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The casual tasting room at Municipal Winemakers (Photograph by Jay Sinclair, Visit Santa Barbara)

SoCal’s Funky Napa

Step into any tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara, and you’ll know instantly: This isn’t Napa.

While Northern California’s famous wine town has a reputation for aloofness and occasional haughtiness, Santa Barbara’s approach is distinctly SoCal.

At Municipal Winemakers, for example, Dave Potter pours his latest varietal wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and flip-flops, in a tasting room decorated with steel filing cabinets, rustic counters, and modest athletic trophies. This winery, like many of its ilk in Santa Barbara, is full of warmth and noticeably lacking in pretension.

“An elite attitude is what turns a lot of people off about wine,” Potter said. “I think accessibility [is important]. Whatever gets people interested in wine is a good thing for everybody.”

This laid-back vibe is a common theme among the 22 (and counting) tasting rooms along Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, half of which are located in an area known as the Funk Zone.

In 1962, when Santa Barbara Winery opened the first tasting room, the Funk Zone was considered a dodgy part of town, cut off from State Street and its trendy boutiques. Then steps from the beach, but not part of the scene, the district is now home to artists, musicians, and, of course, winemakers.

“Back then, the ‘Funk Zone’ wasn’t really a positive term,” said Suzanne Fitzgerald, tasting room manager at Santa Barbara Winery. “This was a rather funky area of town that was tied to the fishing industry.” In those days, “funk” referred more to the district’s smell than to its hipness.

Though wine has been made in the Santa Ynez Valley in northern Santa Barbara County since the late 18th century, the region only recently gained widespread name recognition with some help from Sideways, a film about two friends on a wine-tasting tour in Santa Barbara.

“When Sideways came out, that’s when it started getting really busy,” Fitzgerald said. “Wine was getting more fashionable, and it was trendy to go wine tasting. Then, in a three-year period, the Funk Zone went from three tasting rooms to 19.”

Until Sideways, the term “California wine” called to mind images of posh Napa wine connoisseurs debating the proper attire, etiquette, and technique for sampling varietals. From casual to upscale, the wineries of Santa Barbara are diverse in appearance and offerings but share a familiar invitation: Come as you are.

“We don’t want people to feel like wine tasting is inaccessible. We don’t want them to come in and feel shy,” Fitzgerald said. “I always tell people there are no rules. What you’re doing is perfect.”

Though there is no bad time to visit Santa Barbara for a wine-tasting tour, the summer is certainly the busiest period, with crowds occasionally overwhelming the small city. Fall and winter attract the fewest tourists to the area, but the weather remains favorable, making those seasons a good bet. The ideal choice, however, might be late spring, when travelers can enjoy the local fare and other tourist attractions without all the crowds.

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McClintic and Eric Railsback, owners of Les Marchands (Photograph by Jay Sinclair, Visit Santa Barbara)

Another tip: If possible, skip Saturday tastings, the most popular days, when a one-on-one experience with the winemakers and staff might be limited. “You’ll have a better experience if you come midweek,” Potter advised. “You’ll have more time to visit with staff, and you won’t be knocking elbows with everybody. “

Avoiding the crowds has another benefit: It gives you an opportunity to explore at a leisurely pace. Brian McClintic, co-owner of Les Marchands Wine Bar & Restaurant, and the only master sommelier in the area, said to allow plenty of time to enjoy all the Funk Zone has to offer.

“Start your day with brunch at a place on the water, which is only a short walk from the ‘Zone,’ or stop at The Lucky Penny, which has amazing scones and coffee,” McClintic suggested. “Work your way around the tasting rooms until you need to refuel. Then go to Les Marchands as a pregame for the night’s festivities, and get some food in you. Go to a few more tasting rooms, then the Lark for dinner, and then Figueroa or Seven for drinks.”

“After that,” McClintic said, “the sky’s the limit.”

Though it’s possible to spend days visiting the tasting rooms and their corresponding wineries in the north, there’s more to Santa Barbara than grapes. If there’s time, explore the sea caves of Channel Islands National Park, have a sunset sail, or take a guided walking tour with the Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara.

But don’t worry about having it all figured out. Urban Wine Trail maps are available all over town, and tasting-room staffers are happy to provide suggestions about what to see and do, both wine-related and not.

“We take our wine seriously,” Potter said, “but at the end of the day, I don’t know that we’re really that special. What we do is make delicious wine at a fair price and we’re nice to people when they come to the door. And we hope they come back.”

> Nuts & Bolts:

Most tasting rooms offer a set selection, while others rotate their tasting menus seasonally. Depending on the winery, the tasting fee (typically somewhere around $10) may be waived with bottle purchases. Drop-ins are welcomed for general tastings, but reservations might be required for courses or special events. Checking the Santa Barbara events calendar, or calling ahead, never hurts.

Molly McCluskey is a full-time freelance journalist covering finance, culture, and travel for a variety of publications. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.