Dustin Wilson is a Master Sommelier based in New York City. His career spans some of the top restaurants across the US – Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, CO; The Little Nell, in Aspen; and RN74 in San Francisco. Dustin is best known for his position as Wine Director of the 3 Michelin-starred restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. This expertise led him to have a leading role in the critically acclaimed wine documentary, SOMM, and he was later featured in the film’s sequel, SOMM: Into the Bottle. Now, he's teaming up with Journy for the ultimate wine tour of Santa Barbara. Click here for more info and to save your space!
The first thing that made me fall in love with Santa Barbara were the wines. Some of my favorite wines in the US come from Santa Barbara and that lead me to a strong interest in the area and what made it so great for wine. I visit the region several times each year and now it is the landscape and the people that I love the most.
Santa Barbara is one of the most diverse wine regions in the US. Due to the geography of the county, many different grape varieties are able to be grown at a very high level of quality. You can find stunning pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, cabernet and more here. What I really like about it is the fact that it is not overly built up. While Napa is a beautiful place, and no doubt a fantastic spot for cabernet, it is a massive tourist destination and the valley up there has built it up as such. Santa Barbara still has this sort of "untouched" feel to it; it's quaint, quirky, and has retained its charm. The beachfront area of Santa Barbara is pretty fantastic too so there's that.
I chose my favorite wineries because they create wines of place and nuance. Each one cares deeply about expressing the land from where the wines are grown and adopts a 'hands-off' approach, creating honest wines with lots of personality. Their wines are meant to be paired with a meal—they won't overpower dinner with huge fruit and high levels of alcohol.
Tyler Winery is run by Justin Willett, one of the top winemakers in Santa Barbara, and maybe even California for chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines are for people who love elegant old-world styled wines with a California feel. Super guy, great winemaker and it's in the Lompoc area which is like the 'ghetto' of Santa Barbara wineries where the vineyards are more like small garage-y properties.
Sandhi is a collaboration between sommeliers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman. The wines are more on the elegant side as well. They have some different food sources and slightly different wine making style but with top notch pinot noir and chardonnay; they purchase fruit from various vineyards also in Lompoc.
Domaine De La Cote
Another brand by Sandhi owners, but the fruit comes from vineyards they own. You can taste Domaine de la Cote at Sandhi as well.
Eric Railsback was a sommelier with me back in the day. His winery, Lieu Dit, uses Loire Vally grapes like sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, chenin blanc. They're all meant to show a true sense of place, conveniently located near Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote.
Located in the Santa Maria valley, Presqu'ile is a bit further north and great for both pinot noir and chardonnay. It's one of most beautiful properties in all of Santa Barbara; well built and a proper winery. They also make a notable syrah and rosé.
Graham Tatomer is young guy who studied winemaking and worked in Wachau, Austria under famous winemaker Knoll. Afterward, he came back to Santa Barbara and found sites to grow a great dry style of Austrian riesling, grüner veltliner and pinot noir.
This winery is located in Ballard canyon where they have a valley that runs north to south and is great for Rhone grapes like syrah. I think this is one of the better syrah producers in Santa Barbara, though they also produce a nice Sangiovese. Stolpman vineyard has steep, densely planted sites that are great to see in a tour.
Ojai is a bit far from the others and located way down in the southwestern part of the county. But it's worth the trip for Adam Tolmack's old school wines. Quality has been inconsistent in the past, but it's top notch right now—I'm a fan of their single vineyard syrahs.
Star Lane is a one of the larger wineries in Happy Canyon, the eastern-most part of Santa Ynez Valley. The vineyards are beautiful with a very dramatic landscape. They do things at a very high level use a mix of cabernet and Bordeaux grape varieties. While Santa Barbara is typically more famous for chardonnay and pinot noir, this place shows the breadth of wines that can be produced at a high level in this region.