Part of the Urban Wine Trail, The Valley Project is located in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. // © 2015 Melissa Karlin
Feature image (above): Santa Barbara, Calif. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Santa Barbara, Calif., is located between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, creating a Mediterranean climate perfect for winemaking. The surrounding area is home to more than 175 wineries and 22,000 acres of vineyards, ready and waiting for visitors to live out their “Sideways” wine-tasting fantasies.
Luckily, visitors don’t have to drive deep into the surrounding hills and mountains in order to enjoy these wines; one can simply stroll along the Urban Wine Trail in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. The trail consists of seven production facilities and 26 tasting rooms, featuring wines that source grapes from vineyards located about 45 minutes northeast of the city in Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria.
The program began when eight wineries came together proposing a true wine tasting experience in the heart of the city, offering visitors and locals a chance to understand local wine products without having to drive into the Santa Ynez valley.
“It’s an alternative experience,” said Seth Kunin, owner of Kunin Wines. “It can be a car-free, gas-free experience. Visitors can walk the trail or take public transportation, so no one has to be a driver.”
In order to be a part of the initiative, wineries must be located in Santa Barbara County and possess a wine grower’s license that proves they grow their wines personally. This insures there is a more direct grower-to-consumer pattern, according to Kunin.
The bulk of the trail is located in the former industrial district known as the Funk Zone. This area is full of warehouses that have been turned into wine-tasting rooms, art galleries and artisan shops. Most tasting rooms are open from late morning until early evening, though exact times vary.
Following are a few wineries to sample while exploring the trail both inside and outside the Funk Zone.
In the heart of the Funk Zone is Oreana Winery and Tasting Room. It offers a bar-like atmosphere in addition to wine-tasting with an outdoor space; live music on Fridays and Saturdays; and food trucks on weekends. For those who prefer a more educational and low-key tasting, try The Valley Project. The tasting room highlights the different viticultural areas of Santa Barbara County, showcasing the soils and informing tasters on the various factors that affect their wines.
For an experience outside the Funk Zone, head to the El Paseo complex for multiple tasting rooms. Margerum Wine Company has both a standard tasting room and a reserve tasting room. Take a step into the reserve room to try one of the wineries’ famous syrah options, which can be light, drinkable and without the earthy tones that generally characterize California wines. And for Santa Barbara’s crowning glory, pinot noir? Visit Au Bon Climat by Jim Clendenen.
One of the greatest experiences of the trail is the sense of community found throughout.
“It’s a pretty cool community,” said Andrew Bouton, an employee at The Valley Project. “Every day, we’ll have someone come in from another winery and say, ‘Someone sent us over.’ It’s not a super competitive thing; it’s more like everyone coming together and making it the best experience.”
As for how to enjoy the trail, Kunin had some advice.
“Start early and pace yourself,” he said. “On weekends, it can get busy in the afternoons. So, if you start early, you can try a few wines and then take a lunch break before trying a few more. And don’t try to take in more than three or four places at a time.”
Most importantly, don’t just go in to drink the wines — go for the experience. With the beach in front of you and the sun shining above, it may be a different environment than a traditional wine-tasting trip, but that’s what makes the trail special.