Santa Barbara Stories and Tips

Overview of the Santa Barbara Wine Region

Bridlewood Winery Photo, Santa Barbara, California

This is an update to my previous journals. I’ve discovered new wineries and more hidden places to eat and drink. There’s also the movie Sideways that turned this once quiet hideaway into a tourist trap. I’ll write a separate journal for those of you intent on following the movie path instead of enjoying the tourist free zones.

The Santa Barbara wine region is located 29 miles northwest of the city of Santa Barbara. It’s a bit of a drive to Santa Barbara so if your planning on exploring for a few days I’d recommend staying in Solvang where there are plenty of hotel options. The region is divided into smaller towns and appellations each with its own charm and beauty. I’ll give a quick overview of each region and then give more details in other brief journals of where to taste wine, eat, and drink. Make sure to stop and get a free local map at the visitors center in Solvang, they also have regional advertisements and information on local events, it’s worth a quick 5-minute stop.

Los Olivos and Santa Ynez have the highest concentration of wineries and tasting rooms. The towns blend into each other between the wineries and it’s hard to tell which town you’re in when you exit the actual downtown areas of the two. Don’t miss Mattie’s Tavern, which is an old stage coach stop. They’re only open in the late afternoons but the food is fabulous, you usually need a reservation because the food is some of the best in the region (805) 688-4820. If you didn’t make a reservation in advance go in anyway, the bar is fabulous and has a limited bar menu so you can sample some of the fabulous cuisine or just enjoy a cool drink while your enjoying the history of this beautiful old hotel and restaurant. Just off highway 154 is the Los Olivos Market, a fabulous country market where you can purchase picnic items and shop for local products including lavender soaps and lotions from a nearby farm. Out in front of the store, they barbeque tri-tip (I guess a Califorina thing--try it if you’ve never heard of it), and they’ll package it up for you so you can take along a picnic for your drive through wine country. Some wineries sell small snacks but none of them offer a full meal so it’s up to you to stop at a restaurant or pack a picnic. I’d pack a picnic since most of the wineries have made beautiful picnic areas just for you to bring your own food to enjoy. If you don’t feel like eating BBQ tri-tip the market has a full gourmet deli and cheese counter in the back of the store. I really enjoy these delicious meals to go, it gives us more time to spend at the wineries during the day and we can enjoy a restaurant in the evening. If you’re starving and can’t wait to drive to a picnic location you can dine in front of the market on their picnic tables although I’d wait especially since Bridlewood is just across the highway. Bridlewood has a hidden picnic area out back that has some of the most beautiful scenery in the area. Horses graze next to a lake in front of a hill covered in grape vines. Then there is always Beckman which is just a few more minutes away and has the best wine in Santa Barbara along with gazebos for picnicking built next to a small pond.

Foxen Canyon can take all day to explore as it’s about 20 miles long. It is a drive that is worth the time if you have set aside at least 3 days to explore the Santa Barbara wine area (which you should if you have the option). Start at highway 154 and make sure to visit Firestone which has a fabulous wine tour (only one of two that we know of) and a beautiful picnic area. Fess Parker is a big tourist trap and I’ve never liked the wine or the snooty staff, pass this one by unless you’re a big Fess Parker fan. Kohler and Zaca Mesa are wineries also worth a stop along the gently winding road.

Santa Rita Hills is a new appellation where Stanford, Lafond and Mosby wineries are located. It’s a little out of the way, but not much, and the drive along the side of the hills on the Santa Rosa Road is different from the scenery on the other side of the 101. It’s a pleasant change but there isn’t anything else over here besides these three wineries and the beautiful scenery along the gently curving road. We love the pinot at Sanford and their blush wines are pleasant as well. This is a nice drive but if you’re not wine tasting and you’ve got extra time I’d recommend driving a few miles South of Solvang on Alisal Road to a wonderful state park (Nojoqui Falls Park). A short hike up a delightfully lush trail leads to a waterfall.

Ballard Canyon is absolutely stunning in the springtime but Rusak is the only winery open for tasting in the canyon. Their wine isn’t as impressive as the relaxing views from their picnic area which overlook a vine covered slope. As you drive in the canyon you’ll notice that the hills are covered with vines which flow down hills on both sides of the road. There are even cows (happy cows in California) and bison grazing on green patches along the side of a small portion of the road. Even if you don’t stop at the winery the canyon only takes about 20 minutes to drive through and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at its beauty.

Solvang is the main town in the region, it’s full of cute shops, restaurants and numerous hotel options see my article called Wine Tasting in Solvang for more details. Here’s a quick quote from it that describes the general feel of the area.

"In the heart of Santa Barbara wine country the charming town of Solvang enchants tourists by offering a Danish cultural experience in a setting central to local vineyards. Known as the Danish capital of America, Solvang is full of quaint restaurants, bakeries and cafes built using old-world Danish methods and styles. Time your weekend right and dancers, singers and musicians fill the streets."

An Indian casino opened up recently off highway 246 a couple of miles East of Solvang. Parking in the structure around back is probably the easiest as every time we’ve tried to valet the car it has taken them a long time to bring the car back. The hotel is beautiful and very reasonably priced. We did find it odd that the casino does not serve alcohol; somehow the property is on an Indian reservation, so they don’t have to follow the local gambling laws but they have to follow the alcohol laws. We asked the hotel staff why and they couldn’t even give us an answer, they said they were still trying to get a permit to serve alcohol.

You can get to the region from the city of Santa Barbara from two different directions, on Interstate 101 North or highway 154. The 101 takes a bit longer than the 154 even though it is on a straighter faster major road, it is just not as direct. The 101 offers views of the ocean near the road but the 154 is more scenic as it winds through lush mountain roads and Lake Cachuma. The 154 is not as straight as the 101 but the views from the top of the hills present views of Santa Barbara and the ocean that are spectacular. If you go up one way try to take the other way down. Don’t miss the other old Stage Coach stop, Cold Springs Tavern. Watch carefully for Stage Coach Road off the 154 and follow it down for less than a mile to this well preserved restaurant and bar. On sunny weekends a mix of yuppie bikers (even Jay Lenno visits) and real bikers hang out together to grab a cold beer and listen to local bands. Harley Davidson bikes line the edge of the street in a long row. This restaurant is extremely rustic but creates exquisite food, make a reservation if you plan to eat here (805-688-4820). It’s getting more difficult to get a table as wine buses now bring in groups of tourists who take over the small dining rooms. This is definitely worth making a reservation as the food is only matched in quality by Mattie’s Tavern (ironic that it is the other stage coach stop).

There is an interactive map of the area at cheers!

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