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Urban Wine Trails Are Cool, But There’s No Substitute for Wine Country

April 14, 2014 at 5:48 PM | by | ()

In celebration of the most needed happy hour of the week, this column, called “Monday, Five Thirty,” takes a look at all things booze from around the world. Last week, it was a potent after-dinner drink made of "gum drops." This week, we head to California wine country.

If the hand-holding haven of Lotusland is Santa Barbara's best kept secret, then its proximity to the Santa Ynez wine country is a close second. From downtown, a scenic drive up Highway 154 will take you up "into the valley," past Lake Cachuma and through the towns of Solvang, Los Olivos, and Buellton. Northern California gets most of the attention when it comes to wine on a national level, yet the Santa Ynez Valley was put on the map when it was featured in the book turned movie, Sideways.

Despite this, one of the hottest and trendiest movements in Santa Barbara is its urban wine trail, a group of nearly two dozen wineries spread throughout downtown, mostly in the Funk Zone. While the wine trail is somewhat new and still flourishing, many of the wineries have been there for years and were the reason the Funk Zone became what it is today (read more on the development of the Funk Zone here). The promotion of it has been pretty significant. Hotels offer packages with 2-for-1 tasting coupons, maps are handed out at tourist offices, and the idea has become a brand of its own.

On our recent visit, this writer hit a couple of the wineries along the trail, tasting and taking in the vibe and clientele. It was nice to see a mix of locals and tourists, and the atmosphere felt much more like a bar than a winery. That's one of the major differences between the trail and a trip up to wine country, the fact that the former tends to be more drinking oriented, as opposed to the calm, relaxed approach that is necessary when driving to, from, and within wine country.

For me, I really enjoyed being able to walk between wineries and "taste" without worrying about getting behind the wheel. It's also more convenient - no rental car needed, and it's not as much of a day's commitment as a trip up the hill. But the reasons I liked the wine trail are the same reasons I would encourage any visitor to Santa Barbara to go to the wineries.

I appreciate the fact that the wine industry is starting to let down its hair via these bar-like trails, but the valley is simply a different experience. There's still an overwhelming charm to the rolling hills, vines, and country-vibe that I don't think anyone should miss. It becomes more about the entire package - the scenery, the winery, the grape vines, the calmness - than rubbing elbows in a crowded yet convenient downtown tasting room.

Make use of the wine trail on your next visit, but, if you've never been, don't let it keep you from making a trip to the source.

[Photos: Will McGough]

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