Santa Barbara had the good fortune of being the site of one of the numerous California missions built by the Franciscan Brothers in the late 18th century.
The good brothers needed altar wine and a source of reliable drink. Wells and stored water had a habit of becoming contaminated. Whether by choice or necessity, they used a grape variety now known as Mission.
Its origin was uncertain, but it was hardy and productive. It transformed into a very rough wine—suitable for the altar, but it must have made the more worldly members of the Order long for the wines of Europe.
In the late 19th century, Santa Barbara became an important producer for the San Francisco market. Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles off the coast, was the home of one of the principal suppliers, shipping its wine by boat north to the Bay Area.
This economic model was probably doomed to fail once other vineyards were established closer to the city, and in the early 20th century production declined and was finally killed off by Prohibition.
Meanwhile, there were other wineries that satisfied the local marketplace. One was the Packard Winery. Its building, although abandoned, survived until the late 1950s, when it was replaced by a gas station. The gas station has suffered a similar fate, but has not engendered the same nostalgia.
The modern era of Santa Barbara winemaking began in 1962 with the establishment of Santa Barbara Winery. At that time, there were no vineyards in the county. Grapes needed to be shipped from a county to the north, more than 100 miles away. Two Bakersfield expatriates planted the first new vineyard in the county in 1965. Experienced growers, they benefited handsomely from the wine boom of the late 1960s, and the rest is history.
There now are more than 100 wineries and 20,000 acres of grapes in the county.
In recent years, there has been a return of winemaking—or, in some cases, simply selling wine in tasting rooms—to downtown Santa Barbara.
Collectively dubbed the “Urban Wine Trail,” a group of like-minded winery owners have created a way for aficionados and novices alike to discover the wonders of the county’s wines without ever leaving the city. The tour can even be done entirely on foot.
Of the dozen wineries on the Urban Wine Trail, only one—Silver—requires an appointment for tasting. The others keep regular hours, and welcome guests year-round.
Ready for a quick tour? Put on your walking shoes, and let’s taste…
- Jaffurs Wine Cellars: Jaffurs has been producing small lots of acclaimed Rhone varietal wines since 1994. Wines include Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. 819 E. Montecito St., 805-962-7003
- Silver: Produces both single vineyard-designated wines and multi-varietal proprietary blends from Santa Barbara County grapes. The emphasis is on place, or terroir. 724 Reddick St., 805-963-3052
- Carr Vineyards and Winery: Carr specializes in limited-production wines, including Pinot Noir, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc. Guests can enjoy the ambience of a working winery while sipping on wines at the barrel-top bar. 414 N. Salsipuedes St., 805-965-7985
- Margerum Wine Company: After making wine in Santa Ynez for 10 years, winemaker Doug Margerum has brought his wines to downtown Santa Barbara. He produces small lots of premium wines, sourced from top vineyards around the county. 813 Anacapa St., 805-966-9463
- Kalyra Winery: Mike and Martin Brown offer wines from Santa Barbara County and beyond in a cool, funky environment just two blocks from the beach. 212 State St., 805-965-8606
- Oreana Winery: What once was an old tire shop now is an eclectic mix of winery, tasting room and art gallery. Oreana focuses on Pinot Noir, rare Italian varietals and refreshing white wines. 205 Anacapa St., 805-962-5857
- Santa Barbara Winery: We’ll take a comprehensive look at this historic estate later this month. 202 Anacapa St., 805-963-3633
- Cottonwood Canyon: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah are the specialties of the house, with an emphasis on ageworthy wines. 224 Anacapa St., Suite 1A, 805-963-1221
- Kunin Wines: Known for producing small lots of Rhone-style wines, made with Old World sensibility from the Central Coast’s best vineyards. Varietals include Viognier, Syrah and Zinfandel, and Kunin also makes tasty blends. 28 Anacapa St., 805-963-9633
- Municipal Winemakers: The goal is to make honest, interesting and delicious wines…carefully, slowly and with love. 28 Anacapa St. (rear), 805-931-6864
- Whitcraft Winery: Established in 1985, Whitcraft is dedicated to non-interventionist winemaking. Grapes are sourced from top AVAs, including Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. 36-A South Calle Cesar Chavez, 805-730-1680
- Summerland Winery: Founded in 2002 with the goal of producing premium wines from expressive vineyard sources spanning from Santa Barbara to Monterey. The winery’s specialties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (Located in Summerland, which would be a long walk from downtown Santa Barbara—but a short ride by bike or car.) 2330 Lillie Ave., Summerland, 805-565-9463