There are about as many ways to taste wine in Santa Barbara County as there are varietals of vino. You can visit tasting rooms in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys along vineyard-lined wine trails or in the industrial-cool Lompoc Wine Ghetto, in the charming Danish town of Solvang or cowboy-chic Los Olivos, or clustered in the hot-spot Funk Zone or historic El Paseo. But wherever it is, each tasting room reflects the personality and values of the winery’s owners. Just as each wine tells a story, so does the carefully created environment where that wine is swirled and sipped.
The new Alma Rosa tasting room in Buellton is a testament to founders and pioneer winegrowers Richard and Thekla Sanford’s dedication to quality and commitment to sustainability. The elegantly rustic, high-ceilinged space oozes calm and natural beauty, including a live 15-foot-tall olive tree that stretches toward a 14-by-24-foot skylight in the middle of the room. The tasting room brings the ranch to town by incorporating natural elements such as stone from the vineyards. Recycled Douglas Fir is used in bar tops, beams, benches and shelving. Lompoc sandstone, a local river stone quarried in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, finishes the entrance patio and fireplace. And that peaceful feeling? You can thank scraps of recycled denim jeans in the walls that insulate and soundproof the space.
Wine By Design
Over in the walkable western-style Mayberry of Los Olivos, tasting rooms are housed in everything from a quaint historic red cottage to a metal-sided repurposed machine shop. Each is unique, but they’re all warm and welcoming by design. Shannon Scott, whose Los Olivos design studio focuses on hospitality and residential interiors, has worked on about a dozen valley tasting rooms. “The first rule of good design is that form follows function,” says Scott. “We need to make sure the space will work the way the client intends. Then we make sure that the feeling we create with our design is warm and comfortable.”
Cue the spacious three-brands-in-one Consilience, Tre Anelli and Marianello tasting room. United under The Sanger Family of Wines, all three labels are inspired by the Mediterranean approach to food and life. Low-key but sophisticated, the room’s dark woods, cozy chairs, brick fireplace and friendly staff invite you to sip, linger and feel transported to France, Italy or Spain.
Rosé with Rover
Lucky Dogg Winery tasting room in Solvang is family- and Fido-friendly. Doggie treats and a water bowl (sorry, no wine) welcome canine connoisseurs and a chalkboard, toys and TV occupy the kids. Adults sip handcrafted wines (some named after owner-winemaker Brent Melville’s children) made with fruit farmed from the 100-acre Verna’s Vineyard in Los Alamos’s Cat Canyon. The playful, fun vibe is an extension of Melville’s philosophy that his wines should let the grapes shine through with little to no manipulation. His aim is to let the wines speak for themselves in a light-hearted unfussy setting. Woof.
Sipping with a Side of History
At The Wine Collection of El Paseo in downtown Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood, tasters amble along cobblestone walkways among six unique tasting rooms featuring small-lot high-end wines. Jamie Slone Wines embraces the classic Spanish Colonial architecture of the building with its homey, upscale décor of custom-made dark wood furnishings, wrought iron light fixtures and stucco fireplace. “It was important to us to honor the history of El Paseo,” says owner Jamie Slone. “We want to be the tasting room that is Santa Barbara. When people come from New York, Chicago and elsewhere, they want the American Riviera experience.”
Happy Canyon Vineyard’s El Paseo tasting room showcases the Barrack family’s passion for the sport of polo and for the 58-acre vineyard on their Piocho Ranch in Santa Ynez Valley’s Happy Canyon. The family wears its heart on its polo-jersey sleeve as it artfully displays polo mallets, riding gear, team uniforms and photos from polo matches held on the ranch. The viticultural area of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, known for its Bordeaux grapes, is also the home of Grassini Family Vineyards, whose tasting room is just down the walkway. Family is so central to the Grassinis that their logo, incorporated in the custom ironwork over the tasting bar and on their labels, is composed of a capital “G” and the numeral 5 in honor of Larry Grassini’s wife, Sharon, and their four daughters.
In the Zone
Longtime winemaker Seth Kunin now has two popular tasting rooms in the ever-evolving Funk Zone of Santa Barbara. At Kunin Wines, a surf-shack casual spot just a block from East Beach, the focus is on Rhône varietals. Kunin’s latest addition, AVA Santa Barbara/The Valley Project, is located just around the corner from the still-thriving original and across from elder statesman Santa Barbara Winery. Although there is an educational component at both tasting rooms, the learning is front and center at AVA, with an eye-catching floor-to-high-ceiling chalkboard-like mural map of the region by Los Angeles–based artist Elkpen. The aim here is to taste your way around the county by sipping small-batch, single-vineyard and single-varietal wines that highlight the geographical uniqueness of the five Santa Barbara County AVAs. Just like the tasting rooms, each one is different and tells its own story.
This story was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.