This is California Wine Tasting. We walked into the tasting room. It felt like we had just stepped into a modern Western movie set, made of dark cowboy wood and rustic metal, but with the delicate ambiance of a quiet antique store. The place was nearly empty – and we loved having it to ourselves.
Los Olivos – California Wine Tasting – Here We Come!
I can’t remember the last time I was this excited! This was going to be my first real trip California wine tasting – specifically designed for sampling West Coast premium blends in the very place they were made. Sure, I had been to California for work (to San Diego a couple of times for business conventions), but I didn’t have the opportunity to do any real sightseeing and/or experience the wonderfully casual sunny outdoors of beautiful Southern California. So during the winter of 2014, we started planning our trip to go wine tasting near the Pacific Ocean – and Jay strongly recommended we visit Santa Ynez Valley, located just north of Santa Barbara, near the small Danish tourist village known as Solvang.
To make this trek affordable, we booked our trip several months in advance, using points from my Southwest card for plane tickets, finding a great deal on a room at The Hadsten House in Solvang through TripAdvisor.com, and a choosing a modest rental car through CostCo. Of course, we also watched the hilarious movie “Sideways” again – since much of it takes place right there in Buellton, just miles down the road from Solvang. (Personally, I couldn’t wait to discover the notes of the Pinot for myself, and to find out if the Merlot was really worth getting that fired up about!)
Timing The Anticipation Of Traveling To California Wine Country
On a Thursday night (just hours after getting off work and connecting through Oakland), our flight touched down at the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, and we suddenly found ourselves exiting from the cool interior of the plane out to the warm outdoors – right there on the jetway around 10 o’clock at night. We felt transfixed! We could see the hills of the San Gabriel Mountains to our east, and somewhere to the west lay our final destination. We hurried with excitement to claim our bags at the outdoor baggage claim, then walked briskly to find our rental car at the Alamo counter, which turned out to be a brand new Nissan Maxima – and that’s when we hit the road.
We were starving from traveling, so Jay led me to the In & Out Burger on Lankersheim Boulevard in North Hollywood. We instantly devoured our cheeseburgers while sitting in our car parked on Ventura Boulevard – just two more strangers in the random chaotic night life of Los Angeles. Honestly, it really was one of the best burger and fries I’ve ever had, and Jay was having a great time roaming the familiar streets of his previous life of Hollywood dreams… Everywhere he looked was another movie studio and another film set story as we made our way west on the 101 Freeway. I so wish we had more time to venture over the hills into Hollywood, but we needed to make good time through the west side of the valley, down the steep grade, and into Camarillo, to our Thursday night hotel for some desperately needed sleep. As we parked there at midnight, we were exhausted and excited, and tomorrow we would be California wine tasting!
May 25, 2015 – My First Southern California Wine Tasting Experience
Friday morning we woke up fresh – briskly getting ready while enjoying some fantastic and free continental breakfast of cream cheese bagels, juices and fruit – we were only hours away from our final destination! We still had a short drive ahead of us, up through Santa Barbara to Los Olivos, which is where we planned to spend most of the rest of the day. And what a lovely drive it was, up the 101 North, along the green and brown arid coast – perfectly accompanied by the smooth sounds of our new Michael Buble CD and the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack. I could feel the romance and heat building, as we crossed over one last bridge to our final descent through the jagged rocks and into the flat valley – my feelings of anticipation were at a frenzy I could barely contain.
As we drove north on Highway 154 (just past Roblar Winery), we eagerly arrived in Los Olivos, took a quick left turn onto Grand Avenue and immediately parked the car. We were here! Oh my god! Such a cute little Western town! A quaint off-the-beaten-path place you could easily retire to. And as we looked down the street, we saw dozens and dozens of tasting rooms! ‘Where in the world do we start,’ we wondered. And since we literally didn’t have any plans, schedule or any obligations, we started right there at the corner where we turned in – at Refugio Ranch. We walked directly into the tasting room. It felt like we had just stepped into a modern Western movie set, made of dark cowboy wood and rustic metal, but with the delicate ambiance of a quiet antique store. The place was nearly empty – and we loved having it to ourselves. We walked right up to the tasting bar where our friendly hostess began our flight of four: Viognier, Escondrijo, Petite Syrah, and Barbareno. Instantly, we were blessed with the fine, rich taste of good Southern California wine. Jay could barely sip it slow, and I completely understood. It’s hard to be conservative when you’re cradling a large engraved wine glass containing a small taste of heaven. And as we savored the grapes, she continued to feed us information about the wine varietals, the soil and the air. We thought we should pinch ourselves, because it felt just like the montage in “Sideways.” It was incredible. And before we finally moved on, she gave us several two-for-one coupons to other tasting rooms along the street, and some friendly referrals on what to try and where to go. She said there were over thirty more tasting rooms in Los Olivos alone, and at $10-$20 per flight per person, the coupons and referrals were a wonderfully welcome gift, for sure! OK, well…onto room number two.
We moved on to Epiphany Cellars – right next door – to use our first two-for-one coupon. My goodness, what a beautiful tasting room! The architecture of this place was so fine and elegant. The outside was decorated like a living room under the sky, and the interior like a bright decorated hotel right out of a stay-at-home-mom’s dream fantasy. I kept admiring the craftsmanship as our male host began talking to us about their wines. He was really knowledgeable and fun to hang out with. I couldn’t help but confess that I had never been to such a REAL wine tasting before. So he got us going with their prized Revelation, then a Syrah and then a Pinot. Oh my god, the color, the body, and the scent. The richness as it touched our lips, and the boldness as we gently swallowed. This is incredible wine, folks! We felt giddy, as we allowed him to finally introduce us to Gypsy, which is a very earthy red wine (and we could actually smell the dirt and manure and hay!) Because our senses were somewhere in mid-air, we got past the harsh smell, where it actually tasted good. But I couldn’t take sticking my nose into the glass, so he gave me another small pour of “Revelation.” Oh, that’s SO good!
We finally left, but not without a small bag of extra corks (I love them as decoration!) We had only been to two tasting rooms and we already felt inspired and elevated. It was magical. We walked further down Grand Ave. (as directed) towards the Los Olivos flagpole (a.k.a. ‘the center of town’) at the corner of Alamo Pintado Ave. It may have been just another Friday afternoon to the locals, but for us, it was a dream. Standing right there outside the Los Olivos General Store, we felt as free as birds. And so it was time for more wine!
On the south side of the corner stood a sign reading “Two for One Wine Tasting” at the J. Ludlow Tasting Room. We had to go in – and such a nice sunny colorful room – like we were at the beach, but tasting California wine. The hostess was awesome and she told us how she was from New Jersey, but she loved California too much to go back. We laughed about that, as we tasted Jane, Amarise, Kemsley 1550, and Hudson. Such good Cabernets – exactly what Jay loves. And it’s the Kodak moments like this that make him miss California, too. Such a perfect day and such an excellent getaway! And he could not get over the varietal blend of the “Jane.” And wouldn’t you know – it was 80% Merlot! Well, I guess that dispels that rumor! (To this day, Jay still talks about “that Jane.”) OK, well… Three down. Thirty more to go!
But before we continued, we had to walk next door and see for ourselves the first class, luxurious Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa. It’s every California wine tasting couple’s dream to stay there for the weekend. And then we could spend all day in this town! Such fine architecture and such top shelf accommodations – inside and outside. A beautiful place. Just like right out of the brochure. (In case you don’t know what to get me for my birthday, I would love to have the “Two Night Spa Package” – Thank You!)
We then walked back across Alamo Pintado, past the flag pole, and into the Los Olivos General Store, and of course, right there in the back of the store is another tasting room! Why wouldn’t there be?! The store is totally cute, with all kinds of great tchotchkes and souvenirs, and the tastings are from Larner Wine (hosted by Michael & Christina Larner). He is the winemaker and vineyard manager and she is a local artist and retail manager at the store. Such nice people, and such a great store. They continued our education about local wine making, and we absolutely loved her shop. And now it was time to eat! So we ordered a Curry Chicken Salad sandwich at Panino (right next to the General Store), eating potato chips and drinking water outside in the sunshine, talking about Santa Ynez wine, plotting our next tastings, with the flag pole as our backdrop. Does it really get any better than this?
Refreshed, we headed west on Alamo Pintado. The hostess at J. Ludlow told us that Byron and Barbieri were both great, next door to each other, and she gave us some two-for-one tasting coupons for each. Gotta love it! And on the way, we walked past Sides Hardware, where the gentleman at Epiphany had told us was the number one choice spot in town for a delicious and locally-owned and operated restaurant – the right way to top off a perfect day of California wine tasting. It sounded kind of strange, but this old historical landmark was once a hardware store – and just like the rest of this town – a hidden treasure for sure! As we walked by, we knew we would be back soon to find out just how good…
Sometimes when you’re looking for the bathroom, you discover something you could have easily just have missed. And that’s how we found St. Mark’s in-the-Valley Episcopal Church. The doors were open because there were men renovating inside the main building. We could not go in, but soon found the entrance to the bathrooms around the side, and stopped for a cute self-timed photo at a little tree out front. Jay did a great job of setting up the camera, because that picture of us sits framed by my bed to this day. Don’t you just love how sometimes random events are the moments you treasure the most?
Tasting room number five was Byron (only about a thirty second walk from the church). Another totally classy wine tasting room. Simple, full of wines, nearly empty, and fantastic. We felt like we could do this all day. Like it was a private tour – just for us! Standing at the counter, with our own host, pouring just for us, talking about the vineyard and the grapes and the climate, we swirled our glasses, looking for the ‘legs,’ drinking and tasting and comparing the flavors. Everything tasted so amazing. And Jay asked for more corks, and I laughed as our host handed us two more small bags. We took some more pictures and then said our goodbyes.
Number six – right next door – Barbieri – where we were greeted by an older, black Lab wearing a handkerchief around her neck (such a calm and friendly doggie!) Our wine hostess, Erin, made us feel right at home as we sat down in two comfy chairs at the lower side of the counter as she began our tasting flight, featuring different bottles of Barbieri Syrah. As she liberally poured and we gladly sipped, she passionately talked about how Master Sommelier Paolo Barbeiri loves to create and perfect a complex and reputable Syrah – and the way we quaffed it was proof that he knows what he’s doing! Time disappeared as we joyously hung out with her, petting the dog (“Penny”), and swapping traveler’s tales.
That’s when we realized we were getting hungry again, we really wanted something tasty to pair with this incredible wine, and so Erin took us to the back of the store where “Farmhouse Goods / Artisnal Cheese” had been seamlessly connected. And right there, it was… A fine cheese counter – teleported here from Wonderland! It was so hard to choose – so many excellent options. But she said, if it was up to her, she recommended what she liked to call ‘crack’ cheese. To our recollection, it was French, soft like brie, buttery, creamy, and incredible. She also recommended the natural flavor of 34 Degrees crackers. We took this food back to our wine spot at the counter and thoroughly enjoyed it. The crackers were wafer thin with hard edges and never got in the way of the addictive nature of the cheese. We couldn’t stop! She helped make our whole California wine tasting experience that day feel like we were all old friends just hanging out. But ultimately, we needed go, knowing full well that we would definitely visit Barbieri again some day…
Maybe it was the cheese, or just the incredible luck we were having, because Jay found a way to talk me into tasting room number seven! Since we had another two-for-one, we ended up at Blair Fox Cellars just a couple blocks east on Alamo Pintado. Walking there was fun (and good for the blood stream). And just as we were about to stroll in, we spotted Corner House Coffee, popping in for another quick bathroom break. (And as a surprise, Jay bought me a cute yellow mug with the store logo as another souvenir – and I use it every day!) Within minutes, we were sitting down at the counter at Blair Fox, where the surfer-style host had some tunes playing on a CD player, and away he started to pour. Between the music, the Grenache, the Syrahs, the past several hours, I felt flushed and ready for a nap. But Jay kept snapping pictures and chatting with the host. Where is he getting all this energy? Was there something hidden in that cheese?
After Blair Fox, we knew we had to start heading back to the car. We walked west, turned right at the flag pole, headed north on Grand, while admiring all the other little places we still knew nothing about. But before we got to the car, there was one more tasting room where we had a two-for-one (plus they stayed open an hour later than everyone else). That place is Carhartt – where $10 buys you a sampling of six wines – in an outdoor tasting area that makes you feel like you’ve just stepped into ‘Margaritaville’ or ‘Cabo Wabo.’ We pulled up a couple bar stools because the place was packed! Amazingly, we had gone all day with virtually the town to ourselves, but everybody in Los Olivos was now here – to finish off another excellent day – which made sense, because it had a great atmosphere and a great outdoor seating area.
Finally beginning to feel the heat of the sun on our shoulders, we started drinking extra water without sampling all of the wines. Somewhere between sitting at Carhartt, or near the end of the dream sequence montage feeling I had during the drive back to the hotel, I recollected on some of the very valuable things that I learned at my first real California wine tasting experience. I definitely made some rookie mistakes because I was having so much fun, and Los Olivos allowed me to make every one of them:
- It is acceptable to dump or spit out wine you do not like. If you finish every pour, you will get hammered.
- Drink lots of water in between and even during tastings. Try to stay hydrated and keep your palate fresh.
- You should only visit four (maybe five…six tops!) tasting rooms in one day. If you try to do too many, you tend to forget what you liked or didn’t like, unless you are taking really good notes along the way (which nobody does). We crammed in EIGHT locations – which is not recommended – because the last two were virtually unnecessary.
- The average time to spend in a tasting room should be at least one hour. Sit, enjoy, learn and savor it. Don’t rush off to the next one. They will still be there tomorrow.
- If you find a place you love, buy a bottle. Take it outside (or designated area) and enjoy it. Find food to eat with it as well. California wine country is beautiful – soak it in!
- Talk to other people. Talk to the host, other patrons, and other people that work there. The more you learn about a local wine making process, the better the grape tastes!
- Wander off the beaten path at least once a day.