On your next wine-tasting jaunt, get the inside scoop at the bar where the makers hang out
Here’s one way to explore a wine region: Find the main drag, pull over at whatever shiny tasting room catches your eye, and start swirling and sipping. It’s not the worst strategy—it can actually be a lot of fun—but there’s a more surefire way to sip ahead of the curve: Stop for a beer.
Whether you’re driving the hills of Walla Walla or revisiting Napa Valley, there’s always a spot where the who’s who of vintners and growers imbibe. “Winemakers aren’t going to tasting rooms,” says Chris Hammell, who owns Hammell Wine Alliance and also farms Santa Barbara County’s iconic Bien Nacido Vineyards. Instead, he says, they’re at their local cantina.
“If we have people in town, we take them to Babi’s,” says Hammell. For tired winemakers looking for a break from anything grape-related after a long day, Babi’s Beer Emporium (pictured above; 805/344-1900), in the tiny hamlet of Los Alamos, is heaven: six beers on tap, craft bottlings from all over the country displayed in intricate alcoves, and even a walk-up taco counter. “It’s impossible to go there and not see somebody you know,” says Hammell. “Sometimes you get a random celebrity sighting too,” he adds. “If you do, you know—keep it casual.”
At the sunny beer garden out back, don’t be surprised if a group suddenly starts debating whether Grenache is the next Pinot Noir. And when that legendary vintner runs out to her car for a bottle that will prove her point, listen up: You could easily leave with the most cutting-edge tasting itinerary in Santa Barbara—albeit scrawled on a cocktail napkin. Intrigued? Here are four of our other favorite wine-country insider hangouts in the West.
Paso Robles, CA: Thomas Hill Organics
The rustic, brick-clad interior and farm-to-table dishes are worth a visit alone, but it’s the wine list that draws those in the know to this hub. Owner Debbie Thomas goes out of her way to get her hands on under-the-radar juice, often landing tiny-production Paso wines. Grab a seat, sip a Lone Madrone Picpoul Blanc, and start asking questions. thomashillorganics.com.
McMinnville, OR: Thistle
No absentee owner, Emily Howard is the one serving your food in this cozy space outfitted with vintage decor. She also manages to find room for one of the Willamette Valley’s coolest wine collections—a mix of hometown bottles and international finds. Locals head right to the bar side of the establishment for inspired takes on classic cocktails. The seasonal menu changes daily, and so does the up-to-date advice about who is making waves in Oregon’s Pinot Noir heartland. thistlerestaurant.com.
Walla Walla, WA: Passatempo Taverna
This is Washington wine country’s ground zero for handmade pasta (think world-class duck ragu), but many locals show up simply because Jim German is often the guy behind the bar. His fanciful drinks—like the Codex, made with gin, Zirbenz, Cocchi Americano, and orange bitters—attract vintners after a long day in the cellar. Think of it as happy hour crossed with a wine-stained Rolodex. passatempowallawalla.com.
St. Helena, CA: Press
If you want to dig into the Napa Valley wine archives, hit this luxe establishment on State 29. Sommelier Scott Brenner stocks the cellar with hundreds of gems going back to the 1950s and beyond. Decked out in dark carved wood and warm leather, the spacious bar area often entices the valley’s biggest names in vino. It’s the place to be, whether you’re in the main dining room eyeing a rib-eye and a rare 1987 Opus One or you just want to tuck into a beer and a burger while scanning the bar for Cabernet royalty. pressnapavalley.com.