By Elizabeth Cutright
Wine Tasting In The Santa Ynez Valley
So you’re ready to leave the city limits and travel up highway 154 (now Chumash Highway, but still called San Marcos Pass by locals). There are plenty of adventure companies and transportation providers who have ready made wine tasting adventures available, so if you’d like to pause the brain activity and just enjoy some snacks and some ice cold Chardonnay – and money is not your first concern – then by all means contact one of our many efficient and experienced tour companies. Their guides know just where to take you, and in many cases these tour companies have special partnerships with individual wineries, allowing you to partake in special tastings and other opportunities not available to the average tourist. If you decide to sign up for a wine tour, then you can expect to have lunch provided for you and, in most cases, you will probably visit about four to five wineries along one of the main wine tasting arteries that branch off from the 154.
If you’d rather go it alone, then take a deep breath: Wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley can be overwhelming – thanks in part to all the superb wines produced by the region – but with a little information and the right plan, an independent and custom-made wine tour can be a beautiful thing.
The first thing you should know about the Santa Ynez Valley is that Highway 101 cuts a swathe right down the center of this fertile region. To the west there’s Lompoc, Vandenberg Air Force Base and some, but slightly more obscure, tasting rooms. To the east lies Buelton, Solvang and the rural hamlets of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos and Ballard. This region east of 101 was the setting of the film Sideways and it’s inhabited by many popular, and widely recognized, wineries. When planning out your wine tasting travels, the first decision should be which side of the freeway you’d like to explore.While hitting both the east and west sides of the valley in one day is doable, it’s not advisable; you’ll be doing a lot of driving as it is, and going from side of the freeway to the other could add an extra hour to your travel time.
If you decide to travel west towards Lompoc, take the California 1 ramp to Lompoc/Vandenberg Air Force Base, turn left onto CA-1 and then turn off on Highway 246. You'll have several wineries to chose from, all conveniently located just off the main road. The wineries on this side of the valley are not as well known but still top the list of local favorites. Both white and reds are represented, including some smooth and seductive Syrahs, cheery Sauvignon Blancs, and several organic varietals. There aren’t a lot of food options in this neck of the woods, so your best bet is a picnic – a good choice since most of the wineries have beautiful grounds well designed for a brief snack or an afternoon meal.
If instead you choose to head eastward towards the Santa Ynez hills, you’ve got a wide range of choices. You can decide to try a self-contained tasting session in either Solvang or Los Olivos – two picturesque towns full of friendly tasting rooms, restaurants and local shops. The tasting rooms in Los Olivos have expanded exponentially over the last several years, and you’d be hard pressed to hit them all in one day. While Solvang’s wine shops are also expanding, one day on the quaint, Dutch-inspired street should be enough to whet your appetite.
Venturing out onto the winding roads that meander through the Santa Ynez valley requires some planning and some prioritizing. Several wineries sit right off the 154, and even more dot both Alamo Pintado and Foxen Canyon road. Most wine tours pick one road and stick with it, and there’s no shame in following that example. Of course, you should be warned – Foxen Canyon Road is, itself, split by the 154, with and several very good wineries sit on either side of this divide. In addition, Foxen Canyon road travels up into the Santa Maria Valley, home to many great wines and wineries – but a trip in this direction will take at least 45-60 minutes once you turn off the 154 and will pretty much become a day trip in and of itself, due to the distance between the tasting rooms themselves as well as the length of the drive north from the 154. Alamo Pintado is not as long, or as densely populated, as Foxen Canyon, but there are some good wineries – and even a lavender farm and self-picking apple orchard – off the main drag, making Alamo Pintado a destination unto itself.
In addition to planning your wine tasting tour based on location – the easiest option by far – you can also decide to taste just one varietal or type. For example, while there are plenty of great Chardonnays coming out of the Santa Ynez valley, many of the local vineyards have been producing some superior vintages based on French and Italian grapes, including Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Same goes for the reds – there are plenty of tasty Pinot Noirs to be sure, but why not compare Syrahs to Syrahs, Pinot Noirs to Pinot Noirs or Rhone Blends. If one varietal is not enough, perhaps you can decide to taste only reds or whites – while this option allows you to get the a feel for multitude of wines produced in the region, at the same time you will experience enough similarities between the different wineries to allow you to make some studied and insightful comparisons.
The Santa Ynez Valley Wine Plan - Map
If you have a couple of hours: Pick one winery and stick to it – just the drive back and forth to the location will take up a significant amount of time (depending on your starting point between 15-20 minutes from Solvang up to 45 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, one way). If you’ve only got a few hours to spare, then the best solution is to head out to one location and relax enough to enjoy a whole tasting menu (generally between 6 to ten wines) and even decide whether or not to purchase a bottle or joint a wine club.
If you have an afternoon: The best bet for an afternoon of wine tasting is to pick Solvang or Los Olivos and tramp along your own urban wine trail. Both locations have plenty of tasting rooms and lots of options for food and other distractions. Just a helpful warning – there are many, many tasting rooms in Los Olivos, so you may want to pick a type or varietal as a way to make the experience a bit more manageable.
If you want to picnic: Just like the wine taster who’s only got a couple of hours to spare, the picnicker’s best bet is to pick one location and stick with it. On the plus side, if you’re bring your own food and have set aside half a day to enjoy some local wines, then your choice of location is limitless. Just about every winery in the Santa Ynez Valley welcomes potential picnickers with tables and chairs – often situated in the most picturesque area available under shady trees with a view of the vines stretching out to the horizon. If you’re determined to hit more than one location, your best bet is to start at the winery furthers from your homebase and work your way back. You can eat at the first – or second – stop and still possibly have time for a third and final stop before you head home.
If you want to spend a whole day/weekend/week at your leisure: If you’ve got more than half a day to spend in the Santa Ynez Valley, you’re sure to come home with a couple of bottles of wine, a handful of commemerative glasses and probably a wine club membership….or two. With a weekend at your disposal, you can easily hit Solvang or Santa Ynez on a Friday afternoon, and the west side of the freeway on Saturday and end your day exploring Los Olivos and Foxen Canyon road all day Sunday. In fact, with more than day available, it’s quite easy to hit all four regions of the valley: west, east, Solvang and Los Olivos. You can also travel along Alamo Pintado one day and Foxen Canyon the next. Whichever path you choose, a long weekend in the valley means no limitations: try all those whites and all those reads, and just save some space for some cheese, crackers and dark chocolate.