Santa Barbara Wine Country City Trip
72 Hours in Santa Barbara Wine Country
Santa Barbara's wine country has hit its stride. The first post-prohibition winery, aptly named Santa Barbara Winery, started in 1962 and slowly grew quietly until the Oscar winning film Sideways placed Santa Barbara squarely on the map. But that has been over a decade and the region has shed its Hollywood association and matured into a viable world-class wine region.
Hip boutique shops and fine dining restaurants replaced many of the kitschy tourist attractions that used to prevail here, and wine bars and tasting rooms have proliferated. Not all the locals are happy with the surge in popularity, but considering the economic boom it's unlikely this rural stretch of Santa Barbara County will ever regress to its folksy past. The Santa Ynez Valley is the inland yin to Santa Barbara's coastal yang, a landlocked flipside — just a 30-minute drive from the Waterfront — where coastal moisture gives way to a dry, chaparral-scented breeze and cowboy boots are still as common as flip-flops.
From Highway 154 atop the San Marcos Pass, the Valley spreads out as the ocean and islands disappear in the rearview mirror. Gnarled oaks mix incongruously with ruler-straight rows of grape vines, and the mirrored surface of Lake Cachuma replaces the blue Pacific. The unusual east-west orientation of the mountains allows coastal fog to filter through the valley — creating some of the coolest viticultural areas in California. The extended time on the vine allowed by this climate helps develop the acids, flavors and tannins needed to produce wines of distinctive character. More than half of the grapes grown here are purchased by vintners outside the area who have developed a taste for the fruit of Santa Barbara County's wine growing appellations: Happy Canyon, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.
Once home to just a handful of vineyards, it has come into its own and now boasts more than 120 wineries, and it keeps on growing. Keep in mind that its winemaking history dates back more than 200 years when Spanish missionaries planted vine cuttings here for sacramental wine and for sale as raisins.
Even if you're not a wine lover, you'll enjoy the soothing landscape. In addition, you'll find diverse restaurants, charming inns, unique boutiques, art galleries and tiny museums, as well as an Indian casino and a cowboy saloon tucked into the scenic countryside. Recreational options range from golf and horseback riding to glider rides and hiking trails, while scenic back-country roads offer idyllic bike rides. Indeed, the valley has hosted the Amgen Tour of California professional cycling race. While swimming is not allowed, Lake Cachuma does offer boating and fishing, with rentals available. While driving from tasting room to tasting room is the most popular pastime, there is plenty to be savored between sips.
Six towns dot the valley map: Ballard, Los Alamos, Buellton, Santa Ynez, Solvang and Los Olivos. Each has a distinct character and flavor. Buellton, located where Highway 101 converges with State Highway 246, is the commercial gateway into the valley, but Los Alamos, just up the road, is actually the northernmost point of entry. (For navigation purposes, the suggestions here use Santa Barbara as the point of departure.)
There's a wide range of places to stay in the vicinity, particularly in the tourist stronghold of Solvang. Some of the more upscale lodging choices include The Ballard Inn (in Ballard), Santa Ynez Inn (in Santa Ynez) and Fess Parker' s Wine Country Inn & Spa (in Los Olivos). In Solvang, the Wine Valley Inn & Cottages offers a nice mix of old and new, with contemporized Copenhagen-style cottages and chateau suites nestled amongst an acre of lush gardens. Also located in Solvang, the contemporary Hotel Corque has the added value of restaurant Root 246. The Hadsten House offers modern European design with a wine country theme. The Alisal Guest Ranch and Golf Resort is a world unto itself, with golf courses (one open to non-guests), horseback riding and fly-fishing on their own lake. Gamblers might prefer to stay at the Chumash Casino Resort & Spa with its hip and trendy interior and three in-house eateries.
When wine tasting, it's wise to have a designated driver. Plan to bring along a picnic on at least one of your tasting adventures. Organized wine outings, such as the "seriously fun and educational" tours led by Breakaway Tours & Event Planning, let visitors enjoy the scenery, sip the wine and leave the driving to someone else. Sustainable Vine Wine Tours, uses a bio-diesel-powered Mercedes luxury van to visit wineries that incorporate biodynamic, organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. And The Wine Line adheres to your schedule so it's easy to visit which exact wineries you want.
Whatever your plans, pick up free area maps available at most hotels and tasting rooms or at one of the Visitors' Centers, in Solvang and Buellton, or by contacting The Santa Barbara County Vintners' Association. Tasting room hours and days of operation vary, however the majority are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and all are open on weekends. Tasting fees vary as well, but $10 - $15 per person is typical.
SANTA BARBARA WINE COUNTRY DAY 1: Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and Solvang
Start your journey by taking Highway 154 (the San Marcos Pass) from Santa Barbara to wine country. Be sure to stop for breakfast (weekends only), lunch or dinner on your way in or out of the valley at the historic and charming Cold Spring Tavern, formerly a 19th-century stagecoach stop located just off the highway nestled in a canyon. The restaurant is known for wild game specials, which are a perfect match with the rustic setting, and there is live outdoor music each weekend. The turn-off to Stagecoach Road is marked — it's just after the mountain crests and before you cross Cold Spring Canyon Arch Bridge.
Continue on and you will pass by Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, a popular spot for camping, boating and fishing. The 3,250-acre body of water and its seven-mile-long shore are home to deer, blue heron and even resident eagles and osprey, depending on the time of year. You can camp, rent a yurt or park your RV here. Boat tours are offered year-round for bird and wildlife watching.
Take the Highway 246 turn-off signed for Santa Ynez and Solvang for the first glimpse of pretty rows of grapevines at Gainey Vineyard, where you should stop and visit one of the valley's long-established wineries. The tiny Santa Ynez Airport is nearby; offering glider plane rides for brave souls. Continue on a few blocks and you'll reach the Edison Street turn-off to the Western-style town of Santa Ynez. If you haven't had breakfast, and want to hear the valley gossip, the Longhorn Coffee Shop & Bakery is the local hangout. If you want to hold off on breakfast until you reach Solvang, consider a Danish pastry at Olsen's Danish Village Bakery. For a full breakfast, head to the eternally popular Paula's Pancake House — a delightful spot to nibble on wafer-thin Danish pancakes while watching the world go by, which happens rather slowly in this neck of the woods.
You'll find several tasting rooms in Santa Ynez as well as charming shops. Learn about the valley's history at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and don't miss the world's smallest library next door. Have lunch at the casual, Italian themed SY Kitchen. Here you can literally rub elbows with local winemakers and celebs if you eat at the bar overlooking the kitchen. Be sure to try the spaghetti clams, grilled artichoke or one of their terrific cocktails and be sure not to miss the homemade tiramisu served in a mason jar. Locals also rave about the salads at another popular eatery, The Vineyard House. Go for the beer-battered chicken and Gorgonzola salad, or nosh on the baked brie.
If you feel guilty about indulging at lunch, you might want to work it off with a guided bicycle tour led by Santa Barbara Wine Country Cycling Tours. Offered are half-day, full-day and self-guided tours of the picturesque countryside, and even a strenuous Figueroa Mountain Hill climb, or just rent a bike and go at your own pace. Picnic lunches and wine-tasting after your ride are part of the open-air experience.
Now on to Solvang, the self-proclaimed "Danish Capital of America." With a population of only 6,000, Solvang takes the word "quaint" to new heights. How else to describe a village filled with enchanting windmills, gift shops and a preternaturally friendly populace? A place where the air is scented with an intoxicating blend of Danish baked goods and fresh flowers. The town was founded in 1911 by Danish Americans from the Midwest who bought 9,000 acres here (the name means "sunny field") to establish an ethnic colony and folk school.
Some people love the kitschy atmosphere while others run in the opposite direction from the gingerbread architecture, cobblestone streets and hundreds of souvenir shops. But persevere and you will find treats here — including such rare culinary delights as the Danish-style sweet pancakes called aebleskiver, great toy stores and several shops with thousands of quilts for sale. If you're really feeling the Danish spirit, the Honen (Danish for "little hen") provides an incomparable way to explore Solvang. This replica of a 1915 streetcar is pulled around town by a handsome pair of blond Belgian draft horses. Visit the small and very cool Elverhoj Museum of History and Art to learn more about Solvang's Danish heritage.
Winemaking has added an element of sophistication to Solvang, and for many visitors nowadays, it's the town's main draw. Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards' tasting room on Copenhagen Drive has a display case full of medals and awards as well as gifts, T-shirts and a children's table with toys and books to entertain wee ones while parents sip. Fans of red wine should seek out Presidio Winery Tasting Room, and for a 1950s pin-up theme head to Sort This Out Cellars. If you want to enjoy a full glass, try the hip Wandering Dog Wine Bar, which has a wonderful range of wines from both local vintners and other regions. Solvang has several wine-tasting rooms, and the Solvang Brewing Company if you just want local beer, making it easy to sample the region without having to worry about drinking and driving.
The evolution of "Little Denmark" as a wine country destination has led to new opportunities for shoppers and diners. At stylish boutiques like True Addiction you're not likely to find wooden clogs amongst the hand embellished "Fancy Flops" and designer jeans.
Even if you resist heading for the heart of California's ersatz Copenhagen, stop by to tour Mission Santa Inés on the way into Solvang. Part of the historic chain of California missions and founded in 1804, this beautiful old Catholic church is rich with history including a collection of early vestments, and they offers daily mass at 8 a.m.
Solvang is also home to several offbeat museums, including the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, Hans Christian Andersen Museum (located upstairs in The Book Loft) and the very charming Elverhoj Museum of History and Art. If you want to go easy on your feet, you'll easily spot opportunities to rent a surrey cycle (rates start at around $20) and peddle your way around town.
For a casual lunch, pick up sandwiches at Panino, which also has outposts in Los Olivos and Santa Ynez. Stick around Solvang for dinner at Root 246, an homage to the Central Coast, or head to Santa Ynez or Ballard. If you''re in the mood for some action, nightlife in the valley can be raucous at The Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez. Every Friday and Saturday night, the live music is guaranteed to get anyone on the dance floor. More cultured prospects include critically acclaimed productions at Solvang's PCPA Theaterfest, which in summer stages performances at the Solvang Festival Theater — a unique 700-seat open air facility that's become a cultural landmark in the Santa Ynez Valley. For good old American burgers, shakes and fries, Chomp offers a diversion from more traditional Danish fare.
You can enjoy a quiet dinner at The Ballard Inn Restaurant in nearby Ballard (Wednesday to Sunday only). This charming inn with roses surrounding a white picket fence has rooms without phones or TVs — and noteworthy cuisine. A wine-tasting room showcases some of the lesser-known, small production valley wines including D'Alfonso-Curran Wines, Quail Crossing and Thorne.
to Day 2
*San Marcos Pass image courtesy of Mark Weber and Visit Santa Barbara