While some associate Santa Barbara with summer, for me, autumn is the time when Santa Barbara really shines. The shorter days and cool evenings signal the season when most visitors are back home, returning to work and school, meaning beach parking and reservations come easier. This makes it the ideal time for insiders to visit what many refer to as America’s Riviera. Making the analogy all the more relevant, it’s also when the wine harvest in the county’s three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas)─Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley─is in full swing, with locals and lucky visitors celebrating the bliss and bounty of this fertile region. And though the buzz from the film Sideways still seems to linger here (with all the implied connotations), there always seems to be another road to explore with a hidden winery or restaurant to discover.
Indeed, a drive through Santa Barbara’s wine country reveals sunshine burnishing the tawny hillsides a mellow ochre, and berries clinging to Cabernet, Viognier and Pinot vines as they reach their optimal sugar levels, ready for harvest. While local vintners busy themselves with the harvest and the crush begins, under sprawling oaks picnics, parties and festivals begin to bloom like mushrooms after an early winter rain.
One of the best places to experience this wine-tinted wonderland for yourself is the Celebration of Harvest. This yearly event is where dozens of the region’s best vintners and most popular restaurants descend on wineries in idyllic locales and let the good times flow. If you’re short on time and want to stay in the city limits, you can still sip and savor the region’s best along Santa Barbara’s newly organized Urban Wine Trail. Here you can amble between tasting rooms run by prominent local vineyards and producers just minutes from the shoppers and surfers on State Street. For pairings with a perfect pasta or haute fusion cuisine, dining options can be equally impressive. Following is our Santa Barbara shortlist:
WINE AND GOOD SPIRITS
The Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association Celebration of Harvest event is a fall classic. This is where you are lavished with the best the county has to offer in terms of wine, food and spectacular scenery, not to mention an extremely affable crowd very happy it’s harvest time. Held every October in bucolic venues like the Santa Maria Valley’s Rancho Sisquoc Winery (this year’s event was celebrated on October 10), scores of wineries are on hand pouring varietals ranging from reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Malbec, to favored whites such as Viognier and Sauvingnon Blanc, as well as multiple blends. Hot items this year were Rancho Sisquoc’s spicy, plummy Malbec and Vogelzang Vineyard’s beautifully fragrant Sauvignon Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley.
Local restaurants, caterers and other purveyors of fine food like Root 246 and Full of Life Flatbread were also on hand, serving up fare such as wood-fired oven cooked flatbread pizzas, tapenade made from local olives, and grilled lamb cutlets.
For those who wanted to take some of the good times home with them, a wine auction offered coveted bottlings, while for more patient types, cuttings of Pinot Noir vines were handed out near the exit by Allan Hancock College’s Enology program for a grow-your-own experience.
The Urban Wine Trail lets you sip and savor some truly great local wines without ever leaving the city limits. Converted tire shops and Quonset huts make this an altogether different tasting terroir, but what you loose in sylvan scenery is made up for with an urban wine adventure you would be hard-pressed to duplicate anywhere else. A favorite includes Kunin Wines on Anacapa Street. They do small lot, Rhone-style wines including the super-drinkable “Pape Star” (yes, riffs on Chateauneuf-du-Pape), and a luscious 2006 Syrah all dark fruit, smoke and spice. You also have to love the Quonset hut-as-wine-cave vibe at the Carr Vineyards tasting room nearby on Salsipuedes Street. Come here for the chill, lounge-y ambiance, live music (except during harvest) and the excellent Three Vineyards Pinot Noir that really flexes the merits of the Santa Rita appellation.
Being as Santa Barbara is all about its early Spanish and Mexican roots, you might add an agave-flavored adventure with a sip-stop at Blue Agave, an inviting restaurant and bar tucked in a smallish space off of State Street. Super Premium tequila and mezcal like Del Maguey line the shelves, cool tunes mix with the chatter of a hip set of locals, while a dimly-lit chandelier bathes the room in warm glow.
Fortunately for foodies, the epicurean adventures in Santa Barbara stack up to the wine, making for some exceptional pairings. The standard that locals seem to judge all other fine dining experiences here has to be Olio e Limone. Now celebrating their 10th anniversary here, owners Alberto and Elaine Morello have developed a winning combination: “I’m the business, he’s the chef,” she explained on a recent visit there. Both are in top form. Tables were full until closing and Chef Alberto astounded some jaded palates at my table. Here, Sicilian is house rules, with specialties like the flavorful antipaste Grigliata Saporita, featuring radicchio, endive, eggplant, Portobello mushrooms and prosciutto-wrapped goat cheese, and the best chicken entree I have had in memory, a secondi of a thin-pounded chicken breast with prosciutto, fontina cheese and Marsala wine. The restaurant also features a prodigious glass-walled wine cellar that makes an impressive display of mostly Italian and California wines. We kept it local with Kunin’s “Pape Star” blend of Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah.
Being a coastal town, seafood is a natural on menus here. But since savvy locals don’t suffer any pretenders, contenders need to be at their best. A newer favorite seems to be SeaGrass Restaurant, which had a running start two years ago due to the fact owner Mitchell Sjerven is a veteran restaurateur, the owner of highly-regarded bouchon and partner in local mainstay, Wine Cask. Focusing on “coastal cuisine” (that includes things like Sonoma lamb in case you aren’t feeling fishy), SeaGrass and noted Chef John Pettitt pride themselves on local, sustainable choices, sourcing fare such as spiny lobster and olives at places like the Santa Barbara Fish Market and Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market. I enjoyed a Vichyssoise with picholine olives and rock shrimp, an heirloom tomato salad garnished with burratta cheese, and the Giant Sea Scallop Trio, which presented scallops in three deliciously unexpected ways: carpaccio-style with jalapeno, lime, cilantro and mint; with lemongrass consommé and shiitake mushrooms; and grilled white nectarines, peach-Dijon emulsion and arugula.
Also worth checking out if you make it to Santa Barbara this month is epicure.sb, which is a month-long celebration of all things edible─and drinkable in Santa Barbara. Chef’s tastings, prix fixe dinners, food writing showcases, as well as other events, are on the menu.
WHERE TO STAY
Like dining and wine, choices on where to stay are getting increasingly more varied in Santa Barbara. The B&B category is well-represented here, with long-established venues like the Cheshire Cat Inn providing excellent service (make it a point to have the breakfast here), well-furnished rooms in full Laura Ashley-like bloom, and a desirable central location. Newer on the scene is hip, Euro-chic hotels like the Canary. Roof-top pool: check. Small, sleek restaurant: check. Spanish tiles, Moroccan lamps: check. Add a great location right off of State Street and you have a pretty sweet suite. The Inn of the Spanish Garden is a cozy, convenient choice near the town’s center, and if you’re on a budget, the Presidio Motel turns the motel concept on its head, with a colorful, playful approach. For those who want to stay in the heart of wine country though, the Santa Ynez Valley’s Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is a 10,000-acre working dude ranch, with horseback riding trails, flyfishing on a spring-fed lake, a spa and other activities, including easy access to over 100 vineyards.