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Santa Barbara Wine Country and Santa Ynez Valley, California Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway


In Vino Veritas
Santa Barbara for Oenophiles
By Leslie A. Westbrook & Matt Katz


Presidio Winery's certified organic and Biodynamic vineyard is situated near Solvang, in Santa Barbara County, California
Presidio Winery's organic and Biodynamic vineyard near Solvang

The wine country of Santa Barbara has begun to mellow with age. Indeed, many of the fledgling tasters on tour of the Santa Ynez Valley were barely teens when "Sideways" wreaked havoc on the Merlot market and opened the floodgates of wine tourism in the region. These days when someone buys a case of local Pinot it's typically a matter of taste — not because Miles and Maya gave it a nod.

While Hollywood's spotlight has dimmed considerably in recent years, "Sideways" and its attendant hoopla left an indelible mark on the valley. Hip boutique shops and fine dining restaurants replaced many of the kitschy tourist attractions that used to prevail. Wine bars and tasting rooms multiplied like tipsy rabbits. Not all the locals are happy with the surge in popularity, of course, but considering the economic boom it's unlikely this rural stretch of Santa Barbara County will ever regress to its folksy past life.

The Santa Ynez Valley is the inland yin to Santa Barbara's coastal yang, a landlocked flipside — just twenty or so minutes from the Waterfront — where coastal moisture gives way to a dry, chaparral-scented breeze and cowboy boots are more common than flip-flops.

From Highway 154 atop the 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 east-west orientation of the mountains, however, 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 four official appellations: Happy Canyon, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills.

Even before"Sideways"sent would-be oenophiles swarming to the valley, the heart of the Santa Barbara wine country was already a burgeoning wine-growing area. Once home to just a handful of vineyards, it has come into its own and now boasts more than 100 wineries. And it keeps on growing. Keep in mind that its winemaking history dates back more than 200 years: Father Junipero Serra was the first to plant vine cuttings he brought with him from Mexico in 1782.

Even if you're not a wine lover, you'll enjoy the soothing landscape. In addition, you'll find fine 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 country roads offer a great setting for bike rides. Indeed, the valley has hosted the Amgen Tour of California professional cycling race and served as Lance Armstrong's training ground for years. 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.)

Alisal Guest Ranch is a working cattle ranch in Solvang, California
Alisal Guest Ranch

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 (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, Hotel Corque has the added value of an adjacent Bradley Ogden restaurant, Root 246. The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort is a world unto itself, with golf courses (one open to non-guests), horseback riding and fly-fishing on Alisal Lake. Gamblers might prefer to stay at the Chumash Casino Resort Hotel & Spa. While its overblown architecture doesn't offer the charm of a cozy "wine country" inn, the property does have comfortable guestrooms and a surprisingly good restaurant: The Willows, an elegant space that feels worlds removed from the cigarette smoke and slot machines downstairs.

If you're serious about 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.

Whatever your plans, be sure to pick up free area maps 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, although many are open from 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. daily, and all are open on weekends.

SANTA BARBARA WINE COUNTRY ITINERARY: DAY 1

Stop for a romantic meal at the rustic and quaint Cold Spring Tavern, a former 19th-century stagecoach
The rustic Cold Spring Tavern

Begin your journey to the Santa Ynez Valley by taking Highway 154 from Santa Barbara up and over the San Marcos Pass. 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, a former 19th-century stagecoach stop located just off the highway. The restaurant is known for wild game specials, which are a perfect match with the rustic setting. 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 closer to Cachuma Lake, a popular recreation area 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, depending on the time of year. 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 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, or for a full breakfast head to 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. Another good breakfast option is the Greenhouse Café, owned and run by longtime local Danes, which mixes California cuisine and Danish leaning dishes like a Copenhagen omelet.

Quaint Solvang, the self-proclaimed Danish Capital of America
Quaint Solvang
You'll find several tasting rooms in Santa Ynez as well as charming shops. Learn about valley history at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and don't miss the world's smallest library next door. Have lunch at Trattoria Grappolo, an area favorite run by two handsome brothers from Italy. 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 pumpkin ravioli and the stuffed calamari as well as other traditional favorites. Don't miss the homemade tiramisu — you'll think you've died and gone to Italy. Locals also rave about the salads at another popular eatery, The Vineyard House. Go for the beer-battered chicken and Gorgonzola salad.

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 following a route where U.S. Tour de France seven-time champion Lance Armstrong trained. Picnic lunches and wine-tasting after your ride are part of the open-air experience.

Mission Santa Ines in Solvang
Mission Santa Inés

On to Solvang, the self-proclaimed "Danish Capital of America." With a population of only 5,500, 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. Solvang is celebrating its centennial in 2011, with monthly themed activities and events. For details, visit www.solvangusa.com.

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 for 20 minutes by a handsome pair of blond Belgian draft horses. Visit the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art to learn more about Solvang's Danish heritage.

Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards' tasting room in Solvang, California
Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards' tasting room in Solvang

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 Stolpman as well as the Presidio Winery Tasting Room — where the assistant winemaker poured with grape-stained hands during our visit — Alisal Cellars and the oldest tasting room in town, Vinhus. 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, making it easy to sample the variety of area vintages 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. And when you've had your fill of Danish meatballs and pastries, try a fresh, organic salad at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace at the corner of Alamo Pintado Road and Mission Drive.

Even if you resist heading for the heart of California's ersatz Copenhagen, stop by to tour the Mission Santa Inés on the way into Solvang. Part of the historic chain of California missions founded by Father Junipero Serra, this beautiful old Catholic church is rich with history and offers daily masses at 8 a.m.

Enjoy robust fare paired with wine at The Ballard Inn & Restaurant in the Santa Ynez Valley
The Ballard Inn & Restaurant

Solvang is also home to several offbeat museums, including the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, Hans Christian Andersen Museum (located upstairs in The Book Loft, a great bookstore) 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, chef Bradley Ogden's New American 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 and Hayloft Grill 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. Across the street from the outdoor theater there's also Kabuki, a small, cheerful spot for Japanese food — a welcome change of pace from the Danish diversions. 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 (Wed-Sun. 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 yet admired valley winemakers including Curran, Lane Tanner, Vandale, Arcadian and Carhartt.

Continue to Day 2

MORE WINE COUNTRY INFORMATION




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