by Winebounty Team| Feb 27, 2020

If you find yourself in Los Angeles and are itching for a quick wine country getaway, just two hours North lies the picturesque valley of Santa Ynez.  Imagine gently winding back roads, lush rolling hills dotted with magnificent oak trees, wildlife roaming free, and perfectly straight rows of grape vines peeking at every turn.  This is the Santa Ynez Valley that I have been fortunate to frequent over the last 20 years and have seen grow and mature as a wine destination.

The Santa Ynez Valley stole my heart years ago, with its natural beauty, small town charm, welcoming hospitality, and great wine and food.  So, it seems fitting that it should be our first travel blog. 

While I could speak endlessly about each tasting room, winery, restaurant, and activity in the area, I decided to focus narrowly on what I would consider a “perfect day”.  Trust me, this was not an easy task and I was conflicted (and remain conflicted) even when clicking the “publish” button.  But I can safely say that none of the recommendations below will steer you wrong.

Before we get into it, a little about the grapes that put SYV on the map.  The concept of microclimates is an understatement for this region which stretches from the cooler, foggier coastal hills (known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs) to the Eastern sun-drenched plains (where Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc reign supreme).  Overall, the SYV has some AMAZING wines and pretty much any varietal can find a home in this spectrum.  If I had to pick personal favorites, vines in Ballard Canyon produce top-notch Syrah.  Pinots from Santa Rita Hills (think black cherry and cola flavors) and Santa Maria Valley (think strawberry and clove flavors) tend to be best.  Los Olivos (the growing region, not the town!), is great for Sauvignon Blanc and the vines from Happy Canyon can produce knock-out Cabernet Sauvignon and other Rhône varietals.

Okay, enough on background, let’s start our perfect day!

1. When to Go

One of the most important parts in planning a trip to Santa Ynez Valley is figuring out when to go.  As with any popular destination, the more people off work, the busier it will become.  Therefore, I do my best to avoid major travel holidays and weekends.  My favorite day is Monday or Thursday, since some important tasting rooms and wineries are closed mid-week.  If you go on these days you’re sure to get an experience that will keep you going back – stress free roads, tasting rooms and wineries without party-centric groups, easy parking, minimal wait at restaurants, and a tasting room staff that has the time to carry on a great conversation about the region and their wines.  You may even find the winery owners pouring for you!

Seasons don’t really matter (it’s Southern California!), but I try to avoid the summer months (it can get blazing hot and the crowds grow exponentially).  Best months are March to May and September to November, when the weather is generally perfect and you get the benefit of Spring flowers or Fall colors.  

2. Be the Early Worm

You (and your designated driver!) should plan to arrive by 10:30 a.m.  Tasting rooms open around 11:00 a.m. and you’re going to have a full day.  Your first destination is going to be Los Olivos – a perfectly preserved square from the heydays of the stage line and Pacific Coast Railway.  Many of the buildings date back over a century and are now home to dozens of tasting rooms and other great places to eat, shop, and sleep.  Regardless of what your GPS tells you, make sure to take Highway 154 to Los Olivos; you will thank me for it.  The drive is spectacular with many scenic spots to stop along the way.  But watch your speed, the Highway Patrol love it just as much!

Once you arrive in Los Olivos, if you need a coffee or snack to unwind, stop by the Corner House Café.  They have a great outdoor patio where you can sip away, smell the fresh air, and listen to the birds greet the day.  They also have a nice private bathroom for customers (which can be hard to come by in Los Olivos while tasting).  After a coffee, it’s time to get to business – the wine.  If you’re a lover of Syrah like me, my two “must visit” tasting rooms are Tensley and Barbieri & Kempe Wines.  If Syrah isn’t your thing, don’t worry, Los Olivos has something for everyone.  Want to focus on organic/natural wines, try Stolpman, Solminer, or Coquelicot.  Not sure what organic or natural wine means, check out our blog here.  If you want to see who helped put the Valley on the wine map, take a stroll to Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills.  If you’re focus is Pinot Noir, there is a great shop that caters to your palate, Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop, and if sparkling wine is a priority, they have you covered at The Bubble Shack.  Here’s a fuller list of tasting room locations and other offers. 

3. Picnic on The Foxen Trail

After you’ve visited a couple tasting rooms, it’s time to pick up lunch for a picnic.  (It’s easy to blow the whole day in Los Olivos, so be careful!)  A great “to go” place is Panino, which makes amazing sandwiches and salads and is located next door to Tensley.  If you need a cheese plate to accompany your meal, make sure to pick one up at Barbieri & Kempe Wines when you’re there.  With food in tow, it’s now time to venture out to the vineyards.  There are a number of directions you can go (and here’s a map to help with that), but my favorite is the Foxen Canyon Trail.  It’s a gorgeous drive and has some great stops along the way.  First stop is Zaca Mesa. It was the third winery to be established in all of Santa Barbara County and was one of the trailblazers when it came to Syrah.  It’s a great place to picnic as you taste their very yummy line up (the Black Bear Block is not to be missed and comes from the oldest Syrah block on the Central Coast).  

After that, it’s off to visit the roads namesake, Foxen Vineyards for some delicious Pinot Noirs.  Foxen has two tasting rooms on the property which offer different wines so check ahead to see which one fits your palate. The Shack, now called “7200”, focuses on Bordeaux and Italian-style wines and their more traditional Burgundy and Rhône-style wines are showcased at their new location just up the road.  After Foxen, you can finish off the Trail with some bubbly at Riverbench. It’s a cozy white farmhouse just down from Foxen.  After a long day of tasting, it’s a great place to sit out on their picnic benches, relax, unwind, and reminisce about the day.  And don’t miss their Sparkling Rosé! 

4. All Roads Lead to SY Kitchen

By now you’ve probably worked up a healthy appetite.  Time to head back to town but instead of Los Olivos, we’re going about ten minutes further South on Highway 154 to Santa Ynez.  And a helpful hint, make sure to map out your way back before reaching Riverbench.  It’s a total dead zone for most mobile carriers.

Get ready for dinner at one of the best restaurants in the Valley, SY Kitchen, which offers fresh, modern Italian dishes in an Italian-inspired California farmhouse.  If you’re lucky, you’ll bump into local winemakers and winery owners mingling and eating.  Advanced reservations are highly recommended.  If you end up making it back to Santa Ynez early, you can always take a stroll through its downtown (which is just as charming as Los Olivos).  Or, if you want to pick up some fresh local produce or hand-crafted products by local growers and artisans, you can make a pitstop at the Los Olivos Grocery, which you’ll pass on your way to Santa Ynez.  And, yes, they carry a large selection of local wines if you haven’t grabbed enough.

5. Time to Bid Farewell (Or Not)

After dinner, it’s time to bid farewell to the Valley.  That is, unless you decide to extend your stay and seek out a hotel for the night.  Trust me, it happens.  For those who just can’t get enough, a few more suggestions below:

  • Lompoc.  If you want to try really yummy wine but don’t care about being immersed in nature, head over to the Lompoc “Wine Ghetto”. It’s an industrial area with tasting rooms from a bunch of creative wineries, some of which include:
    • Kita (Savignon Blanc)
    • JCR (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay)
  • On your way to/from Lompoc, you could stop off in Buellton at Ken Brown (a master at Pinot Noir) or Star Lane Vineyards (Pinot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon). A good place to eat in Buellton is Industrial Eats.
  • Catalina Island?  If you want to try something “different” you can stop off in Solvang at Rusack vineyards, which is also a great place to picnic underneath their huge oak trees.  While Rusack produces some yummy wines generally, little known fact that they have a vineyard on Catalina Island (thanks to the owner, a Wrigley) that produces highly-rated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Something very special to try.  Given the unique island climate and terrior, you won’t find anything like it on the mainland.
  • Award Winning Tasting Room?  If you’re looking to kick up your tasting room experience a notch, you must visit Presqu’ile (pronounced press-KEEL) in Santa Maria.  Not only has it been anointed one of the 10 best tasting rooms in the country by USA Today and one of the 10 most beautiful wineries in California by Condé Naste Traveler, but they also have some great wines. 
  • What about the designated driver (and kids)?  Santa Ynez Valley is not just about the wine.  It’s rich in history and culture and other fun activities that do not involve fermented grapes.  I know, hard to believe, but true!  Here are a few activities if you need a time out from drinking and eating:

6. Enjoy!

We hope these tips prove useful for your next trip to the Valley.  The Valley has so much to offer and these recommendations are barely scratching the surface.  Explore and enjoy and if anyone asks you how you heard about them, feel free to tell them the Wine Bounty Team sent you.  Happy Hunting!

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