It’s been nearly two decades since “Sideways” put the Central Coast wine scene on the map, but like a fine pinot noir, the area has only improved over the years. There are dozens of spots between chic Santa Barbara and the sprawling vineyards of Paso Robles to sip on top notch reds, whites, and rosés, but below we’ve narrowed the list down to our top 15 destinations. Just remember, if you plan on doing a lot of drinking, consider ordering a car service to shuttle you around.
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Many of the best wineries in the region lack a tasting room or are by appointment only. Thankfully, Santa Barbara Wine Collective provides a gateway to sampling their bounty. Highlighting family-owned and operated establishments with limited production, the shop is located in the festive Funk Zone off of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, a short walk from the Amtrak station. Try a few offerings onsite and then take home bottles of your favorite sips. It closes at 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, so plan accordingly.
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This downtown Santa Barbara favorite brilliantly riffs on regional specialties such as Santa Maria BBQ (the beef is wagyu) and local spot prawns. Then there’s the Baked California which is destined to be the favorite dessert of Willie Nelson (“baked” has two meanings in this case, if that wasn’t clear).
The wine list is lengthy with selections that span across the Golden State. If this is your last destination after a long day of imbibing and you happened to have picked up a bottle (or a case), corkage is $25.
With over 12,000 bottles in its cellar and a tasting menu that changes on a monthly basis, there’s something for everyone at the Foley Tasting Room. Located at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Bacara in scenic Goleta, your experience goes beyond what’s in the glass and extends to the stunning Spanish architecture and 2 miles of pristine beach.
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Conveniently located in the center of rapidly expanding, utterly charming Los Olivos, Brewer-Clifton’s walk-in tasting room is a must visit for the pinot noir and/or chardonnay lover— most of the bottles are wax-topped so you know this is the fancy stuff. For a change of pace, try something from the winery’s Ex Post Facto side project which focuses on Rhône style grapes.
Featured in a pivotal scene from “Sideways” and the recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2019, this is a required visit for any serious oenophile. Crazy good wine is therefore a given, so let’s discuss the food, which is farm-to-table (literally; most of the produce is courtesy of the cafe’s farm down the road) and seasonally inspired. Like the wine you just had with your meal? There’s a bottle of it for sale at the shop. Don’t worry about breaking the bank, either. Sub-$20 range options are highlighted and thoughtfully curated. They even carry merlot.
Preparing and Eating a Santa Maria BBQ, from $85 p/p on Airbnb
This instructive meat feast includes an optional stop at a Los Olivos tasting room.
Melville’s roots run deep—the family-run winery goes back generations. You could head to the tasting room location in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone but the better option is to go straight to the source in Lompoc where you can sample a flight, or go the extra mile by snagging a picnic package for $60 that includes a bottle of your choice (chardonnay, pinot noir, or syrah), charcuterie, cheeses, crackers, olives, and two take-home glasses. Make a day of your visit and reserve a vineyard tour.
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Situated on an original Mexico land grant from 1852, a visit to Rancho Sisquoc is like traveling through time. The buildings on the property date back over a century and the winery itself is over 50 years old, a geezer by California standards. With spacious grounds and plenty of picnic tables, it’s an ideal locale to fill up on food in addition to drink. It’s not a bad bang for your buck either at $15 for a sampling of 6 wines of your choosing, sturdy stemless glassware included!
For those that love wine but enjoy beer even more, this is a treat. Savor the unique best-of-both-worlds pours of grape-grain hybrids such as Bretta Blanc and Zin Skin—both are heavy on the funk and fruit. For a more beer-forward experience, select one of the wine barrel-aged wild ales or stouts. And if you want to take a break from the vino, there are several strictly suds options.
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San Luis Obispo/Paso Robles
When you park your car at Jocko’s, don’t be surprised if there are several chickens pecking around the lot. This absolutely zero- frills, middle-of-nowhere establishment is pretty much the only reason to stop in Nipomo, but its lack of ambiance is completely surpassed by expertly grilled Santa Maria-style steaks at jaw dropping prices and a terrific local wine list that betrays its humble surroundings. Reservations are a must, however. If you don’t plan well in advance, be prepared to dine at off peak hours or experience a long wait for a table.
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Reliable, affordable, and highly-rated, Turley is a requisite stop for any Paso visitor, especially if zinfandels are your jam. Enjoy a flight and if you buy a couple of bottles, your tasting fee is waived. Speaking of bottle purchases, ask to see the library list where you’re likely to find some of the winery’s highly touted offerings that are likely sold out everywhere else.
Located roughly 15 miles from downtown Paso Robles en route to San Simeon, Epoch is a must if you’re headed to/from Hearst Castle, but it’s worth the detour even if you’re not. Husband and wife Bill and Liz Armstrong, owners and vinters, both have backgrounds in geology which has proven useful to their craft. The winery specializes in Rhône-varietals, both red and white, and the pours are as fantastic as the rustic chic surroundings, complete with jaw-dropping views.
It’s apropos that this Tin City favorite has a line of canned wines, but don’t let that fact deter you. This is a winery that’s all about breaking convention and going the bold and unexpected route. Winemaker Andrew Jones prides himself on utilizing land that others would not deem arable and toying with unconventional styles and blends (including collaborations with breweries), making any selection from Field Recordings an ideal choice for the wine drinker who’s quaffed it all and wants something different.
Wings and Wine: A Falconry Experience, from $275 p/p on Airbnb
Speaking of something different, interact with falcons and sip on fancy wine during this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It’s always a party at this locals-favorite tasting room in downtown Paso Robles in close proximity to many of the area’s most popular hotels. Beyond the delicious wine, Herman Story has a delightfully wicked sense of humor as evidenced by its annual Late Bloomer grenache with its label festooned each year by one of its wine club member’s most awkward adolescent photos.
An evening at Somm’s Kitchen doesn’t come cheap but it’s worth every penny. Chef and owner Ian Adomo is a Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) Level III Advanced Sommelier so you know you’re in great hands. An intimate experience with only 14 seats and attentive service, the top flight multi-course dinner with wine pairings is accompanied by an education on how the meal was prepared and why the pairings were selected.
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Sextant’s chicly appointed Paso Robles tasting room is well worth a visit for the views and vino, but its Edna Valley spread (located south of San Luis Obispo) has more than just wine on offer. Paninis, charcuterie, cheeses, and more are available for your picnic needs. There you’ll also find multiple residences available to rent on property, including the 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom turn-of-the-century Almond House which overlooks the vineyard, providing the ultimate Central Coast wine country experience.
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Header image courtesy of Getty Images / Funwithfood