Made globally famous with the release of the Oscar winning 2004 film, ‘Sideways’, the California wine country around Santa Barbara has grown in both stature and number of high quality wineries. Our road trip allowed us 3 days and 2 nights to taste fabulous wines and enjoy gorgeous wine country scenery.
Autumn in the rolling hills and valleys of the greater Santa Barbara County wine country is truly glorious. Like much of coastal California, the weather is usually agreeable in the fall with foggy mornings, glorious sun-soaked days and cool nights. Santa Barbara County currently has six federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (although two more may join soon) including the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, which is further broken down into four sub-AVAs; Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. The Los Alamos Valley and the Santa Maria Bench are also showing distinct characteristics that may lead to AVA status.
This is part four of my multi-part series chronicling our 2017 Road Trip from Sonoma County, California to San Diego, California covering over 1,200 round trip miles and 12 days of beautiful sights, sounds, wine, food and spirits – all in the name of adventure. Our adventure focused on the wineries and restaurants around Santa Ynez Valley.
Our first stop was at Rusack, a boutique winery and vineyard, nestled among the oak-studded rolling hills of Ballard Canyon about halfway between Buellton and Los Olivos on Ballard Canyon Road. We were fortunate to spend a few minutes with Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac. Gerbac explained that the Rusack focus is on estate-grown, Rhone-inspired wines; a popular Bordeaux style blend (Anacapa), and Burgundian styled Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations of Santa Barbara County. The program includes an estate-grown Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and several other delicious offerings. Gerbac also oversees all winemaking for the Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wine project. We found all the wines we tasted to be sophisticated in style, pleasing on the palate and beautiful in the glass.
Flying Goat Cellars, whose tasting room is located in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, was our next stop. Proprietors Norm Yost and Kate Griffith specialize in vineyard designated Pinot Noir and sparkling wines they refer to as Goat Bubbles. Yost and Griffith source Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grapes from world renowned vineyards around San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties including Ampelos, Bien Nacido, Riverbench, Solomon Hills, Rancho Santa Rosa and Sierra Madre. They opened the tasting Room in 2008. We found the bubbles to be both pleasing and fairly priced between $38 and $60.
The next day we found three exceptional wineries (there are numerous others along this route) located on Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc. We began with a private tour and tasting at Clos Pepe which has recently been leased by Kathryn Hall (owner of her eponymous Napa winery and her Sonoma based Walt Wines). Our tour guide, Andrew Turner, spent a good deal of time with us in the vineyards and then at owners Steve and Cathy Pepe’s beautiful home on the property. The Pepe’s purchased the property in the mid 1990’s and converted the horse ranch to vineyards. The estate grown fruit produces amazing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which we enjoyed at the counter in Cathy’s kitchen under Andrews tutelage! Clos Pepe’s former winemaker of 21 years, Wes Hagen, also produced wines from non-estate fruit under the Axis Mundi Wine ‘second label’. A quite unique experience and truly delicious as well.
Heading back toward Buellton we stopped next at Babcock Winery and Vineyards. Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the property in 1978 and almost immediately planted 20 acres of vines. Over time they established a small winery on the property and son Bryan took over winemaking after studying enology at U.C. Davis in the mid 1980’s. Still family-owned and operated, Babcock Winery and Vineyards is a 10,000-case winery with 65 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. The tasting room serves multiple purposes including eclectic gift shop, vinyl record store and art gallery. A very ‘fun’ stop with amazingly good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay including a unique Psi Clone of Pinot Noir. SoulStruck is their 2nd label with different varietals available. Babcock also has a presence at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in downtown Santa Barbara.
Further west along Highway 246 you’ll find Melville Winery tasting room and 120 acres of vines. Ron Melville began his grape growing and wine-making journey in the Knights Valley of Sonoma County (his home county) back in 1989. He moved to Santa Ynez Valley in 1996 to grow and produce ‘cold-climate’ Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah. The Sta. Rita Hills offer the perfect climate and Melville’s son Chad now works with him as winemaker to continue their journey. These wines, including a non-vintage Blanc De Noir sparkler, are beautifully structured and balanced. They are widely available and reasonably priced. You cannot go wrong with Melville wines.
Our last stop was the Foley Estate (https://www.foleywines.com). Financier Bill Foley has created a vast empire of holdings throughout the world with none better than his Sonoma County stable of Lancaster Estate, Chalk Hill Estate and Roth Estate. His Sta. Rita Hills Estate and Vineyards was established in 1998 and now has two distinct vineyard properties: Rancho Las Hermanas and Rancho Santa Rosa. These properties comprise 443 planted acres as of this writing. One formerly a thorough bred horse ranch and the other planted by Fess Parker. Winemaker beginning in 2017, Ryan Aura has been on a learning journey for over a decade including studying at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, working in the cellars of other wineries and as assistance winemaker at Foley Estate for a few years. The wines here are maturing and I have no doubt that, given time, they will reach the sophistication and complexity of the other Foley properties and their local neighbors. Definitely worth checking in on a periodic basis.
Where to Eat: We dined at the Hitching Post II (http://www.hitchingpost2.com/) in Buellton both nights we were there. The food is always well prepared and the wine list (if you need more) is well curated including their own Hitching Post label which they have produced since 1979. Steaks are the specialty of the house. Located at 406 East Highway 246, Buellton, CA 93427 (t) 805-688-0676
Where to Stay: Buellton is not a very large city at all but the newly renovated Santa Ynez Valley Marriot was perfect for our 3 day visit to the area. So centrally located and just off Highway 101 near the Highway 246 exit. The Marriot is located at 555 McMurray Road Buellton, California 93427
Getting there: The Santa Ynez Valley is to get to located along Highway 101 and Highway 246 about 140 miles north of Los Angeles and 300 miles south of San Francisco.
For more information:
Rusack: 1819 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang, California 93463 (t) 805-688-1278 firstname.lastname@example.org
Flying Goat Cellars: 1520 East Chestnut Court, Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-736-9032 email@example.com
Clos Pepe: 4777 East Highway 246, Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-735-2196 firstname.lastname@example.org
Babcock Winery & Vineyards: 5175 E Highway 246 Lompoc CA 93436 (t) 805-736-1455 email@example.com
Melville: 5185 East Hwy 246 Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-735-7030 firstname.lastname@example.org
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