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Journey to the source: Wine in Santa Barbara

A wine trail through the Californian city of Santa Barbara is a refreshing day out.

Wedged between the magnificent Santa Ynez mountains and dramatic Pacific beaches, Santa Barbara immediately seduces new arrivals with a mix of a Mediterranean climate and a lively arts scene, plus Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and historic buildings such as the 1786 Franciscan "Queen of the California Missions", just outside town. And that's before you get to its wines.

Start talking about wine-tasting in Santa Barbara and within seconds someone is guaranteed to mention Sideways, the 2004 movie that cast a spotlight on the county's viticulture industry. The film was set in the rolling hills of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, which were big attractions even before its release.

I'd come on a more quirky wine pilgrimage to Santa Barbara itself, on the city's downtown Urban Wine Trail. Part of a growing trend in major US wine-producing regions, city-based tasting itineraries give locals and tourists the opportunity to sample wine without the hassle or expense of a car, not to mention the tussle of who gets to (not) be the designated driver. Set up in 2003 by winemaker David Yates, Santa Barbara's self-guided wine trail now sports 12 official tasting rooms, all within a mile or so of each other. Many are extensions of wineries in the nearby valleys, and most charge US$10 (£6.70) for around five generous pours.

By 10.30am – allowing just enough time for a dip in the rooftop pool at the stylish Canary Hotel – at least one of the tasting rooms was already open. Disappointingly, Oreana also turned out to be a dud. It's set in an old tyre shop and is self-consciously wacky, with eclectic décor. However, the lady doing the pouring wasn't up for wine talk, let alone small talk, so after a few sips of lacklustre Pinot Noir, I made a beeline for the door.

Although it's entirely possible to cover all 12 wineries in one day, I'd decided neither my wallet nor my liver would thank me for it. Instead, I was focusing on the half-dozen tasting rooms clustered together in the so-called "Funk Zone" of which Oreana is part: a district filled with art studios and galleries near the sea.

I had more success at Cottonwood Canyon, around the corner. It may be just a simple white space with a few stools to perch on, but employee Sarah Seekins was friendly and even divulged her failsafe hangover cure – vitamins B1 and B50, a couple of ibuprofen and a big glass of water. After just one sip of Cottonwood's powerful dessert Syrah, I understood why I might need such a concoction.

Then it was on to the Santa Barbara Winery, the grandad of the group, founded in 1962. The large tasting room-cum-gift shop, with its fancy candles and corkscrews, would have enticed even the staunchest teetotaller. It was here that I started to notice the trail's wide range of imbibers – lone businessmen on their lunch hour, married couples, groups of university students. Perhaps it was because it was a Monday. As Santa Barbara Winery employee Jami McDowell pointed out: "Drinkers who come in the week tend to be really into their wines... at weekends, we get people who are making a fun event out of it."

Even if you're alone, as I was, it soon becomes a communal experience. When I arrived at Kunin's tasting room, there were three of us; by the time I left 40 minutes later, the number had grown to nine and we were chatting like old friends as we sipped on Gewürtztraminer and Grenache.

I only had to prise myself away to the neighbouring building for my next stop. By the time I arrived at Municipal's tasting room, it was 5.30pm and the place was busy with locals.

Watched by a fake gorilla in the corner of the room, we bonded over Municipal's self-described "honest" wines, whose no-nonsense labels scream "Dark Red" and "Pale Pink".

I was starting to flag, but there was still one more tasting room to visit – Kalyra. With its faux-tiki bar vibe, it was inviting enough, but by this point, with a day's worth of walking and drinking under my belt, it was time to finish up.

Oddly, the next morning I awoke feeling surprisingly lively. I'll have to put Sarah's hangover remedy to the test another time.

Travel essentials: Santa Barbara

Getting there

* The closest major airport is Los Angeles, served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), United Airlines (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk) and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk).

* Santa Barbara is a drive of one to two hours north, though you could alternatively travel by train (amtrak.com).

Staying there

* Canary Hotel, 31 West Carrillo Street, Santa Barbara, US (001 805 884 0300; canarysanta barbara.com). Doubles from $275 (£183), room only.

Drinking there

* Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail: urbanwinetrailsb.com

More information

* Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau: 001 805 966 9222; santabarbaraca.com