(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on June 29, 2012)
For several years, the term “Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail” has been used generally to define a burgeoning group of in-town wineries and tasting rooms. “We were a loose group of winemakers, all friends, getting together every so often to create a map, or do some joint advertising and events,” recalls winemaker Ryan Carr, who’s been making wine downtown since 2005 and who established his namesake tasting room on N. Salsipuedes Street in 2007.
But the Urban Wine Trail became an officially incorporated group of like-minded wine producers just last month, creating an effective, organized team that now hopes to better communicate with each other and better promote downtown wine tasting to tourists.
“The growing number of tasting rooms just made it necessary to set up an organization with structure, so we can bring more business and traffic to the area,” says Carr, who chairs the new group.
The SBUWT brings together an impressive 17 member wineries, all with a downtown presence. Each member is required to hold a locally-based winegrowers’ license and whose annual production must include at least 75% Santa Barbara-sourced grapes. And the group is non-profit, with annual dues going toward joint marketing, including a comprehensive touring and tasting map of the downtown Santa Barbara area.
Among the members is Santa Barbara Winery, which for many years was the only downtown tasting option for wine aficionados; it was established at its Anacapa-Yanonali location way back in 1964. Some longstanding labels in the regional winemaking scene are also members, including Jaffurs (which launched its winemaking facility on E. Montecito St. in 2001) and Whitcraft (with a winery and tasting room on S. Calle Cesar Chavez). And there are some newer players, too, like Cottonwood Canyon, Municipal Winemakers and the cultish Sanguis.
“As more projects and efforts get put together, I think the group will start to have an impact,” says Garreth Conway, whose family’s Deep Sea Tasting Room opened right on Stearns Wharf last September. “We can give people the impression that Santa Barbara really is the gateway for wine tasting here in California.”
The newest downtown tasting room was launched by Grassini Family Vineyards over the Memorial Day weekend. The steady foot traffic it’s seen since has a lot to do with its central location off State Street, in the El Paseo Courtyard. But much of it is also due to “help from other tasting rooms,” says CEO Kate Grassini, “who are always sending people over to us.”
Grassini’s family owns an esteemed vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, which is planted to sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. She touts the much larger tasting scene in towns like Los Olivos and Solvang, which rewards an extra 45-minute drive north of downtown Santa Barbara with many more tasting venues. But she says strict ordinances are making it increasingly tough for wine producers in North County to open tasting rooms on their own properties. By comparison, the growing cluster of Santa Barbara tasting rooms offers travelers a convenient option and, therefore, a special business opportunity.
“People love wine tasting, but they usually want to do it as part of whole downtown experience, not just by visiting one place,” says Grassini, touting the merits of joining the new SBUWT. “As a group, we can emphasize our diversity to consumers, so they can taste Bordeaux wines at one place, try Rhones next door, and so on. And then they can cross the street and watch a movie!”
Carr, who recently opened a second tasting room in downtown Santa Ynez, agrees. “While many guests love to make the trip out to wine country, we understand that sometimes there’s not enough time,” he says. “The Urban Wine Trail is a great alternative to sip and savor all the amazing wines coming from our region.”
Most of the group’s member wineries are located in the city’s expanding Funk Zone, the eclectic precinct that abuts the waterfront that also houses artists’ studios, quirky shops and enterprising restaurants. It affords tourists the chance to get around casually, and by foot, bike or pedi cab. And it affords them the quick detour – beach, anyone? – with ease.
To celebrate their new association, the SBUWT wineries are hosting their first Passport Weekend, July 27-29. For $50, guests will have the three days to visit all 17 tasting rooms, which will be hosting special events, from live music to barrel tastings. “It’s going to be very relaxed, so people can take their time at each location,” says Carr. And to make getting around easier, pedi cabs will be offering free rides throughout the weekend and an official trolley will be looping the trail.
For passport purchase and more information, check out www.urbanwinetrailsb.com.