Santa Barbara Wine Country: Move Over Napa and Sonoma!

Ballard Canyon, near Solvang, is a bucollic wine country drive. photos by Michael Cervin.
Ballard Canyon, near Solvang, is a bucollic wine country drive. photos by Michael Cervin.

By Michael Cervin

Below is an excerpt from Michael Cervin’s Moon travel guide, Santa Barbara & The Central Coast, available nationwide. Michael’s second national travel book also published by Moon, California Wine Country will be released in May, 2011.

The heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country is comprised of the towns of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Solvang and Santa Maria, though these small farming communities. But underneath the small farming community town charm is a big equestrian history, rustic Western lifestyle, and even prohibition-era ideals and temperance movements, ironic for the now thriving wine industry.
Solvang

Santa Barbara wine country: waves and wine, boards and bottles.
Santa Barbara wine country: waves and wine, boards and bottles.

Though Solvang started in 1911 as a Danish retreat from its native homeland, it’s still ripe with its Scandinavian heritage and a new modern sensibility. Solvang decided to seal its fate by keeping a focus on Danish architecture, food, and style, which still holds an allure 50 years after its conception. An easily walkable town, Solvang is home to Mission Santa Ines, bakeries, miles of rolling paved roads for casual and hardcore cyclists, and about 12 wine tasting rooms.

Solvang Wine: Presidio Winery (1306 Copenhagen Dr., 805/693-8585, www.presidiowinery.com) is certified as a biodynamic winery: a step beyond organic, and employs a closed-loop farm system. Farming is done to insure non-intrusive outside elements don’t interfere with the land. Doug Braun’s wines are quite good and his style of winemaking is restrained. Chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah and late harvest wines are what you’ll find here.

Solvang Food:Hadsten House Restaurant (1450 Mission Dr., 805/688-3210, www.hadstenhouse.com) entered the dining scene just a few years ago but immediately elevated the local culinary perspective. Dark and moody inside, a central fireplace creates a hip urban environment, more metropolitan than rural. The short ribs have a demi-glaze that will set your mind reeling and the warm spinach salad is perfectly balanced. Or go for the Hadsten burger which is piled with everything on it including an egg.

Santa Ynez

Santa Ynez is a small town, very small. There are only two hotels, not including the Chumash Casino resort which is technically in Solvang. One of the reasons people stay in Santa Ynez is that it makes a good base from which to explore and it’s ultra quiet.

If you don’t want lots of people around you in the mornings or at night, it’s ideal. You can walk the length of the town in about 10 minutes.

Solstice Parade in Santa Barbara.
Solstice Parade in Santa Barbara.

Santa Ynez Wine: Imagine Wines (3563 Numancia St., 805-688-1769,www.imaginewine.com, tasting fee $10) is the only tasting room to still reside within town and is manned solely by the owners. The light wood toned interior has a classic Victorian feel and the room is spacious with lots of light. You’ll get six tasting samples to ponder including viognier and chardonnay on the white side, and syrah, zinfandel, pinot noir and merlot on the red side. They are an easy walk from anywhere in town and the space doubles as an art gallery.

Santa Ynez Food: The Vineyard House (3631 Sagunto, 805/688-2886,www.thevineyardhouse.com) is a 1907 residence converted to a restaurant. Creative flavorful food comes out of this kitchen on a regular basis. The baked brie is always a treat, as is the crispy buttermilk chicken and a hearty, thick venison verde chili. They make their own soups and salad dressings as well as desserts like the eternally decadent and gooey molten chocolate cake. The interior is homey and intimate but the prime seating on nice days is the deck overlooking town where the pepper trees hang languidly over your table

Los Olivos

Los Olivos has always been a laid back farming community, unaffected by time. The central flagpole, sitting boldly on Grand Avenue, is the de facto rallying point for wine tasters, since there are still no stoplights. Within a two block radius of the flagpole, there are over a dozen tasting rooms, half a dozen excellent restaurants and art galleries. Unpretentious and simple, it’s a perfect one-day getaway.

Los Olivos Wine: Beckmen Vineyards (2670 Ontiveros Rd., 805/688-8664) You’ll need to drive to the winery as it’s in the middle of private residences. The tasting room is small, but there are picnic areas overlooking their pond. Their wines are biodynamically farmed and include sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, marsanne, a killer grenache and a variety of syrahs. They also make an excellent rosé.

Solvang, picturesque town on the Santa Barbara wine area.
Solvang, picturesque town on the Santa Barbara wine area.

Los Olivos Food: The Ballard Inn (2436 Baseline, 805/688-7770) There are only a dozen tables in this intimate space and on busy nights and most any weekend, it can get loud. The menu rotates often due to the freshness of the ingredients that owner Budi Kazali can find. The vegetables come from local farms, the seafood from Santa Barbara. On any given night you might find crispy barramundi, truffled cauliflower soup or a beef dish. Whatever is presented on the small menu however will be artfully prepared and exceptionally good.

Santa Maria: Santa Maria is the workhorse of the agricultural area within Santa Barbara County and you’ll see fields and vineyards on both sides of the freeway. But Santa Maria also has a strong Western history, not to mention the now famous Santa Maria tri-tip barbeque

Though built up with housing, there are plenty of wineries to visit not to mention Vandenberg Air Force Base where you can watch missiles and rockets take off, and the single best mission on the Central Coast, Mission La Purisima.

Santa Maria Wine: Kenneth Volk Vineyards (5230 Tepusquet Rd., 805/938-7896, www.volkwines.com). In 1981 Ken established Wild Horse Winery & Vineyard in Templeton. Over the next two decades, production soared from 600 to 150,000 cases.

In 2003, he sold Wild Horse and in 2004 he formed Kenneth Volk Vineyards in Santa Maria. In addition to the standard offerings, Ken makes roussanne, viognier, pinot grigio, chardonnay and many other wines that are called heirloom varieties, funky, wonderful oddball wines like cabernet pfeffer, negrette and verdelho.

Santa Maria Food: Far Western Tavern (899 Guadalupe St., Guadalupe, 805/343-2211,
www.farwesterntavern.com) on the outskirts of Santa Maria is one of those places where it hasn’t changed since it was built as the Palace Hotel in 1912. Modern restaurants can only try and emulate the authenticity of this very cool place. Old leather booths, animal heads on the walls including a massive bull moose, red velvet wall paper, and animal hides acting as drapes, this is classic old school steak dining. They grill their meats over red oak, which lends a beautiful smokiness to them. Best known for a 14 ounce bull’s eyes steak, this is a great throwback to a Western dining feel.

Santa Barbara Wine Country The Back Story

The first documented viticulture in California dates from 1779 at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California. The Mission Santa Barbara padres established a vineyard and winery sometime between 1824 and 1834 and the day to day tasks of harvesting the grapes, and producing the wine fell to Chumash Indians.

By 1845, the vineyard contained more than 2,200 vines and there was a 100 tree fruit orchard. But wine production was not limited to the missions. About 1820 San Antonio winery was built in what is now Goleta, just north of the City of Santa Barbara. Another commercial winery, Packard Winery was built in 1865, and in the late 1890s about 200 acres of grapes were being turned into wine on Santa Cruz Island.

When the first commercial grapevine plantings were made in Santa Barbara in the 1960s grape growers planted anything and everything. Currently there are 64 different varieties of grapes planted throughout the county on 21,000 acres. Pinot noir and chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties. There are warmer pockets, like Happy Canyon, which can produce cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.

There are cool growing regions like the Santa Rita Hills which benefit from proximity to the coast, and both cool and warm climate plantings of syrah and chardonnay. Every winery is doing something different and it is this attitude of trying everything that is part of its success. It also doesn’t hurt that the valley is a beautiful place to spend time in.

Buy this book on Amazon….
Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast (Moon Handbooks)

Michael Cervin.See more of Michael’s travels at www.MichaelCervin.com, or email him.

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