On the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail

Story and photos by Katherine McMahon

Years ago when I worked in Beverly Hills, my best friend Stacy would convince me to escape to wine country on our days off. She was a lover of life, laughter, and good wine, and got me out of my shell when I just wanted to be a sloth at home. Together we would drive up Highway 101, stop for the night in the Santa Ynez Valley, and spend the next day driving country roads, visiting wineries all afternoon, and finish with dinner at the Hitching Post to talk about our favorite moments.

Great wines abound in every direction on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned Stacy and I had been driving the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Foxen Canyon Road runs for about 30 miles from the hills just north of Los Olivos to the farmland east of Santa Maria. There are 16 wineries located along or near the road that make up the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. At key intersections along the road there are signposts with white arrow boards pointing the way to the wineries, each of which offers their individual mix of heritage, beauty, and delicious wines.

Stacy passed away in the summer of 2020 due to a rapid and deadly cancer. I was devastated, but I was also inspired to step out of my comfort zone and pursue the dream she had always advocated for me: to be a food, wine, and travel writer. So now, I am back to revisit and write about our beloved spots along the Foxen Canyon trail.

Driving on Alisos Canyon Road, which branches off the 101 and meets Foxen Canyon Road at about its midpoint, my first stop was Dovecote. Like many of the wineries on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, Dovecote produces small quantities of thoughtfully crafted wines from organically farmed grapes. The Thompson family purchased the land almost 40 years ago, but it would take a decade of work before the first vintage was bottled. Since then, Dovecote’s single-vineyard syrah has become renowned. The winery has changed hands, but the craftsmanship continues. The tasting space is a small, rustic structure facing a pond bordered by a 240-year-old oak. After I had tried the wines, the tasting manager and her dog took me in their ATV on a tour of the property that includes hillside vineyards, a stocked fishing pond, pastures with horses, and rental cottages which can host weddings. The entirety of these landscapes and fantastic wine was a dreamy moment.

Charming views at Petros.

On my way to my next reservation, I saw a gorgeous barn building next to rows of grapes with majestic trees behind. “What a beautiful place,” I thought, wishing I was going there. Then the sign came into view: Zaca Mesa – it actually was my destination! Family-owned for almost 50 years, Zaca Mesa was the third winery to be established in Santa Barbara County, and the first to plant syrah. They now produce wine under two labels. Zaca Mesa wines feature estate-grown grapes from the vineyards right around the tasting barn, while Tread wines feature grapes from throughout Santa Barbara County that highlight the range of microclimates and varietals. Every wine was great. I got to meet Stewart Cushman, the second generation of Cushmans to lead Zaca Mesa. He happened to be visiting that weekend and shared his pride in the work his team has done.

The author at Zaca Mesa

A few minutes north is Foxen Vineyards, where I met Jennifer Williams-Doré, part of the ownership team. Her husband, Dick Doré, co-founded Foxen in 1985, who named it after his great-great-grandfather, an English sea captain William Benjamin Foxen. William purchased the land, then known as Rancho Tinaquaic, in the 1830s. Known for their pinots, Foxen produces a range of varietals from grapes grown in many of the different microclimates of Santa Barbara County. We laughed about the “Sideways” effect — how the national consumption of pinots shot up after the film — but Foxen had already spent decades perfecting their pinot. In fact, they produce eight versions of pinot noir, each one highlighting how the variations in temperature, soil, and humidity in different spots give distinct flavors to the grapes.

Going north, past the historic San Ramon Chapel where William Benjamin Foxen is buried, Foxen Canyon joins the Sisquoc River Valley. In the flat of the ancient riverbed is Riverbench Winery, known for their méthode champenoise-style sparkling wines. The ground is a rich, fine, alluvial soil that contains particles of clay, silt, sand, and gravel — great for developing expressive grapes. The property is stunning, with multiple places you can sit and relax under majestic shade trees. Flowers bloom everywhere you look, and the trees sway gently in the breeze. It was a perfect spot to have a glass of sparkling wine along with a midday cheese plate.

Driving back toward Los Olivos brought me to Demetria, my friend Stacy’s favorite. We went so many times. It is hidden almost two miles off the road in its own little valley surrounded by hillside vineyards. Founded in 2005 by Greek-born John Zahoudanis, Demetria specializes in limited release wines. This was my first time back in five years; I sat under the shade of olive trees outside the stucco villa while sipping their flagship wine — Cuvee Constantine, a mourvedre-grenache-syrah blend. This was a slice of Grecian paradise, and the perfect catharsis.

Views over the vineyards at Zaca Mesa.

Closer to Los Olivos is Andrew Murray. I was worried I would feel wined-out by this point. But then the server brought out the Andrew Murray Étancher which is a carbonic rosé of grenache, with a beautiful pink color and such a bright flavor. This was an eye-opening and innovative wine. Plus, the Andrew Murray seating area is sublimely relaxing, with mature olive and oak trees and picturesque views over the grapes, and music of just the right vibe playing. I could have sat there for a while taking it all in but had to press on to get to dinner.

Almost back to town, I stopped at Petros for a simply delicious Greek meal. The property is charming, with a vintage car parked in front of the elegant barn-like restaurant. Petros is a winery producing Hellenic wines, but instead of offering tasting flights, there is full menu to compliment the wine. I had tzatziki dip, spanakopita, gyro, and baklava. So good!

There are many more wineries along the trail — Cottonwood Canyon, Cambria, Fess Parker, Firestone, Kenneth Volk, Koehler, Rancho Sisquoc, Tensley, and Tres Hermanas — each with their own personality and their own excellent wines. Sadly, I could not make it to them all. With so many to choose from, plus everything else the area has to offer, it’s best to make a weekend of it!

The Foxen Canyon Wine Trail connects the San Ynez Valley, including the towns of Los Olivos, Solvang, and Buellton, along with Santa Maria and the towns of Los Alamos and Orcutt. All of them have great places to stay and eat in a range from budget to luxury. Some of my favorites are Zaca Creek Inn & Tavern in Buellton, and Skyview Hotel/Norman Restaurant in Los Alamos. And best of all, the area is only a couple hours from L.A., but feels like a complete escape from the intensity of the city. Get away to rejuvenate your spirit. I’m happy I did.