Fun Ways to Taste Wine: Santa Barbara Vino Train – chugga-chugga choo-choo

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“If you are an uppity wine drinker, you could be thrown from the train today.”  – A  lighthearted warning from Grape Encounters Radio host David Wilson let me know that we were in for a fun time aboard the Vino Train to Santa Barbara.

An avid wine lover, David admittedly drinks wine rather than tastes it and is the host of an unpretentious wine talk show featuring fun and interesting people, wineries and live wine events. On this particular Saturday morning, David and his guests took a 2.5-hour train ride from downtown LA to State Street in the heart of Santa Barbara for a day-trip of wine tasting and sightseeing.

As the train pulled away from Union Station, we were officially welcomed by the xylophone chime of the train’s conductor. Like being in a scene from Some Like It Hot, we rode the rails in a fully restored 1949 Pullman Standard dining car. In its heyday, the former Overland Express – now known as the Santa Barbara Vino Train – made the trek from Chicago to San Francisco. Conductor Bill Hatrick and his wife Debbie have lovingly restored the car which they now own and operate for day-trips to Santa Barbara.

With microphone in hand, David entertained us with stories about the wines we tasted, told us about Santa Barbara area wineries and even debuted a wine from Texas made entirely from Acai berries. As we headed up California’s coast, the passing scenery of LA’s busy streets and tall buildings morphed into mountains, beaches and farmland all while we were tasting specialty wines. By 10 a.m., we finished our third onboard tasting and arrived at our destination ready for more.

Our first stop on the tasting room tour was the Santa Barbara Winery – established in 1962 by Pierre LaFond as the area’s first post-Prohibition winery. “My favorite wines here are the Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling,” offered our tour guide Tom Anderson. Also a knowledgeable wine enthusiast, Tom provided information to us about the local tasting rooms and wineries. Tom then led us to our second stop at Kunin Wines. A contemporary-casual tasting room housed in an old beach bungalow, Kunin features playfully-named wines like “Happiness” and “Pape Star” – a Châteauneuf de Pape-style red wine which I enjoyed the most during my trip.

Right next door is Corks ‘n Crowns which is a charming pub-style wine and beer tasting bar which is great for those who may have a preference for a pint. You can easily spend a few hours here sitting in one of their comfy leather chairs by the fireplace with a glass or two of one of their featured fine wines or craft brews.

After lunch at LaFond Bistro, we wrapped up our tasting tour by paying a visit to the Wine Cask tasting room which features Santa Barbara’s Margerum Wines and a wide variety of imports from Italy, France and Slovenia. We also visited the neighboring Au Bon Climat tasting room which officially opened in April this year. Here we drooled over their well-known Burgundy-style Pinots and Chardonnays as well as their mouth-watering Nebbiolo and Clenenden library wines.

As we journeyed through town, each of us was able to participate in the radio show as David enthusiastically engaged us in wine conversation, asked us about our favorite tastings of the day and made sure everyone was laughing and having a good time.

Back on the train, Bill and Debbie had dinner prepared for our journey home and our spirited emcee went back into action to keep the party going. As we continued to wine and dine, David tested our wine knowledge with some fun (and challenging) trivia questions. Prizes were given to those who could correctly answer David’s questions…

What are the four wines in a Meritage blend?
What is the worst color for a tasting room?
and more importantly,
Which wines make men and women most amorous?
– a wine fact that I’m happy to say I’m still having fun testing.

As the passing scenery again became familiar, sadly our Grape Encounters wine journey was coming to an end. So we said our goodbyes and shared a few hugs with newfound friends made that day. And I’m happy to report that nobody was thrown from the train!

Listen to Grape Encounters Radio with David Wilson. Visit for shows and information. For anyone looking to travel from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara wine country, skip the car and take the Vino Train. For more information visit

If you’d like to have your next tasting event featured in the Wineopolis series on “Fun Ways to Taste Wine,” please email:

About Heidi
Heidi is senior editor at Wineopolis Press, and author of the Wineopolis® Wine-travel Guidebook series. She is the Certified Wine Expert® Program Director for Bartenders Association Internationale and editor of the latest edition of How to Test and Improve Your Wine Judging Ability. Heidi is a member of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association, the Society of Wine Educators and Ladies Who Launch.

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