Santa Barbara wines have made their mark on the competitive California wine map through their low key profiles and generous fruit. In the Santa Barbara wine country garagistes, unconventional winemakers without a winery pull arms with established wineries. Casually, winemaking is a popular hobby of the locals here, it is a lifestyle by choice not driven by revenues and brands.
Visit Los Olivos, the charming village in the Santa Ynez Valley about a 30 minute drive from Santa Barbara. There, probably more glasses of wine are being poured every day than is the total number of its inhabitants (about a thousand).
The splendid Victorian architecture of this area is an ideal stage for Santa Barbara wines. The winemakers from all over the county create an unforgettable and unique experience for everyone who finds his way to Los Olivos.
I have visited a number of the wine ‘challets’ and tasted an unknown number of wines there. It was so unbearably hot in this near desert land that I lost my count. Nevertheless, one winery impressed my taste buds enough to buy a couple of cases to bring back to LA and the leftovers that I could fit in my suitcase all the way to Europe.
Tensley is a family owned and operated winery renown for a magnificent Syrah. Not only Robert Parker but also the Wine Spectator rated many of the vintages well above the 90 margin of excellence. It is one of the Santa Barbara wines that you will not forget, but it is still of a very different category than a top Rhone Syrah from France.
Joey Tensley and his wife Lea take their wines seriously. Joey also makes wines for Carina Cellars, but, according to a subjective judgement of my taste buds, his heart stays with his own wines which are substantially better. Mrs Tensley extended the range with a rosé appealing to the beach loving wine consumers with its lighter structure. I personally prefer the “traditional” Provence pink wine for being more balanced and not power seeking as so many of the Californian wines do.
For those more adventurous with no time constraints there are about six wine trails offering various experience from a town surprise to a wild country wine pampering. The Santa Barbara County Vintner’s association is a great source of information and provides an informative map of each area.
From Santa Rita Hills I can recommend the unfiltered Pinots by Paul Lato and a blend of Ten clones, hence the name, by Sea Smoke.
You need a car to get around. In a country where drinking behind the wheels is heavily punished (the lineup of Hollywood stars spending nights behind the bars for alcohol driving fills the People magazine pages) an abstinent-driver becomes a handy friend.
For sleep overs, the romantic Ysidro Ranch attracts celebrities (Hilary Duff had her wedding there) and wine lovers seeking a luxurious place to stay.
For a gourmet indulgence in Los Olivos head for a lunch at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café (2879 Grand Avenue) offering over 500 wines for very reasonable prices and casual delicious plates. From luscious salads through crispy pizzas and fresh bagels to juicy steaks all is served in a cozy and vibrant atmosphere. If you want just buy some wine, the store inside has an entire wall dedicated to it. All wines are also well described.