It’s the wine lovers’ happy dilemma. Now, at last, after a whole pandemic-plagued year where wine touring seemed as out-of-reach as a flight to Mars, spending a weekend wine tasting actually seems possible again. People are getting vaccinated; purple tier counties are turning red and red ones turning orange. Suddenly it seems realistic to think about spending a whole weekend sampling syrahs and sauvignon blancs, with a memorable meal or two thrown in.
But where to go? That’s the dilemma part. Northern California has so many stellar wine regions—hi Napa, hi Sonoma, hi Santa Cruz Mountains–it seems almost insane to suggest you venture a little farther afield.
Yet you should. Four-plus hours south of the Bay Area lies one of California’s most appealing wine regions, Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. If you’ve driven Highway 101 south, you’ve seen it from the car window. You’ve admired the rolling hills, possibly stopped for butter cookies in Solvang, and maybe remembered that the famous oenophile movie Sideways was filmed here.
But if you haven’t set foot in the Santa Ynez recently, you’ve missed out. Here is a relaxed, uncrowded, welcoming spot that has some of the best wine and best food in California.
To understand what’s special about the Santa Ynez, take Highway 246 west from Buellton. It’s the road that reveals the valley at its best: oak-studded hills, soaring hawks, vineyards and a sense of nearing the sea. In a few miles you hang a right and follow a poplar-shaded drive to Melville Winery.
Melville is a Santa Ynez pioneer: in the 1990s, grape grower Ron Melville sold his Sonoma acreage and bought land here. Winewise, the valley was terra incognita. “It was totally scary,” his son Chad Melville recalls. “But my dad has always been a guy who likes to take risks.”
The risks paid off. What the Melvilles found was a region uniquely suited to producing a wide range of good wines. The Santa Ynez is, Chad explains, one of the few valleys in North America that run east-west instead of (like, say, Napa) north-south. At its western end is the chilly Pacific Ocean. With no hills to block them, ocean breezes flow inland. The western portion of the valley is considerably cooler than the eastern. That means that Melville shines producing cool-climate pinot noirs and chardonnays, while wineries in the hotter east produce excellent Rhône varietals and cabs. Today the region holds more than 100 wineries and is divvied up into five appellations: Santa Ynez, Santa Rita Hills (home to Melville), Los Olivos, Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon.
But geography isn’t the only thing that makes the valley special, says another pioneer, Mark Crawford Horvath of Crawford Family Wines. Without dissing Napa or Sonoma, Horvath thinks Santa Ynez is more open to new, younger winemakers. “There’s just more room for the independent, small guys,” he says.
Spend a day wine tasting here and you see what Horvath means. Santa Ynez is a rangy, loping, uncrowded wine country. At tasting rooms, the person pouring your pinot may well be the winemaker. The winery look ranges from luxurious (tastefully Tuscan Melville) to unpretentious barely describes it — e.g., the wineries housed in the industrial buildings of Lompoc’s “Wine Ghetto.” Quaint they aren’t, but the wines are amazing.
If the wines of the Santa Ynez Valley have been good — OK, great — for a while, even the valley’s fans say that dining and lodging has taken time to catch up. Now it has.
One thing you quickly notice about the valley is that its small towns are distinctive. There’s Danish-themed Solvang, with its straight-outta-Copenhagen bakeries and statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. There’s Old West Santa Ynez. Los Olivos, with its gallery-and-tasting-room lined main drag, Grand Avenue, is the valley’s closest approximation to Healdsburg or St. Helena. Buellton is more everyday California town, albeit with a classic steakhouse—the Hitching Post II—that makes some of the valleys best red wines. And at the northwest end of the valley, little Los Alamos is in the process of morphing from sleepy to sophisticated.
All have blossomed into first-rate dining and lodging destinations. In Solvang, First & Oak, housed in a chic boutique hotel, the Mirabelle Inn, focuses on seasonal small plates. A few blocks away, a cutesy Danish motel has been transformed into the sleek Landsby. Just east of downtown, the newly opened Hotel Ynez is a chic spin on the wine country motor court.
In Santa Ynez, the redone Santa Ynez Inn resembles a mansion owned by your favorite wealthy great aunt. And two restaurants — Italian SY Kitchen and carnivore haven Brothers Restaurant at the Red Barn — make the tiny town a gastronomic capital. Los Olivos has quirky, tasty Sides Hardware and Shoes. And, perhaps taking a cue from Lompoc, Buellton’s Industrial Eats offers wood-fired pizzas in a stylish corrugated metal building of the sort that normally houses muffler shops; if you’re looking for something more old-world posh, hit The Tavern at Zaca Creek.
Finally, Los Alamos boasts both an excellent French bistro, Bell’s Restaurant, and an exuberant mid-century modern motel-turned-luxury getaway, the hilltop Skyview Los Alamos.
But to experience the Santa Ynez Valley’s appeal at its purest, head to the Ballard Inn. Ballard is a tiny “township” of Solvang, with its own history as a Wells Fargo stage stop, and the world’s cutest little red schoolhouse. Here, Java-born, Santa Barbara–raised Budi Kazali has done two things really well. First, he’s created a country inn that is elegant and soothing. Second, the inn’s newly reimagined restaurant, The Gathering Table, is a marvel. It features Asian-accented French cuisine and a deep selection of Santa Ynez Valley wines. You can enjoy your dinner at one of the long communal tables Kazali insisted on. Because, as he says, “we wanted people to come here and make friends.”
Chances are you will. And chances are that once you get to Ballard and to the Santa Ynez Valley, you’ll feel that the drive was worth it.
IF YOU GO
Note: changes in COVID-19 restrictions can impact winery, restaurant and lodging availability; call, text or email before you visit.
Bell’s Restaurant, 406 Bell St, Los Alamos
The Hitching Post II. 406 E Hwy 246, Buellton.
The Tavern At Zaca Creek, 1297 Jonata Park Rd, Buellton.
Hotel Ynez, 2644 Mission Dr, Solvang.
Skyview Los Alamos, 9150 US-101, Los Alamos.
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Peter Fish has been writing for thirty years for publications such as Sunset Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and AFAR. His Sunset Magazine article on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, “Howl,” won a 2013 Lowell Thomas Award gold medal for environmental journalism. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.