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The air smells like coconut sunscreen and ocean brine. Skateboarders and three-wheeled dune buggies whiz past a gaggle of bachelorette party woo-girls and vacationers fresh off the Cabrillo Bike Path. Two blocks from Santa Barbara’s famous Stearns Wharf, you’re faced with the most satisfying dilemma: beach or booze? Because the blue Pacific might be calling, but so is some of the West Coast’s best wine. Here in the Funk Zone, home to the city’s urban wine trail with more than 20 tasting rooms, visitors and in-the-know Californians while away the afternoon with glasses of Riesling and lean, Provençal-style rosés in the most singular and exciting wine region in the country.
At Municipal Winemakers’s Funk Zone tasting room, for example, the aesthetics are as far from the stately estates of Sonoma and Napa Valley as you could imagine: Flea-market art, bowling trophies, and Christmas lights decorate a repurposed warehouse—one of many built here to service freight trains pausing on their way up and down the coast. Here, stemware is stored in vintage filing cabinets, not lined up along the burnished countertops. This offbeat setting symbolizes what makes wine culture in Santa Barbara such a breath of fresh air (literally!): The stuffiness inherent in wine tourism (high-dollar tastings, the pressure to sign up for direct-to-consumer wine clubs, and so on) has been replaced by salty breezes and selections that don’t need cellar time. There isn’t a decanter in sight, in fact, as Municipal winemaker and owner Dave Potter splashes a generous pour of his tart Counoise, a lesser-known Rhône varietal that makes for a lively, light-bodied red better served with a slight chill. It’s the perfect complement to the balmy weather on Anacapa Street—the wine world’s equivalent to a margarita—albeit with the terroir-driven complexity sought in trophy bottles of Burgundy.
That style of fun, unfussy wine, favored by a new generation of winemakers in Santa Barbara County, also pairs seamlessly with the fresh cuisine being served around town. Don’t let the historic Spanish Colonial architecture and stunning waterfront views of “The American Riviera” fool you; Santa Barbara is surrounded by fertile farmland. And restaurateurs like Satellite’s Drew Cuddy and Bibi Ji’s Alejandro Medina make good use of the spoils from both land and sea.
At the former, a natural wine bar and vegetarian restaurant in the heart of downtown, Cuddy offers a SoCal version of bar fare: farmers’ market creations like his Yoga Pants Salad tossed with beets, massaged kale, shaved watermelon radish, edible flowers, and a roast garlic–almond dressing. It’s Instagram fodder that’s even more eye-catching than the quirky wine labels and Satellite’s Italian spritz presented and poured from science lab flasks.
While at Bibi Ji, Medina and chef Jessi Singh serve contemporary Indian cuisine that eschews any heavy trappings—“No ghee, no grease, no lard,” as Medina likes to say—in favor of inspired, hyperlocal preparations such as uni biryani, tandoori spot prawns, and a chef’s tasting of bright curries plated on a metal thali. At both restaurants, the food serves to showcase the region’s more daring winemakers (not the other way around), as well as Santa Barbara’s evolving collective palate
“On both the wine and food menus, our overarching theme is growers with their hands in the earth and dirt under their fingernails,” says Cuddy. “I really see us as a panacea for the homogeneous, which is what Santa Barbara used to be—and not that long ago.”
Terroir isn’t just somm speak for “it’s complicated.” Climate, sun exposure, soil type, elevation, and various viticultural philosophies determine how a grape will taste. And nowhere is this combination of factors more diverse than in Santa Barbara. A true geographic anomaly, the region is located within the longest transverse (east to west) valley found on the western Pacific coast—unlike the rest of California wine country, which is positioned in a north-south direction. The tectonic activity that shaped this topographical oddity 5 million years ago also created a vast mishmash of microclimates, terrains, and soils (ranging from marine sediment to limestone and chert, a fine-grained sedimentary rock with minuscule crystals of quartz). That’s why the region offers everything from floral Chenin Blancs to the silky, single-vineyard Pinot Noirs famously extolled by Miles Raymond in the Alexander Payne film Sideways. If Napa Valley is considered the Bordeaux of the United States, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley its Burgundy, Santa Barbara is like the entire country of France sandwiched between the Santa Ynez and the sea.
“We can pretty much do it all,” says Lo-Fi Wines owner Mike Roth, who recently opened a new tasting room in Los Alamos, a tiny town about an hour’s drive northwest of Santa Barbara. “Our terroir is conducive to any number of varietals. We’ve never been pigeonholed like other areas in California.” In fact, Santa Barbara is home to more than 50 grape varietals, and like many of the intrepid young winemakers who’ve been drawn to the area, Roth—a bearish, bearded eccentric—plays with several of them. Particularly the oddballs like plush and herbal Malbec; a hazy, sour cherry–like grenache; and fruity Gamay Noir, the latter of which he incorporates into a methode ancestral rosé sparkling wine that tastes of earth and raspberries. Roth owns one small vineyard site, Clos Mullet (intentionally named after the “party in the back” hairstyle), but he buys a majority of his fruit from outside growers. Unfettered by lots of expensive real estate, he can then experiment with different practices, especially those favored in natural winemaking (carbonic maceration, native yeast fermentation, and little to no added sulfites), as well as varietals outside of the typical Cali canon.
Forty minutes away at Lieu Dit vineyard, winemaker Eric Railsback has been lured by the Wild West opportunities of the Santa Barbara region. “The barrier to entry is lower compared to places like Napa, where you have to have serious money,” Railsback says. “But there are also far fewer preconceived notions of what a wine should be, so it’s easier to do your own thing.”
A highly regarded former San Francisco sommelier, Railsback partnered with winemaker Justin Willett in 2011 to grow and make wine from grapes indigenous to France’s Loire Valley. Outside of a crisp Pinot Noir rosé, the rest of the Lieu Dit lineup champions the offbeat, including a seductive sans soufre (“without sulfur,” a popular preservative) Cabernet Franc and a stony, old-vine Melon de Bourgogne that rivals more storied labels from its home in the Muscadet appellation. Not only are they bottles that offer an alternative to NoCal’s wine monoculture, but these upstart wines are priced (most under $30) to encourage exploration, whether you’re a grape geek or the most neo of wine neophytes.
As much as Santa Barbara’s wines represent the diversity of its geology and climate, its winemakers are every bit as distinct—and surprising. Most of the area’s pioneers don’t have the same kind of sparkling résumés or University of California Davis viticulture and enology degrees as their counterparts further north. But this melting pot of perspectives, less hindered by tradition, is spawning an unprecedented amount of innovation. Cameron and Marlen Porter, the husband-and-wife team behind Amplify Wines (in Santa Maria), are former musicians turned self-taught winemakers. Voice actor Jeff Fischer—who has the same laid-back quality as his namesake character on the television show American Dad!—is now known as much for his Grüner Veltliner at Habit Wine Company as his work in Hollywood. And Ryan Roark, the brusque, tough-as-nails owner behind Roark Wine Company in Buellton, came from a ranching background in Texas before becoming a darling of the artisanal wine world.
But no one epitomizes Santa Barbara’s free-wheeling spirit quite like Ruben Solorzano. The genial vineyard manager emerges from the picturesque rows of fastidiously pruned Syrah at Stolpman Vineyards’s estate in Ballard Canyon, a 45-minute drive northwest of Santa Barbara. Known as “the grape whisperer” in these parts, Solorzano shows off the parcels allotted for the La Cuadrilla project, a red blend cultivated and vinified every vintage solely by his team of Mexican-American vineyard workers. A native of Mexico himself, Solorzano began the effort as a way of empowering his employees and educating the crew in the finer points of the trade. Started as a training program in the 1990s, the La Cuadrilla label has since grown into a popular 2,800-case draw, and all profits are reaped by the employees. It’s an endeavor unique to the winery, not to mention the forward-thinking Stolpman family, but it’s also the kind of idiosyncratic approach that seems so in line with the county itself: unafraid to veer from convention, innovative, and yet strangely practical. Winemakers like Solorzano and Roark might be miles away from popular breaks like Santa Barbara’s Leadbetter Point, but they view their vineyards through the same lens as a surfer scanning the horizon. There’s so much to utilize, and a whole world of creative choices to make to get to shore.
Back on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara—a mile from the surf itself—you can take a seat amid the stuffed peacocks in Bibi Ji’s exposed-brick dining room and taste that sense of individuality. It’s in Jessi Singh’s unapologetically “unauthentic” Indian food, which he encourages diners to eat with their hands. It’s in the raucous, high-energy environment, which has become a draw for industry personnel across Santa Barbara. And it’s in the lively, natural-leaning wine list chosen by Bibi Ji partner Rajat Parr, one of the country’s most distinguished sommeliers, who recently decamped from San Francisco to get closer to the action here.
What Parr did for the late, great RN74 wine bar in the Bay Area, he’s now implementing opposite Chef Singh’s light and fresh Indian fare. Yet instead of rare Burgundies, his focus is now on obscure wines that harmonize seamlessly with the food, and reflect the same type of optimism and playfulness seen all around Bibi Ji: the Bollywood movies projected on the brick walls, the lithe yet textured Stolpman Roussanne being poured by the glass, even the party buses—vibrating with each bass note—ambling down State Street.
Take another sip and watch the red stream of taillights, visible through Bibi Ji’s oversize streetfront windows, receding toward the sand and surf. Listen for the whistle of the train pulling through, and the gulls crying on billows of salty air. Feel your shoulders settle. Taste the renegade, free-spirited vibe of the coast in every refilled glass. Then order another bottle. Because in Santa Barbara wine country, it’s all about having fun.