I regularly get asked by friends and family who are planning on going wine tasting to share my advice and recommendations with them. After sending variations of the same emails to many of them, I decided to publish my thoughts for everyone to use and enjoy. Let’s start with Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills wineries in Santa Barbara County:
There are, of course, many places to visit. Not being sure exactly where you’re staying, how long you’re staying or what your preferences are, I’ll offer up various good — but different — options, grouped by location, and you can pick and choose as you see fit. The list below is almost certainly more than you’ll need, but this way you can decide for yourself what works best for you . . .
Santa Rosa Road
- Sanford (5010 Santa Rosa Rd, http://www.sanfordwinery.com): Off the beaten path, but IMHO, it sits at the very top of places that I consider “required reading” in Sta. Rita Hills. The wine is of the highest in quality and is offered as part of very generous tastings for the price: Three or more different kinds of Chardonnay, 4 or 5 bottlings of Pinot Noir, plus excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Rhone whites, dessert wine. They’re even bottling a sparkling wine (though I have not yet tasted it). The setting is beautiful. An absolute must stop. That said, if you really don’t feel like driving down Santa Rosa Road, at least make the time to visit the Sanford Tasting room in Downtown Santa Barbara (1114 State Street, Suite #26, in the La Arcada Plaza, +1-805-770-7873), which has the added bonus of closing later than the winery location.
- D’Alfonso-Curran (by appointment only +1-805-836-9463, on Santa Rosa Rd, between Sanford and Hwy 1): If there is a power couple in the Sta. Rita Hills, it would be Bruno D’Alfonso and Kris Curran: he is the former long-time winemaker at Sanford, she is the former winemaker at Sea Smoke (plus a short, controversial stay at Foley). The winery in a great location just up the street from Sanford. I’ve had their flagship D’Alfonso-Curran label Pinot Noir, and it’s spectacular. They have a few other labels too (Badge, Curran, Di Bruno) that offer a mix of Burgundian, Rhone, Italian, and Spanish varietals.
Lompoc (wine ghetto and further in town): the “wine ghetto” has become very well known and if you want a high concentration of lots of good to very good wineries in one place, it’s tough to beat. The collection of warehouses behind the Home Depot is not exactly evocative of the mental image of wine country, so if you want to taste in a more picturesque setting, this may not be what you’re looking for. Similarly, about 5 minutes further into town on F Street are some gems tucked in amongst the houses and business that you’d never find unless you specifically looked for them.
- Brewer-Clifton (329 N F Street, Lompoc) (www.brewerclifton.com) : Some of the best Pinot Noir & Chardonnay in the Sta. Rita Hills. Period. Winemaker Greg Brewer has the same job at Melville, but these wines feature whole-cluster fermentation and stem inclusion where Melville’s do not; therefore, Brewer-Clifton wines are more intense (somewhere between Sanford or Sea Smoke). They just started bottling a sparkling wine too — haven’t tried it yet, but I’m confident that it doesn’t suck. The tasting room doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s tastefully simple and post-modern on the inside. They offer a nice cheese plate to go with the wine, and if you ask nicely, they’ll give you some chocolate by local chocolatiers Twenty-Four Blackbirds. They even have an upstairs lounge you can reserve if you so choose.
- Trancendence (313 North F Street, Lompoc) (http://transcendwines.com): A block away from Brewer-Clifton — hadn’t heard of them until we visited & wouldn’t have stopped there if the B-C guys hadn’t recommended them. Turned out to be a very nice stop. Winemaker himself was pouring the wine. Very friendly atmosphere. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, other Rhone varietal blends. If you aren’t already going to Brewer-Clifton, probably not worth a special trip, but if you’re right there, go for it.
- Ampelos (312 North 9th Street, Lompoc Wine Ghetto) (http://www.ampeloscellars.com/): Of all the wineries “In the Ghetto” (and yes, you have to sing it in falsetto like Cartman), I like Ampelos the best. Had their wines prior to visiting, and was not disappointed when I finally got to taste their whole portfolio — lots of really yummy Pinot Noir plus Syrah, Grenache, and other Rhones at varying price points; I don’t remember much about their whites other than they were tasty but I didn’t buy any. On top of it all, their wines are all Certified Organic and Biodynamic.
- “Taste of Sta. Rita Hills” Tasting room (1505 E. Chestnut, Lompoc Wine Ghetto): Winemaker Antonio Moretti runs this tasting room, featuring his own wines and many others. A good place to try some very good small-lot wines that’d you’d never find outside of the valley, plus you get to taste very different styles of wines using grapes from the exact same vineyard. Note that if you go to the website, there’s a long list of wines shown — but only a handful of them are poured at the winery on any given day.
- There are many other good places in the ghetto. If you were so inclined, you literally could park at 11am and walk from door to door, tasting yummy wines until 6pm, and you still wouldn’t hit all the places, never having moved your car in the process.
Hwy 246 between Lompoc & Buelton
- Melville: Excellent wine, mainly Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay. A slightly softer style than Sanford and Brewer-Clifton, and absolutely wonderful to drink. The people are very friendly, and tasting on the beautiful grounds is always enjoyable.
- Foley (6121 E Hwy 246, Lompoc): Just two miles up the road (closer to Buelton) from Melville, another winery sitting in the middle of vineyards. Classic Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Stylistically, halfway between Melville and Sanford. Worth the stop, worth the tasting, and worth buying a bottle or three.
- A quick word about Babcock: the “other” winery that shares the same driveway as Melville . . . I’d skip it. Past couple times I’ve been, it was fine, but compared to other places you could visit, the combination of winery atmosphere, customer service, and quality of the wine is not good enough to make it worth your visit
Not sure if you’ve been yet, but you have to stop here. The small, quaint town is basically one intersection (Grand and Alamo Pintado). A very fun locale, loaded with tasting rooms for wine and olive oil, not to mention some yummy restaurants. Here are my favorite stops:
- Enjoy Cupcakes / Sarloos Wines (at the far end of Grand, near the intersection with Hwy 154): The other bit of required reading when visiting the Santa Ynez Valley. Why? The cupcakes, the cupcakes, the cupcakes. Spectacular. Save your marriage, and make sure each of you gets your own flight of mini-sized cupcakes instead of trying to share a single six-pack. They push you to do the wine/cupcake tasting pairing, but I think you’re better off doing them separately. The whole place has kind of a hipster funky retro-cool SLS Hotel vibe (though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the outside of the building), which is a fun change of pace compared to pretty much everywhere else. The wine itself is pretty good, but never good enough to motivate me to want to buy a bottle.
- Evan’s Ranch Winery / Olive Hill Farms Olive Oil (on the corner of Grand & Alamo Pintado: Evan’s Ranch is the higher end label of Gainey (which is a nice place to visit in and of itself, but is located separately, near the intersection of Hwy 246 & Hwy 154). Like most places, they offer a nice mix of Burgundian and Rhone style wines. All very yummy. In the back corner of the same room is a separate counter where you can do olive oil tasting. I think the last time we visited we ended up buying more olive oil than wine.
- There are many other tasting rooms — Longoria, Byron, Los Olivos Tasting Room, Refugio Ranch, among others — I’ve often ended up just walking around and popping into whatever draws my attention on that given day. Most of the times it’ll be good to great, occasionally it’ll be meh, but the spontaneity is part of the fun. You’re also more likely to get a chance to taste wines besides the usual suspects (which, in Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley, means Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier). So if you want a change of pace, you’re almost certainly going to find it. The only one I’d skip for sure is Andrew Murray — I’ve never been a fan of the wines there.
A couple of alternatives elsewhere in the valley if the atmosphere is the priority
- Gainey (3950 E Hwy 246, Santa Ynez): As mentioned above, it’s located near the intersection of the 154 and the 246, so if you’re driving up the 154 over the hill from Santa Barbara, it’s the very first winery you’d hit. Big, sprawling locale, with grounds, multiple tasting areas, and sheer quantity of varietals that remind me of more of typical Napa wineries — they sell one of the widest ranges of wine in the valley, from Riesling and Gewurtztraminer to Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon and everything in between. The quality is solid across the board — all the wines are drinkable, some are quite good, though few are spectacular (predictably, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the best).
- Bridlewood (3555 Roblar Avenue, Santa Ynez): Probably the prettiest winery overall in Santa Ynez Valley that I’ve visited (though Fess Parker’s grounds are right up there). The wines (mainly Syrah) are drinkable, though perhaps just meh — for the price, you can get better quality, or for the same quality you could pay cheaper. That said, not everyone can tell the difference (or even cares about the difference) between drinkable and spectacular, so depending on who you’re with, this might be worth a stop.
While you’re drinking, you also need to eat. Here are my favorites (listed in no particular order):
- Sides Hardware and Shoes — a brother’s restaurant (Los Olivos)
- Sissy’s (Lompoc)
- Trattoria Grappolo (Santa Ynez)
- SY Kitchen (Santa Ynez)
- Industrial Eats (Buelton)
- Hitching Post II (Buelton)
Photo credits: all photos by CK Dexter Haven