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Santa Ynez (Santa Barbara/Cental California) Wineries

From 2006 by Anthony Head

 

Brook Williams drives slowly between parcels of land flush with grapevines, chardonnay on one side of his pickup truck, syrah on the other. Stopping on a mesa that reveals spectacular vistas of south-central California’s Santa Ynez Valley, he tells me it’s amazing that 40,000 visitors found his property last year. “I’m ten miles from a highway—way out here on Foxen Canyon Road,” says Williams. “People really have to want to get out here. And they do.”
            Williams is president of Zaca Mesa, a pioneer winery in the Valley and member of the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. A dozen wineries rest on or near this 16-mile winding two-lane that not only proves to be a beautiful back-road drive, it’s where some of the state’s most exciting wines are being produced.
            Upon returning to Zaca Mesa’s tasting room, Williams proudly pours his latest releases, including a 2002 Black Bear Block Syrah, a 2004 Roussanne, and a 2003 Z Cuvée (an estate blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre). Each is of these wines is an exceptional expression of the Rhône grapes so beloved in the area, even if the area remains a bit off the beaten path. “We’re three hours from Los Angeles and even further away from San Francisco. But I like being a bit isolated,” says Williams. “That just means the surprised looks on visitors’ faces are pretty big when they finally get here and taste our wines.”
            The Santa Ynez Valley is indeed a lovely place for wine-tasting. Gentle hills are covered with long amber grasses. Coast live oak trees grace the horizon, as do meticulously planted vineyards. And the valleys—so many valleys. It’s a valley full of valleys, all sloping and rising like something from a child’s picture book. Running east to west they welcome the cool Pacific Ocean breezes that create exceptional microclimates. Because many grape varieties thrive here, you’ll find—paradoxically—stunning pinot noirs (which like cooler climates) and complex syrahs (which typically favor the heat).
            Curtis Winery is another Foxen Canyon Rhône specialist taking full advantage of its prime surroundings. Lovingly crafted syrahs distinguish Curtis, and tasting them side-by-side brings true appreciation for the remarkable skill of winemaker Chuck Carlson. In particular, I found the 2003 Ambassador’s Vineyard to be big, lively and rambunctious with vanilla and blackberry. It’ll be a near-flawless wine in about two years.
            Curtis is affiliated with nearby Firestone Vineyards (the properties are linked by a one-mile hiking trail), but they don’t share winemakers or vineyards or dedication to the same varietals. Firestone concentrates on Bordeaux wines and inside the tasting room, I enjoyed a zesty sauvignon blanc and an excellent reserve merlot as Stacy explained from across the counter that Firestone was the first estate vineyard in the area. “Adam Firestone is now our winegrower and he’s third generation in the business. He knows as well as anyone the area’s diversity of terroir.” After taking me on an extended tasting journey that included a wonderfully complex 2002 Vintage Reserve blend of cabernet franc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec, Stacy suggested I visit Foxen Winery, further up the road, for some of her favorite sangiovese.
            That’s exactly what I did, although it took a little time. Even by the Valley’s out-of-the-way status, Foxen Canyon Road is out there. The drive is relaxing, though, where horses prance among windmills in nearby pastures and there are too many cattle to count. This has always been ranch country, after all, and much of it remains rural and rugged. Just when I was convinced that I’d lost my way, up popped a small, unobtrusive sign for Foxen. Brook Williams was right: This kind of surprise heightens the anticipation.
            Foxen’s tasting room is fashioned from an old blacksmith building and it charmed me right away. When I ambled in, one of the owners, Bill Wathan, was there with a dog trailing after him, both dusty from working the vineyards. He heard me request the sangiovese and he sighed, “Finally somebody not wanting the white.” Wathan was referring to a recent Wine Enthusiast article praising his chardonnay. No doubt it’s truly deserving of recognition, though, since Wathan cut the wine’s time in French oak back to under a year.  The result is a crisp, lively chard with some real sizzle. (But there I am—going on about the white.) Mariana, the tasting room manager, poured me a nip of the sangiovese and eyed me suspiciously. She asked how I knew about it since everyone else comes for the pinot and—now—the chardonnay. I kept mum, though, even as I bought a bottle.
            Further along the trail there are other surprises. Rancho Sisquoc Winery is located on a ranch that was originally part of a Spanish land grant and it has a farmhouse and barn dating from the early 1900s. I loved their youthful, full-bodied 2003 Syrah, which is awesome now and will be for many years to come. With its beautiful surroundings, Koehler Winery is one of the best places for a picnic, especially if lunch is paired with their earthy and ripe 2003 Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir. Fess Parker’s tasting facilities are a bit much of a production, but their wines, especially the 2004 Ashley’s Vineyard Chardonnay and 2003 Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah are true standouts.
            When I finally come down off the Foxen Canyon Trail, I head back to where I’m overnighting, the Alisal Guest Ranch. Shaded by a forest of sycamores, the Alisal is a very comfortable place to call home when visiting the Valley. The simple, rustic charm of my cottage comes from the fact that it’s still part of a working cattle ranch; but the sheer number of activities available proclaims this is a true luxury vacation destination.
            I spent most of the day tasting great wines, but saved tomorrow for exploring this 10,000-acre ranch resort and all it’s woodsy diversions. The Alisal has two golf courses, including the immaculate guests-only Ranch Course, and the public River Course. There is also horseback riding, tennis, and boating on a 100-acre lake. If I get tired of all that—not that I honestly could—there are many more wineries worth exploring throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, a place in which I wouldn’t mind getting lost for a few more days.

FIVE MORE WINERIES TO COME DOWN OFF THE TRAIL FOR
The Santa Ynez Valley is home to more than 60 wineries. Here are a few others worth finding. 

Sunstone Vineyards & Winery

(Santa Ynez)
Sunstone has a very popular Mediterranean tasting room. It’s also one of the largest organic vineyards in the Valley. They produce solid merlots and cabernet francs as well as other Rhône and Bordeaux varietals.

Beckmen Vineyards

(Los Olivos)
This is another good stop for Rhône lovers. Winemaker Steve Beckman explains that his wines from the Purisima Mountain Vineyard are given extra character from the area’s limestone subsoil. Don’t miss the splendid grenache rosé.

Bridlewood Winery

(Santa Ynez)
Truly one of the most beautiful settings in the area, Bridlewood’s groomed grounds and mission-style tasting room celebrate the equestrian history of the Valley. Arabesque is the winery’s wonderful Rhône-style blend.

Alma Rosa Winery
(Buellton)
Established so recently by Richard Sanford—one of the pioneers in the Santa Ynez Valley—Alma Rosa is still getting up to speed with an interim tasting room. However, Sanford is a legend with pinot noir and his first releases are spectacular.

Rideau Vineyard

(Solvang)
The Rideau tasting room is a refurbished landmark known as the Alamo Pintado Adobe that was originally built in 1884. If it feels more Creole than California inside that’s because owner Iris Rideau is a native of New Orleans. I recommend the syrah-based blend, Chateau Duplantier.

 

DINNER OUT

The restaurants of the Santa Ynez Valley offer everything from pizza to fois gras. Here are some not-to-miss dining choices.

Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant

(Los Olivos)
Exceptional Mediterranean-influenced California cuisine in the form of salads, pastas, and great dishes like chicken piccata, eggplant Parmigiana, and stuffed portobello mushrooms. The charming bistro also has an excellent wine list packed with the local juice.

The Ballard Inn
(Ballard)
Chef and co-owner of the inn, Budi Kazali, is one of the brightest culinary stars to be found between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You’ll always hear “best chef around” when his name comes up. Kazali’s French-Asian cuisine, like grilled rack of lamb with crispy sesame noodles; and pan-seared duck breast, is like none other in the Valley,

Hitching Post
(Buellton)
This is a local favorite serving the area’s signature Santa Maria-style barbecue. The filet mignon and grilled artichokes go down even better when paired with the excellent Hitching Post Pinot Noir.

Epicurean Picnic

(Solvang)
In a curious little town dedicated to all things Scandinavian, Epicurean Picnic offers a large, international selection of artisanal cheeses and deli meats. It’s the perfect place to stock up for a picnic lunch.