Santa Barbara vs Napa Wineries: What’s The Difference?

Santa Barbara vs Napa Wineries: What’s The Difference

Many of us often compare things to what is considered “the best” or just well known.  In the wine world it’s Napa Valley. Not the first wine region developed in California, but certainly the most well-known.

We’re going to see what happens when we compare this giant to a moderately known wine region: Santa Barbara County.

Let’s get into what makes each of them unique. We’ll take a look at size, climate, grapes and wineries/wine.

What Makes Santa Barbara Wine Country Unique

The Santa Barbara wine region is made up of three valleys:  Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos Valley and the Santa Maria Valley. Funny fact is that if you add up the square mileage it is larger than the Napa Valley AND the Sonoma Valley combined.

From here on out Santa Barbara and Napa are pretty different regions.

The Santa Barbara wine region is physically larger than the Napa region.  Napa has about 475 wineries compared to Santa Barbara at about 280. Not all of the wineries in both regions are open to the public-some are private and you need a reservation for tasting.

Total acres planted for Napa is at about 43,000 and for Santa Barbara it’s about 23,000.

AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) in the Napa Valley total 16 whereas Santa Barbara is at 6.

So, to the layman, Napa appears to be bigger in most categories.  But, where Santa Barbara tops Napa is in grape varietals.

Because of Santa Barbara’s climate (details to follow), they can grow over 60 different types of wine grapes.  According to the Napa Valley Vintners site, there are only 36 varieties of wine grape grown in the valley.

Let’s Move On To Climate and Grapes

Let’s discuss these two together since they have such a great relationship.

Santa Barbara is popularly considered the Central Coast.  But if you look at a map, it is the northern most part of Southern California and attracts primarily Los Angeles tourists.

Just a warning, don’t tell a Santa Barbarian they live in Southern California, they might throw their chardonnay at you!

The two major mountain ranges that surround the three valleys are the Santa Ynez to to the south and the San Rafaels to the north. They form a natural V, with the widest opening to the west.

The Pacific Ocean provides a regular climate pattern that you can set your watch to. Cooler in the morning with fog, fog burns off, valley warms up, the wind blows between 1:30 to 3 pm every day, sun goes down and you start over.

With the east /west configuration, there is an enormous temperature swing as you head west-almost 30+ degrees in the summer.  Most of the locals say you lose a degree a mile as you drive west.

So that means your cooler climate grapes thrive in the western region and your warmer climate grapes do well in the east which explains why there are so many varietals grown there.

Why Napa Valley Wine Country Is What It Is

Napa Valley, on the other hand, lies in Northern California, playing host to Bay Area tourists. It has 2 mountain ranges as well, the Vaca range to the East and the Mayacamas range to the West.  It is about 30 miles long running south to North.

The unique thing about this valley is that it is only about 5 miles across at its’ widest point. Getting ocean influence from the San Francisco Bay, it too has a foggy early morning then burns off to warm up quickly.

It has about a 15 degree swing from cool to warm as you head north through the valley.  Because of the South to North flow and its compact size, Napa grows more of the warmer climate grapes.

You may notice that what both regions bring to the climate table is consistency.

Now, on to the good part…the wineries.

Let’s start with Napa.

Only a 75 minute drive from San Francisco and hugely popular with tourists and wine enthusiast alike, Napa hosts about 3.8 million visitors a year based on figures from

They have a full range of winery “experiences” from family friendly to upscale private tastings. Tasting fees can average about $30.00, some may be more and others less.

Gone are the glorious days of free tastings, but don’t blame the wineries. State and federal statutes require wineries to charge tasting fees, though how much, and if it is waved with purchase is up to the winery.

When I first started to visit Napa in the early nineties, owners and winemakers would welcome you in to sample their wines-almost treating you like family. Now, because the wineries deal with so many people, if you can go in the off season (winter), mid-week, that will be your best experience.

Often times you can get a tour of the winery or a nice food paring with the wines they are offering. Some wineries have restaurants and lodging on site for a more wine indulging experience.

Napa is very steeped in French wines.  Cabernet is King in this valley (Sauvignon not Franc).

Be prepared to be offered some great cabs from their regular selections as well as their library. But also be prepared to pay top dollar for these offerings.

Other great wines to try are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, sparkling and Zinfandel. Off the beaten path wines to try would be Petit Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo.

The Wines of Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara wine region is totally opposite.

Average visitor traffic per year hovers at about 700,000. There is a 90 minute drive from Los Angeles to get to Santa Barbara and then another 40 minutes to the wine region.

Most people stay in Santa Barbara due to the abundance of hotels and restaurants.   Wine tasting in this area is more rustic. You won’t find the big corporate type wineries and elaborate buildings that you will in Napa, but most are family owned and operated and the winery architecture is not as important as the wine.

Tasting fees average about $15.00 with very few upgrade experiences.  But don’t get the wrong idea-Santa Barbara wineries are fantastic but limited in what they offer for no fault of their own. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors opted about 10 years ago to limit what the wineries could offer. You will not find lodging, food served at the wineries and there are very limited tours allowed at some facilities.

If a winery has an open bowl of crackers or puts out food for individuals, they would need to get a food service permit, similar to a restaurant, as well as get a health inspection every year.

For a winery trying to focus on wine, these extra steps were something that they didn’t want to add to their plate.

All of the wineries have picnic facilities and encourage you to bring your own food and hang out as long as you want. There are several markets in the wine region that offer great picnic packages for this reason. You can still enjoy lunch and wine at the wineries—just realize you have to provide the food.

Since this region is so large, there is a lot of sightseeing to be done.

Most wineries are clustered in areas within the 3 valleys. There is a good cluster between Los Olivos and Solvang. Another cluster between Buellton and Lompoc in the Santa Rita Hills, with more on the Foxen Canyon Trail. If you plan to head north, Los Alamos is home to several great wineries, and great food. An emerging “garage” winery scene is popping up in Santa Maria worth checking out, but call ahead as these wineries rarely have a traditional tasting room.

There are your typical wines coming from the region, similar to Napa.  You will find Cab Sauv, Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, etc.

What this valley excels in is a focus on Rhone wines.

Syrah can be found at almost every winery. Since Syrah can grow in most climates, you may find a winery offering the same Syrah grape from different climate zones around the county. Some other Rhone finds would be Mourvedre, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viogner and Grenache.

Overall, both regions are so unique that to do an apple to apple comparison really doesn’t work.  That would be like comparing a hearty Cab Sauv to a light Viogner.  Don’t choose…just enjoy both!