*UPDATE: Santa Barbara County entered the Covid-19 purple tier as of January 26, 2021. Restaurants, breweries, and wineries are open for outdoor service and retail is open with limited capacity.
In the Bay Area, we have easy access to Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles wine country, but there's one wine region that's seriously worth a mini road trip: Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley.
About an hour north of Santa Barbara you can taste your way through the endearing small towns that make up this 30-mile valley where more than 60 grape varieties are planted and the budding culinary scene is starting to turn heads.
Please note that, like much of California, Santa Barbara County is in the Purple Tier, the most stringent phase of restrictions surrounding Covid-19, as of November 19th. The limited stay-at-home order includes a curfew for non-essential work and gatherings between 10pm and 5am and means that local businesses can only operate outdoors. While now is not the best time to travel, bookmark our itinerary for when it's safe to get out of dodge.
Friday: Lunch + Wine in Los Alamos and a Stay in Solvang
(Courtesy of The Winston)
Get an early start to your road trip in order to maximize your time. Around lunchtime, plan to stop in Los Alamos, a tiny old Western town that looks frozen in time but has been revitalized in recent years with a handful of great restaurants and a budding natural wine scene. Make a reservation ahead of time for the patio or order takeout from Bell's, a chic French bistro housed in a former biker bar that was started by a pair of fine dining alums of restaurants like Per Se and Gramercy Tavern. Nosh on tin fish and rillettes before a main course of braised beef cheek sandwich.
After lunch, enjoy a tasting at women-owned winery Casa Dumetz, which produces single-vineyard pinot noir, Rhone varietals like grenache and mourvèdre, and a blend called The Feminist Party, in addition to ciders made with a blend of apples and wine grapes. Lo-Fi Wines (currently open only for to-go bottles) makes lovely low-alcohol easy drinkers.
Stay at The Winston.
The drive from Los Alamos to Solvang is less than 30 minutes. Once you arrive at this adorable town that looks straight out of a Danish storybook, drop your bags at The Winston, set in Solvang's historic Old Mill Clock Tower. This brand new boutique hotel has just 14 rooms and sets itself far apart from Solvang's other lodging options, most of which are not-so-subtly on-brand with the traditional Danish architecture and, as a result, come off a bit kitschy (think lots of windmills).
The Winston, on the other hand, is contemporary and colorful. Large luxury suites are painted in bold hues and high-beamed ceilings (a stunning nod to the town's Scandinavian roots), and one-of-a-kind, modern furnishings. Your stay includes a contactless check-in process, free parking in downtown Solvang, breakfast delivered to your door each morning, and a stocked honor bar.
Dinner at The Tavern
Plan for dinner at The Tavern at Zaca Creek, which opened late summer in Buellton, just a few miles from Solvang. If you have time beforehand, take a leisurely stroll around Solvang (you could probably walk the whole thing in 20 minutes or less) and grab a cheese plate appetizer on the patio at Cailloux Cheese Shop, which partners with the tasting room next door in order to serve wine as well.
Set in a 1960s disco building that's been vacant for 20 years, The Tavern has been resurrected as a classic steakhouse with a modern twist, serving up dishes like truffled wagyu tartare, drunken mushrooms with brandy, chorizo-stuffed octopus, and a 20-ounce Wagyu ribeye (butchered on site) with carrot-top chimichurri and the option to add caviar, foie gras, or more on top. Their outdoor tables have built-in fire pits that will keep you warm all winter and, while the local wine list is on point (the owner is a former winemaker), the seven-page spirits menu is unmatched for a small town and includes both mezcal or whiskey flights.
Saturday: Wine Tasting in the Sta. Rita Hills
(Courtesy of Pence Vineyards)
But first, a Danish breakfast.
The Winston delivers breakfast (pastries, fruit, OJ) to your door, but you can't visit Solvang without sampling a traditional Danish breakfast. Head to Solvang Restaurant, a local institution for 38 years, and ask for the 3 Aebleskiver with a side of sausage and mustard. The combination of these tennis-ball-sized doughy rounds and sausage for breakfast may sound strange, but you won't be disappointed.
Alternatively, if you're short on time, swing through Birkholm's Bakery, founded by Danish immigrants who once baked for the king of Denmark and now run by the family's third generation. The traditional mom and pop bakery is the oldest in town (70 years) and sells irresistible sweet treats like crepe puffs and napoleons. You can also pick-up a fantastic souvenir: a tub of five dozen Danish butter cookies that can stay fresh up to three months (if they last that long).
The Top Sta. Rita Hills Wineries to Visit
Spend the day tasting in the Sta. Rita Hills, a rising star AVA in Santa Barbara County that produces some of the best cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay in North America. This is due to a unique tectonic plate rotation that created an extremely rare transverse mountain range that goes east-west, effectively creating a wind tunnel for the cool Pacific breezes.
For an intimate and focused one-on-one experience, reserve a tasting at LaBarge Winery, which has stunning, far-reaching views of the region. LaBarge is a small-production, boutique winery working with the highest quality standards, yet they also let the vineyard shine through in each wine, using native yeast fermentations and intervening minimally in the process. The alfresco tasting experience includes a seated tasting of LaBarge's pinot, chardonnay, syrah, grenache, and the only albariño you're likely find around these parts, complete with lunch from Industrial Eats (more on them later).
Pence Vineyards is laser-focused on farming its 200-acre organic estate, which has been meticulously broken up into 20 individual vineyard blocks, each farmed to its specific needs for producing the highest quality grapes. Settle in for an outdor tasting of Burgundian-inspired wines in Pence's beautiful and serene vineyard, the oak-dotted canyon, or on the dock where a friendly resident duck may even eat out of your hand while you relax lakeside.
Founded by Santa Barbara wine pioneer Richard Sanford, who was the first to plant pinot noir in the area, Alma Rosa recently launched new experiences at a historic ranch house on their 628-acre estate. When making your reservation, ask about customizing your experience with a hike or ATV tour of the vineyards—this was the first organic-certified vineyard in all of Santa Barbara County—during which you'll have a good chance of spotting deer, rabbits, turkeys, and other animals frolicking in their natural habitat. You'll then return for a tasting of pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, and grenache crafted by Samra Morris, the only Bosnian winemaker in the country. Cheese pairings and picnic lunches are also available.
Kita Wines is the only Native American owned and operated winery in the U.S. Run by members of Santa Ynez' Chumash Indians, tribe member Tara Gomez has been the brand's winemaker since it was founded in 2010. The winery is super-small production but turns out a wide array of wines including sauvignon blanc, grenache rosé, pinot noir, and cabernet. A small urban tasting room is located in the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc, a collection of roughly 20 tasting rooms and production facilities, so you might consider hitting up a few while you're there.
Dinner and a Nightcap
Ask anyone from the area where to dine and they'll tell you Industrial Eats, set in an industrial park back in Buellton (coincidentally next to Alma Rosa's urban tasting room, in case you weren't able to book the Ranch House). This fast-casual warehouse kitchen and butcher shop churns out original wood-fired pizzas—topped with the likes of skirt steak, tomatillo, and queso fresco—gourmet sandwiches, specials (beef short rib shepherd pie, anyone?), and small plates. Don't miss the locally famous white shrimp with pancetta, chile, and garlic.
Solvang isn't big on nightlife, but there is a fun, new tiki bar with an outdoor patio, High Roller Tiki Lounge, if you fancy a nightcap. Sip a colorful, island-inspired wine cocktail like This Drink Will Get You Lei'd which, you guessed it, comes with a lei you can take home.
Sunday: Wine Tasting in Happy Canyon
(Courtesy of Bob's Well Bread)
You'd be remiss if you did not visit the new and second location of Bob's Well Bread, the Los Alamos bakery with a cult following that draws unending lines of people on weekends. The new spot in Ballard, however, is still flying under the radar and offers the same menu without the crowds, for now. The messy but totally worth it egg-in-a-jar (purple potato puree topped with Gruyere cheese, poached egg, bacon lardons, chives, and creme fraiche) will set you up nicely for the trip back. Grab a fig-raisin-walnut loaf to go.
If you can, squeeze in one final wine tasting before you hit the road, but this time in a different region of the Santa Ynez Valley, like Happy Canyon, which is known for its Bordeaux varietals. Or, if you're more interested in Rhone varietals, make an appointment at Folded Hills. Grapes were grown on this ranch pre-Prohibition and it was once owned by the Morton Salt Company. Today, Folded Hills is owned by the Busch Family (yes, like the beer) and operates as a farmstead, winery, and ranch committed to organic and partially biodynamic farming. Come for the wines, but make sure you say hello to the Clydesdales, alpacas, camel named George, and zebra named Zazu.