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Sauntering in Wine Country With Glass in Hand

September 17, 2000|JOHN McKINNEY

When Santa Barbarans say they are "going over to the valley," they mean crossing the Santa Ynez Mountains to the Santa Ynez Valley. Along with Santa Barbarans, legions of visitors from across the nation and around the world are going over to the valley these days.

They come to sample Santa Barbara County's internationally acclaimed wines and to savor the stunning scenery of the valley, a rustic region of ranches and vineyards framed by mountains.

I wondered whether there might be a third reason for going over to the valley: fine wine-country hiking. My wondering started, surprisingly, in the gourmet trail-food section of an outdoor gear store. Not far from the freeze-dried chocolate hazelnut Bavarian cake and the organic couscous and lentil curry, I discovered what every wine-country-bound hiker needs: the "virtually indestructible" GSI Wine Glass, with a space-saving two-part design for easy storage in a day pack.

I began to fantasize about walking from winery to winery, filling my special hiker's wineglass with the valley's offerings at each tasting room along the trail.

The Santa Ynez Valley has a long grape-growing season, with a 125- to-140 day ripening duration, compared with the 105-day ripening period in France's Burgundy region, where autumn rains frequently force the harvest. Long, lingering ripening results in better fruit, which, when delivered to one of the valley's skilled winemakers, creates exceptional wine.

Part of the art of viticulture is cultivating the right grape in the right place, valley winemakers are quick to point out to tasters. For more than three decades, the most successful grapes have been those used in the valley's award-winning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

At Andrew Murray Vineyards, Fran Murray's stories about starting a family winery were fascinating, but it was really her hiker's knowledge I had come to tap. I figured Murray, a winemaker and active member of the Santa Ynez Women Hikers, who number about 140, would be the perfect source of information on hiking the Santa Ynez Valley.

"The valley is lovely, but there aren't many public footpaths," Murray said.

In fact, there are no public trails. True, the mountains lining the valley--the Santa Ynez range and the wilderness back country of Los Padres National Forest--offer superb hiking, but the valley itself has no parkland or public pathways.

"A lot of members of our hiking group would love to see the Wine Trail become a real trail," Murray said.

My hiker's spirit soared when I spotted signs along Foxen Canyon Road that read "Wine Trail." Alas, my hopes were crushed like grapes at harvest when I learned this "trail" linking wineries is an asphalt two-lane road restricted to motorists and a few brave bicyclists.

Nevertheless, my exploration along Foxen Canyon Road did uncover two wineries where hikers can walk private trails--and taste the properties' wines.

Perched atop a commanding mesa overlooking Zaca Canyon, the valley and the wilderness beyond, Firestone Vineyard is the oldest (established in 1972) estate winery in the county. The large (by valley standards) winery produces acclaimed Merlots, Chardonnays and Rieslings.

During the 1990s, winery founder Brooks Firestone represented Santa Barbara County in the State Assembly for several terms. Returning to the family business, he set about constructing a trail around the vineyard. The fruit of his labor was Brooks Trail, a pleasant pathway that connects Firestone Vineyard with Curtis Winery (also owned by the Firestone family).

The signed path begins by the picnic area, just below the Firestone tasting room. Valley vistas are superb from the start of the trail. The trail descends to the vineyard, skirts rows and rows of grapes, and soon crosses the vineyard's paved entry road.

Brooks Trail climbs a bit, then contours along oak-dotted slopes. Enjoy grand views of Foxen Canyon, then descend to Curtis Winery, which specializes in Rho^ne-style wines.

Firestone's tasting room is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with detailed winery tours conducted at quarter past the hour until 3:30 p.m. Curtis Winery keeps the same tasting hours as Firestone.

Zaca Mesa Winery, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, occupies a serene plateau overlooking Foxen Canyon. Visitors can enjoy an array of varietals, take two tours (11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.) and walk two trails.

Windmill Trail (0.25 mile) climbs to a picnic area, then up to a little overlook. Z Trail (0.25 mile) also climbs to an overlook, a popular promontory for exchanging wedding vows. The path winds among the area's two kinds of oak--coastal live and valley--helpfully identified by signs en route.

My small sampling of Santa Ynez Valley wine country trails was delightful but left me thirsting for more. I hope the Wine Trail becomes a real trail some day. Meanwhile, I'll keep my wineglass handy and await more trails.

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