Explore a whole wine region in one tasting room

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Visiting a wine region for the first time can be a daunting experience. For those of us who regularly visit wine regions, we forget how overwhelming it can be.

For example, if you were heading to Napa for the first time, would you know the difference between Atlas Peak, Diamond Mountain District and Howell Mountain? Would you know if one area is better known for a grape variety than another? Would you know that the cabernet sauvignon from Atlas Peak has more cherry fruit and acidity than the cabernet sauvignon from Howell Mountain that has notes of blackberry and rich tannins?

I have the privilege to travel to many wine regions. I regularly go to Santa Barbara, Napa and Sonoma, as well as some international areas, and over multiple visits have gotten to know these regions and what differentiates one designated AVA over another.

I take for granted this knowledge and insight of Santa Barbara wine regions that I have, as I realized when I traveled there this past week with some friends. They had not spent significant time in Santa Barbara wine country, and it was an opportunity to delve into the diversity of the region. Being told about how the transverse mountain range affects the climates from Santa Maria to Happy Canyon is informative, but is difficult to truly comprehend without tasting.

Of course, the ideal is to spend time in each AVA, tasting a few wines in each area in order to get a sense of place. But if time does not allow, there are two places that offer an opportunity to gain an understanding of the entire region in one place.

The Valley Project

Winemaker Seth Kunin started The Valley Project four years ago out of a desire to showcase the diverse viticultural areas of Santa Barbara. With an incredible mural by artist Elkpen on the back wall that maps out the entire region, including the topography, soils and microclimates, and soil samples, the tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara is an ideal place to start for anyone first coming to the area.

As Kunin explained, “Place is important. These wines are site-specific. We put the name of the region boldly on the label and want people to think of the soil, the wine and the place when they taste the wine.”

Kunin purchases fruit from notable vineyards in each AVA in Santa Barbara each year. At The Valley Project you can taste your way through Santa Barbara starting with cool climate Burgundian varietal wines from the Santa Maria Valley AVA and Sta. Rita Hills AVA, move to the warmer Ballard Canyon AVA, ideal for Rhone varieties, and end with Bordeaux varieties from the hotter areas of Los Olivos AVA and Happy Canyon AVA.

Santa Barbara Winery Collective

Also located in downtown Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Winery Collective is a group of producers who showcase the diversity of the terroir of Santa Barbara.

Each producer is independent but share a tasting room. Not only can guests taste different wine producers but they can explore the various areas. For example, the wines of Ca’ del Grevino come from the Santa Maria Valley AVA, while the wines from The Paring come from the Santa Maria Valley AVA and the Sta Rita Hills AVA. Being able to taste a few wines from the same region at one time is a great opportunity to get a sense of that place.

After spending a few days in Santa Barbara introducing my friends to an area that I was familiar with, I was reminded of my recent trip to Virginia wine country. In Virginia, I was the novice. After tasting my first wine in Virginia, I realized that I had no context to the wine. I knew nothing about where the grapes were grown and did not know if the wine was a proper representation of the terroir. Then I visited Early Mountain Vineyard in Madison, Virginia at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Early Mountain Vineyard


Located on 300 acres in the Monticello Wine Trail, Early Mountain makes their own wine. But, owners Jean and Steve Case also showcase the range of wines in Virginia with their “Best of Virginia Program.”

When you walk into the immense tasting room, along the walls of the tasting bar are chalk maps outlining all the wine regions in Virginia. From across the state, Early Mountain hand-selects wines to represent the diversity of Virginia.

I selected both the white wine flight and the red wine flight, and tasting four wines in each and began to get an understanding of what Virginia has to offer. Not only was I able to try different grape varieties, such as chardonnay, viognier, petit manseng, pinot noir, cabernet france and some blends, but I was also able to try wines from Monticello AVA, Fauquier County, the Eastern Shore AVA and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I left feeling like I had a better grasp of what I could expect from Virginia wines and was ready to explore even more.

Exploring a wine region is the best way to understand what that place has to offer, what grapes do best where and what the general style of the wine is. But, if it is your first time visiting a wine region or you have limited time for your visit, tasting rooms like the ones mentioned above are the ideal place to start. Every wine region should have at least one place for people to go where they can taste wines from different AVAs in order to get a broad sense of the place.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.