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For today’s #WineWednesday, TPG contributor Kathy A. McDonald spotlights Santa Barbara’s wine region, found in the northern half of the almost 3,800-square-mile county, which includes the Channel Islands and surrounding waters. Over the course of the past 10 years, McDonald has visited the area extensively but is always game for another visit to check out the latest vintage, new tasting rooms, restaurants or just take in the fine scenery. Editor’s Note: At the time of posting, there is a wildfire in Santa Barbara County but it is not near wine country and should not affect any plans you have to visit.
Napa is always top of mind when it to California wine. However, many will argue that Santa Barbara’s wines are equally exquisite. A visit to the area has those rarefied pleasures associated with an ultimate wine country excursion: incredible scenery, picture-perfect vineyards, excellent food and charming places to stay. At latest count there are 85 tasting rooms and a wide variety of wines (made in various styles) to taste from the region’s 125 wineries.
Within Santa Barbara County – vineyards are in the transverse valleys of the north county – are five AVAs (American Viticulture Areas): Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Happy Canyon, Santa Maria Valley and the proposed Ballard Canyon AVA (which should be approved soon). Because of the area’s unique geography, both the prime vineyard properties and the local mountain ranges run east-west, rather than the more common north-south. This means that cooling ocean breezes and fog are pulled inland, so that the area, though warm in the day, is cool at night. The growing season here is amongst the longest of any wine region, which means more hang time for grapes.
The AVAs represent distinct microclimates. For instance, Happy Canyon is further inland and warmer, and planted with Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The cooler, closer-to-the-coast Sta. Rita Hills AVA is known for its stellar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – varietals that do well in more temperate climes.
However it wasn’t Santa Barbara’s fine winemaking that boosted tourism and international awareness. It was Hollywood to the south that really put the region on the map. Alexander Payne’s film Sideways – a boozy, funny and poignant wine country road trip flick – raised the locale and local winemakers’ profiles significantly and today almost 10 years later (the film was released in 2004), visitors can still access a map to 18 of the film’s locations and order from a “Sideways” menu at the Los Olivos Café, site of the film’s oft-quoted scene regarding Merlot. The character Miles may refuse to drink it (and others might too) but not to worry, the selection and quality will satisfy even the most discerning oenophile.
Closest to wine country is the Santa Maria Airport (SMX) serviced by United Express and Allegiant; just outside Santa Barbara (approximately a 45-minute drive from wine country), both US Airways (daily flights to Phoenix) and United Airlines (flights to LAX and San Francisco) have limited service into the Santa Barbara Airport (SBA). Other carriers that fly into Santa Barbara daily include American Airlines, Alaska and Frontier.
Other options: both Burbank Bob Hope Airport and LAX are approximately two-and-a half hours south (140 miles) but involve a drive north on the heavily trafficked 101 Freeway.
WHERE TO TASTE
Santa Barbara’s wine country is very spread out. It’s 50 miles from Buellton to the Santa Maria Valley via the 101 Freeway, the major north-south artery. The towns of Solvang, Los Olivos and Lompoc have a concentration of tasting rooms; individual estate wineries are located throughout the rural countryside. The Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association breaks it down into several suggested trails and routes. Here are some highlights:
Santa Ynez Valley
One of the first to plant grape vines commercially, some of Gainey Vineyard’s 100 acres have vines that date back 30 years. The family-run winery, once part of a Spanish land grant, is one element of a larger farming and ranching operation. Grass=fed cattle graze nearby Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. (Gainey has another 100 acres in the Sta. Rita Hills of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir primarily). Set on a hillside, at the intersection of route 246 and route 154, which is the windy way back to Santa Barbara, the Gainey Vineyard tasting room is a pleasant introduction to a Santa Barbara Wine Country. Vineyard rows are planted just off the tasting room, so visitors can get a close-up look at vineyard techniques and varietals. A crisp, vibrant Gainey Sauvignon Blanc is a good start to a day in wine country.
There isn’t a stop light in Los Olivos. Instead, the historic town has a flagpole at its main intersection and 38 tasting rooms. Among the surest bets are Bob Lindquist’s Qupe (Lindquist is one of the region’s most well known winemakers and a champion of Rhone varietals), Andrew Murray Vineyards – he’s making a line of blends called “This is E11even” that are a salute to rock-n-roll but his inky Syrahs are always worth a taste–and Stolpman Vineyards. Stolpman’s estate-grown wines range from its signature Syrah, to Viognier to a memorable Sangiovese. Stolpman’s winemaker Sashi Moorman is one of the stars of the county – he’s also responsible for Evening Land and Sandhi wines.
Santa Rita Hills
On the western side of the 101, the cooler Sta. Rita Hills AVA is characterized by a strong maritime influence. Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards has a quaint tasting room that had a starring role in “Sideways” and pitch-perfect Pinot Gris. Owner Richard Sanford was one of the first to plant Pinot Noir in the area back in 1970. On the 246, both Foley Estates Vineyard and Winery and Melville Vineyards and Winery have world-class Pinot Noirs and picnic areas to take-in the acres of vineyard views. Although Sea Smoke Cellars is the appellation’s most lauded winery, it is not open to the public.
Lompoc Wine Ghetto
Off the beaten track by 14-plus miles, tasting rooms in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto are usually open Thursday through Sunday. The ghetto (set in a mini-mall) got its start as a low cost winemaking facility and has a quasi-industrial vibe. Visitors are rewarded with 18 tasting rooms in close proximity and tastes from some of the area’s more talented winemakers like Steve Clifton who produces wine from Italian varietals at Palmina, Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars and Sashi Moorman’s Piedrasassi New Vineland Winery, who also has an artisan bread bakery on site. (The wheat is grown locally in Ballard Canyon).
Santa Maria Valley
At the windswept northern end of the county, the Santa Maria Valley is known for its agriculture – strawberries are a major crop. The vast Santa Maria Valley is verdant: prime producers here are Bien Nacido and Cambria. Much of the Bien Nacido Vineyard’s fruit is sold to smaller producers – Foxen for one, while Cambria Estate Winery’s benchland acres are used for one of the valley’s most well known brands, Cambria’s Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay. Presqu’ile Winery’s new gravity-fed winery and tasting room (to open June 20, just off the 101 in Orcutt) has a super-contemporary, multi-level design and should be the first stop on a visit to the Santa Maria Valley. Surrounded by sustainably farmed vineyards, winemaker Dieter Cronje relies on native yeast for fermentation and Presqu’ile’s Sauvignon Blanc will be fermented in large, concrete egg fermenters, custom-built on site.
WHERE TO EAT
Open Thursday through Sunday, Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos is the clear local favorite. Most of the ingredients on the seasonally changing menu are sourced locally, and the extensive wine list represents the county’s bounty. Hitching Post II in Buellton is the stop for grilled meats cooked over red oak, Santa Maria BBQ style.
Sides Hardware & Shoes in Los Olivos is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers comfort food with a California-touch plus local wine-on-tap. Panino, also in Los Olivios, is a quick and easy stop for hearty sandwiches and picnic supplies. In Santa Ynez, savory, handcrafted pastas are the specialty at the family-run and welcoming Trattoria Grappolo.
Begin the day in the Danish-themed town of Solvang where traditional over-sized, thin Danish pancakes and an early bird breakfast special draw crowds at Paula’s Pancake House. The ingredients first, farm-to-table trend is also in play at celebrity chef Bradley Ogden’s Root 246 , in Solvang’s Hotel Corque.
WHERE TO STAY
The boutique Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa in the heart of Los Olivos is best for a quiet getaway. Beds are plush, there’s a small spa and pool and all of Los Olivos is within walking distance. Rates in May start at $329 per night and each stay comes with a full breakfast for two at Petros Los Olivos and wine tastings for two at the Fess Parker Winery.
The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is a place to kick-it old school on a genuine Western-style dude ranch and experience the Santa Ynez Valley’s ranching past. Daily horseback rides go far off-road; breakfast and dinner for two are included in each room night (a two-night minimum required) and there are no TVs or phones in the room (however this is WiFi). Close by, Solvang has 700 rooms total – most are in budget basic spots with kitschy names like the Viking Motel or the Hamlet Inn – a redone, roadside motel that has mid-century look and free bikes for guests to use around town.
The Radisson Santa Maria Airport Hotel is closest to the Santa Maria Valley’s wineries; 38,000 Club Carlson points are needed for a free one night stay and rates in May begin at $114/night. Book the bed-and-breakfast special that includes the generous breakfast buffet as there’s not much else nearby. To recreate several memorable “Sideways” scenes, ask for room 234 at the Days Inn Buellton. Rest assured nothing’s been updated since the film was made, but the free WiFi and a breakfast buffet make it sort of worth it. (Internet rates in May start at $70 per night).