rhone, and all types of Mediterranean grapes. The AVA itself consists of 8 regions:
- Santa Maria Valley: The northernmost appellation grows mostly Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs as well as Syrah and Pinot Blanc.
- Santa Ynez Valley: Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Viognier).
- Santa Rita Hills: Grows mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Los Olivos District: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals. Also some Spanish and Italian varietals.
- Ballard Canyon: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Happy Canyon: Bordeaux varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne.
- Aliso Canyon: Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Cabernet Franc.
Santa Barbara Wineries
We sampled wines from many of these varietals on our stop in Paso Robles. On this stop, we focused on Burgundian-style wines—and especially Pinot Noir. Many wineries have tasting rooms were along State Street and in the Funk Zone. Examples include:
- Whitcraft Winery is a tiny, 2,000 case, premium boutique winery. Its production is split among Chardonnays, Pinto Noirs, and five other varietal wines and blends. We were unable to capture one of the very limited number of reservations (schedule a visit way in advance!). However, the manager took pity on us and we got to taste several Pinot Noirs that he correctly thought would match our preferred taste profile of deep highly-extracted, earthy wines with black cherry overtones and smooth finishes. Whitcraft contracts with select grape growers around the state to grow its Pinot Noirs. The grapes undergo whole cluster fermentation with commercial yeast and are aged 24 months in neutral French oak. The wine remains unfiltered to allow a pure expression of the fruit to come through without inserting variables into the process. Since all its premium, single vineyard wines are drawn from several inches above the bottom of the barrel, a fair amount of these premium wines remains. The winemaker blends the remaining wines together, provides them with additional aging. They pull the resultant blend from above a few inches from the bottom of the barrel and bottles them at about half the price of its single vineyards. We were very impressed with how the wines are produced and by the manager’s obvious passion. We ended up purchasing two of the wines we tasted: a 2019 Pence Ranch Pommard Clone (from Santa Rita Highlands) and a 2019 Faite de Mar Farm (Mendocino Ridge). We also purchased some 2019 La Lie Fine without tasting them.
- Melville Winery produces mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as some Syrah. We particularly enjoyed its 2019 Sandy’s Block and the deep texture, subtle, well-integrated black cherry and earth tastes, and smooth finish of the 2019 Terraces.
- Au Bon Climate is where our tastes leaned to the 2017 Runway Pinot Noir. The wine is aged for two years in 100% French oak before spending an additional year in the bottle. While we liked the earth and the balance, its fruit was a bit brighter than we would prefer, but will moderate as it aged. We also bought a 2017 Bien Nacido (one of our favorite SRH vineyards) and a 2016 Knox Alexander.
- Riverbench Winery is known for its Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Sparkling Wines. We tasted one Chardonnay, four of its eight Pinot Noirs, plus a 2018 Cork Jumper Cuvee that is made of equal parts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. The 2017 Clone 115 is a light-bodied wine with bright red cherry. It provided a dramatic contrast with our favorite wine of the tasting: the 2017 One Palm. The One Palm is made from Clone 667. It is a deep, highly extracted wine with earthy, black cherry tastes.
- Pali Wine, where we focused primarily on three premium pinots from one of our favorite California pinot-focused AVAs: Santa Rita Hills. While two of them were too light and fruity for our tastes, we did enjoy the 2016 “Pali Vineyard Reserve” pinot, with its earth, restrained dark fruit, and balance.
- Oreana Winery, where we enjoyed the crispness of its 2019 organic, all stainless, Present Happiness Chardonnay and its 2016 Oreana Vineyard Pinot.
- Cebeda, where we also focused on Pinot Noirs and found the 2017 Cuvee Pinot Noir to be suited to our tastes.
State Street. Much of the city’s history and many of its scenic and historic sites radiate out from around State Street, Santa Barbara’s main street. The street stretches down to the coast and extends onto a long pedestrian pier. It houses many of its most historic, adobe-style buildings, boutique stores, restaurants, bars, and wine tasting rooms. And to maximize the number of shops that can boast a State Street address, several store-lined Paseos run off the street. State Street has also undergone a major recent change—the entire commercial length of the street has been converted into a pedestrian mall. On some of the blocks, pandemic-initiated parklet restaurant seating spaces stretch out from the sidewalks into the streets. Although we could only judge from two weekend days and evenings, it appears that patrons have whole-heartedly embraced the approach—especially on the first few blocks up from the waterfront.
Historic District. The city also values and protects its history. Santa Barbara was initially colonized by Spanish missionaries, and later in the 18th century, troops. The last of the Spanish missions to be built in Alta California (New California), it housed about 50 soldiers and their families until Spain withdrew following the 1821 Mexican war of independence. American troops took over in 1846. A number of the buildings and parts of the protective walls have been restored. Yet the visitor center and the interiors were closed due to the pandemic.
So too, unfortunately, was the beautiful 1929 Spanish Moorish Santa Barbara courthouse with its bell tower and internal mural for which it is best known. Its pretty lawns and gardens, of course, remain open to visitors.
Funk Zone. And then there’s the increasingly hip Funk Zone, so-named for the “aromas” of fermenting and aging wine and beer. The several square block area, which used to be home to light manufacturing. However, warehouses are being rapidly converted into an entertainment district. Small wineries that can’t justify State Street rents, breweries, galleries, and large outside seating areas that used to alleyways that were dedicated to parking and shipping.
- Bouchon has the most professional staff we found on our trip as well as the largest and best-curated wine list. Our server was intimately familiar with the wines. He steered us to a 2016 “The Hilt” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir which paired very well with both of our very good food. Our pan-roasted Sea Bass with fingerling potatoes, broccolini, wild mushrooms, and asparagus-spring pea puree was delicious. Another winner was the restaurant’s specialty: a maple-glazed Duck breast and confit thigh with a port demi-glace on a bed of succotash consisting of sweet corn, fava beans, leeks, Applewood-smoked bacon, and butternut squash.
- Santa Barbara Fishouse was one of the first and remains one of the premier fish restaurants in the city. And judging from our meal, its reputation is well deserved. We shared two appetizers and one entrée. We began with an incredibly large (for the $22 price) appetizer of Santa Barbara uni served atop large slices of scallop sashimi atop a citrus slice on a bed of ice. The second appetizer consisted of three large tostadas, each piled high with different types of raw (except for the octopus and shrimp) seafood. One had scallop and octopus topped with red onion and cucumber. Another was with shrimp, diced tomato, red onion, and jalapeno. The third had local rockfish ceviche.. All were topped with serrano aioli and cilantro. Our entrée was a large fillet of baked macadamia nut crusted local sea bass topped with lemon beurre blanc and served with rice and sautéed sugar snap peas. All of the food was very fresh, very good and quite inexpensive. However, we had two disappointments. The first was with a server who took forever to take our order and provide the check (thank goodness for much more attentive busboys) and the second was with a paltry wine list as the restaurant was in the midst of a wine list transition. Faced with a choice of wines priced below $50 and a tiny premium list that began above $100, we ended up with a very disappointing 2019 Babcock Rita’s Earth Central Coast Pinot Noir. None of this, however, was a detraction from the large selection of fresh, delicious, well-prepared, and very reasonably priced seafood.
- Santo Mezcal is a coastal Yucatan restaurant where we thoroughly enjoyed two dishes: six large sautéed prawns with creamy mexcal sauce; and two large, Adobo marinated, grilled Spanish octopus tentacles served on a bed of pureed garbanzo beans with chili oil. Almost as good were the chips that were served with dishes of tomato-based salsa, avocado sauce, lemon sauce, and a relatively mild chili sauce. Yet another very good meal, lacking only in margaritas—a temptation we avoided in preparation for an afternoon of wine tastings.
- Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is an ultra-casual sister restaurant of Santa Barbara Fishouse that situated at the end of the city’s pier. While the tiny, stools-only inside is closed for the pandemic, they have a handful of outside tables available for full service and many more picnic tables for take-out. While joined the lengthy waitlist for full service, but decided we would make more progress with takeout (which also had a long line). We ordered two main dishes, Red Abalone (three mid-sized medallions) pan-seared with garlic on rice with tomatoes; and a 2-pound local Rock Crab (less meat, less sweet, and mushier than northern California Dungeness). We added an order of huge, perfectly cooked, and very good onion rings. Our beverages were a Figueroa Mountain IPA and Palmina Pinot Gris. A worthwhile experience, especially with the buskers and the Sunday afternoon parade of vintage cars, but not necessarily worth the wait.