By Karen Lindell
Santa Barbara County’s geography is weird. Which is probably why its wines taste so wonderful.
The region’s mountains run east to west rather than north to south, with valleys that open to the ocean, allowing fog and ocean breezes to flow in to create a moderate climate. The Mediterranean weather patterns, combined with a variety of soils and other grape-happy environmental conditions, turn the area into a mini wine-producing realm.
According to the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, the county’s 200-plus wineries grow more than 50 varieties of grapes, with six federally recognized wine regions known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District and Sta. Rita Hills. (The appellation was once “Santa Rita Hills,” but the Viña Santa Rita winery in Chile objected, so the name was abbreviated.)
Even though these AVAs are north of Santa Barbara, you don’t have to drive all the way up to Solvang or the Santa Ynez Valley to sample the fruits of their vines. And you aren’t limited to the fun and funky but parking-challenged Funk Zone in Santa Barbara, either (although it’s a fine spot to hang out for a concentrated slew of wineries and breweries).
A few lesser-known wineries are just a short drive (or train ride) up the coast in Summerland, Montecito and Goleta . . . all of which are closer and less crowded than the Santa Ynez Valley. And although Carpinteria has yet to join the winery scene, the laid-back beach oasis midway between the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line boasts several notable breweries, so we’ve added a few of those as well.
Although these tasting rooms to the north had to close during the initial coronavirus shutdown, most have reopened for outdoor service, with altered rules and routines including required face masks for guests and employees, smaller numbers of visitors at a time, socially distanced tables (no standing around a bar) and reservations required in some cases.
But they all welcome out-of-town visitors as well as residents, and are eager to share their locally made potables with the wider world.
SAMsARA Wine Co.
6485 Calle Real, Suite E, Goleta
The people and place: “Samsara” is a Sanskrit word that refers to the cycle of death and rebirth. “It’s a homage to the grapevines, and how they go dormant, then come back to life year after year,” said Lily Hays, the winery’s director of hospitality and education.
Owners Joan and Dave Szkutak purchased the SAMsARA label from Chad Melville of Melville Winery in 2016 and moved the winery and tasting room from Lompoc to Goleta, creating the city’s first winery. Winemaker Matt Brady continues to focus on limited releases of pinot noir, syrah, grenache, chardonnay and rosé from vineyards mainly in the Sta. Rita Hills VTA.
The vibe: Visitors have a chance to meet the owners and staff, who are “all integrated into the winemaking process,” Hays said. “We’re very passionate about the brand, and really want people to understand why the wines taste like they do.”
Visitors who come during harvest time can watch the winemaking process. “Sometimes we put guests to work, throwing them into a bin to stomp grapes,” Hays said.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, all tastings are on the site’s back patio.
The wines: “Our ethos is a more natural winemaking approach — hands off, with native yeast, whole-cluster fermentation and long maceration,” Hays said. Now that Santa Barbara County is gaining more popularity as a wine-growing area, with many new winemakers, she said, “we are able to break out of the pinot noir/chardonnay zone and see more varietals.” She highly recommends the winery’s syrahs.
The eats: The winery doesn’t serve food, but food trucks are usually nearby on weekends.
The extras: The winery also offers virtual online tastings (people have the wine shipped to them, then taste it via a Zoom meeting with the winemakers and staff); and a tasting room in Los Olivos.
Folded Hills Montecito Tasting Room
1294 Coast Village Road, Montecito
(across from the Montecito Inn)
The people and place: The Folded Hills Montecito Tasting Room, the only wine-tasting room in Montecito, serves wines from the Folded Hills Ranch, Winery and Farmstead up the coast. The winery was founded by Kim and Andrew Busch (Andrew is a scion of the founders of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company in St. Louis).
They came from St. Louis to Santa Barbara in the early 2000s when Andrew fell in love with the area while playing for the USA polo team. After buying the Folded Hills Ranch (the name comes from the nearby hills that look like they fold upon each other), where they also grow organic crops, they started growing grapes and opened the winery in 2017.
Folded Hills grows Rhône varietal grapes. Its organic and vegan wines were until this summer created by winemaker Angela Osborne, who followed a biodynamic, lunar farming calendar and sustainable harvesting practices. Folded Hills wines are “farm to bottle,” with native yeasts, no residual sugars and minimal sulfites. (Michael Brughelli has taken over winemaking duties from Osborne, who intends to focus on her own brand, A Tribute to Grace.)
The vibe: Kim Busch said the Montecito tasting room “brings the flavor of the ranch into the little seaside town,” with a video that shows images of the estate and its vineyards. Maria Javier, tasting room manager, said the venue caters to tourists from local hotels like the Montecito Inn across the street, as well as visitors from counties south.
The wines: “Two words are always used with our wine: ‘smooth’ and ‘clean,’” Javier said. The winery is known for its award-winning Lilly Rosé (named after ancestor Lilly Anheuser Busch, wife of Adolphus Busch). Folded Hills’ Grant Grenache is a popular choice for newbie wine drinkers. The brand’s reserve label wines are produced in small quantities and sell quickly.
The eats: Charcuterie boards are available.
The extras: Private parking is available at the tasting room. The Folded Hills Ranch features animals on site including Clydesdale horses.
2330 Lillie Ave., Summerland
The people and place: Founded by Turkish native Nebil “Bilo” Zarif in the early 2000s, the boutique winery, named best Santa Barbara County winery by the Santa Barbara Independent in 2016, works with numerous vineyards throughout the area including the Theresa-Noelle, Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills and Paradise Road vineyards. It was bought by Terravant Wine Company (now Summerland Wines) in 2019.
The vibe: An outdoor porch and patio just blocks from the ocean creates a quintessential beachy small-town atmosphere. Staff are friendly and knowledgeable about the wines.
The wines: The winery is known for its pinot noir, including the award-winning 2013 Theresa Noelle Proprietor’s Reserve Pinot Noir and 2013 Bien Nacido Pinot Noir. Visitors also recommend the syrah and chardonnay.
The eats: Locally made snacks are available.
The extras: The dog-friendly winery welcomes people’s pooches, too.
Island Brewing Company
5049 Sixth St., Carpinteria
The people and place: Owner Paul Wright, who used to live in Marin County, was an award-winning home brewer who 20 years ago decided to leave the insurance business to open a brewery. He started looking in Santa Barbara County (his daughters went to UCSB) and settled on a spot in the warehouse west end of Carpinteria facing the ocean.
“Our goal was always to be a local brewery,” Wright said. “We distribute from Ventura up to Goleta and that’s about it, plus Cold Spring Tavern, and we’ve developed a relationship with Amtrak, so our Hopliner IPA is on the [Pacific] Surfliner.”
The vibe: Wright describes the brewery’s beachtown-casual tasting area, which is open daily, as “a meeting place for locals,” but one that also draws out-of-town visitors and tourists who visit Carpinteria State Beach across the street, along with campers and bicyclists. Families are welcome — a children’s room includes a chalkboard wall and toys (it’s closed under coronavirus regulations, but kids can still visit if they sit with their parents).
The beers: Favorites include the “fruity and citrusy” Paradise Pale Ale and Avocado Honey Ale, which is slightly sweet and contains avocado honey (not actual avocados) from local orchards.
The eats: The brewery doesn’t serve food, but often makes food trucks available, and encourages people to bring food from local restaurants.
The extras: Patrons praise the views of the ocean, sunsets and Channel Islands (hence the brewery’s name), plus easy access: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner stops in Carpinteria, so people from Ventura County can take the train; the brewery is a short walk away.