The American Viticultural Area Sta. Rita Hills is about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara and makes an easy afternoon side trip. It's best to start from U.S. 101 at Buellton, then head west on State 246. For more information, contact the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association (805/688-0881). The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance has a helpful website.
While many wineries carry gourmet items, there are no restaurants or accommodations along the loop. Both Lompoc and the nearby Santa Ynez Valley have a range of dining and hotel options.
A FEW OF OUR FAVORITE STOPS
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards Pioneering winemaker Richard Sanford returns to his roots at this tiny, rustic tasting room. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 7250 Santa Rosa Rd.; 805/688-9090.
Babcock Winery & Vineyards Bryan Babcock is one of the region's leading winemakers. INFO: $10 tasting fee; 5175 E. State 246; 805/736-1455.
Fiddlehead Cellars This is a good bet for a taste of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto scene. INFO: Open Thu-Sat and by appointment; $10 tasting fee; 1597 E. Chestnut Ave.; 800/251-1225.
Lafond Winery and Vineyards Pick up its earthy "SRH" Pinot Noir 2005 and enjoy views from tables overlooking the vineyards. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 6855 Santa Rosa; 805/ 688-7921.
Melville Vineyards & Winery Sample lush, velvety Pinot Noirs in a Mediterranean-style tasting room. INFO: Tastings from $5; 5185 E. State 246; 805/735-7030.
Sanford Winery & Vineyards Vintage lumber and handmade adobe bricks make this the most architecturally distinctive tasting room. INFO: $5 tasting fee; 5010 Santa Rosa; 805/688-3300.