Many claim to have amazing views from their winery tasting room and we’re all drawn to them because it adds to the soothing sensation of wine tasting. But few have ocean side views in all directions. Deep Sea’s tasting room is on the Steams Wharf of Santa Barbara’s notorious State Street where you can view the stunning harbor, “Santa Barbara Riviera,” clear blue water, and mountains from a sunny breezy deck.
But they’ve got more than one reason to visit. Their Chardonnay is bright and tart, hitting you with lively green apple and a bit of creamy lemon meringue. Pinot Noir loves proximity to the ocean and theirs has developed gritty earthy textures with a bit of eucalyptus. But bright cherry with whipped vanilla cream is what you feel when sipping this beauty. Their red blend is a uniquely exciting concoction of Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Lagrein. They could label it as Syrah because it is 89% that grape but they choose to emphasize its blend because each grape brings its character. Plenty of bright berry and plum flavors are enhanced by cherry, spice, cinnamon, cedar, and a hint of eucalyptus. Lots of layers! This proves that Syrah mixes well with strangers! Their Zinfandel has dark jammy slightly overripe fruit with a little cocoa that makes it worthy of serving for dessert. However, their dry farmed Zinfandel has that same big fruit with less jam or raisins. Instead, its minerality dominates with balanced black cherry, spice, and earth. Taste these side by side for a sampling of these styles.
The funk zone in Santa Barbara may have about a dirty dozen wine tasting rooms that you can cover while you stroll on foot. But, because it is a coastal climate, most local wineries produce the same types of wines: Burgundian. If you love Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, you could spend days here. But, when you get tired of those same wines, make a refreshing switch to sparkling. Since most sparkling wine is made out of these same grapes, many Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers turn some of their juice into sparkling wine with completely different flavors, textures, and colors.
Riverbench is one of these resourceful producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that makes sparkling wine out of this grape juice. The reason this tasting room is a refreshing stop on your journey through the urban wine trail is that they do a sparkling only tasting with three sparkling wines designed for different palates. The first is a Blanc de Blanc made out of Chardonnay for those who like tart and refreshing effervescence. Its crisp pineapple and slightly creamy green apple is blanketed with a slight hint of sweet golden raisins. Next, their Blanc de Noirs is made out of Pinot Noir for those who like deeply complex and robust sparkling wine with a tiny hint of color. A slightly pink color from those thin Pinot skins looks like it will taste sweet but its pomegranate and cranberry flavors give it nice acidity with balanced body and elegance. Finally, sparkling wine’s best kept secret is a French style called “demi sec” which means halfway between dry and sweet. With just a subtle sweetness, it is like biting into a piece of fruit when you feel a tiny bit of sweetness in the front of your mouth at first but the back of your mouth feels the tart mouthwatering flavor and body of light whipped cream or meringue. Sip, sigh, and savor while you sparkle.
You’ve probably already heard of Sanford wine because it is on so many fine dining menus. Interesting I assume readers frequent fine dining establishments! What you may not know about them is that they were the first to discover the Santa Rita Hills as an ideal place to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir back in 1971. Since then, this region has exploded with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards because its climate and soil is so similar to France’s Burgundy region. Richard Sanford was the first to take this unnoticed area and plant grapes that would benefit from the chilled breezes, coming through its rare east-west (that’s right, sideways) mountain range to blanket temperamental grapes like Pinot with cool Pacific Ocean air.
But what makes these wines noticeable is their consistent quality year after year. If you see a Sanford wine on a wine list, you can trust its quality as well as the restaurant that chooses to serve it with their culinary creations. These wines are designed to enliven your taste buds and enrich your meal. Their Sauvignon Blanc goes through half stainless steel and neutral oak to get plush fruit acidity with a full bodied creamy texture. Their Chardonnays are a great sampling of what this grape can do in the Santa Rita Hills. Amazing layers of creamy vanilla and hazelnuts with soft supple pineapple and green apple fruit lead to a long silky finish that has a steadfast backbone as well. Their La Estrada Chardonnay is a bit leaner, edging toward a French style from Burgundy; if that’s what you prefer, this one’s buttery citrus and soft pineapple with a touch of honeysuckle make you feel like you’re in a cafe in Paris.
Their Pinot Noirs please even the most persnickety. A blend of 3 different vineyards has lots of plump red fruit like raspberry, cherry and even bright tart plum with layers and layers of light pepper, vanilla, herbs of sage, and a slight whiff of caramelized shallots. Their Pinot Noir from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard that dates back more than 40 years has green herbal scents of eucalyptus with all that vibrant red fruit that typifies this noble grape and a long leggy finish. This one is for you Pinot lovers! You know who you are. Persnickety gets persnickety.
If you’ve ever tried a BARRACK, PIOCHO, CHUKKER or any wine from Happy Canyon Vineyards, you’re familiar with Doug Margerum’s wine making talent. His ability to let the grape’s personality shine while cultivating its complexity is evident in each creation. At Margerum Wine Company in downtown Santa Barbara, steps away from the funk zone yet worlds apart, you can taste for yourself.
Margerum’s Grenache Blanc starts with nice crisp tart tropical fruit and tremendous balance. Then, a Sauvignon Blanc tastes like none other, partly because they age it in three separate portions of new, seasoned, and neutral oak barrels. This is what most likely gives it a plump juicy fruit with soft acids yet a rounded feeling. A red Rhone blend has big bold berry flavors with spice and a long leggy finish while their Sangiovese gets plenty of bright cherry and strawberry with a big bold body probably from a backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Finally, an elegant Syrah co-fermented with Viognier rounds out the tasting with silky tannins, ripe fruit, and a bit of smoke and earth on the back. All are well crafted, worthy of visiting and revisiting.
While the tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s funk zone are completely unconventional and unlike any other, Cottonwood Canyon’s tasting room experience inspires. You’re greeted by Randy Carter who is not only an advocate of Santa Barbara County wines, he is an evangelist of Cottonwood Canyon wines. His palate is so versatile and creative that he has become an experimental gourmet chef, pairing and cooking with Cottonwood Canyon wines with his home grown recipes.
As if you needed more reason to drop into this tasting room when you have so many to choose from within short walking distance, here are a few more. Always keep a good Riesling in your refrigerator for those spicy Thai, Indian, or dishes that are on fire because the fragrant fruit and crisp acidity pairs so well. Their Bistro Classic Riesling has great balance of green apple, pear, and lemon curd with great body and an inviting price. The second reason is their Pinot Noir, which is going to go fast so you may want to hurry. The reason for that is just yesterday they were pouring a Pinot Noir from 2001! Some may say this wine doesn’t age well but this one is like a true Burgundy style Pinot with dark brick and red crimson color. Many layers of smoke, caramel, and spice have emerged while it was cellaring that make it a Pinot to pair with meaty dishes like a hearty leg of lamb. Some may say you cannot blend Pinot Noir! But their Pinot, Syrah, Zinfadel is an enticingly rich festive wine. Perfect for a barbecue, it could stand up to any rich meats with their salty spicy barbecue sauces. Dang, doesn’t that make you hungry!
The movement from stately and regal winery names like Chateau this and that Estate toward a younger and more unconventional naming convention is refreshing. You can assume you’re getting wines from someone who thinks outside the box or has a next generation attitude when the name sounds more like a band than a winery. When you support labels like Gnarly Head, Vintage Cowboy, or Witching Stick, you’re supporting this movement and the same kind of free thinking that founded our country.
You can tell by the name that the “Funk Zone” of Santa Barbara represents a revitalizing change in the way we taste wine. Area 5.1 may not get its grapes from a remote air force base in south Nevada, but it is pouring wines from 5 different winemakers in a light industrial hood transformed from an art district. Their wines are also unique fusions of different characteristics. An interesting white of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Albarino is thick and rich like banana yet light and crisp like citrus all at the same time. Their Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County shows off how refreshingly earthy this king of grapes can be when grown outside of the renowned Napa Valley. Amazingly silky tannins give way to plump dark cherry fruit with a herbal hint of eucalyptus and cedar. Taste this cab side by side with another from an iconic region like Napa to understand how versatile this grape is and pinpoint the potential of terroir.
It may sound like a bunch of city workers making garage wine but Municipal Winemakers has one winemaker, Dave Potter, who is turning Santa Barbara County grapes into delightful wines at reasonable prices for the hard working people in this world. What more do the hard working need? A cool place to relax and have a glass of wine! Like its neighbors in the funk zone, the tasting room at Municipal Winemakers has been converted and restored from another local establishment. Right by the ocean, it serves wine in what was once the Diver’s Den with several decks and patios to enjoy the cool ocean breezes while sipping a crisp refreshing Riesling or Rhone blend. They even have a pool in the back that remains from training new divers and diving equipment!
Dave’s simple labels and names remind you that wine doesn’t have to be snotty or unapproachable. With names like Bright White, Pale Pink, and Bright Red, it’s pretty easy to decide which one is right for you while soaking in the street view and blue waves in the distance. Relaxing as it sounds, the Pale Pink is not just a porch pounder. It is a rose of Grenache, Cinsault, and Counoise with a bounty of flavors like dry crisp strawberry that make it meaty yet a refreshing sipper on a warm sunny day.
Using techniques that are centuries old, Whitcraft Winery has been producing old world style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since 1985. Pressing in whole clusters and fermenting with wild yeast takes commitment to making wines for European palates. With very little manipulation to their juice, their wines are clear and crisp with lower alcohol levels. They begin with a Chardonnay that has the best balance of old and new worlds. With tart crisp acidity it wakes up your taste buds yet has a creamy texture and finish.
They believe a wine should taste like its terroir, the place where the grapes were grown along with all the unique characteristics of that place. Their Pinot Noir from Santa Maria has crisp tight acidity with a thin layer of fruit and spice. Another Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley has tart cherry, raspberry, and eucalyptus with a whiff of fresh mint. A taste here makes for a great comparison of what these regions contribute to this noble grape.
Say what you will about the “Funk Zone” in Santa Barbara but it really takes reusability to new levels. Once an art culture, the vibe here is now redefined with a nod toward hip food and wine with an unexpected look and refreshing feel. You’ve no doubt seen wine tasting rooms in some unusual spaces converted from other businesses. But the Oreana Winery tasting room is in a converted tire shop. Believe it or not, the thick cement brick walls with no windows make it an ideally cool wine cellar.
The relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere allows you to focus on the wine. The winemaker at Oreana sure does. Simply because he loves big bold wines, that’s all he makes. Their Chardonnay is steely clean and crisp with big fruit of banana and apricot. It may be hard to find and even harder to say but their Pinot Noir is full bodied. It’s dark fruit of black cherry, and dark plum overwhelms the usual tart cherry, raspberry, or other red fruit and its long finish makes it a great wine for rich meat dishes. But the wine to watch here is the Petite Merlot made out of 50% Merlot and 50% Petite Verdot, which is usually just a background singer. It’s tight tannins and crisp acidity make you take notice initially and wake up to its thick rich body. But the deep dark fruit and smoky dank texture keep you thinking about it.
When you hear the term “Urban Wine Trail,” you might presume this region to be relatively new to wine. If you’ve heard of the “Funk Zone,” you may think its driven by a younger generation. But Santa Barbara County has been a wine producing region longer than most in California. Since wine is not its primary draw, it has never really become synonymous with wine like the Russian River Valley or Dry Creek.
Santa Barbara Winery has been making wines from the same location since 1962. Their tasting room has been located in the Funk Zone even before the hood had that moniker. Since 1964, Santa Barbara Winery has been pouring wine from their tasting room adjacent to downtown Santa Barbara. Using grapes from Santa Rita Hills, they craft light and crisp white wines and Pinot Noirs in the classic styles.