A Santa Ynez Valley wine experience over a weekend or longer vacation getaway is all the more memorable with a custom curated tasting tour.
Ever since the movie comedy “Sideways” came out in 2004, wine lovers have increasingly flocked to Buellton, Solvang and smaller California towns just north of Santa Barbara for weekend getaways and longer vacations. Planning your visit to make the most of what this region has to offer will result in a most enjoyable Santa Ynez Valley wine experience.
Quick Links to your Santa Ynez Valley wine experience:
If you are ready to plan, check out our First Timers Guide to Solvang.
Solvang is a fun quaint Danish village founded in 1911. A stay within the village will put you within blocks of wine tasting and retail shops, many restaurants and some of the most incredible Danish bakeries. From our regular walks through the village we’ve seen that most hotels have “No Vacancy” signs every weekend, so book early or come during the week. Special free parking lots to accommodate RVs.
Buellton is an easy access small town just off US Highway 101 with a 5-minute drive to Solvang. Not as walkable as Solvang or Los Olivos but plenty of restaurants and shopping. If you find, Solvang is full, Buellton is a convenient place to stay.
Los Olivos is the smallest of these small towns offering a wonderful selection of wine tastings, restaurants and shops. Vintage and well conserved, Los Olivos is convenient and walkable having everything within a few blocks. There is really only one hotel in Los Olivos, the highly rated Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. But they have more than their share of vacation rental properties for larger groups of 6 or more.
The Santa Ynez Valley in the central California coast just north of Santa Barbara is an open secret among wine lovers. With a tradition in the region dating back 200 years to the early California Mission era, 20th century landowners turned viticultural pioneers expanded vineyards and wineries into large operations and smaller boutique wineries alike.
In the early 1980s, the Santa Ynez Valley was formally recognized as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). This designation was later refined into additional AVA districts which pay tribute to the varying ecosystems in the valley, which has a geographically unique transverse (or “sideways”) topography ranging eastward from the Pacific Ocean. It’s the longest valley of its kind on the entire Pacific Coast from Alaska to Chile.
The western portion of the valley, closest to the ocean, is therefore perfect for cooler climate wines such as chardonnays and pinot noir. Further inland as the valley warms up, Bordeaux and Rhone varieties thrive. Winemaking in the Santa Ynez Valley is also affected by the range of soils in the AVA: dry and sandy or loamy foothills with shale mixed in. The sub-AVAs – Santa Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos, and Happy Canyon – are unique in their characteristics and their product.
What to Expect Out of a Santa Ynez Valley Wine Experience
Expect that you can tailor your experience however you’d like it to be! The sheer breadth of Santa Ynez Valley’s more than 77,000 acres and 60-some varieties provide novice and experienced oenophile alike with multiple opportunities. Discovering something new in a decidedly non-self-important atmosphere with down to earth people who truly love introducing and sharing their wine with good food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
While it’s entirely possible to do self-guided walking tours in the tasting rooms peppering the lovely little towns of the Santa Ynez Valley, we recommend a custom tour with knowledgeable drivers to guide you. We worked with Savoir Faire Wine Tours, who curated a custom tour to several different wineries and treated us to a gourmet picnic lunch. Here’s where we stopped and what we learned:
Touring the Wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley
Bill and Donn from Savoir Faire picked us up at 10am on the dot to begin our tour. Having described ourselves as “knowing that we don’t know much” about wines (as opposed to “not knowing what we don’t know”), Bill and Donn rightfully chose our first stop: a conversation (and tasting, of course!) with the owners of the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Club.
Wine Club owners Jen and Gabe met on their kids’ soccer field and discovered their mutual interest in promoting limited distribution wines from small, artisanal local wineries. Shipments to club members are made 4 times per year in 3 or 6 bottle increments. Additionally, the SYV Wine Club offers private allocations, exclusive events and access to winemaker dinners, exclusive tours and vineyard parties.
Sipping the delicious selections from the Wine Club, we gazed over Giff’s vineyard, the oldest in the valley, planted by Pasadena cattle ranchers in the 1960s and 70s. In conversation, our hosts told how the Santa Ynez Valley wine scene is undergoing a dynamic transition.
Legacy winemakers from the 1970s and 80s such as Fess Parker (yes, the actor, who was smart enough to buy up land here decades ago), Louis Lucas (who oversaw the original Kendall Jackson plantings in California), and Fred Brander (a chemist whose Swedish family came to Los Olivos by way of Argentina, see below) are bringing on a new generation of winemakers. As well, artisanal and boutique operations are adding to the local scope.
This new breed of winemakers often starts out as “cellar rats,” growing up in and around vineyards, planting and harvesting the vines, and adjusting product chemistry under tutelage of more experienced winemakers. As the old guard retires, the passionate new vanguard is in place to innovate and carry on established traditions. This bit of background information would prove to ground the rest of our day’s experience and serve as a basis of comparison.
Next up was Mosby Winery, outside Buellton. Mosby’s 45 acres of vines encompass several micro-climates on both sides of the Santa Ynez River, part of the historic de la Vega land grant. Focusing on the unique conditions here since 1980, Bill Mosby plants Italian grapes to produce fruit and grappa-style brandy, whites including pinot grigio and muscat, and fruity, spicy reds such as sangiovese, sagrantino, and dolcetto. “These are the wines of friends and family,” explains Bill, who believes we should “taste the wine, not the barrel.” Italian artist Robert Scherer created a series of whimsical labels with an element of mystery which perfectly complements each of the Mosby wines.
The Provencal-French and Tuscan-style ambiance at Sunstone Vineyards, Winery and Villa is comprised of courtyards, picnic grounds, bocce court, and barrel-aging caves. The restored private residence is built from French limestone with reclaimed 19th century beams and roof tiles from one of Queen Victoria’s lavender factories. This is an ideal setting for small group getaways with room to sleep ten guests. Groups up to 80 can be pampered by a private chef and personal concierge.
Sunstone was one of the first organic vineyards in Santa Barbara County, founded in 1989 on a 52-acre former ranch. As a destination winery, Sunstone routinely makes “best lists,” due to its atmospheric courtyards, European inspired grounds, and its 5,000 sq ft of aging caves.
Sunstone specializes in world-class Bordeaux and Rhone style wines, grown from estate grapes and other organic vineyards. Don’t miss Sunstone’s award winning Viognier, “Eros” Bordeaux style blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
Blair Pence became obsessed with the wines of Burgundy, and wanted them to inspire New World organic product. First planted in 2004, Pence vines encounter stressful conditions emanating from the Pacific Ocean on 37 organic acres within a 200 acre working ranch. Their annual output ranges from 4000 – 5000 cases of complex product which is comprised of wild yeasts and various stem inclusions. The aging is extended over periods ranging from 9 months to 2 years in custom French barrels and casks.
Pence branding plays on their name, with circular motifs and words drawn from Revolutionary era coins. The ranch is an organic self-sustaining community for owners and employees raising Angus cattle, poultry, seasonal grains, and olive products. The ranch also offers equestrian facilities, and showcases the restored original ranch homestead built in 1907.
Dierberg Star Lane offers a wine flight for $20 to showcase the diversity of three vineyards which produce cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and syrah. Located on the site of the Archdiocese of Monterey’s Rancho Canada de los Pinos, the property figured prominently in the Mexican-American war as the basis of General John C. Fremont’s surprise capture of Santa Barbara. Later, the ranch became famous for raising award winning horses and ponies, with many visitors from Hollywood, including Roy Rogers, who purchased “Trigger” from Star Lane.
The vineyard’s microclimates are warm and at variable elevations, perfect for its 200 acres of Bordelaise vines. We enjoyed a tasting flight while lunching on a variety of unique appetizers and cheese pairings prepared by our Savoir Faire host, Donn, who is a talented chef.
Brander – With Swedish roots by way of Argentina, the Brander family planted their first vines in 1975, winning gold for their first Sauvignon Blanc harvest two years, later. Construction of the winery, which is built in an old world chateau style, began in 1979.
Fred Brander is known as California’s “King of Sauvignon Blanc.” Brander’s philosophy encompasses sustainable, organic and biodynamic principles, working to preserve the unique terroir in Los Olivos by recognizing that vineyard balance and health begins and ends with the ecosystem. Grain and legume cover crops between the vines allow nutrients to flourish, and grape skins and seeds are returned after pressing. Individual lots of grapes are kept separated in order to maximize blending options prior to aging.
After our visit, we were pleased to note that Fred Brander will be the Vintner of the Year honoree of the Santa Barbara Wine Auction in February of 2018. The award acknowledges his four decades of work promoting Santa Barbara County wine growing, and spearheading the approval of the Los Olivos District AVA, new in 2016.
Summary of our Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tour
Our tour with Savoir Faire gave us several advantages: the opportunity to be educated in a friendly, non-intimidating way about wines and winemaking, a customized itinerary designed to showcase the breadth and variety of wine experiences available in the Santa Ynez Valley, generous tastings of delicious wines of all kinds, and a lovely way to enjoy and share with Bill and Donn, who are truly passionate about this unique, and a bit under the radar, lifestyle and destination.
Tips and Practicalities
The Santa Ynez Valley is located just north of Santa Barbara, about 2.5 hours from the Los Angeles metro area, and about 4.5 hours from the San Francisco metro area by car.
Paula’s Pancake House in Solvang is open for lunch and breakfast. Especially on weekends there can be a long line. With outdoor seating, it’s worth wait.
Due to an Internet access issue where we were staying, we happened into Solvang’s Mortensen’s Danish Bakery for access. With a wide array of bakery goods, we stayed long after our online work was done to sample more. Oh, and the wifi was very fast.
Looking for a more traditional bar and grill, we were happy to discover the Solvang Brewing Company. The craft brews were marvelous and so were the burgers and sandwiches.
Andersen’s is famously known for their pea soup. Just off US Highway 101 in Buellton it is a must stop for many.
Betsy received a gift certificate to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Solvang for her birthday. Filled with an incredible collection of chocolate delights, we went for the ice cream. The “small” ice cream cones were monstrously large. Easily worth the $6. Betsy had a root beer float that she repeated with our second visit.
The Mandarin Touch in Solvang serves a complete menu of Asian food with a full service bar. One of the very few places open late in Solvang.
One early evening we went to happy hour at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez. A wonderful “dive” bar but no food during our visit. Next door is Trattoria Grappolo, an Italian restaurant with incredible pizza and gourmet dishes. We ordered one of their pies, which they delivered to us a few minutes later in the saloon. Exceptional.
Oddly enough, most of the traditional restaurants in Buellton don’t open until dinnertime. That was lucky for us as we discovered Figueroa Mountain Brewing. Great burgers, sandwiches and award winning micro brews. You’ll want to use your phone map program to find it as it is off the beaten path.
When friends visited us recently and plans were made for a traditional dinnertime supper, the Hitching Post steakhouse in Buellton was a memorable choice. Our table was unanimous that we each had some of the best beef we’ve ever had. The hearty portions had us bringing the leftovers home for another great meal. Reservations recommended.
Two blocks from our temporary home in Ballard is the Ballard Inn and Gathering Table Restaurant. Fine dining alfresco is provided by chef and owner Budi Kazali at his quaint bed and made-to-order breakfast. Open to the public for dinner, the parking area starts to fill around 5:30 every night. Centrally located between Los Olivos, Solvang and Santa Ynez in the sleepy little town of Ballard. Reservations for dinner or accommodation recommended.
Disclosure: We were the guests of Savoir Faire Wine Tours for this special experience. This post contains affiliate links, from which we may receive a commission which will not affect the price you pay if you use them to make a purchase.
Check out our colleague, Noel Morata’s write-up of our shared experience here: Santa Barbara County Wine Tour