You want to go wine tasting. You’re craving somewhere one notch up from Temecula, but closer than Napa. Enter Santa Barbara wine country: a quick four-hour drive along scenic Southern California coastline to the Santa Ynez Valley.
Lodging and tours
For lodging, try Solvang, a quaint town just outside of Santa Barbara rife with old-world Danish charm. Wine Valley Inn is centrally located and offers a variety of unique, cozy room options including lofts, chateaus and cottages. Your stay includes a hot breakfast with Danish pastries and sausage. There's also access to bike rentals. This hotel generally has a two-night minimum, but you can skirt around that by staying on a Sunday.
To get around the wine valley, Grapeline Wine Tours offers private and group tours with transportation to and from your Santa Barbara–area hotel. The Vineyard Picnic tour is priced at $110 ($120 on Saturdays) and includes tastings at four wineries, a vineyard tour, picnic lunch and discounts on wine purchases. If booked far enough in advance, Grapeline will also let you suggest which wineries to visit.
(Good to know: Grapeline also operates in Temecula, Paso Robles and Sonoma.)
Winery picks: best of the bunch
Tasting fees are reasonable in this region, running an average of $10-15 for regular tastings and about $20 for reserve tastings. Some winery suggestions:
• Bridlewood Estate Winery features gorgeous Spanish architecture and estate wine (wine made entirely from grapes owned by the winery and produced on the winery’s property). Their Monterrey County Chardonnay is aged in both stainless steel and oak barrels to produce a wine that is crisp and bright, versus buttery like a typical California Chardonnay. Both this selection and a fantastic Viognier retail for under $15.
• Beckmen Vineyards is a family-run, small-production vineyard producing biodynamic estate wine. Of their impressive catalog of big, bold reds, the Grenache, Cuvee and Syrah are especially delicious. Their Grenache Rosé is immensely popular and deservedly so. Enjoy a nice cool glass of this bright, fruity wine outside on their deck and take in some sunshine with the views.
• Roblar Winery’s majestic oak trees and charming property are reason enough to visit, but the cherry on top is a tasting with Billy Kissell, Roblar’s effervescent tasting room manager. He'll compare the traits of three vintages of Sauvignon Blanc to the cities of Compton, Encino and Malibu, then break down the pronunciation of Viognier as “V… Own… YAY!” with emphatic arm gestures resembling a Vintner’s YMCA. Definitely try the elegant and peppery Triomphe, a complex blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot and Merlot.
• Firestone Vineyards and Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard are two large-production juggernauts and sometimes get a bad rap from "serious" wine enthusiasts, but both boast fantastic views and pretty decent wine. The Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer at Firestone were a nice surprise on a recent trip: bright, crisp and refreshing. The Gewürztraminer had a subtle, well-balanced sweetness.
Where to eat and drink
For dinner, head to the Hitching Post II in neighboring Buellton, a local haunt that lives up to the hype that surrounds the place since being featured in the film Sideways. Their mouth-watering steaks are a carnivore’s dream – aged to perfection and grilled over an oak-wood fire, then dusted with Magic Dust, Hitching Post’s unique blend of salt and spices. Call ahead for a reservation as this place fills up quickly, or else try snagging a seat at the full-service bar.
For breakfast, stop by Paula’s Pancake House. Be prepared to wait a bit if visiting on a weekend, but you’ll be glad you did when you’re staring at a plate the size of your head (top) draped with thin, buttery Danish-style crepe pancakes. Try the Danish sausage, too; its unique flavor goes well with a bit of syrup.
Back in Solvang, there are several wine bars and tasting rooms within walking distance of each other. Lion’s Peak features wines from the Paso Robles region; the Lulu wine is an old favorite and a great “intro” wine for newbies.
Wandering Dog offers wine from the Central Coast plus a selection of craft beer. Presidio Winery's biodynamic wines include a fresh, fruity Syrah Rosé and a rich, intense Syrah. If available, try their one-of-a-kind grape juice.
Sort This Out Cellars’ tasting room boasts some flair, decked in vintage Vegas décor and streaming Swingers around the clock. A vintage vibe imbues their bottling as well; pinups decorate several of this small-production winery’s labels. Two must-try items: their wine cocktails (I recommend the Mobjito) and hot mulled wine (i.e. Christmas in a cup).
Santa Ynez is the perfect weekend destination: a world away without the plane ride.
Paula's Pancake House, Solvang