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Santa Ynez Valley Wineries to Visit Right Now

Santa Ynez Valley Wineries to Visit Right Now

There are many ways to experience wine in Santa Barbara County. There’s the traditional estate model of the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, where sips are surrounded by views and vines. A more cosmopolitan setting awaits in the seaside city of Santa Barbara, located 45 minutes south, where pours come alongside palm trees and popular restaurants. And then the small wine country towns of Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Solvang and Lompoc offer something a little bit in between, serving the latest vintages in quaint cottages and stylish salons just minutes from both estates and upscale eateries.

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There’s no wrong way to do it, and a perfect day just might combine all three. To best navigate this ever-evolving landscape, we sought the advice of wine professionals from across Santa Barbara County who are even more up-to-date on the latest tasting room trends than me.

Given the expansive landscape, we’ve separated our Santa Barbara County suggestions into two guides. One roundup is all about the seaside sips of Santa Barbara proper. This one is focused on the Santa Ynez Valley, its small towns and, to the north, Los Alamos and the Santa Maria Valley. Let’s start our tour in the north and then explore the Sta. Rita Hills before moving deeper east into the Santa Ynez Valley.

Image Courtesy of Deborah Chadsey

Santa Maria Valley & Los Alamos

Los Alamos, a tiny western town that’s recently been dubbed “Little L.A.” due to an influx of hot restaurants, accommodations and shops, lies between the Santa Ynez Valley and the City of Santa Maria, about 20 miles north. Extending east from that city is the Santa Maria Valley, the Central Coast’s first official American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is influenced by the fog and wind of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

Conveniently located close to Highway 101, Presqu’ile delivers epic vistas and the cuisine of chef Julie Simon’s cuisine alongside cool-climate wines. “It’s maybe the only tasting room in Santa Barbara County with a direct view of the ocean,” says freelance wine writer Sean Magruder, who touts the operation’s live music performances, horseback rides, bocce ball court and wine cave tour. “That alone offers context to the unique wines and intense marine influence.”

Jonathan Lynn, the wine director at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, is more blunt: “Presqu’ile has everything you’ve ever wanted when visiting a winery.”

One of Santa Barbara’s pioneering brands, this operation boasts two tasting rooms—one a wooden shack, the other solar-powered and modern with four EV charging stations. It’s located on Foxen Canyon Road, making it an ideal stop when traveling between Santa Maria and Santa Ynez. Photographer Heather Daenitz of wine marketing company Craft & Cluster likes to visit on weekdays to see the team in action.

“Bumping into co-founder/winemaker Billy Wathen and his two border terrier dogs is a very real and hilarious possibility,” says Daenitz. “If consumers are looking for a brand that really walks the talk when it comes to the three pillars of sustainability—environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and, most importantly, social equity—Foxen is it.”

Just south of Santa Maria between Foxen Canyon and Highway 101 is the Alisos Canyon appellation, whose 2020 creation was spearheaded by Noah Rowles of Dovecote Estate Winery. A decade ago, he purchased the renowned Thompson Vineyard, which was planted in 1989, and took its stewardship seriously.

“He had to nurture the incredible history that takes place at this ranch,” says Kace Sarvis, the wine and hospitality director at Pico in nearby Los Alamos. “He’s done an incredible job with the property and has made some exceptional wines.” Tastings are held in a pond-side cabana, totally relaxed and unpretentious. “I bring friends and family here all the time to walk around the pond, enjoy the rich history and taste while relaxing at my own pace,” Sarvis says.

Sonja Magdevski’s Casa Dumetz tasting room, which also serves her brands Clementine Carter and The Feminist Party, helped make Los Alamos the haute-casual capital of tiny-town America. “Clementine Carter is attached to her beer bar, Babi’s Beer Emporium, so if guests are traveling with someone who isn’t a wine drinker, they have something for them as well,” notes Daenitz. “The pop-up Dim Sama located inside is also a great place to get a bite for lunch or as an appetizer before dinner on the weekends.”

Right down the street from Casa Dumetz, New Zealand native Angela Osborne shares her studies of Grenache at A Tribute to Grace. “To experience a deep dive in a single variety is a rare treat—and even more rare for a grape like Grenache,” says Emily Blackman, the wine director at the Michelin-starred Bell’s in Los Alamos and its sister “seafood tavern” Bar le Cote in Los Olivos. “Not a fan of red wine? No problem, she also makes Grenache Rosé and Grenache Blanc.” If you’re lucky, she’ll crack a bottle of Gracias Madres, a blanc de noir of Grenache.

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Where to Eat: Located in the heart of Los Alamos, Bell’s Restaurant is the blossoming flower atop the entire Santa Barbara County food scene, having won one of the Central Coast’s first Michelin stars. Owners Greg and Daisy Ryan simultaneously lead the charge on social equity and food access initiatives while mentoring others at sister projects like Bar Le Cote in Los Olivos, Na Na Thai in Buellton and Priedite Barbecue, now serving weekends in the bodega across Bell Street.

But the roots of Los Alamos were laid 20 years ago by Clark Staub’s Full of Life Flatbread, which brought regional farmers and ranchers to the table in meaningful ways. It’s still the best place to spot a winemaker chowing down with their family. For breakfast, brave the lines at Bob’s Well Bread for egg-in-a-jar or that mushroom toast.

Where to Stay: Perched over the 101 atop a hill as if it were the Bates Motel—which gets a nod via the onsite restaurant/bar named Norman—the Skyview Los Alamos sports 33 rooms recently redone in a “rustic chic” style. Down on Bell Street, the Alamo Motel plays up the country vibes, too, but only steps from the tiny town’s top restaurants and tasting rooms.

The Hilt Estate
Image Courtesy of The Hilt Estate

Sta. Rita Hills

As the birthplace of Santa Barbara’s beloved Pinot Noir—and the focus of that wine-loving flick Sideways—the Sta. Rita Hills remains a superstar appellation.

On the far western edge of the appellation is The Hilt Estate, which Magruder says, “flirts with opulence to the sound of the Grateful Dead.” He explains that “with the comfy-yet-rustic barn vibe down pat, they offer a private tasting of library wines to accompany rock hits and distressed leather chairs aging just as gracefully. It’s kind of like the glamping of wine tasting, so it works.”

Meanwhile, the photographer Daenitz and her friends call The Hilt the “Vibes Palace.”

At Peake Ranch on the eastern edge of the appellation, Pico’s Sarvis appreciates the area’s sunnier skies and the operation’s sleek design and no-appointments-needed policy. But it’s the controversial take on farming that matters most. “They really rely on science,” says Sarvis. “That may be why these seem to be the cleanest wines that I have come across.”

It’s also a favorite of Tristan Pitre, the wine collections and restaurant manager at San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito. “They have a vintage Hummer on property from the Gulf War, which is a fun way to get see the vineyard if you get the chance,” he says.

In the middle of the appellation is The Mae Estate, owned by Tyler Winery. Lynn from the Los Olivos Cafe enjoys “sitting down in their private estate with stunning views of their vineyards with some of the best Burgundian varieties Sta. Rita Hills has to offer.” The one-on-one tasting experience, sometimes with renowned winemaker Justin Willett, really helps understand his Old-World approach to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

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Where to Eat: Every winemaker’s go-to ever since opening in 2014, Industrial Eats pairs downhome, shared table vibes with wood-fired cuisine, plus plenty of local wine on tap.

The more classic steakhouse option is Hitching Post II, where restaurateur and winemaker Frank Ostini lords over the red-oak firepits that cook everything from artichokes to quail.

Where to Stay: There are only six rooms at the Inn at Zaca Creek in Buellton, but they’re worth booking just so your walk home from the on-site tavern is short. There are plenty of rooms closer to the freeway at the conveniently located Sideways Inn, where the lounge serves Santa Ynez Sausage. Those seeking an upscale cabin experience—or with your own RVs—can bed down at Flying Flags, a popular spot for families.

Image Courtesy of Tony Modugno

Santa Ynez Valley Vineyards & Estates

The 1880s town of Santa Ynez lies in the heart of the valley. The old western town is a prime base for exploring the area’s rolling hillside vineyards and estate wineries, plus the nearby cluster of Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos and Happy Canyon sub AVAs.

Located right on Highway 154, Roblar Winery offers a wide range of wines, including the Refugio Ranch bottlings by Gleason Family Vineyards winemaker Max Marshak and cuisine by Chef Peter Cham, who sources ingredients from the on-site farm. “They offer a different food menu nearly every day,” says Daenitz. “Guests can stroll through the garden while sipping on their favorite Roblar wines before they sit down to a delicious meal.”

A completely different “estate” experience is visiting winemakers right in the vineyard. “The ‘hip’ thing these days are tastings without tasting rooms,” says Lindsey Reed, a veteran of numerous restaurants who now teaches a wine class at U.C. Santa Barbara. “Small producers, intimate settings, a more educational and personal experience with the people actually making the wine—this is what the next generation of drinkers are drawn to.” Reed recommends setting up a visit at the historic Ibarra-Young Vineyard in the Los Olivos AVA with Amévive, where vigneron Alice Anderson is implementing regenerative techniques.

“She’s the muse of the ethical wine world,” says Reed. “These wines are beautiful, soulful, intentional, true to place without any additions or subtractions and not faulted.”

Anderson’s tastings are for her club members only, but the winemaker suggests heading to Piazza Family Wines at the top of Ballard Canyon for a similar experience that’s open to all, with an appointment. That tasting features both Piazza and Luna Hart wines, both made by winemaker Gretchen Voelcker, involves a tour of the vineyard and features sweeping views of the entire Ballard Canyon appellation.

The easternmost region of Happy Canyon is home to warmer weather varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Both Sarvis and Lynn recommend Grimm’s Bluff, where an invisible edge pond overlooks Lake Cachuma. “This was an insanely stunning property that’s all farmed biodynamic with interesting geology and crazy-looking chickens,” says Sarvis. Lynn adds, “Schedule a tasting at their winery for a tour and take a stroll on their golf carts to see every inch of the breathtaking views of their estate. Let them teach you about biodynamic and organic practices on their estate. End the stroll with a charcuterie plate in their modern chic barn.”

Deeper up the canyon is Crown Point Vineyards, where owner Roger Bower and French-born winemaker Simon Faury are repairing the long-ago wounded reputation of Santa Barbara-grown Cab. “They spared no expense when it comes to the winery,” says Lynn. “Take a walk through their scenic views of Happy Canyon, then taste with their estate host and be blown away by some mind-blowing Bordeaux varieties.”

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Where to Eat: Those in the know opt for shawarma and falafel made by the Syrian family who owns Santa Ynez Billiards, and you can follow up with a quick game of pool. The fancier fare of northern Italy, plus exquisite cocktails, are on full display a few blocks away at SY Kitchen. And anyone seeking upscale Mexican will be thoroughly pleased by Dos Carlitos.

Where to Stay: For a bed & breakfast vibe, try the very friendly ForFriends Inn in the middle of the township of Santa Ynez. On the other side of town, a couple blocks away, is The Genevieve, a Victorian-esque property with 20 rooms and The Victor Restaurant & Bar.

Carhartt Family Wines Tasting Room
Image Courtesy of Lena Brit Photography

Los Olivos

Country hamlets don’t get more postcard-perfect than Los Olivos, a former stagecoach stop that now sports a stunning density of tasting rooms.

The newest kid on the block is Donnachadh Family Wines, which makes wine from an estate vineyard planted on precarious slopes in the Sta. Rita Hills in 2013. “Even in its youth, this site is showing so much promise and I think it will be an iconic Sta. Rita Hills vineyard in no time,” says Blackman. “The wines are made by Ernst Storm and to try these in comparison to his namesake wines at his tasting room just up the block, Storm Wines, is a fun back-to-back visit.”

Carhartt Family Wines started in a tiny wood cabin on the main drag of Los Olivos before moving into a slightly larger but still rustic space across the street. “The whole valley has watched as Carhartt has grown from an almost literal hole-in-the-wall winery to what it is today,” says Daenitz, who likes their balance of traditional bottlings with funky, playful wines aimed at Gen Z. “They are one of the best examples of what it takes to create an experience that is welcoming and desirable to the younger generations.”

Liquid Farm is the top spot for Sarvis. “What used to be the only bank in Los Olivos is now a swanky and comfortable hangout,” he said. “These wines need no introduction, but their new Sta. Rita sparkling cuvée was my favorite wine at Pico’s recent wine festival, Bubble Bash.”

Journalist and social media influencer Vanessa Vin recommends Stolpman Vineyards, whose tasting room acts as a two-for-one spot. “You have a second-generation estate winery making hard-to-find, single-variety Rhône wines done in a traditional way, and a very cool Stolpman Garage right next door serving delicious, carbonic fermented bottling, fresher takes on the classics,” she explains.

She’s also partial to Solminer Wine Co. a few doors down, where David and Anna deLaski produce wines inspired by Anna’s European heritage made with grapes grown on their biodynamic, regenerative farm just five minutes away. “Funky Austrian varieties give this downtown Los Olivos tasting room a distinction among the sea of Pinot and Chard,” says Vin.

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Where to Eat: A sister restaurant to SY Kitchen is Nella Kitchen, where Roman-style pizza called pinsa is served alongside rustic Italian cuisine. Across the street is the longstanding Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, where the bottle list goes deep.

Where to Stay: The biggest hospitality news in recent years was the opening of The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, an Auberge property with all of the culinary bells and whistles promised by the resort company. Just down the block is the 19-room Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, home to Nella.

James Sparks in Kings Cary
Image Courtesy of Janelle Koch Photography


Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants a century ago, and the city’s architecture reflects that heritage, right down to the windmills. There are about a dozen tasting rooms within walking distance of the central park.

Crawford Family Wines is where Mark and Wendy Horvath serve Pinot Noir, Rhône reds and a variety of whites on their sunny patio as the tourist hordes wander past. Try their recently launched Low Tide Wine Co., which is focused on crisp, coastally influenced whites and pinks like Albariño, Chenin Blanc and rosé of Grenache.

Just down the road in a newer indoor-outdoor complex is Alma Rosa Winery, which was founded almost 20 years ago by Richard Sanford, the Pinot Noir pioneer of Santa Barbara County. Sanford passed the reins years ago to winemaker Samra Morris, the first female Bosnian winemaker in the United States. Her takes on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and cool-climate Rhônes are world-class.

On the outskirts of town is Kings Carey, where the winemaker James Sparks meets visitors by appointment. “Committed to sourcing only organic grapes, these wines are far from ‘natty,’” says Blackman of its Semillon, Grenache, Chardonnay and Syrah bottlings. “And as a die-hard Champagne fan, James has dedicated himself to make some of the best sparkling in the valley.”

Further down Highway 246 on the way toward Buellton is Kaena at the Ranch, where Hawaiian-raised Michael Sigouin shares his bold Grenaches on a grassy, picnic-friendly plot along Highway 246. Sigouin says that he makes his wine to pair with Hawaii’s bold flavors, and the ranch’s outdoor spread just adds to the aloha.

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Where to Eat: The classic steakhouse formula is fully stylized at Coast Range, where a super-team of chefs and somms craft menus to appease both the old-school meat eaters and nuanced nouveau palates alike.

Michael and Sarah Cherney’s lunch and dinner menus venture into more creative territories at Peasants Feast. But you can get a taste of their passion squeezed between slices of bread as well: order The Godfather at Peasants Deli & Market, then hit the arcade while you wait.

Where to Stay: There are countless small inns scattered around Solvang, most with Danish facades. But The Landsby most incorporates the “New Nordic” design aesthetic, complete with Scandinavian-influenced dishes on the Mad & Vin menu in the lobby.

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