Taste Your Way Through the Santa Ynez Valley
Although the movie Sideways brought international attention to the Santa Ynez Valley wineries in the early 2000s, this area had been producing world-class wines long before then. The various cities and roads connecting the Santa Ynez Valley has 100-plus wineries, and with plenty of hotels and fine dining around the region, this area makes for the ultimate wine vacation — particularly during the harvest season. There are plenty of tours in the valley that provide a safe way to navigate the numerous locations and taste some of the finest wines in the Santa Ynez Valley. Take a visit to the Santa Ynez Valley this fall and learn about the grape harvest while giving one of these wineries a try.
Just outside the town of Ballard, Buttonwood is one of the oldest wineries in the valley. Their main vineyard sits in the hills surrounding their picturesque garden and tasting room. Each of the elegant wines have artistic labels and are produced by Karen Steinwachs, one of the region’s long-established winemakers. Karen is someone who has been through a multitude of harvests over her extensive career. She comments, “Last year we ended up picking about 120 tons of fruit and I think we are about the same or a little bit smaller this year. We had a really cool spring and that kind of delayed everything.” While this year’s harvest will not be ready this fall, visitors can still taste her skilled handling of the vineyards at the tasting room. Along with more classic examples of the region, Karen produces several experimental wines including Hop On, a dry-hopped white wine.
Close to Buttonwood is the popular Danish-themed town of Solvang with a wide variety of wine tasting rooms to visit. Located right downtown on Mission Drive, Casa Cassara was first opened by Dan Cassara and wife Bridget ten years ago. The tasting room has a cozy mood with 15 different wines to choose from, and a family collection of wines soon to be released. While in Solvang, also visit the Sanger Family of Wines: Consilience, Tre Anelli, Marianello. Owners Bill and Jan Sanger bring their blend of European influences and modern tastes in these different labels, melding old-world wines with the distinct California Central Coast flare.
Across the entire Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos is the epicenter of tasting rooms with several dozen wineries crossing the streets of Grand and Alamo Pintado Ave. With plenty of splendid restaurants and boutique spots, like the expressive winery Artiste, and larger vineyard tasting rooms such as Carhartt Vineyard, it is hard to try everything in one visit!
Taking its name from the French red poppy flower, Coquelicot Estate Vineyards has a minimalist approach to their CCOF Certified Organic wines. Mike Roth, a renowned viticulturist and Coquelicot Estate’s winemaker, has been working with wine for many years and firmly believes in the power of biodynamic farming. Their vineyard is just outside of Solvang, and the main Coquelicot Estate tasting room can be found in Los Olivos.
With so many varietals throughout the valley, it takes an in-depth knowledge of winemaking to handle the variety of grapes being grown. As one of the Central Coast’s only Master Sommeliers, Paolo Barbieri’s lifetime of experience can be enjoyed in his Barbieri Wines. This winery was founded by Paolo and wife Erin Kempe, who has a rich culinary background. Their barrel warehouse is in Buellton with Los Olivos hosting the Barbieri tasting room. It is one the largest in town and serves their educated takes on classic varietals in a distinctive setting. The Barbieri Wines highlight the Rhone varietals, which is what Paolo has traditionally worked with. The winery has a second label, Kempe, that takes its name from Erin and is inspired by her love for the Bordeaux region. Most of the fruit for the Barbieri label are sourced from the Santa Ynez Valley with the Kempe grapes coming from Paso Robles. Erin mentions, “We wanted to make something from Paso Robles, and the Bordeaux varietals just love it up there because it is so much warmer.” The room’s colorful antique furniture with a country flare is a nod to Erin’s hometown of Texas. Visit their location to try one of their traditional Rhone or Bordeaux varietals, or one of their themed flights.
With the Gainey Vineyard nearby, the small town of Santa Ynez hosts a couple of wineries, Carr Winery being the largest in town. All of Carr’s wines are processed, aged, and bottled in Santa Barbara. Once the wine is bottled, it is sent to their warehouse in Santa Ynez where it is bottle-aged in the climate-controlled facility for six to eight months prior to its release. Also hosted in the warehouse, guests can try the wines produced from Carr’s own vineyards. The tasting room warehouse will soon be filled with this year’s harvest and according to Ryan Carr, “Harvest is looking really nice this year. We had a little bit of concern early on in the season with a pretty windy start to the year. Early spring was quite windy. We had some concerns of flowers not fertilizing properly and ending up with some shatter, but all in all it really turned out nicely.”
Carr Winery has several vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, and keeping an eye on the different blocs of grapes as they ripen can be tedious. Ryan adds, “We saw a few things here and there that didn’t have the best fruit set. But for the most part, pretty much everything set nicely. We got a really nice crop out there. Despite the lack of rain, we got good vigor on pretty much all of the vineyards and it is looking strong going into the harvest season here.”
Each harvest is unique and can have unexpected moments. “It always gets exciting as the harvest starts to come closer,” Ryan feels. “Pinot noir is always the first one off and always the scariest one. We’ve got all the crazy moisture that has been coming through. That kind of gets the nerves going. It looks like we made it through that pretty nicely and we’re going to dry out and get nice and ripe.”
CrossHatch Winery is the other main tasting room in Santa Ynez and is actually a side project of Carr Winery. These wines focus on the Old World technique of winemaking by co-fermenting grape blends. Ryan explains, “When we harvest the grapes, we are harvesting multiple varietals together at the same time, crushing them together, and fermenting them together. We make the blends prior to fermenting the juice. It incorporates the flavors a little bit more. It makes for a much different style wine than if you had made them separately. Co-fermenting blends makes for some really beautiful wines.” While in Santa Ynez, make sure to swing by and give one of these unique blends a try.
At the intersection of CA-101 and HWY-246 is the town of Buellton with a solid selection of tasting rooms. With so many options in the area, it can be hard to choose which to try. Lining the downtown, fortunately Industrial Way has an entire row to easily visit in one trip including McClain Cellars, Terravant Winery, and Alma Rosa Winery. At Buscador Winery & Tasting Room, options are their specialty. “Variety is what I really enjoy making. I’m actually up to producing 24 different varietals,” says Matt Kowalczyk, winemaker and owner of Buscador along with his wife, Steph. Sourcing their fruit from around the valley, Matt has found this region perfect in his search for variety. He adds, “As the Santa Ynez Valley has grown, the vineyards and the planting have expanded. They’ve [vintners] planted lots and lots of different varieties and everyone is experimenting with the different microclimates that are around. So that’s allowed a lot of us winemakers to explore different and new varietals.”
Depending on the plantings and harvest, every year Matt tries to add new and different varietals into his line-up. Matt notes, “Now there is Zinfandel planted in Happy Canyon which I really enjoy. I’ve expanded into some Italian varietals, like Vermentino. That is a popular new varietal in the valley. Sangiovese of course. Some obscure varietals too. Clairette blanche is one. I continue to try to open new doors and explore new pathways.” The name Buscador is Spanish for “searcher” and their line of wines reflect Matt’s curiosity for life and global travels. Matt adds, “The wine changes from year-to-year. You can make the same wine, from the same grapes, the same way, every single year for five years in a row. But the wine is going to taste different every time.”
In the quaint, charming town of Los Alamos a variety of historic buildings line the downtown area. While spending time in Los Alamos, there are a handful of wineries to enjoy. Located in this historic spot is the Bedford Wines tasting room. This boutique winery pulls from some of the oldest vineyards and eccentric varietals from the region, but they also produce more popular styles like oak-fermented Syrahs and Chardonnay. A visit to this cozy tasting room is a necessity as most of their bottles are sold through the winery and online sales.
Lumen Wines is a venture between friends and collaborators Will Henry and Lane Tanner, who wanted to craft a label that focuses primarily on cool-climate vineyards and early harvests. The early harvest means there is less sugar, producing lower alcohol wines with an accented flavor. Their main vineyard is planted with mostly the signature Pinot Noir grapes of the area with some Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc blocs as well. The fifty-year-old vineyard, Sierra Madre, is in the Santa Maria Valley; taste their full collection of wine at the Lumen Lounge inside the restaurant Pico, owned by Will and his wife. The restaurant and posh wine bar are located in an antique 19th century building in downtown Los Alamos, providing a charming setting to taste these vibrant wines.
Harvest Wine Weekend in Paso Robles If you’re able to travel further up north this fall, try visiting Paso Robles for their annual Harvest Wine Weekend. Taking place on the weekend of Oct 15 – 17, this citywide festival is three days of events suitable for wine tourists of all experience levels. Christopher Taranto, Communications Director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, which hosts the events, says, “Whether you are completely into wine and know your stuff, or you are new to wine, there’s a little something for everybody. There’s over 200 wineries here, and over that weekend there should be somewhere over 130 events.” He continues, “There’s so many things to choose from though that you can find the more serious type tastings, or you can find the fun stuff. That’s kind of all the personalities of Paso Robles.” There is purposefully no headliner event. This gives the vintners a chance to take a much needed rest while the wineries host individual events that highlight the region. With plenty of outdoor events, hotels, and transportation options, Harvest Wine Weekend makes for a perfect chance to explore Paso Robles and get to know its character. Chris concludes, “The town is just really super approachable. We’re very casual here. Although we’re serious about our wines.” Visit their website below to see a full list of events.
- Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard: 1500 Alamo Pintado Rd, Solvang (805) 688-3032 or buttonwoodwinery.com
- Casa Cassara Winery & Vineyard: 1607 Mission Dr #112, Solvang (805) 688-8691 or ccwinery.com
- Sanger Wines Tasting Room: 1584 Mission Dr, Solvang (805) 691-1020 or sangerwines.com
- Artiste Tasting Studio: 2948 Grand Ave Ste E, Los Olivos (805) 686-2626 or artiste.com
- Carhartt Family Wines: 2939 Grand Ave, Los Olivos (805) 693-5100 or carharttfamilywines.com
- Coquelicot Vineyards: 2884 Grand Ave, Los Olivos (805) 688-1500 or coquelicotwines.com
- Barbieri Wines: 2369 Alamo Pintado Ave, Los Olivos (805) 688-8882 or barbieriwines.com
- Gainey Vineyards: 3950 CA-246, Santa Ynez (805) 688-0558 or gaineyvineyard.com
- Carr Winery: 3563 Numancia St, Santa Ynez (805) 688-5757 or carrwinery.com
- CrossHatch Winery: 1090 Edison St #104, Santa Ynez (805) 691-9192 or crosshatchwinery.com
- McClain Cellars: 140 Industrial Way Unit E, Buellton (805) 426-4441 or mcclaincellars.com
- Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards: 181 Industrial Way Unit C, Buellton (805) 691-9395 or almarosawinery.com
- Buscador Winery: 140 Industrial Way Unit D, Buellton (805) 242-5206 or buscadorwine.com
- Bedford Winery: 448 Bell St, Los Alamos (805) 344-2107 or bedfordwinery.com
- Lumen Wines: 458 Bell St, Los Alamos (805) 350-4054 or lumenwines.com
- Harvest Wine Weekend: pasowine.com/events/harvest-wine-weekend/