Santa Rita Wineries & the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail has some of the best wineries and restaurants in Central California. We’ve mapped out one perfect day of wine tasting and restaurants you will love!

“Santa Rita Hills—isn’t that near Napa or Sonoma?” Before Sideways hit it big with the 2004 Oscar for Best Picture, most people had trouble pinpointing this world-class wine region on a map. Visiting the area then was a sleepy, small-town affair, with a few tasting rooms leading the tourism charge.

Today, the Santa Rita Hills, 45 minutes north of the city of Santa Barbara, is still a laid-back, welcoming place, the international spotlight having only refined tourist offerings and, thankfully, not detracted from the raw beauty of the region.

Santa Rita Wineries & Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail

Santa Rita, California wineries are known as the most extreme cool-climate vineyards in the area. Known to many as the Sideways wineries, the wines in and around Santa Rita, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Lompoc are some of the best in California. 

Santa Rita Hills Appellation includes locations between the Santa Rosa Hills and the Purisima Hills that comply with criteria for hillside Pinot Noir and Chardonnay viticulture. Rita Hills is an American Viticultural Area (AVA) located at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in California’s Central Coast wine region.

The Santa Rita Hills run east to west, which allows cool air from the Pacific Ocean to enter the valley creating its own unique microclimate. This climate is most apparent after warm days are followed by cool winds on chilly evenings.

Santa Rita wineries are known as the most extreme cool-climate vineyards in the area. There are more than 3,000 acres of Pinot Noir and 500 acres of Chardonnay planted in the STA Rita Hills AVA. There is an additional 140 acres of Sta. Rita Hills vineyards that are growing Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other wine grape varieties are grown in the varied soils in the area that range from marine sand and clay loam to limestone.

Not to get too geeky about soil, but the Rita Hills is home to a vary rare soil type in the winemaking world, which is diatomaceous earth (DE). It is white rock comprising mostly silica that was created over millions of years as sea algae deposits on the deep ocean floor were fossilized and then moved onto land by earthquake and volcano activity.

The wineries in this AVA are dedicated to producing exceptional cold-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah and most are grown in estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Santa Rita Wine

Pinot vineyard

Santa Rita wine and the Rita Hills are most known for California Pinot Noir. Located between the towns of Buelton and Lompoc in the northwestern part of the county, Pinot Noir is overwhelmingly the focus of the region.

After Pinot Noir the region is known for it’s white wine variety of Chardonnay. 

Natural acidity balanced with firm structure is a common thread in the great wine throughout the region making them easy to pair with a variety of foods.

Toto, We’re Not in Napa Anymore: A World-Class Wine Region, post-Sideways

Best Things to do in Santa Rita and Los Olivos – A Sideways Wine Exploration

wine tasting room

Begin your day on the far Western edge of the Santa Rita Hills appellation, with coffee and a doughnut at the South Side Coffee Company in the city of Lompoc. Ironically, Lompoc was founded in 1874 as a temperance colony; get your coffee to go and wander half a block down South H Street to see the mural painted in honor of the region’s history as a haven for teetotalers.

After breakfast, make a quick stop to the ugly but famous industrial park where many of the region’s best wines are made. Behind the Home Depot on East Ocean Ave, the Sobhani Industrial Park, affectionately nicknamed the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, houses such luminaries as Longoria Wines, Stolpman Vineyards, Palmina, and Fiddlehead Cellars.

Santa Rita Wineries

While most of the wineries here are not open to the public for tasting (choosing to site their tasting rooms up the valley in Los Olivos), Palmina’s cozy tasting room, which focuses on Italian varietals, features knowledgable and friendly staff and a convivial communal table for tasting.

Make your way out to Santa Rosa Road via Highway 1. Santa Rosa Road, one of the thoroughfares between Lompoc and Buellton, is the best vantage point from which to see the region’s best vineyards.

To the north, catch glimpses of Evening Land Vineyards, Seasmoke, Mount Carmel, Sweeney Canyon, and Sine Qua Non’s first estate vineyard, Eleven Confessions.

"Santa

On the south side of Santa Rosa Road, the native adobe brick Sanford Winery is a must-see, as is its affiliated with the famous old-guard vineyard, Sanford & Benedict and considered a historic vineyard in the AVA.

STA Rita Hills History: In 1971, the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard became the first vineyard in this AVA. Pioneers Richard Sanford along with Botanist Michael Benedict are the geniuses behind growing grapes in this climate; a cool region with just enough heat accumulation to ripen, but not over ripen wine grapes. In fact, the Santa Rita Hills AVA is one of the coolest growing regions in the world. 

As you make this drive, and if the coastal fog layer hasn’t yet burned off, a drive along Santa Rosa Road is positively breathtaking.  Don’t forget to bring your camera.

Lunch in Buellton

If you’ve stopped at a few tasting rooms, by the time you hit Buellton at the end of Santa Rosa Road, you’ll be thinking of lunch. The best spot, hands down, is A-ru Sushi, in a little shopping plaza just off the intersection between Highway 246 and the 101.

Owner Jina Bae buys her fish personally at the Los Angeles Fish Market, and the quality of the fish rivals that of the best sushi we’ve tasted—anywhere. If you are not in the mood for sushi, the Kalbi short ribs and agedashi tofu are delicious, and if you are lucky, the blue crab miso soup will be on the specials menu. Don’t miss it.

Los Olivos Wine Tasting

After lunch, take the back roads to Los Olivos, which serves as the wine region’s Tasting Room Central. Along Ballard Canyon Road, you can spot Rusack Vineyard (built by a member of the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame), Jonata (sister estate of Napa’s Screaming Eagle, and the Stolpman Vineyards estate.

In Los Olivos, the purists who want to stick with Santa Rita Hills pinot noir can visit Longoria Wines on Grand Avenue (Los Olivos’s main drag); those who care to branch out should stop in at Stolpman Vineyards or Tensley for award-winning syrah and other varietals.

Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecake cupcake

 

For the best of both worlds, Chris Benzinger’s Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop is a good compromise, offering tastings of a diverse range of local wines. Finish up the late afternoon tasting around the Saarlos & Sons Tasting Room fire pit, munching on Enjoy Cupcakes’ wine-based cupcake tasting flight.

Dinner in Santa Ynez

prime rib and red wine

The meal to cap off your perfect day should be at Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern, run by (of course) brothers Matt and Jeff Nichols. Diners can choose between a casual burger in the tavern or a more extravagant meal in the dining room. If you opt for the dining room, ask for a table near the open kitchen to see the expert teamwork of the kitchen staff.

Whatever you decide, dinner at this former stagecoach stop will anchor your visit in history. Movies come and movies go, but this spectacular wine region is as old and enduring as the hills.

Day Trip to  Santa Rita Hills Wineries

chardonnay at sunset

Another option for a day trip to  Santa Rita Hills wineries is to head west on either Hwy 246 or Santa Rosa Road. you’ll pass some of the most extreme cool-climate vineyards in the area. This is home to primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although you will find other interesting cool-climate wines also being featured at tasting rooms.

A popular driving route is to head west on Santa Rosa Road from the 101 to Lompoc, then come back east back to Buellton on Highway 246.

What & Where:

South Side Coffee Company (105 S H St., Lompoc; 805-737-3730)
Palmina Tasting Room (1520 E Chestnut Ct., Lompoc; 805 735-2030)
Sanford Winery & Tasting Room (5010 Santa Rosa Road; 805-735-5900)
A-ru Restaurant (225 McMurray Rd., Buellton; 805-686-9001
Longoria Wines Tasting Room (2935 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-0305)
Stolpman Vineyards Tasting Room (2434 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-0400)
Tensley Tasting Room (2900 Grand Avenue Suite B., Los Olivos; 805-688-6761)
Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop (2905 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-7406)
Saarlos & Sons Tasting Room (2971 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-1200)
Enjoy Cupcakes (2971 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-451-0284)
Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern (3539 Sagunto St, Santa Ynez, CA 93460: 805-688-4142)

List of Santa Rita Wineries on the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail

As of January 2022 there are 12 wineries on the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Trail. The Rita Hills AVA is an located in Santa Barbara County. 

  • Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards
  • Babcock Vineyards & Winery 
  • Dierbert & Star Lane Vineyards 
  • Foley Estates
  • J. Dirt Wines
  • Labarge Winery
  • LaFond Winery and Vineyards
  • Melville Vineyards
  • Peake Ranch
  • Pence Vineyards
  • Sanford Winery and Vineyards
  • The Hilt

An additional winery in the AVA is Sea Smoke Vineyards, but they are not open for tastings or tours. 

Wine Tasting Tip: If you join the wine club at most of the wineries it includes complimentary wine tastings, discounts on purchases and many other perks. 

We can’t blame you if you are itching to see Sideways again after reading this article! Here’s a link to the movie and a link to the book

Have you visited Santa Rita California?  Do you have a favorite California wine region? Let us know in the comments below. 

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