A few years ago, my Christmas present to Steve was a surprise weekend to Santa Barbara where we stayed at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel. The Four Seasons Santa Barbara is a stunning hotel but we had rented a car and decided to drive 45 minutes north to visit the Santa Ynez wine valley during one day of our trip and it was love at first sight. We went back the next day of our trip for more wine tastings and were simply sold on the area and the wines, which are probably the most underrated wines in California. Napa Valley and Sonoma get all the attention so this area is really overlooked, especially if you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If you have ever watched the movie Sideways, about Miles and Jack on a guy’s weekend before Jack gets married, this is the wine region where it was filmed.
Since that time, we have visited the area and rented a house in the wine valley in the quaint town of Los Olivos around 4 or 5 times. We have even stayed a full week out there in a private rental. We’ve also joined several of the wineries’ wine clubs in the area so I thought I’d share some of my favorite places.
First, if you want to stay in the wine valley area but not rent a house, the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn is a great place to stay and they will make arrangements at local wineries for tastings and can make restaurant recommendations as well. It’s located on Main Street in Los Olivos and the rooms are lovely and huge with gas fireplaces, sitting areas and big soaking tubs. My parents stayed here last year (we stayed in our rental house) and I was very impressed with the rooms and the Inn. My parents also said that the included and fresh to made breakfast every morning was amazing. We have also thoroughly enjoyed our small rental home which is in the heart of Los Olivos and has a nice backyard patio. The wineries here are very laid back – almost all of them allow walk-ins and you don’t need appointments for tastings.
We have always flown into the Santa Barbara airport which is very tiny but convenient. It’s a small plane from Phoenix so if you hate small planes, you can fly into LAX and then drive up from there (about 3 hours, depends on traffic). Your first stop in the wine valley is the super cute town of Solvang, which is the largest Dutch community in the U.S. The town has a main square and a few blocks of cute stores, Danish bakeries, a park, several wine tasting rooms, antiques and a few restaurants. It also has horse drawn carriages and windmills everywhere. Frankly, I haven’t been impressed with the wine tasting rooms in Solvang but it’s a cute place to walk around and spend an hour or so. Restaurant-wise, The Succulent Pig is a great restaurant that makes it’s own cured and smoked meats for sandwiches and Cecco is a cute little Italian place off the park that does wood fired pizzas, salads and has a nice outdoor patio for seating.
We prefer to stay in Los Olivos down the road, which is an old farming community and former stagecoach stop. Two of our favorite restaurants are here – the Los Olivos Cafe and Sides Cafe. Both restaurants are farm to table concepts that focus on fresh, local ingredients and have great local wine selections. Sides has one of the best cheeseburgers we’ve had anywhere. The Los Olivos Cafe is also a wine merchant so you can buy wine by the bottle here. Los Olivos is now a small tourist town with gift shops but is most known for having the most tasting rooms in a 2-3 block area. I think there are around 30 to 40 tasting rooms in town. My favorite tasting rooms are Byron, Blair Fox, Dragonette and Stolpman. Five minutes down the road is Bridlewood winery which also does some very nice wines and sits on an expansive vineyard and property.
From Los Olivos you can drive down Foxen Canyon Road to visit a few other wineries, including Andrew Murray, Firestone Winery, Foxen Winery and Demetria. Demetria is by appointment only but the others you can just walk in. Steve and I often buy sandwiches in Los Olivos and then have a picnic lunch at either Foxen or Andrew Murray as they have views overlooking the wine valley. We will do a tasting and buy a bottle of our favorite to have with lunch and just cork whatever we don’t drink for later.
If you are here for a few days, you can also drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway and see the seal beach, which we did once a few years ago.
Hearst Castle is also worth a stop. We did the basic tour of the Grand Rooms and you can also self-tour the grounds. Unfortunately, the Greek outdoor pool was being repaired so it had been drained when we visited but we did get to see the indoor Roman pool as well. The gardens are gorgeous and you get amazing views as Hearst Castle sits up high on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific ocean.
You can also head just west of Solvang towards the towns of Buellton and Lompoc. Buellton is home of the famous Hitchin’ Post restaurant, which is one of our must-go places everytime we are in the area. It’s a steak restaurant that is a throw-back to the 1980’s in terms of decor and all the meat is slow cooked on a huge Santa Maria grill over a post oak fire. It’s a basic steak and baked potato kind of place but it is one of the best steaks I have ever had anywhere. They also make their own wine and their Highliner pinot noir is fabulous.
Another great day is to drive west through Buellton to Lompoc (Loring, Melville, Foley and Babcock wineries are along the way) and then you can hit the Lompoc Wine Ghetto which is an industrial park in the town that has been turned into tasting rooms (Flying Goat, Palmina, Fiddlehead, Zotovich and Samsara wineries to name a few are in the ghetto). After that, head back towards Solvang via the Santa Rosa road which is stunningly beautiful and takes you trhough the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Sanford and LaFond wineries are excellent stops with beautiful views.
We try to come out to this area every year if we can and spend at least 3 or 4 nights. Now that we have been several times, we know where we like to eat, what wineries we like to visit and we know the area very well. There are so many amazing wineries in the area. Our usual M.O is to stop into Brophy Bros. Seafood on the pier in Santa Barbara before catching our flight back home. Unfortunately, it looks like we won’t be able to squeeze in a trip during 2016 so we have added it as a week long trip for 2017!