Destinations / GO
WHEN IT COMES to wine, we Northern Californians are spoiled. It’s easy for us to say, “We have Napa. We
You’ve admired the rolling hills, possibly
have Sonoma. Why visit a wine country
Big mistake. Four-plus hours south of the
Bay Area lies one of California’s truly stellar
wine regions, Santa Barbara County’s Santa
Ynez Valley. If you’ve driven Highway 101
south, you’ve seen it from the car window.
stopped for butter cookies in Solvang, and
maybe remembered that the famous oeno-
phile movie Sideways was filmed here.
But if you haven’t set foot in the Santa Ynez
recently, you’ve missed out. Here is a relaxed,
welcoming spot that has some of the best wine —
and now, some of the best food — in California.
TO UNDERSTAND what’s special about the
Santa Ynez, take Highway 246 west from
Buellton, famous for the Days Inn where
Miles and Jack stayed in Sideways. (So famous
that the motel just changed its name to the
Sideways Inn.) It’s the road that reveals the
valley at its best: oak-studded hills, soaring
hawks, vineyards and a sense of nearing the
sea. In a few miles you hang a right and follow
a poplar-shaded drive to Melville Winery.
Melville is a Santa Ynez pioneer: in the
1990s, grape grower Ron Melville sold his
Today the region holds more than 100 wineries
Sonoma acreage and bought land here. Wine-
wise, the valley was terra incognita. “It was
totally scary,” his son Chad Melville recalls.
“But my dad has always been a guy who likes
to take risks.”
The risks paid off. What the Melvilles found
was a region uniquely suited to producing a
wide range of good wines. The Santa Ynez is,
Chad explains, one of the few valleys in North
America that run east-west instead of (like,
say, Napa) north-south. At its western end is
the chilly Pacific Ocean. With no hills to block
them, ocean breezes flow inland. The western
portion of the valley is considerably cooler
than the eastern. That means that Melville
shines producing cool-climate pinot noirs and
chardonnays, while wineries in the hotter east
produce excellent Rhône varietals and cabs.
and is divvied up into five appellations: Santa
Ynez, Santa Rita Hills (home to Melville), Los
Olivos, Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon.
But geography isn’t the only thing that
makes the valley special, says another pio-
neer, Mark Crawford Horvath of Crawford
Family Wines. Without dissing Napa or
Sonoma, Horvath thinks Santa Ynez is more
open to new, younger winemakers. “There’s
just more room for the independent, small
guys,” he says.
Spend a day wine tasting here and you see
what Horvath means. Santa Ynez is a rangy,
loping, uncrowded wine country. At tasting rooms, the person pouring your pinot
may well be the winemaker. The winery look
ranges from luxurious (tastefully Tuscan
Melville) to unpretentious barely describes
it — e.g., the wineries housed in the industrial
buildings of Lompoc’s “Wine Ghetto.” Quaint
they aren’t, but the wines are amazing.
IF THE WINES of the Santa Ynez Valley have
been good — OK, great — for a while, even the
valley’s fans say that dining and lodging has
taken time to catch up. Now it has.
One thing you quickly notice about the
valley is that its small towns are distinctive. There’s Danish-themed Solvang, with
its straight-outta-Copenhagen bakeries and
statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little
Mermaid. There’s Old West Santa Ynez. Los