Part of the charm of the Santa Ynez Valley as a weekend getaway is its lack of crowds and the relaxed presentations at the tasting rooms.
Set behind Santa Barbara's coastal mountain range, the valley is stunning. In spring the rolling hills dotted with sweeping live oaks are a post card; in summer the green fields mature to a dusky patina and finally spin themselves into gold.
Santa Ynez is horse country, too, with pastured Arabians and thoroughbreds adjoining the grape-hung fields. One winery, Gainey, combines the two. The valley also has Solvang, the pastry-sweet re-creation of a Danish town that has been luring tourists for decades.
A two- to three-hour drive northwest from Los Angeles, the area affords a manageable 24-hour getaway. Most of the wineries open at 11 a.m. and close by 5 p.m.
Visitors to the Santa Ynez Valley should take San Marcos Pass Road off U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, then continue along California 154, which drops like a roller coaster into the valley over a magnificent trestle bridge with sweeping views of the hills. It then swings past Cachuma Lake and into Santa Ynez proper.
A Nice Introduction
The lovely Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays of Santa Ynez Winery are the work of Australian wine maker Mike Brown. This vineyard is a nice introduction to what the valley has to offer--dedicated wine making, the products of which are offered in a peaceful, charming setting.
The winery has a deck for picnicking adjoining the tasting room, with a simple bar, homey fabrics and furniture and a few wine-related items for sale. The staff is knowledgeable, and tours are available upon request.
The Santa Ynez winery is at 343 N. Refugio Road. Tasting hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Call (805) 688-8381.
Next-door neighbor Gainey Vineyard is the most opulent of the area's wineries. The tasting room is filled with antiques. The winery has a tony feel, starting with the tiled driveway and on into the large, airy, Southwest-style tasting room. Excellent formal tours are given every hour, but the staff gets a little rattled when there are more than the usual handful of visitors.
On a recent hot weekend day, a guide--wide-eyed at the size of the crowd--speculated aloud about how she would maneuver this "enormous" group (about 20 people) through the wine making area. After many cautions not to touch anything , she led a delightful tour through Gainey's gleaming wine operation, so immaculate and ordered that it looks like something the Swiss designed.
Begun for Horse Breeding
The 1,800-acre ranch started as an Arabian breeding concern, but owner Daniel J. Gainey turned over 54 acres for grapes and is winning medals for his Johannisberg Rieslings, among others. Gainey is at 3950 E. Highway 246, Santa Ynez. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Call (805) 688-0558. A picnic area is available.
A winery that never fails to seduce is Ballard Canyon near Solvang. For sheer visceral pleasure, one cannot exceed the sensation of sipping the wines of Dr. Gene and Rosalie Hallock while seated outside on the deck adjoining the Ballard tasting room.
Enormous oak trees throw a canopy of branches over the tables and the view of the hills edging the grape fields is one of the most remarkable in the valley. In the summer, Western bluebirds dive through the leafy vines.
The Hallocks are fond of their blush wines, cheerful wines with a wonderful peppery quality. One is dedicated to Rosalie Hallock; another was lightly dubbed "Dr. Fun." A Ballard staff member brings the whites and blushes out to the tables for al fresco tasting, and one moves indoors to the tasting room for the reds.
In the three times I have gone to Ballard Canyon in the last year, I haven't seen the same person working in the tasting room. Fortunately, Rosalie Hallock often pitches in with a down-to-earth efficiency, praising a Johannisberg Riesling while bluntly discussing the drawbacks of a Pinot Noir.
Picnicking is not allowed on the deck, so there can be plenty of turnover in the tasting, but a picnic area is provided close by.
The winery is at 1825 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Informal tours are available upon request but, as with most of the wineries in the area, groups of 10 or more are asked to call for appointments. Phone (805) 688-7585.
A few miles east of Solvang is the charming community of Los Olivos. Bits of gingerbread mingle with the earthy redwood homes and, as everywhere in the valley, an ever-present breeze ruffles the grasses and teases the trees.
The Los Olivos Tasting Room doesn't look like much from the outside but inside, the room is airy with a solid bar at a comfortable, elbow-leaning height. Lined up along it are at least a dozen bottles from wineries around the Central Coast: San Luis Obispo, Simi Valley, Santa Maria, Arroyo Grande.
For a $2 fee, proprietor Bill Benzinger offers tastes of the products of wineries that are either too small or, in the case of Au Bon Climat, too busy to run their own tasting rooms.