When your palate demands Californian wine, Napa and Sonoma inadvertently swoosh in mind with their Cabernets and Merlots and Chardonnays. Over 400 miles to the south, however, Santa Barbara has emerged on the wine scene as the next big destination for vino lovers. With six appellations, the astounding 60 disparate grape varieties, more than 200 wineries and almost as many tasting rooms, the city as well as its county have confidently popped up on the map of American wines. Propping up Santa Barbara's rise in the wine world is its unique geography, whose mountain-flanked valleys open to the Pacific, inviting the ocean air flow into the vineyards.The location and clime here also let grapes stay on the vines longer than in the north, creating an unforgetable taste. So, what better way to celebrate Mother's Day this May than an escapade through Santa Barbara's wine artery.
All you need to acquaint your palate with Santa Barbara's vinos are two days on the Urban Wine Trail, which meanders through two downtown neighborhoods to blend wine, cuisine and art in a relaxed yet lively atmosphere. And, of course, the right backpack to take it all in – the city's ambiance as well as your necessities. Charming just like Santa Barbara, the Ivy Kirzhner Orion – Truffle pack is the ideal companion. Chiseled out of vegetable tanned leather, its chic, 8-litter body reflects the classic Southern European architecture to be found along the city streets. While the lined interior accommodates a day's worth of essentials, the exterior, complete with a playful pair of tussles and 18-carat gold stud details, commands attention.
Start early when the crisp morning air still blankets the Funk Zone tight off the shore. Bracketed by the Pacific Ocean and Highway 101, it is a vibrant district, beaded with chic galleries, eateries and wine rooms. Head to The Valley Project, whose chalkboard mural of the region serves as a beginner's guide to wine. Here you can sample vinos form all of Santa Barbara's viticultural areas, taking in their aromas and tastes but also learning about Santa Barbara's typography, soils and climate.
Next, with a grasp on the basics that nurture grapes here, stop at Whitcraft to explore wine production through its various stages. Having spilled handcrafted and unadulterated wines since 1985, the winery is all about boutique production of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. Its barrel room reveals the exhilarating initial months of wine life from the vineyard to the bottles, whose ambrosial contents you can taste.
After two tasting rounds, your belly might start to rumble. Take a break from your self-guided tour and have lunch at The Nook, whose refined American menu redefines "soul food." Nearby is the Kunin Wines, whose Rhone-style vinos rival their French-grown peers. Do not leave without sipping some viognier, a full-bodied white wine with appealing scents of honeysuckle, peach and tangerine.
Call it a day at the Carr Winery, where you can open a tab and have a glass or two of Pinot Noir or Sangiovese or Grenache or Syrah or, perhaps, Cabernet Franc. Live music often fills the evenings here, resounding through the cavernous tasting room to form the perfect after-dark, wine affair.
The second leg of the Urban Wine Trail will take you to the bustling Presidio Neighborhood, which rests in the very core of Santa Barbara. It is indeed the district around which the town emerged. Today, Presidio has retained its historic, Old-World charm but has also added a modern touch of coastal Californian living. Most of the wineries here bead only a couple of streets – Anacapa Street and El Paseo, an intuitive layout that facilitates wine tasting.
If the Rhone wines from the previous day caught your fancy, head to the Casa de la Guerra, where the region's past coalesces with its wine presence. Once the home of a Spanish comandante, the house's wine cellar now accommodates the tasting room for the Rhones of Standing Sun Winery.
The Casa is part of the larger Paseo de la Geurra complex of old-time, Spanish Colonial Revival buildings. Here you can savor the internationally recognized Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay of Au Bon Climat, which has ranked among Rob Parkers' Best Wineries of the World. Next door rises the Grassini Family Vineyards, whose grapes grow in the balmy area of Happy Canyon. All around are shops and restaurants and historic sites, begging for a respite from wine tasting and a plunge into the other delights Santa Barbara harbors. Among them is El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, which marks the Spanish last military outpost along the coast. Erected in 1782 during the American Revolutionary War, the installation served as a center of both faith and government. Its prominence is still palpable in downtown Santa Barbara, where time seem to have remained still.
Settle for lunch at Trattoria Vittoria, whose delicious Italian fare pairs well with its selection of local and Italian wines. Take the afternoon easy – and, well, sober – and do some shopping at the renowned Paseo Nuevo, where you will find a mix of coveted brands and small boutiques. If browsing the stores is not your thing, get some rest in the multitude of secluded gardens and terraces before one last tasting at the Margerum Wine Company, which prides itself on its superb vintages that have gained the acclaim of top industry publications. Amid an inviting ambiance, with a glass of one of Santa Barbara's finest vinos – there is no better conclusion to your traverse of the city's bustling wine scene.
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