Lompoc: The Central Coast’s Best-Kept Wine Tasting Secret

Story and photos by Katherine McMahon

Heading north just after the Gaviota Pass, State Route 1 splits from the California 101 to curve west, passing through serene valleys in the Santa Ynez Mountains and along Salsipuedes Creek to the City of Lompoc. Lompoc sits in its own valley surrounded on the north and west by Vandenberg Air Force Base. On the east side of the city is the Santa Rita Hills which contain some of the best grape growing conditions in the region. Yet when Lompoc was founded 150 years ago, it was established as a temperance colony where the manufacture, sale, and consumption of liquor was prohibited. Fortunately, that stage in Lompoc’s history didn’t last long and today there is a rich local wine culture. Part of what makes the area special for winemaking is the significant presence of diatomaceous earth, which is a white, rocky soil formed from ancient deposits of sea life, much the same way that Paso Robles is known for its calcareous soils. But what stood out for me on my visit to Lompoc was the devotion and passion of the artisans making wine.

Kessler-Haak grounds.

The heart of the Lompoc wine scene is the “Wine Ghetto,” a collection of gray single-story warehouse-like buildings tucked behind a Home Depot that contains nearly a dozen wineries. The winemakers recognize the name isn’t as hip sounding as Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone or Paso Robles’s Tin City. But they boast that the Wine Ghetto was here first and that it’s a term of endearment because it suits their rough-and-tumble creative energy. I spent an afternoon there sampling amazing wines at Temperance Cellars and Dark Water Winery.

Temperance was named as a humorous reference to Lompoc’s dry origins. Owner and winemaker Justin Charbonneau grew up in Lompoc, and after working in the wine industry decided to make his own a decade ago. He only produces around 500 cases a year using locally sourced grapes. Part of his approach is to harvest only when the grapes are exactly where he wants them, regularly tasting them in the vineyards in the late summer. The attention paid off. I loved his rosé; the pinot was lean and earthy; and the grenache was so amazing I bought a bottle to take home.

Just a quick walk around the corner was Dark Water Winery, formed from the friendship of Reggie Pagaling — a Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians tribal elder — and Dave Mazzonetto, an Italian born to a family with multiple generations of winemaking.

I sat with Dave for over an hour, talking about his life, wine, and the creative process. He told me he has wine in his blood, and Dark Water is a passion project. They believe in hand-made wines, with extended maceration and lengthy barrel times. The result is immense flavor and the single-best cabernet I have ever tasted. The only drawback is how small the production size is!

A few blocks west in midtown Lompoc is another cluster of wineries. Steve and Brandon Bridge are a father-and-son team who provide strategic guidance to small businesses and startups in the Lompoc area. Eight years ago, they created the Lompoc Wine Factory as a co-op space for winemakers. There are almost a dozen winemakers sharing the production facility. When I stopped by, three winemakers sat with me at the same time, sampling each other’s wine as we talked. One of them was Brandon himself, who has developed East Atlas Spirits, an inventive line of brandies and other fruit spirits. Angela Soleno shared the wines of her Turiya label, an impressive selection of red Bordeaux varietals. And Kyle Knapp brought some bottles of his Press Gang Cellars. The creative and cooperative spirit of Lompoc was on full display. Here was a place to spend time with friends, enjoy beautiful distinctive wines, and head 10 minutes down the road to Surf Beach at the end of the day.

Wine Ghetto at sunset.

A block east from the Wine Ghetto is a colorful building that is a converted diatomaceous earth processing plant now known as the Santa Rita Hills Wine Center. There are five “bays” along a wood deck on which people gather to sip wine and watch rocket launches from Vandenberg and view the hillsides to the south. At the far end is Transcendence, the creation of Sara and Joey Gummere. I sat at the tasting room counter with locals, who lovingly called it “the Cheers” of Lompoc. Joey has been in the local wine business since he was 19, working with different vineyard managers and winemakers. Sara’s career blended conflict resolution, community, and artistry, in what she calls transcendent communication. They began creating their own wine from the perspective that if you are truly passionate about something, you make it yourself and share it with the world. The wines and community of Lompoc continued to impress me.

The author, at Kessler-Haak.

For a welcome break from all the wine tasting, I went two doors down to Capulín Eats & Provisions. Kelly Durbiano had been in the restaurant business for many years when she learned there was an available spot at the Santa Rita Hills Wine Center and decided to create a concept to go in it. Her business partner had a Capulín tree in his yard that unexpectedly bloomed — a sign of good luck — and so they named the café after it. She creates the baked goods, while he runs the kitchen. They also offer coffee, tea, cheeses, and snacks. I had the barbacoa pizza which had incredible flavor, and the Mexican mocha with a perfect balance of sweet and spice.

Kessler-Haak Wines has a tasting room next door to Capulín, but I drove a few miles east along Route 246 to meet with Dan Kessler at his home and vineyard. During his successful career as an electrical engineer, Dan was passionate about wine, even growing grapes in his backyard. In 2005, Dan and his wife Ellen Haak fell in love with the Santa Rita Hills and purchased a 40-acre parcel on which they planted 30 acres of grapes. The foggy mornings and warm, sunny afternoons create an ideal microclimate to cultivate pinot noir and chardonnay with low sugars and crisp acidity. They live, farm, and produce wine on this stunning property.

I was lucky to be able to sit with Dan on the patio overlooking his lush vineyards and sample his extraordinary wines. He has created an outdoor tasting space that can host wine club events with live music. We chatted about his story and passion while enjoying cheeses that he had perfectly paired. I thoroughly enjoyed all of his wines, but two really stood out to me. The sparkling brut had a gorgeous nose of green apple, pear, and lemon and was so good that I took some home. Dan created Ohana by blending a little pinot from every block on his vineyard and blending them all together making one beautiful “family” that is light in body but rich in flavor.

Lompoc was a lesson to not judge a book by its cover. Lompoc is small, off the main route, and lacks the tourist draws of some of its neighboring communities. But there I found a creative spirit, wonderful people, and exceptional wines. It’s a perfect destination for a day trip from Santa Barbara or as part of a weekend in Los Alamos or Buellton. Time your visit right and you might see a rocket launch while meeting the rising stars of wine country.

Follow more of my adventures here at California101Guide.com or on Instagram at @vineyardandvoyages.