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Wine Tasting Santa Barbara-Style, Part 1: The Urban Wine Trail

I have a tale of two cities to share with you today. This is a tale of a city by the sea and at the same time a city that stretches into gentle foothills and rugged mountains. A city whose reputation is built on fine wines, culinary greatness, and adventure- based activities that range from the urban divine, to the salty ocean, to the rolling mountains. You might come for the Pinot as I did, but you’ll leave touched by the style and grace of a user-friendly community that is at the top of its game.

In my wine tasting stories, I am looking beyond the big name wineries for small lot, family owned wineries that are the soul of any wine region. Along the way, I also experience exceptional lodging, food, and activities that complement my adventure. This trip was no exception. With help from the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau my two day mid-week trip was, to say the least, memorable. My first day was spent “Carless in Santa Barbara,” and is penned here as Part 1 ~ The Urban Wine Trail. Part 2 ~ Small Lot Wineries in the Hills of Santa Barbara can be found in a separate article.

My day one goal was to experience the Urban Wine Trail (11 wineries in and around downtown Santa Barbara) using only feet, a wine guide, and local transportation. My (thirty-something) daughter Nicole joined me for this effort and was tasked to be the navigator (which in itself was quite an adventure as she has apparently inherited by non-map skills). We put on our sunblock and walking shoes, threw the gorgeous reusable tote made from sustainable materials given to me as a welcome gift from Santa Barbara Visitor Bureau’s Shannon Brooks over my shoulder, and headed out from home base, the Cheshire Cat Inn and Cottages. In a couple of blocks we were on State Street and hopped the Santa Barbara Trolley (25 cents) which took us within a block of the beach and our 3-target wineries: Oreana Winery, Santa Barbara Winery, and Municipal Winemakers.

Oreana Winery is a mix of winery, tasting room, and funky art gallery. We liked this 4,000 case winery. They have quite an extensive offering of wines form interesting Pinot’s to refreshing whites to Italian varietals. Our first pick was the 2008 Oreana Verdelho ($22), a 355 case Portuguese white wine with flavors of tropical fruit and guava. A bit like Viognier it has a rich honey-suckle nose and taste that goes great with Asian cuisine. The second pick, a 2006 Oreana Pinot Noir ($18) was a remarkably elegant collection of blue and black fruit--blackberry, boysenberry, blueberry and currant. The sweet spice, vanilla, and mineral notes enhanced the long finish. We purchased both … then came the AHA! moment. No car meant we had to carry our wine finds in the tote. My original thought was to fill the tote with jewelry and other artsy items, but it turned out to be all about the wine. Nicole was appointed the official carrier as this was my birthday week. (photo by Melissa Fargo)

On we marched to nearby 35,000 case Santa Barbara Winery. Founded in 1962 it is the oldest winery in the county and current home to many award-winning wines. We were warmly greeted by server Chemayne who recommended several wines for us to taste. We said we would pass on the Chardonnay, but she was shocked at our attitude and eventually convinced us to try it. We loved it. Lesson learned? Sometimes you just have to put yourself in the hands of experts. Our top picks were the 2007 Santa Rita Hills Reserve Chardonnay ($22), the 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15), and the 2008 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($25). Adding yet another bottle of wine to Nicole’s bag, we were off to Municipal Winemakers.

Municipal is the stuff dreams are made of. Nicole immediately connected with the hip, edgy urban profile of this winery. Our server Kate had to be one of the most enthusiastic informative servers I’ve met in a long while. This is a “must stop” on your wine trail experience for its great wines and fascinating back story. This is a pet friendly, hip, I-Pads on the counter, by the glass, bottle, foruntain or taste kind of place. Nicole thought it was by far the most creative wine tasting place she has been at. You must come if for nothing else to experience the wine fountain – a relaxed creative approach to tasting wine. We loved all the wines…so much so that Nicole started stacking bottles of wine on the counter to purchase. When I reminded her we had no car, her face fell…but she was quickly saved by Kate who offered to drop off the mountain of wine to our B & B. Credit card wiped out, we left VERY happy wine campers to catch the trolley for our next destination… lunch at the… OMG… Wine Cask Restaurant.

The Wine Cask has both a stylish tasting room and a casually elegant restaurant. We stopped first at the restaurant opting to sit outside on the lovely patio. The place was busy and for good reason. The food and service here typify the classic Santa Barbara dining experience we all want: a gentle breeze, flowers, umbrellas, amazing & artful food, and perfect service. The wine and cocktail lists were big, thoughtful and varied. If you want the quintessential Santa Barbara experience…stop here.

Just next door is the Wine Cask tasting room. We loved it for its unique take on showcasing and rotating hand-picked, small lot, under represented wines each month. Again, great care and thought went into this concept. Owner Mitchell Sjerven is one smart guy. This is THE place for wine lovers. We tasted and purchased the 2009 Palmina Malvasia Bianca ($26) and the 2008 Brewer Clifton Santa Rita Hills Pinot ($56). Nicole didn’t even flinch at the prospect of having to carry these two additional bottles back to the Cheshire Inn.

After lunch we met up with my husband Allan at the world famous Santa Barbara Sailing Center where he and Nicole rented a double kayak to explore the beautiful harbor area for a couple of hours. This is an amazing place appropriate for the novice to the most experienced sailor as the center offers classes, certifications, rentals, boat rides, clubs, and events. Their specialty is customized classes and as such has been known to put together classes for people with varying abilities and challenges. School Director Ian Fitzgerald shared with me that his goal is, “To give the experience of sailing to those who seek it… anyway I can.” He coordinates many of the programs for the thousands of people who come there and is happy to design specialty programs -- like the time he designed classes for a blind man and another for a one-armed student. His clientele is international in scope, yet it also serves locals year round. This is a great place to take some time out from wine tasting and enjoy a special water activity.

We left the sailing center and headed back to our luxe lodgings. The Cheshire Cat Inn and Cottages is centrally located for any type of Santa Barbara adventure you’re looking for – 5 minutes to downtown to an hour or less to many wineries. The 17 well-appointed rooms are all named for and decorated in an Alice in Wonderland theme. Rates ($199 - $399 depending on season) include gratuity-free service, expanded continental breakfast mid-week and full breakfast at weekends, afternoon wine & hors d’oeuvre hour daily, complimentary wireless Internet, computer & printer solely for guests’ use, outdoor Jacuzzi, fluffy robes, selection of DVDs, and off-street parking. I know you’ll enjoy the gorgeous flower-filled gardens, fountains, spa, and gazebo hugging the two historical Queen Ann houses built in 1894 that make up the Inn. Peaceful, relaxing, romantic seems to capture the essence of this charming place.

Final stop on our Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail Adventure was dinner at the Seagrass Restaurant. This is casual fine dining at its best and the best way you can possibly imagine ending a day of exceptional food and wine. Let me explain that casual fine dining is a newer culinary trend redefining the experience of fine dining. It’s a less stuffy approach to all things we love about an upscale meal. Casual fine dining means you can expect linen table cloths, professional wait staff, artful food presentations, special attention to décor, and an amazing wine list… but you don’t have to dress up or be able to pronounce snooty entrée and wine names. Just come as you are, relax, and be ready for the culinary ride of your life. What probably makes this place more special than most in its genre is its attention to food and wine pairing. I would highly recommend that you put yourself in the hands of these professionals and order the wines that are suggested for each course. Chef John Pettitt combines his considerable culinary talents with the urbane and impeccable wine prowess of owner Mitchell Sjerven to create an inspired food and wine pairing experience. It’s obvious to anyone these two guys have a groove on not matched anywhere else. The menu is focused on local seafood and it’s comforting to know Seagrass is a charter member of the Sustainable Seafood Program through the Ty Warner Sea Center. All of their seafood, fish and shellfish are drawn from the Pacific Ocean. They work closely with the Farmers Market to ensure all produce is of the highest quality, local and organic whenever possible. This is a MUST do.

So ends my day in Santa Barbara proper. Before we head off to the small-lot winery tour in the hills of Santa Barbara and beyond, I want to remind you that there are lots of activity options when visiting this downtown area. Especially notable are the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (fabulous surf board collection and a director that really knows his stuff – ask for a personal tour with Greg Gorga), the Botanic Garden, and the Summerland Sojourn (sleepy, artists’ haven). There are also tours galore available. I especially like the Brew Trek (six micro-breweries), Film Tours (From Scarface to Sideways), and the Santa Barbara Safari. You can find out more about each at the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau Web site.

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