I’m about to share with you one of my most sacred and beloved vacation spots. A place so precious, one can only deem it to be the promised land, my own personal mecca, my pot of proverbial gold at the end of my drunken rainbow…. Santa Ynez Valley, California.
Tucked away on the outskirts of Santa Barbara just a couple of hours away from Los Angeles lies the quintessential stomping ground for a wine-lovin’ sun-seekin’ glutton like me. Santa Ynez Valley is made up of several little towns full of kitschy shops and adorable restaurants, including Solvang, California’s own little Denmark, and Buellton, home of the famous Hitching Post restaurant where Miles from the movie “Sideways” drowns his sorrows. And in between these towns lies miles of country road, speckled with fabulous wineries and rolling hills of grapevines, as far as the eye can see. It’s stunningly beautiful, warm and sunny almost all year round, and just the perfect place to fall off the wagon.
Since discovering Santa Ynez Valley a few years ago, we’ve traveled there countless times to spend the holidays, celebrate anniversaries, reward hard work, or basically whenever our wine cabinet starts to look a little empty, which is fairly (weekly) often. So at this point, I feel like we know it well enough to share the ins and outs with you on how to do it up in the SYV with style. Especially since we just got back from the most spectacular trip up there ever, and not just because it was, once again, my 21st birthday. Granted, this trip was more about the wine than the food, but this is a blog about indulgence first and foremost, and it doesn’t get more indulgent than this. Brace your livers, people! Here’s what happened, from what I can remember:
The usual suspects (my best friends Becky “B-Rex” Allen and Jen “Never Ready on Time” Ready who so graciously flew down for the event from Vancouver, lovely Kerry who taught us all that godforsaken Timpano recipe, and Matty, who you know by now) and I hit the road around 10AM and made it to stop #1 by noon: Cold Spring Tavern. Tucked away on Stagecoach Road about a half hour before Solvang, Cold Spring Tavern is home to the best bbq tri-tip sandwich known to man– or at least known to Cat Cora, who picked that very sandwich as her favorite in the “Meat Fest” episode on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate. Unfortunately, that delectable sandwich is only served on Sundays, but the rest of the menu’s offerings are just as good. Try the tender french dip sandwich with apple horseradish or the pulled pork sandwich, saucy and delicious and hefty enough to keep you going through a day of wine tasting.
After a quick stop to raid the grocery store for supplies (go to El Rancho Market in Solvang), we headed to our lovely home way from home to rendevous with the rest of our party, writer extraordinaire Martin Gero and Happy Opu contributor/kitchen goddess Celina Dean. There are lots of cute and affordable and not-so-affordable hotels in town, including my favorites, the glamorous and modern Hotel Corque and the charming Wine Valley Inn, both situated smack-dab in the middle of town and in walkable distance to lots of great restaurants and tasting rooms (the Wandering Dog Wine Bar and Taste of the Valleys are our faves). But if you’re going to stay more than a couple of nights, your best bet is to rent a house. Santa Ynez Vacation Rentals is by far the best website to use, with several options to choose from all depending on the size of house you’re looking for, and that way you can cook your own meals and save a bit of coin– to be spent on cases of wine, naturally. We chose the Goodgame Ranch, which was just big enough to house all of us idiots, and spectacularly beautiful with a big pool, jacuzzi, lush green lawn for lounging/passing out, and a sweet little kitchen to put Celina to work in. But time was a-wastin’, so we headed out to the 3 B’s to make the most of the rest of the afternoon and get some wine down our gullets.
(*Little tidbit of info for all you wine tasting novices out there: To not look like a doofus when you’re tasting wine, just hold the glass by its stem rather than cupping it, which will warm the wine from the temperature of your hand. Take a long deep sniff, then sip and swish it around in your mouth so it gets a chance to hit all of your lucky little taste buds. Contrary to popular belief, you CAN swallow the wine, and no one’ll look down on you for it, trust me. If you don’t like it, just pour it out in one of the buckets provided and move on to the next. It isn’t rocket science, and it shouldn’t be treated as such, either. For the love of Jimmy Choo, enjoy yourself!)
The 3 B’s consist of Brander, Beckman, and Bridlewood wineries, all within two minutes of each other on the east side of the highway just outside of Los Olivos. We started off at Brander, a quaint and usually pretty quiet little tasting room with some very lovely wines to try and lots of friendly faces doing the pouring. Our favorites across the board were the Au Naturel Sauvignon Blanc, and the Uno Mas, a grenache blanc and sauvignon blanc blend perfect for sipping poolside while some good-lookin’ poolboy/girl puts together a cheese plate for you.
Next, we went to Bridlewood, one of the most gorgeous wineries in the entire valley, if you ask me. The staff are also incredibly friendly, super outgoing, and really passionate about the wine here. And I don’t blame them, because Bridlewood isn’t just all about looks– their wines are beautifully made, expertly crafted, affordable, and plain ol’ delicious. They do some sick blends here too, including my all-time favorite, the Arabesque: a blend of 7 different varietals, oh-so-luscious and light as a feather. By the second wine in, we were swooning and hugging each other and shaking our fists at the heavens for bestowing us with such generous gifts… We may have been a little buzzed. We left with three cases of that magic juice (including the ’07 Syrah Estate, the ’08 Grenache, the ’08 Pinot Noir at only $20 a bottle, and the ’09 Viognier late harvest, all utterly delicious) and headed to Beckman to finish off the afternoon. Beckman’s a cute little place specializing in Rhone varietals like grenache, syrah, and marsanne, but honestly, that love fest at Bridlewood was kinda hard to top. We headed back to Goodgame headquarters to fire up the BBQ and crack open some of that delicious booty.
We awoke to a stellar sunny day and a Celina Dean gruyere, sauteed leek and mushroom quiche (yeah yeah, I’ll get the recipe, relax), then buzzed out to Los Olivos Grocery to pick up some sandwiches from their gourmet deli for the road– try the turkey brie and cranberry. We had rented a limo through Los Olivos Limousine Service, which was a steal at a measly $60 an hour, to drive us around to our favorite wineries over the course of 5 grape-soaked hours, and our limo driver John was right on time to pick us up at 11Am. Since John’s a psychic or something, the limo was already stocked with chilled champagne and fresh-squeezed orange juice, so we sipped on mimosas while gazing out at the countryside as we headed to our first stop. Now, this first winery isn’t known to the general visiting public, and it’s not going to be on any old map of the valley, either. The only reason we know about it is because the usual suspects (that being B-Rex and Never Ready and I) were eating dinner at Root 246 at the Hotel Corque one night, and Matty, with his bevy of ladies, happened to catch owner Sandra’s eye. After questioning him on whether he was a pimp or a polygamist, she graciously invited all of us to her winery for a tasting the next day. They’re appointment-only, so give them a call and let them know you’re coming, and you won’t be sorry. It’s called Demetria Estate, and it’s bloody glorious.
Situated in Foxen Canyon amongst steep vine-riddled hills, Demetria’s main tasting area is a sunlit courtyard flanked by the main house and tasting room/barrel room. It is THE perfect place to kick back, relax, have a picnic, propose to your girlfriend, bask in your greatest accomplishments, figure out the meaning of life, and get pickled. I’ve never met a Demetria wine I didn’t like, and judging by the happy faces that day, neither had anyone else. We sipped on the beautiful Cuvee Papou, a blend of grenache blanc, marsanne, viognier, and roussanne, then moved on to an insanely smooth Pinot Noir, and the Cuvee Constantine, another ridiculously delicious blend, and, and and…. Suffice to say, the Visa was getting mighty violated, and we hadn’t even made it to stop #2.
Next up was good old Zaca Mesa Winery, a place on Foxen Canyon Road that had seduced me long ago.. and not just cuz the first time we went, someone was wearing a Browncoat t-shirt in the tasting room (can’t stop the signal, bitches!). Zaca Mesa’s one of the oldest wineries in the valley, and the very first to plant syrah in the region, and man, do they know what they’re doing with those big juicy reds. Even their whites are huge, buttery Roussanne best served at room temp (according to the tasting room afficionados), and a gorgeous Viognier that’ll take your head off– at only $20 a bottle! Beheading at a bargain!! They often have live music in the courtyard where you can chill out with your picnic and sip the day away. Grand.
Stop #3 was John the limo driver’s suggestion, a winery I’d never even heard of called Andrew Murray Vineyards. Just off Zaca Canyon Road lies this fabulous little winery, its unassuming tasting “room” surrounded by huge stainless steel barrels with a large deck for hanging out and relaxing. They’re unpretentious here with lots of passion for what they do, and the stuff they were pouring was fantastic: a tart and pretty pink blend of grenache and syrah, a light and smooth red blend called Esperance, and several big syrahs, one called Tous Les Jours for only $16! Tous Les Jours indeed!
Stop #4 was lovely Firestone, another esthetically gorgeous winery with a super fun tasting room. Now, don’t go thinking gorgeous Andrew Firestone aka The Bachelor’s going to be hanging out and pouring your wines (wait– I was the only one that thought that? Okay fine.), but it did used to be owned by his family before being sold off to wine wizard Bill Foley. The tasting room’s nice and lively, especially later in the day, and it’s got a great, not-too-serious but serious-enough-for-the-wines-to-be-great vibe. We picked up a refreshing Gewurztraminer ($14 a bottle!!), a crisp and passionfruit-y Sauvignon Blanc (a bargain at $15), and a ruby rich Merlot (only $20 for cryin’ out loud) before high-tailing it to Stop #5 before the clock ran out.
Blackjack Ranch is one of the first wineries I ever became a wine club member of, and I never miss a visit to their tasting room when I’m up in wine country. Self-taught winemaker Roger Wisted can often be seen traipsing his grounds with a delightfully mussed head of wild blonde hair, overall-clad and deep in disgruntled thought like a mad country bumpkin scientist. And when it comes to his Harmonie blends, he’s flippin’ Einstein. Their tasting isn’t for the faint of heart with ten (!!) wines to sample, including an awesome Wilkening Chardonnay that tastes kinda like movie theater buttery popcorn if popcorn were made of booze, some stunning Pinot Noirs, a big fat Double Down Syrah, and a few of those transcendent Harmonie blends. My very favorite, which they don’t pour on the tasting sheet, is the ’05 Harmonie, a perfect Bordeaux blend that tastes like the nectar of the gods. If you’re real nice, they may pour some for you to taste on the sly. But be careful, because you’re going to fall in love, and this is one love affair that’s gonna break the bank at $90 a bottle. But life sure is short, isn’t it?
Little tip! Just down the road from Blackjack Ranch is a mini horse farm called Quicksilver Ranch, and it’s worth a stop at some point just to watch them frolicking around in their field like the cute little mutants they are. You can even buy your own for a mere $1500. I almost did once, when we were staying at Paul McGillion’s house in LA a couple of years ago, just so I could put it in his bedroom and see the expression on his face when he came home. I was gonna call it Dr. Beckett.
After all that madness, we needed something to soak up all that grape juice, so we headed to Brothers Restaurant for some chow. Brothers is an old-fashioned place that’s been in the valley for generations, and I’d been wanting to try it for awhile. Unfortunately, it was a wee bit too old fashioned… as in dated. As in those strange little fork marks in the mashed potatoes that are meant to look fancy. But the service was great, and it did the job. Try Trattoria Grappolo instead, which has a better atmosphere and much better food.
For our last day, we decided to do a tasting room hop in Los Olivos. Los Olivos is an adorable little town comprised of not much more than a couple of restaurants (including a great sandwich shop called Panino, which almost always has a huge line), a little market, and a whole slew of tasting rooms, all lined up in a row. After a quick stop at Roblar Winery on the way (overpriced and a little stuffy), we started our tasting room hop. Our first stop was Carhartt, housed in a tiny little shack with a back area outside with seating. Winemakers Mike and Brooke Carhartt were there in person, and boy are they ever nice! Even better? The wine’s fabulous and nicely priced, fresh Grenache Blanc, a lovely “Chase The Blues Away” Rose, and a sweet and luscious Sangiovese, all under $30. I kinda fell in love, guys.
Next, we zipped across the street to Qupe, a solid and classy little tasting room with one of the best Roussannes I’ve ever had. It’s worth a visit just for that alone, but their Syrahs are pretty kick-ass, too. Winemaker Bob Lindquist used to work for Zaca Mesa, so it’s no surprise I love almost everything Qupe pours. It’s a little pricey, but it’s worth a taste for sure.
Onward! Our third (fourth? I dunno, who can keep track anymore) stop was Consilience, a very friendly little spot with lots of great, affordable wines. Try the Cuvee Mambo, named after their late tasting room mascot Mambo the labrador. There’s even a bonus sister tasting room next door called Tre Anelli specializing in Italian and Spanish varietals, like Dolcetto and Lagrein, which are worth trying, too.
We trucked on to Coquelicot (pronounced ko-klee-ko, not “caw-cue-lick-cot” or “kookaroo” or “caka-licky” or any of the other ways us inebriates were pronouncing it) where they give you two different tasting options to choose from: “Adventurous”, showcasing a fun Riesling and a full-bodied Syrah, or “Sophisticated”, which included a really unique Sangiovese rose and their sleeper Syrah called the Sixer. The room has that Firestone vibe where no one takes themselves too seriously, and thank heck for that, because some of us were a little past being composed at this point. (see below)
We wrapped up the day at Epiphany Cellars, yet another place that twisted my rubber arm into becoming a wine club member long ago. And once you’re a member (all that means is they give you a good discount on purchases and ship glorious wines to you a few times a year, which sort of makes you want to make out with your mailman), they treat you like family. They do really delicious Grenache, some white Rhone blends, and a great red called the Revelation, which is a grenache, syrah, and petite sirah blend, rich and super intense– the Bobby DeNiro of wines, you might say.
We called a cab.
We headed off to my favorite restaurant in the valley for a farewell dinner: Root 246. Situated in the Hotel Corque in the middle of Solvang, Root 246 is a spectacular place right up there with some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles. It’s sophisticated and elegant without being pretentious (translation: cowboy boots allowed), and a real treat at the end of a long, arduous day of tasting. Be sure to book a reservation like we did to sit in the dining room, or grab a seat at the bar, where the menu’s basically the same. The only exception being my favorite dish at the restaurant, which is only featured on the bar menu, but if you’re in the know (which you are now, silly), ask for it in the dining room and they’ll be happy to serve it to you. It’s a burger, but it ain’t no simple burger: it’s a stupidly good ground steak burger served on a parmesan bun with in-house made peach mustard. It’s. So. Effing. Amazing. In fact, I think it’s a top contender on my top ten favorite burgers on planet earth. Maybe cuz I’m buzzed every time I have it, but whatever. Order the burger. We also got a fabulous blue cheese souffle with watercress and roasted peanuts, a succulent “shake and bake” chicken served over whipped creme fraiche potatoes and apples, and a chili-rubbed steak with potato-wrapped prawns. I’m telling you, Root 246 is where it’s at. After dinner and a couple celebratory/unnecessary cocktails in the lounge (also known as the TSN turning point, because that lounge is singularly responsible for 7 hangovers), we called our trusty cab to take us home. Quick shout out to 805 Taxi, who so graciously returned our camera to us in the mail, which Matt the Boob left on the front seat of their car. Call them please and give them your business!
So there you have it. A vacation of epic proportions. A wine-soaked, grape-fueled abundance of pleasures. Now, get online and start booking that trip of yours, so you can see what I’m talking about! Go, NOW!