Solvang And Los Olivos

Over the weekend Peter and I joined my brother, sister-in-law, her sister and a couple of friends on a trip to Solvang and Los Olivos – the setting of the movie Sideways.

Unlike the original, our version of the film had:

  • zero drama
  • an absence of violence
  • lots of laughs
  • much better food
  • excellent wine (even some Merlot)

Our first stop was Andrew Murray Vineyards. Thanks to the membership of one of the friends in our group, we enjoyed a wine tasting – complete with an incredible box lunch – in the stunning Wine Club Member Tasting Room.

Andrew Murray VIneyards Club Member Wine Tasting Room

Folks, this is why people join wine clubs.

Not unlike frequent flier clubs, wine clubs reward loyalty with special perks and discounts that can really make a difference in the winery experience.

We arrived at Andrew Murray Vineyard on a busy, noisy holiday weekend Saturday. Instead of fighting for elbow room at the tasting bar, we were treated to this:

Andrew Murray Club Member Room

Here we spent a leisurely 90 minutes or so tasting Andrew Murray Vineyards current releases including my personal favorites: the lovely 2013 Santa Maria Valley Viognier, the yummy 2013 Enchanté Curtis Vineyard White Blend and the rich and luxurious 2013 Tous Les Jours Santa Ynez Valley Syrah.

The perfect beginning to our trip.

The next stop was the nearby Fess Parker Winery.

Fess Parker Winery

I have to admit that the first time we visited Fess Parker, I didn’t have high hopes. I thought this might be another “capitalize on the name recognition and we can get away with mediocre wine” places.

It most definitely is not.

We tasted a wide array of wines ranging from the 2013 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay (which has made a convert of this previous Chardonnay-hater) to the 2011 The Big Easy Red Blend (Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate 91 points).

Our fabulous wine hospitality host, Adrianne, treated us to a pour of the 2010 Rodney’s Vineyard Crockett. This red blend was created by the Parker family as an homage to the winery’s namesake upon his death in 2010.

2010 Fess Parker Crockett

Our group agreed that this was the best wine we tasted all weekend. At $80 per bottle is was also the most expensive, but so well worth the price!

We made our way back to our hotel for the weekend, The Hadsten House in Solvang.

The Hadsten House

Located on the edge of the charming Danish town of Solvang, this great hotel is within walking distance of about a million bakeries, some delicious restaurants and some wine tasting rooms.

Walking to dinner we stopped at The Good Life Wine Cellar. Peter and the waiter conspired to come up with a variety of wines by the glass for our group to try and share. We wrote the name of each wine on a cocktail napkin that was passed along with the corresponding glass so we could keep them all straight.

This wine tasting thing is serious business.

Every one of the seven wines was a hero but our collective favorite was the 2013 Cane and Fable Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon.

2013 Cane and Fable Cabernet

I don’t love the insect on the label but I sure do love the price. The wine retails for about $25 but I’ve seen it online for as low as $15.99.

Dinner was at The Succulent Café. We started with the gorgeous and delicious cheese and charcuterie platter.

The Succulent Cafe

Every single dish was extraordinary. I’d put this place on the “must visit” list for any trip to the Solvang and Los Olivos area.

Sunday morning we enjoyed brunch at Mattei’s Tavern. Although not a huge menu, each item sounded intriguing and delicious. We started with an order of the breakfast sausage corndogs because, seriously, how could you NOT order something like that?!?! Scrumptious!

Mattei's Tavern breakfast sausage corndogs

Everyone loved their main course – a wide variety of dishes ranging from fried rice to cornmeal pancakes. I ordered the belgian waffles: sourdough waffles with bananas, whipped mascarpone and dulce de leche.

I’d show you a photo but I had cleaned my plate before I could get out my camera.

After brunch we walked around downtown Los Olivos, visiting several in-town wine tasting rooms and shops.

We visited Dragonette Cellars because some of us had enjoyed their wines before and were interested to see what else they had to offer.

Dragonette Cellars

We tasted a variety of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah blends – both the 2012 Seven and the 2011 MJM (named after the wives of the owners). The wine was great and lived up to our expectations.

Based upon the description in the Touring Guide published by the Santa Barbara Vintners, we were all very curious to try the wines at Blair Fox Cellars.

“The ultra-boutique winery produces hand-crafted bottling of small-lot, limited production, 90+ point wines of exceptional quality.”

from Santa Barbara Vintners 2014 Touring Guide

Blair Fox was named the Andre Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. In addition to making wine for his own label, Blair Fox just happens to be the winemaker for Fess Parker Winery and their sister label, Epiphany Cellars (more on Epiphany later).

Blair Fox Cellars

This 2013 Paradise Road Vineyard Viognier is incredible. With a wine like this kicking off our tasting experience we knew we were in for a treat.

Let’s just say that by the time we left, two of us had joined the wine club and we had collectively purchased about a case of wine to take with us.

We decided to take a little break from wine tasting and walked over to the Olive Hill Farm shop for some tasting of flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. For a mere $3 visitors can try any combination of 5 oils or vinegars. My personal favorites were the blood orange olive oil and the blackberry balsamic…although the bacon olive oil, rosemary olive oil and strawberry balsamic were close contenders.

Our tasting day wrapped up at Epiphany Cellars, Fess Parker’s sister winery. The tasting room is beautiful. While Fess Parker’s tasting room is rustic and warm, Epiphany’s tasting room is hip and modern. A nice counter point that reflects the difference in the wines as well.

Epiphany Cellars

We strolled through some shops as we walked to dinner at the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe. This spot has a ridiculously huge selection of wines to buy by the bottle. As far as the food on the menu, we loved the scallops, pasta bolognese, gnocchi and pizza.

By the way, each member of our group brought a bottle from their home collection along on the trip and, rather than buying wine off the menu at dinner, we paid the $20 per bottle corkage fee and enjoyed our own wines.

The final stop on our tour was at Foxen Vineyards. Peter and I have been fans of Foxen (and wine club members) for a while and we were thrilled to host the rest of the crew at Foxen’s beautiful “7600” tasting room.

Foxen Pinot Noir

See the “Mr. Bill” doll sitting on the shelf? It was a gift from the winery staff to Bill Wathen, one of the owners.

Our host, John, made sure we had a chance to taste all the yummy wines that would be included in our upcoming club shipment along with many of the other current releases. We all agreed that we would be hard pressed to pick a favorite from among the spectacular wines we tasted.

We were also big fans of this bit of wine art on display in the Foxen tasting room.

Foxen Vineyards

The trip was a huge success – so much so that we are already planning our next travels: a pilgrimage to the Paso Robles area of California. Count me in, I’m ready to go!

Have you ever been to Solvang and Los Olivos? Tell the truth, did the movie “Sideways” color your opinion of Merlot? Have any recommendations for us in Paso Robles?

 

Remember…

Do not drink and drive!

and

No one paid me to say this.

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Santa Barbara Wine Country Tasting Tips

Mo Wine Please

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara has a well-deserved reputation as a fun and gorgeous place to visit. In addition to the beautiful beaches, the great restaurants, and possible sightings of Oprah, Santa Barbara and the outlying areas provide for some fabulous wine tasting.

The movie “Sideways” was filmed in the Santa Barbara area. This great map shows the local sites that appear in the film.

The Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) stretches from San Francisco down to Santa Barbara County but the areas around Santa Barbara boast some features making it unique.

The coastal range of mountains that runs north to south on most of the west coast takes a turn in Santa Barbara County with a 50-mile east-west jog. This creates almost a wall that has a dramatic effect on the climate. Fog rolls in over a very specific path and the combination of the cool ocean breezes and the elevation climbs of the hillside make for dozens and dozens of microclimates within a small geographic area. There can be a ten-degree temperature swing between vineyards that are only a couple of miles apart creating some very interesting opportunities for winemakers.

And some pretty amazing wines.

The sport of wine tasting is a bit different in Santa Barbara County than in Napa or Sonoma Counties.

Yes, there are some wineries that have a tasting room on site right by their vineyards and production barns. But there are also lots and lots of very small wineries who own some acreage on which they grow their grapes, but their tasting room is located “in town”.

From Santa Maria in the north to the city of Santa Barbara in the south, there are a number of spots which feature storefront tasting rooms scattered among the restaurants and gift shops. Many of these are owner-operated but there are also a few co-ops at which a group of very small wineries share the space giving visitors the chance to taste wines from lots of producers in one stop.

A few tips:

Before You Go

Visit the Santa Barbara Vintners website. It is jam packed with all the information you will need to plan an amazing trip. The first thing you should do is ask them to mail you their touring guide.

Santa Barbara Vintners Touring Guide

Excuse me?!  What are you talking about?! Isn’t there an app for that?

Actually the Santa Barbara Vintners do have an app and I recommend downloading it before you go.

You can also download the maps and lists from the website but the Touring Guide that the fine folks at Santa Barbara Vintners will mail to you – actual snail mail – is much, much easier to read and it is awesome.

Trust me.

Once you have the Touring Guide (because I’m really not going to let you plan your trip without it) the fun begins.

The Touring Guide provides information about the wineries including a description of the wine produced, location of the winery or tasting room, if an appointment is necessary and the hours of operation. Everything you need to select the places you’d like to visit and map out your days.

Where To Stay

Where you stay really depends on how you want to spend your days.  We stayed in Santa Barbara and made the hour or so drive up to Solvang/Los Olivos/Buellton one day and Lompoc another day.

But there are lots of hotels in the Solvang/Los Olivos/Buellton area if you prefer to not make the daily drive from Santa Barbara.

Solvang, in particular, has a bustling downtown area.  You can step out of your hotel and stroll the town shopping, dining and sampling lots of different wines in the storefront tasting rooms.

No need to worry about a designated driver!

Perhaps you want to spend one night in downtown Santa Barbara and another night or two in the country. The world is your oyster.

But plan ahead. Hotels book up and rates rise around the time of special events.

Specific Wine Tasting Sites

As your Touring Guide will show you, wineries and tasting rooms are spread all over the area but there are a couple of notable spots to consider.

The Wine Ghetto in Lompoc – really just an industrial park, this VERY unassuming spot is home to quite a number of tasting rooms for small wineries.  Our favorite was the Santa Rita Hills Tasting Room where, for a $10 tasting fee, you are treated to wines from five or six different wineries from the Santa Rita Hills area.

Urban Wine Trail – This is a section in downtown Santa Barbara – a few square blocks – that boasts a collection of hip and cool tasting rooms. It is like a neighborhood full of chic bars, but each bar serves only their own wines.

Our favorite spot on the Urban Wine Trail is the AVA Santa Barbara. This tasting room features wines from The Valley Project – an exploration of all the different growing areas in Santa Barbara Wine Country.  While the Santa Rita Hills Tasting Room in Lompoc lets you taste wines from the same area but produced by lots of different winemakers, AVA Santa Barbara lets you taste wine from lots of different locations but all produced by the same winemaker.

The owner of AVA Santa Barbara is Seth Kunin (of the also excellent Kunin Wines).  Since Kunin Wines focuses on Rhone varietals, Seth created The Valley Project so he could experiment with lots of different wines and use the entire box of crayons that the growing areas around Santa Barbara County provide.

And check out the amazing, hand drawn chalk map of the entire Santa Barbara Wine Country which graces the wall of the AVA Santa Barbara Tasting Room walll.

AVA Santa Barbara Map

General Tasting Tips

Be Responsible!

Of course the most important, A#1 thing to do while you are wine tasting is to be responsible.

Enjoy a leisurely time at each winery/tasting room. Limit yourself to three or four spots over the course of an entire day.

Consider bringing along a designated driver or hiring a limo.

Share a tasting between two people.

Use the spit bucket. If the idea of a communal spit bucket grosses you out, ask for a plastic cup to use as your own personal spittoon.  It’s a little easier to discretely sip and spit when you aren’t spitting into the giant silver bucket on the bar.

Buy some wine!

It is fun to pick up a couple of bottles of the wines you liked along the way. Virtually all wineries will send the wine back home for you if, and this is a biggie, if your state’s laws allow it. Best to check this out ahead of time.

Let’s say you are picking up a bottle here and a bottle there and want to put them all together into one big shipment at the end of your visit.  There are places in the area who will do this for you (if your state allows it).

But be very certain to confirm the hours of operation so that you don’t arrive on a Sunday with two cases of wine to ship only to discover that you misread the hours and the place is, in fact closed. Not that anything like this happened to us…

Most airlines will allow you to bring wine on board as CHECKED luggage. Some wineries will sell or give you a case box in which you can collect your treasures. Or you might want to purchase one of the travel bags sold at many winery gift shops that is advertised to be “airline approved”.

Bringing your wine as checked luggage is a great option if your state does not allow shipments. Also, the checked bag fee will almost definitely be less than the cost of shipping your wine and you will not have to worry about the climate conditions affecting your wine as it travels across the country in a UPS truck.

Protect your wine!

If you are collecting bottles along the way, remember that wine DOES NOT like extremes in temperature, especially heat.  Always, always bring a cooler or insulated bag with lots of ice packs to keep the wine cool.  I pack a good supply of Ziploc bags to make ice packs using ice from the hotel’s ice machine.

Stash the bottles in your cooler until you get back to your hotel at the end of each day.

Enjoy!

Santa Barbara lives up to its reputation. With gorgeous scenery everywhere you turn, delicious, well-crafted wines and a laid back feel, this wine country is worth the trip.

Even if you don’t get to see Oprah.

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