Sensational Santa Barbara!

Very happy that we were finally able to fit in a trip to Santa Barbara!  A destination that’s been on my list after hearing great things about it from anyone who has ever visited, or knows people who live there.

Tues 3/11

We stayed at the Hotel Santa Barbara in the heart of downtown – in between the beach and the nicer part of downtown.  At first our impression was a bit ‘meh’ given the number of homeless people milling about, and some cheapie neglected-looking buildings near us.  But then you walk down to the beach and the pier and to the nicer part of downtown and you appreciate the variety – and not having everything looking brand new like a shiny penny (like some parts of Scottsdale.)  As we observed in Albuquerque, we like a little bit of grit!  This place is truly special – you have a great blend of regular shopping (Old Navy, Macy’s, etc.) right in the center of town along with independently owned boutiques (what I love and what reminds me of home!), no super-fancy shops like you’d see on the Mag Mile (surprising.)  Not only do you have a great little city beachside but then you have a wonderful wine country just a hop, skip, and a jump away!  Wine country and beaches?  Yeah, I was in heaven.  However, west coast beaches can’t even shine a light to the east coast beaches – because you need a wet suit to swim in them!  No thanks!

Our first stop was lunch – a cute Italian place, Caffe Primo, across from the hotel where we enjoyed some local Zaca Mesa wines and I once again gave ‘manila’ clams yet another go – no thanks, they just don’t compare to littlenecks!  Yet another argument for how east coast beaches and seafood is superior to the west coast!

Then we meandered down to Stearn’s Wharf and were treated to some pretty views of the city and the dolphins swimming by!

That evening we had a great dinner at Enterprise Fish Co – extensive selection of fish and a great wine list.  We tried a Sanford chardonnay and a Tablas Creek white blend.  Highly recommend wines from both wineries – we tried Tablas Creek (based in Paso Robles) at the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta and loved them!  We visited Sanford the next day (see entry below.)

Wed 3/12

Whale Watching (some Gray Whales, many dolphins, many sea lions!) with Condor Express

Lunch & Wine Tasting in Downtown

Margerum Winery

Hosted by Hugh – the owner’s brother, specialize in higher acidity, lower alcohol wines, they own/manage the Wine Cask restaurant and Intermezzo café nearby. Learned about the unique climate of the Santa Barbara area where weather patterns. Also got some interesting insight into the owner of Qupe winery (my very first syrah that I had in Chicago and I’ve always been a fan! Unfortunately they are moving tasting rooms and we were unable to visit this time!) Qupe owner, _____, and Au Bon Climat owner, really pioneered Rhone style wines in CA. They were known as the Rhone Rangers! These two are such good friends that they co-locate their winery operations.

  • Loved – Syrah and Reserve D Sauvignon Blanc
  • Liked – M5 red blend
  • Would pass on – Sangiovese

Overall rating: Our first tasting in Santa Barbara did not disappoint. Good conversation, specialized service, and worthwhile grape made Margerum a great choice for us.

More about the Santa Barbara wine country:

  • Weather patterns – unique transverse weather patterns where the valleys run east/west rather than north/south like up in Napa.  This results in ocean breezes traveling eastward – eastward vineyards are warm during the day and very cool at night – whereas westward vineyards near the ocean enjoy a mild and moderate climate – the opposite of what you’d expect!  Santa Barbara’s large variety of soils results in a large volume of varietals.
  • Famous vineyards: Bien Nacido (we’ve seen this quite a bit in Napa), Sierra Madre, and Sea Smoke
  • Santa Barbara has 6 AVAs:  Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, and Los Olivos (just became an AVA in early March)

Courthouse clock tower

  • Spanish-Moorish “palace” with beautiful architectural details was built in 1929,  surrounded by lawns and a sunken tropical garden – we saw photos from a quincenara (Sweet 15) party being taken.
  • Building is a fully functional courthouse.
  • Climb the clock tower to enjoy 360° views of the city, mountains, and ocean.

Sanford Winery and courtyard

Dinner at Toma’s

Fabulous food and service!  Deserves its #1 TripAdvisor rating!

Thurs 3/13

Santa Ynez & Los Olivos wine country

Picked up our rental car, make that a monster-sized van, and off we went into wine country.  Amazing views and tasty wine made for a great day!

Zaca Mesa

  • Visited here based on the recommendation of our trusted somm friend Joe!
  • Very friendly staff who were very interested in the blog, sharing information about the winery, and some other winery recommendations (including Andrew Murray and Kenneth Wolf)
  • Production: 250-300K (bigger than I would have expected)
  • Loved: 2014 Viognier
  • Liked: 2011 Roussane, 2014 Mourvedre, 2011 Mesa Reserve Syrah, 2011 Syrah, 2014 Sauvignon Blanc


  • This was our #1 winery visit in terms of the wine (delicious, unique combinations of varietals), and the setting was so unique – an old barn!  They actually have 2 locations – the barn and a more modern facility (focusing on pinot noir, their pinots are supposed to be amazing – will have to try in the future.  My recommendation is if you have a chance to buy Foxen do it!!  Most of the wines we tasted were from Happy Canyon which became an AVA in 2009.
  • Production: 14K
  • Recommended Longoria – 3K case boutique winery
  • Loved: 2012 Range 30 West (60% merlot, 40% cab franc), named after the US geological survey designation for this area of Happy Canyon, 600 cases (loved this wine!), 2012 Cabernet (Vogelzang Vineyard, Happy Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley, 480 cases), 2013 Pajarito (50% merlot, 50% petit verdot from Happy Canyon – 300 cases)
  • Liked: 2014 Sauvignon Blanc (Vogelzang Vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc) 400 cases
  • Would pass on: 2013 Sangiovese

The town of Los Olivos, small town, many tasting rooms!


Decided to try Stolpman as they were featured in a Food & Wine article and their tasting room was conveniently located in downtown Los Olivos, right around the corner from lunch!  Glad we stopped in!

  • Wines are from Ballard Canyon AVA,
  • Owner is Tom Stolpman, an attorney from LA, purchased the vineyard in the 80s, opened the winery in 1997,
  • Production: 14K, 150 acres planted, 90% used
  • Loved: 2013 La Croce (50% Sangiovese and 50% Syrah), 2013 Hilltops Syrah
  • Liked: 2013 Roussane, 2013 Grenache
  • Would pass on: 2014 Para Maria Syrah, 2012 Sangiovese


  • Production: 10K, capacity is 25K (they do some custom crush for clients, they limit production to control quality)
  • Beautiful grounds and views – a Provence-style setting
  • Linda Rice, founder, got inspired to get into the business by making viognier as a way to bring her family together.
  • Recommended Tercero (Larry Shafer) – unique creative winemaking
  • Loved: 2014 Viognier Linda’s (makes sense given the history of the winery)
  • Liked: 2013 Mason Cuvee (50% cab franc, 40% merlot, 10% syrah), 2013 Pinot Noir, 2014 Rapsodie
  • Would pass on: 2014 Chardonnay Reserve

Dinner at Olio Pizzeria – got to try the Andrew Murray syrah from Santa Ynez (wines highly recommended by our host at Zaca Mesa)

Fri 3/14

Today’s focus was on driving east to Ojai to visit Ojai Vineyards, recommended by Joe.  We were impressed with the syrah vertical tasting (and loved being able to buy aged syrahs at a reasonable price) and would definitely buy other wines from them in a heartbeat!  Ojai is a tiny community and seems like it probably hasn’t changed all that much through the years, though we learned from the local museum that at one time the town was really in need of a makeover.  That’s where a businessman, E.D. Libbey, who went on to start Corning Glass, played a key role in beautifying the town and making it a destination.  I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my only exposure to Ojai was in the 80s doing an exercise VHS tape by Brenda Dygraff that was set at ‘the beautiful Ojai Valley Inn & Spa’ and I remember thinking it looked beautiful!!!

The views en route to Ojai were pretty spectactular!

In town:

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At the tasting room:

Ojai vineyard tasting:

  • Loved: 2003 Syrah (McGinley, just south of Happy Canyon), 2008 Syrah
  • Liked: 1998 Syrah, 2001 Syrah

Lots to catch up on in the coming weeks with the blog, including my Mom’s visit to AZ – we hit Sedona, Grand Canyon, and Flagstaff in 3 nights.  We just got back to Scottsdale this afternoon and we leave for Kauai before the crack of dawn tomorrow!

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