SANTA YNEZ VALLEY, CALIFORNIA
Even in California, America’s largest wine-producing state, I found a region not everyone knows, and it’s a great one: Santa Ynez Valley. About four hours from San Francisco airport and a little over two from LAX, it’s beautiful here, in a very Southern California way. Foothills are covered with chaparral swinging up to distant mountains. Skies are pale blue and absolutely cloudless. The heat makes for a distinct winegrowing area based around grapes that can take the temperatures: Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, and Viognier, for instance, as well as the ubiquitous Chardonnay (one winemaker laughs, “Well, Chardonnay will grow anywhere”).
Just half an hour from Santa Barbara, the Valley is built around six little towns: Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Buellton, Solvang, Ballard, and (somewhat more distantly) Los Alamos. It’s a region where farming rules, and the pretenses of the nearby big cities are all but forgotten. “We don’t care what kind of jeans you wear here,” laughs one local, and this live-and-letlive approach is welcomed by the local LGBTQ community.
Chef Pink of the amazing Root 246 (more on that later) tells me, “When I moved here with my wife four years ago, we wondered how we’d be received. I’m not exactly a demure queer girl,” she laughs, indicating her many tattoos. “But you know what? Everyone just totally welcomed us.”
I settle into Santa Ynez Inn, a world of gracious country living in this sleepy little town, all chandeliers, portraits, statuary, gilt, and carved wood. Rooms are large and elegantly furnished, and I love my private balcony and gas fireplace. I join my fellow guests for breakfast, afternoon wine sipping, and evening tea/cookies. It’s like visiting your friends in the country, if your friends had somewhat baroque tastes and were always outgoing. While I head out in my car, there’s another option: Stagecoach Wine Tours, which will bring you from your hotel (or even from Santa Barbara) to three or four wineries for tastings and lunch.
I head over to Los Olivos, ten minutes northeast. I find tasting rooms galore, and many riches on the side streets, from fabulous First Street Leather to Pumacasú, where I admire a variety of vintage corkscrews and handmade jewelry, to Corner House Coffee, where I sip an espresso under wooden ceilings. I lunch at The Bear and Star, the restaurant of lovely Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa. Yes, it was founded by that Fess Parker, who was quite a presence in the area. With their own farm, they’re well-equipped to give you the freshest food: deviled eggs are made with eggs from their own chickens, and oysters from nearby Morro Bay have a Meyer lemon/peppercorn mignonette made with peppercorns from their yard. Cornbread with a glaze of butter, brown sugar, and their house-fermented pepper sauce might be the most stunning carbohydrate ever.
Fifteen minutes away along beautiful Foxen Canyon Road lies Fess Parker Winery. Purchased by the actor in 1987, it’s one of the area’s most thriving wineries. Sit on the patio overlooking vineyards and hills, sipping their bold and aromatic estate-grown Viognier, or a Pinot Noir aged in older barrels that’s smoky and smooth. Or lift a glass of audacious Syrah in Fess’ honor (it was his favorite).
At nearby Andrew Murray Vineyards, pair your wines with cheese or chocolate, or do a complete “Grapes to Glass” tour experience. In the modern tasting room overlooking distant hills, I choose the Chocolate Flight, where a series of Murray’s wines are paired with truffles from Santa Barbara’s Jessica Foster, from a white chocolate/meyer lemon truffle combined perfectly with a fruity, flowery Grenache Blanc through a dark chocolate/pomegranate paired with bold Syrah that has just a touch of Viognier.
About 15 minutes south lies Solvang. Founded by Danish settlers, it’s like a Southern California fantasy of a Danish town, unabashedly touristic. You’ll find bakeries, restaurants, and gift shops offering everything from candles and toys to olive oil, jewelry, and clocks. Just when the architecture makes you think you’ve been transported to Denmark, you come across an establishment offering “readings and aura photography” and realize, “oh yeah, I’m still in California!”
For a stay here, I suggest The Landsby, a boutique hotel with wood tones, grays, and blacks, that feels at once removed from the town and super-convenient to all it offers. Wherever you stay, don’t miss Solvang’s amazing Root 246, where Chef Pink is working wonders with the local bounty. Brussels sprouts are charry and deeply flavored with housemade ponzu and toasted sesame seeds. Heirloom carrots are rich and sweet, with a yogurt and pistachio accompaniment. Fried chicken and French fries are honestly the best versions of these comfort foods I’ve ever had, paired with wine from Kitá Winery (like Root 246, it’s owned by the Chumash Tribe, and boasts the only female Native American winemaker in the country). Pink’s philosophy is simple: “There’s only one way to do things. The right way.”
There are many ways to appreciate the beauty of the area. One intriguing one: Vino Vaqueros, in Santa Ynez. Operating out of a stable at Estelle Vineyards (an 800-acre vineyard and ranch), this admirable company provides private rides through the property with astounding hilltop views. When you finish your 90-minute ride, you can sit on the patio and drink wine made from the grapes grown on property. “Ride like a Champion,” reads a sign in the stable, and after surveying this gorgeous landscape from horseback, you’ll know exactly what they mean!
Another unique experience: an olive oil tasting at Los Olivos’ Global Gardens, where friendly proprietor Theo Stephan guides you through the varieties of oil they produce, including some from trees she brought from Crete in celebration of her Greek heritage. It makes for a great pause in the wine-sipping, and between the beautiful olive oil and the welcoming atmosphere, it’s one of my favorite things to do in the Valley.
A short drive brings me to Gainey Vineyard, where I take my place at a long wooden table at one end of the spacious barrel room. While I love the capacious room that is still full of “active” barrels full of wine, a more exciting adventure is their Jeep tour, which brings you through the vineyards for a tasting in their century-old homestead barn. Getting to be a wine expert? See if you can identify the wines in their fun blindfolded tastings. See what the wine is like pre- and post-bottling with barrel-to-bottle tastings. The variety of experiences is about as pleasing as the variety of wines.
Then it’s on to Buellton, where some very exciting things are happening. Long the “other side of the tracks” compared to touristy Solvang and well-established Los Olivos, my prediction is that its industrial chic (I mean, one of its main streets is Industrial Way) will soon make it the hippest spot in the valley. Much of the revival can be traced to the estimable John Wright, whose Standing Sun Winery is a fabulous destination with live music and an adjacent gallery. On top of this, Standing Sun’s wines are great, from big, bold, and smooth reds like Syrah or GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) to a lovely dry Reisling.
Change is palpable in Buellton. There’s Figaro Mountain Brewery, which also provides live music, Industrial Eats, a chef-owned restaurant in an old garage dishing up fabulous food like rosemary/garlic/sea salt or gorgonzola/apple/bacon pizzas, or basil/citrus smoked pheasant.
Then there’s the one-of-a-kind Bottlest, a winery/wine bar/bistro. Tour the facilities, sipping wine out of barrels as you go. Sit at thecounter with an iPad and create your own vintage, altering the oakiness, dryness, etc. Try international wines by the glass with their wine wall, where over 50 bottles are attached to spouts in the wall. The, dine in their bistro. This hip spot is typical of what’s happening in Buellton. You heard it here first.
Back in the Santa Ynez area, I visit Sunstone Winery, a gorgeous hilltop property overlooking a panorama of vineyards and green-clad hills. You can see why it’s been a favorite for gay weddings, and you can arrange anything from a private tasting in the vineyards to a lesson in blending where you create your own vintage. Of course, good luck achieving the blending perfection of their best-selling Eros, a Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon creation that’s warm, delicate, and velveteen.
Right in Santa Ynez, I have dinner at SY Kitchen, a wonderfully buzzy place with a hip vibe. Start with an unbeatable octopus salad, warm and spicy, or a crunchy fresh pea salad. Continue with fabulous pastas from wild mushroom pappardelle to melt-in-the-mouth gnocchi topped with duck ragù. The winning Italian cuisine is enhanced by the farm-fresh ingredients. The nicest wait staff in history doesn’t hurt either.
Well, people are happy here, and their love of the countryside is infectious. This is the California that people picture: warm (in more ways than one), with perpetually sunny skies, hills like emerald cushions sweeping up to distant mountains rising like gods of pastoral beauty. Here, you can be yourself. You can drink great wines and eat great food. As I drive along slowly (yes, even I drive slowly here), I remember John Wright’s words about wine: “Wine is not a fine art. It’s a beverage. But it makes your life better.” Here in this paradisiacal little valley, I can believe it’s true.