Rightfully so, Santa Barbara is often called the American Riviera. Wave caps sparkle in the Pacific Ocean, which hugs the city of 90,000 people, and red-tiled roofs mimic Mediterranean style. Wine is no exception to the glam and the glitz, with hundreds of award-winning wineries in Santa Barbara’s back yard, growing grapes in American Viticultural Areas like Santa Rita Hills and Santa Lucia Highlands. And the movie Sideways, about two guys on a hapless wine-sipping journey through the region, brought even more attention to the region.
In October the fourth-annual, month-long epicure.sb features about a hundred different food and wine events, from "Winemaker for a Day" at Margerum Wine Company to al-fresco tastings with local winemakers on the rooftop of the Canary Hotel (the next one is October 15), and a nearly 100-percent locavore prix-fixe menu (including the wines) at Bella Vista Restaurant, inside Four Seasons Biltmore, where everything is sourced from within 50 miles. The festival—a huge hit each year with locals and visitors alike—is a testament to Santa Barbara’s year-round allure for wine lovers.
Here are four top spots to drink wine in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Funk Zone
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If you think tasting rooms are stuffy then you haven’t been to Santa Barbara’s (really ill-named) Funk Zone downtown, just a block in from East Cabrillo Boulevard. With fish shacks and art galleries as neighbors, some of the region’s micro wineries have set up shop here. At Kunin Wines, belly up to the cork bar for either the Syrah Geek Tasting ($12), with three vintages uncorked; or the Classic White Tasting ($10), featuring five wines that include the quirky named 2010 Chenin Blanc Jurassic Park. Municipal Winemakers hosts an edgy tasting room with a little rock ‘n roll, movie nights, a vintage trophy collection, board games galore, and retro relics (like a chrome cash register) from owner/winemaker Dave Potter’s great-grandfather’s retail store in New York City. Its labels are designed by a different printmaker each vintage. The tasting room for Oreana Winery, known for its "Project Happiness" smiley-face wine sold at Trader Joe’s stores, is behind an overhead garage door. (Or, grab a table on the patio.)
This wine-centric restaurant, owned by Mitchell Sjerven and Doug Margerum, owner of Margerum Wine Company, one block off State Street is where locals catch up over wine, whether it’s a romantic date in the courtyard, a group meal in the elegant Gold Room, or happy hour in Intermezzo Bar + Cafe. Schedule in some time for a flight of wines at Intermezzo, its selections scrawled in colored chalk above the bar. The wines are local—from a fresh, floral Curtis Viognier to a lush Flying Goat Pinot Noir ‘YNOT’—and served on tap, and the food is meant to be matched with said wines. Think a starter of beef tartare with juniper dust, or ten unique flatbreads (like the Orchard, with peaches, salami, goat cheese, and pepper preserves). Save room for clever desserts like chocolate and chevre doughnuts or warm chocolate-chip cookie pie.
Find a wine you absolutely love? Wines are sold in a cozy retail shop next to the courtyard, marked by black leather armchairs and, along with vino, luxury hand-knit sweaters are for sale.
Every single ingredient at Bella Vista, a courtyard restaurant inside the 207-room lavish Four Seasons Biltmore across the street from the Pacific Ocean, is local, right on down to coffee grown in Goleta. Italian-born executive chef Alessandro Cartumini orchestrates a menu of Italian-meets-California cuisine and the wines (heavily focused on Santa Barbara County) are equally decadent whether you’re huddled by the outdoor fire pit or at a table in the dining room. Twenty-three wines are poured by the glass (in 5-ounce pours), including Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars "Hands of Time" Meritage (Stags’ Leap District, Napa Valley) for $20 a glass and Moet & Chandon "Brut Imperial" Rose for $29 a glass. An additional four wines are on tap. Selections on the wine list range from $35 (Firestone Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County) to $950 (2002 Louis Roederer Cristal Rose Brut), so there is something for every budget and palate. Locals adore the Thursday-night seafood buffet ($59) featuring local gems like abalone, lobster, and oysters. (What better to pair with your locally made Chardonnay or sparkling wine?)
Since husband-wife team Justin and Emma West opened the casually elegant Julienne Restaurant in the summer of 2008, its narrow dining room has boasted a spectacular wine list, with by-the-glass options that include Melville "Verna’s Vineyard" Viognier (Santa Barbara County) and Tyler Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County). But there are also wines by the bottle from Piedmont, Italy; France’s Loire Valley; Burgundy and Bordeaux, France, ranging from $32 to just under-$100 a bottle (with the exception of three). Open for lunch and dinner, you’ll swear you’re in France with market-fresh produce and seafood (all sourced locally) used in classical French cooking techniques. For lunch, consider lighter fare like ricotta ravioli (with charred strawberries, mint, basil, and almonds), and for dinner, Niman Ranch hanger steak (with pistachio and dried cherries) or grilled quail (with fine herb pistou). Save room for "nitro ice cream" or a classic chocolate mousse.