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Santa Barbara's Wine Country

Santa Barbara promotes itself as the American Riviera, and it's easy to see why. This naturally blessed stretch of central California offers pastoral scenery, first-rate food and outstanding wine varietals, starting with its award-winning Pinot Noir. Known also for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Riesling, Santa Barbara's wineries exude more of a warm and fuzzy 'mom-and-pop' feel than the big wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. So, beware: Halfway through your visit, you may fantasize about moving here and opening a winery of your own.

Though Santa Barbara may seem to be among California's newer wine regions, in fact, the winery tradition goes back centuries. Father Junipero Serra, who established the missions up and down the coast of California, first brought grapevine cuttings here from Mexico in 1782.

By 1884, grape stock had been imported from France, and a 150-acre vineyard had been planted on Santa Cruz Island. When the area's first wines were shipped to San Francisco to be bottled, word got out that the region held enormous potential. However, not until the early 1960s were modern vineyards planted first in Santa Maria and later in the Santa Ynez Valley.

WEATHER BUSTERS By the 1970s, Santa Barbara winemakers had mastered the technique of growing grapes in an area that is generally warm to hot by day but where fog and winds come in from the Pacific Ocean at night. It is this marine influence that keeps grape yields low yet quality high.

Wine-growing conditions vary considerably throughout Santa Barbara County, from the windswept Santa Rita Hills to the eastern Santa Ynez Valley, where temperatures soar in the summer. Today, more than 100 wineries produce wine in Santa Barbara County under three separate appellations Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills and many of them welcome visitors for tastings and tours.

BEYOND WINE But there is more to do in the Santa Barbara wine country, which is about 45 minutes north of the city of Santa Barbara, than just winery touring. Smell the flowers at family-owned Clairmont Farm, where row after row of lavender paint the fields purple and perfume the air. Or go eye-to-eye with an ostrich at Ostrich Land, where the giant birds are raised. If you feel the need to exercise after wining and dining, you can go horseback or bike riding, play golf at one of several public courses or take a bald-eagle-watching boat ride on Cachuma Lake Highway 101 is the fastest route between the vineyards and Santa Barbara, a city of just less than 100,000 people and one of the prettiest in California. Highway 101 provides breathtaking ocean views in spots, but for a less-traveled scenic mountain route, consider Highway 154 instead. This winding mountain road climbs over rugged San Marcos Pass, providing a dramatic back-door route between wine country and the city.

The city of Santa Barbara, boasting a plethora of red-tile-roofed Spanish colonial-style buildings, offers a wide range of diversions, such as shopping, sightseeing, dining and hitting the beach.

Accommodations run the gamut, from luxurious ocean-view hotels to Victorian B&Bs, making the city a good spot to stay during your visit to Santa Barbara wine country.

Stroll along State Street, a seven-mile palm-tree-lined stretch of historic buildings, shops and restaurants that runs through the heart of town. Wander into the series of Moorish tiled arcades, especially El Paseo, an Old Spain warren of shops and courtyards with splashing fountains that was built in the 1920s. Nearby, Paseo Nuevo is a bigger and glitzier riff on the arcade theme, with familiar chain outlets and eateries as well as local shops. Take a one-block detour to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, an imposing Spanish-Moorish building. Decked in Tunisian tile, it boasts lush tropical gardens and an expansive lawn that sometimes serves as a stage for outdoor concerts. As for the courthouse jail, it's purported to be the most beautiful in the United States. Climb the steps of the 85-foot-high courthouse clock tower to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the ocean, the city and the Santa Ynez Mountains.

At the foot of State Street, Stearns Wharf juts out into the Pacific Ocean, separating the wide swath of white sandy beach into east, where volleyballers and swimmers rule, and west, which abuts the marina. Here you can rent a kayak, join a whale-watching cruise or simply enjoy a cold drink and watch the sunset.

Note: Though Santa Barbara is on the California coast, it actually faces south. As a result, the best time of year to catch the sun sinking into the ocean (as opposed to dropping behind the coastline) is in the winter.

ON THE WATERFRONT Stearns Wharf was built in 1872 for commercial fishing boats, but now it is host to several restaurants and outdoor eateries where you can sample fresh Santa Barbara shrimp or munch on fish and chips. Visiting the new Ty Warner Sea Center will round out your day at the wharf. This engaging, interactive marine-education facility was a gift to Santa Barbara from the inventor of Beanie Babies, who owns several Santa Barbara hotels. Kids love crawling through the tunnel inside a 1,500-gallon surge tank to view the life of the ocean.

A short drive from the city center is the Mission Santa Barbara. Known as the queen of the California missions, it was founded in 1786, the 10th mission founded by the Spanish Franciscans in what is now California. Its lush subtropical gardens and historic adobe buildings make it an enchanting and pleasantly serene spot.

Those with a serious interest in gardens or grandiose estates of the rich and somewhat famous will want to take a side trip to Lotusland in nearby Montecito, an enclave of walled estates with ocean views just south of Santa Barbara. Created by Madame Ganna Walska, a much-married European actress and opera singer who lived in the elaborate Italianate mansion for 43 years until her death in 1984, the 37-acre estate is a fantasyland of gardens from ferns and cacti to aloe, succulents and water plants. For visitors to Santa Barbara wine country, this remarkable attraction may be as memorable as the wine.

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