Wine Country Experiences: Santa Barbara County, CA

Located 90 minutes north of Los Angeles along the Pacific coastline and inland across the Santa Ynez Mountain range and valley to the San Rafael Mountain range.

Published: 8/11/2016

COASTAL FOG AND SUNSHINE are nearly all that touch the majestic hills and valleys of Santa Barbara wine country. Here, you can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. There’s a much better chance that you will see a few lone cattle on the oak-studded hills, a distant cyclist, soaring hawks, and beautiful rolling vineyards in every direction. This stunning region is primarily known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, but around 55 varieties grow in its five appellations, giving you plenty of opportunities to discover a new favorite varietal. Santa Barbara wine country stretches across 50 miles of rural landscape, villages, hamlets, towns, and even a small city. Every inch is just waiting to be experienced.

Terrific Tastings Vincent Vineyards’ Chocolate Flight tasting is an enlightening journey through the ancient and flavorful history of chocolate. As you taste each truffle created by a local artisan chocolatier, you learn about the growth and production of cacao and its introduction to modern Europe. Taste an exceptional Sparkling brut, a white, and three red wines paired with custom truffles handcrafted by a local chocolatier. The cupcake craze has come to the Saarloos and Sons Winery tasting room. The winery’s Cupcake Flight features a series of miniature Enjoy Cupcakes paired with the wines. The flavors in each wine are enhanced when sampled with a Lemon Clove Gingerbread, Salted Caramel Banana, English Toffee, or Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake.

Picnic Perfect California pepper trees provide much of the shade at Lincourt Vineyards. The expansive, well-manicured lawn, bordered by vineyards, is an ideal place to spread out a picnic blanket. But you have other options. There are chairs and tables in different areas and, if it’s not being used for a private tasting or other event, the pretty covered veranda is also a nice spot. In Santa Maria, Riverbench Vineyard & Winery is an ideal setting for a wine country picnic, with a lovely garden complete with a bocce court and a horseshoe pit. Dogs are welcome. In fact, sometimes the winery host’s dog walks through the vineyard. A complete working farm, Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard is a great place for a picnic. The picnic tables in the gardens around the tasting room are ideal for impromptu picnics. In addition, Buttonwood hosts many farm events showcasing its bounty. Each August, the annual Buttonwood All Farm Dinner utilizes all of the farm’s fruits, vegetables, flowers—even table decorations.

Interesting Places Many families make it an annual tradition to spend time together at The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. This family-owned and -operated property truly is a unique place, with guestrooms void of telephones, TVs, and room service. Here, the focus is on being outdoors and enjoying life’s simpler pleasures such as riding horses; playing golf, tennis, and bingo; and an outdoor barbecue on a warm summer evening. To experience the diversity of a real working ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, make an appointment to visit Pence Ranch. The 200- acre ranch grows various crops from marcona almonds and Italian rye to olives, fruits and vegetables. The produce, along with the ranch’s Black Angus cattle and egg-laying chickens, provide sustenance to those who work on the ranch. Of course there are vineyards as well, which yield a very nice portfolio of wines. Just north of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, in a tidy little industrial park commonly known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, 19 tasting rooms have set up shop. This no-frills way of doing business certainly has its appeal. Chances are pretty good that you’ll meet the winemaker and possibly his or her family, too, while you sample some great small-lot wines. There’s a bit of Tuscany at the center of the Danish-themed town of Solvang. The beautiful Toccata tasting room is reminiscent of an Old World marketplace, with Italian pottery and décor, wine related gift items, and gourmet foods. Toccata wines are Italian, too. The portfolio is an intriguing list of white and red Italian varietals, including Malvasia Bianco, Muscat Canelli, Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and more—demonstrating the diversity of Santa Barbara County as a wine region. Taste at Toccata and then head a block away to sister tasting room, Lucas & Lewellen (both are owned by the same family) where a number of Bordeaux varietals take center stage.

Just Chillin’ The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn now delivers guests with an active and adventurous four-day retreat that pairs specialty athletic training in yoga, Pilates, core work, and kickboxing with daily hikes on the Santa Ynez Valley’s most coveted trails including Fess Parker Vineyard’s estate property in the rolling foothills just outside of charming Los Olivos. Daily full body massages at the inn’s spa, exclusive fireside lectures, guided wine tastings, and fresh farm-to-table meals round out the itinerary. Park the car for the day and stroll along the Solvang Wine Walk or the Los Olivos Promenade. With dozens of tasting rooms clustered close together, this is a great option for visitors short on time who want to combine wine tasting with restaurant, shopping, and cultural experiences. For a wine tasting experience the whole family will enjoy, Carivinitis Winery designed a relaxing child- and pet-friendly tasting room. With a play area stocked with puzzles, games, and coloring books; free blazing-fast Wi-Fi; Netflix, Blu-Ray, AppleTV and a big screen TV to stream movies, you can enjoy the wines without the whines. There are dog beds, fresh water, and treats for your dog as well. Every Thursday evening the Refugio Ranch tasting room in downtown Los Olivos stays open and throws a small bash for the local community. The popular event, called Soirée Thursday, features live local music, imaginative food pairings from local food trucks and restaurants, and wine by the glass specials. On Saturdays from May through October, Koehler puts on a fun outdoor wood-fired pizza party with wines by the glass. The expansive lawn feels like the backyard of a friend’s home, with dogs and children playing together. The pizzas are catered by Trattoria Grappolo, a popular authentic Italian bistro in Santa Ynez. Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards hosts its free Sunday Concert Series on the last Sunday of every month. Local artists set up on the patio outside the tasting room and play all afternoon. There are plenty of picnic tables, and picnics are encouraged. If you feel like taking a stroll, follow a trail and be rewarded with a stunning view. wine country experiences

Fun Tours A cycling tour is a great way to discover the Santa Ynez Valley. There are several cycle tour companies to look into. The valley’s first, Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours, has a range of tours from leisure-paced to vigorous, with single and multiple-day tour options available. There’s nothing quite like experiencing wine country on two wheels with an attentive, knowledgeable, and responsible guide. There’s also a wonderful four-legged touring option. Vino Vaqueros gives you the chance to soak in the beauty and serenity of the Santa Ynez Valley landscape on horseback. After a mesmerizing tour through vineyards and ranchlands, you’ll enjoy a tasting at a winery where you can settle back and re-live the tour with fellow riders. The 2004 Oscar-winning film Sideways helped put Santa Barbara wine country on the map. Watch the movie for the first, or twentyfirst time, and then follow in the footsteps of Miles and Jack with the Sideways Wine Trail. The suggested tour spans two days and features many of the same wineries, restaurants, and other stops that comprised the characters’ Santa Ynez Valley adventure.

Great Classes Iris Rideau, a successful entrepreneur, is one of Santa Ynez Valley’s many talented winery owners. Her childhood in a Creole household honed her culinary talents, which are now shared with participants in the cooking classes and events offered at Rideau Vineyard. Depending on the occasion, you can sample gumbo and jambalaya made from family recipes, pick up wine etiquette tips, and more. Artiste Winery offers blending workshops where small groups can experience firsthand what it’s like to be a winemaker. After crafting its blend, the group collectively paints its own label. Actually, painting is at the heart of every Artiste wine tasting experience. The tasting room is an art tasting studio, with splattered paint on the floor and paints and canvasses set on easels. Guests are encouraged to paint their own masterpiece while they sample the wines. Every Thursday evening, Solvang’s Wandering Dog Wine Bar presents another Blind Tasting Thursday, a casual drop-in lesson on varietals, regions, and much more in its tasting room. The curriculum changes weekly, but you’re sure to be enlightened and learn more about the region during this informative and focused tasting of four half-glasses of wine.

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2016 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.