Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting – Visiting The Wineries!
We never really ate dinner the night before, so Jay woke up early…starving! I kissed him and rolled over to get more sleep, as he headed down to the Hadsten House breakfast buffet which was included in our two-night stay. Like most people, Jay is a huge fan of a giant, free breakfast. He loves scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, hash browns, bacon, sausage, bagels, toast, and when he can get it, lox. Lucky for him (and a lot of other hungry Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting travelers) it turns out they had an awesome buffet that morning at the Hadsten House – so big credit goes to them – and their very accommodating staff!
Stepping out of the cottage-style restaurant, the cool morning air of Solvang got Jay’s attention – so he thought a one-hour stroll through town, taking pictures, sounded pretty swell. Such a unique, little village plopped right there within the wine country of Southern California creates such an interesting cultural mix between tourist attraction and traditional heritage to its original Dutch roots. As you walk around the few square blocks of the center of town, there are several authentic Dutch pastry shops, mixed-in with tourist gift shopping, and even a year-round Christmas store! It’s a really neat place, because you feel like you’re in a quaint village in Northern Europe, and if you ever get the chance, you should check it out sometime. And be sure to allow for at least a few hours to walk around and get a bite to eat; it feels like a time machine!
On his way back to the room, Jay was thoughtful and brought me breakfast, and as we got ready for our only full day here (Saturday), we did some strategic planning about how to get the most out of our time. We figured since we had spent yesterday in the Los Olivos wine tasting rooms, today we would drive around and visit some actual wineries. But not before stopping by the famous Hitching Post restaurant – where the Sideways‘ guys spent their spare time in their favorite watering hole. (Unfortunately, when we got there, it hadn’t opened yet for the day, so we settled for taking a few photos for our memories [as did another couple we met in the parking lot] and we continued on our own path. No biggie!)
Searching For Sushi In Wine Country
Somewhere yesterday (read Day One) between J. Ludlow, Barbieri and Byron tasting rooms in Los Olivos, we started getting chatty about our enthusiasm for local sushi – and on a recommendation from someone we talked to (and we don’t remember who – sorry!) they said that Buellton actually had a good sushi place called A-RU Sushi. We drove there, and to our dismay, they too had not opened yet. Dang, that’s twice in one morning! Note to self: Always, always, always…check the website before showing up! So we got out our cell phones, did some searching on Google, and wound up driving to Santa Maria, where we found Mikado sushi restaurant. No, it’s not glamorous, it’s more of a lunch spot, so we sat at the sushi bar, the staff was really nice, and the rolls were huge! Even the chef looked at us funny, because we had ordered so many rolls (because Jay thinks he’s a competitive eater like Kobayashi when it comes to sushi), so we were totally stuffed when we left. And now we had a good, thick rice base for soaking up another day of premium red California wine. Since the drive to Santa Maria was about 30 miles north up the 101 freeway, our updated plan was to find a path to the southeast and stop at some wineries all the way back to our room. And that’s what we like to call, ‘a perfect plan’: spending Saturday visiting wineries and Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting!
Winery #1 – Cambria – Tasting At A Large Winery
After exiting Mikado in Santa Maria, we drove due east on Main Street, then made our way southeast to Foxen Canyon road, while driving past above ground irrigation equipment and fields of busy workers and pickers (which is something that you see everywhere in rural California). It’s hot out there – and very dusty – driving on narrow dirt roads, passing large farm work trucks, it feels like the edge of nowhere – certainly not what you think of as exotic wine country – but you have to keep going! Because then suddenly, after just a few more miles, and a couple turns, we found ourselves driving past huge rows of grape vines, that if you turned your head sideways flashed by like flipping pages of a book. And as we came upon a sign, we made a final left turn up onto the driveway, which lead us up to our first winery tasting room…Cambria.
As we parked our rental car in a parking spot out front, I tried to take in the view of the Cambria property as a whole, but it was just too massive to get my arms around – I’m sure there are fields of grapes of theirs we can’t even see! The shear magnitude of owning and operating such a beautiful location must be like a dream. I think I’m ready for some wine! As we casually walked inside, we were greeted at the counter, we gave her our handy-dandy Two-For-One Tasting coupon, and like that, we were being poured our first Chardonnay of the day. We smiled at each other, clinked our glasses, and began sipping.
And so of course, there we are, probably sweating a little from the heat of the drive (and the double-time processing of our kidneys) with a general next morning discombobulation fish-out-of-water feeling, when this noisy couple next to us starts talking to us (probably because there really wasn’t anybody else there at the moment and they seemed like they had been there all morning). So they asked where we were from, I say Kansas City, their from Sacramento, he says something about baseball, Jay tells them I love Old Vine Zin, I mistakenly pour my rejected Chardonnay Clone into a water carafe (instead of the designated reject bucket), Jay talks about how my favorite Gen5 is actually a screw-top, and then that was it. In slow motion, we looked up to see the elitism wash over them like a greasy social tidal wave. His routine then became smothering Jay with his gross drunken breath and bragging about ‘good’ baseball players, while she generously schooled me through her spiderweb eyelashes about knowing ‘real’ Old Vine Zins and how there’s nowhere else better than Lodi. So, yup, we left after that. (we wish to say this is no reflection of Cambria but at one time or another we have all had this experience).
As we walked up the crest of the hill beyond the parking lot, to an incredibly photogenic spot for a long-lasting mental image, we saw another couple doing the same, and just taking it all in. As we inhaled the intense beauty of the California wine tasting countryside, I think we both quietly reflected on how no matter how high or low you go in life, you can always learn something new about yourself, and along the way you’ll likely be reminded (at the most unpredictable place and time) that happiness and beauty reside within the simplest of things, and that sometimes people that should be the happiest just really often aren’t.
Winery #2 – Foxen – Your Friends In The Canyon
Deep in the heart of Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting, Foxen Vineyards tasting room is located on the east side of Foxen Canyon Road (and Jay had previously been there before and has a hat to prove it!) And actually, they have TWO tasting rooms! First, we stopped at Foxen 7200 (a.k.a. “The Shack”) – but since we couldn’t use our 2-for-1 there (because we were looking to taste a flight of reds) they directed us to the second and main location down the road. We easily found the second stylish wooden Foxen tasting room, and excitedly walked in.
This place was busy! They had two tasting bars and they were both filled with people. In fact, it took a minute to find a spot for two at the bar, but as soon as we did, the hostess was ready to help us get started. We gave her our two-for-one tasting coupon, and she gave us a list containing several Pinot Noir and Syrah. For $20 for two people, you can’t beat such a concentrated list of quality wine. The scents and the colors – the full bodied taste. Oh yeah…Foxen has great wine!
The decor is very classy – lots of woods, with a traditional feel, high ceiling – reminding you of a summer vacation home that maybe you’ve been to before in a dream… And yet, as we looked around, we noted to each other: there’s no food here! How can that be? How can you be a destination winery with a great location, incredible decor, fantastic wine, and no food? That made no sense to us. Can’t you at least have a pantry with some nuts and dried fruits? Wine drinkers need some nibblies (just like a mouse needs cheese) and yet we see this all the time. So we smell an opportunity.
By about the third glass (and hours after crawling out of bed this morning), I finally started to enjoy the wine – because I love Pinot! And that’s when Jay started asking questions about the map on the wall. “If the ‘St.’ stands for Santa, and not Saint, then why not just write ‘Santa?’, he inquired. “Why mess around with all that ‘St.’ business?” So this is one of those questions that most other people might actually quietly think to themselves, but Jay says right out in the open. I tried not to look at him funny. And wouldn’t you know it? Our wine hostess had the answer right away. She said, “It’s because there’s already a county that uses ‘Santa’ in its wine making, because in California that word is so common, and so this whole area just puts ‘St.’ on their labels, to avoid copyright issues, even though it’s pronounced ‘Santa.'” Jay satisfyingly thanked her, as he swished back another red gulp. A couple with a freshly opened Foxen bottle and a personal limo driver got a huge laugh out of that, and suddenly the volume in our side of the tasting room went significantly up – as the hostess went on to talk about the soils and the wind and the way the air from the Pacific Ocean significantly affects the grapes on the windward side of the hills. It was fascinating – and we were soaking it all in.
So there we were, talking to the hostess, the limo driver couple, the limo driver, other wine tasters, and that’s when the hostess says there’s another really good red wine on our list, but it’s only available on the other side of the room. With no hesitation, Jay walked our glasses over there on a rope and came right back to me. One obvious thing about Jay is that he really likes to have a good time – and he’ll even ask for wine corks for me in front of other people. So now our hostess is handing us two brown bags of corks and saying, “Is that enough?”
It must have been about then that the limo couple said to us, “Hey, do you guys know about Demetria?” Curiously, we said “No, is that another winery?” They looked at each other and smiled wide. She dug a phone number out of her purse, handing it to me, and said, “You gotta call them. Make an appointment, and ask for the gate code.” Without blinking, Jay fished his phone out of his left short’s pocket and started dialing. Everyone at the bar watched him say, “Hello, we’d like to make an appointment for a wine tasting.” He looked at me, while he said, “Party of two. The name is Jay.” He smiled at the limo couple while he said, “Two-thirty sounds awesome!” Then he looked at me again, “We’ll call you from the gate. Got it. Thanks.”
That was really nice of them to share. They were from Los Angeles, and up for the weekend. They had been all around Santa Barbara county, and they knew the drill. That’s why they had a driver. His name was Jorge Cruz of Lush Limousine services and he also dressed the part. He was very cool and he gave us his card. And if things go well for us – we’re coming back to Santa Barbara wine country, and we are hiring Jorge to drive us around so we can party!
I looked at my watch. Oh my gosh – it was almost two o’clock! And I was finally starting to really enjoy the wine, but suddenly it was time to go. As we said our goodbyes and thanked everyone, the couple re-iterated that Demetria is a little off the road, but totally worth it. So away we went. We held hands and smiled, as we left for our next winery adventure, knowing full well we will always have love for Foxen.
Winery #3 – Demetria – Our Wine Tasting Fantasy
Before we headed south on Foxen Canyon Road, Jay put the Alabama Shakes CD “Boys and Girls” he had bought for me in the car’s CD player. As we drove along jamming to the cool bluesy guitar sound, we watched for the Demetria sign on our right. And after a few miles, there it was. Jay pulled over, pressed the intercom button, and a man said, “Hello?” Jay said, “Hi, we’ve got a 2:30 appointment for a tasting. The name is Jay.” He said, “OK, please enter the gate code 3202 and come on up to the house. We’ll see you soon.” We did just that, and proceeded to drive west as the black metal gate slowly swung closed behind us.
As the driveway twisted left and right, then up and down, we realized this wasn’t just a driveway – this was a road. A secret road. A hidden path. Where are we going? What wizard is at the end of this? It was so strange to us that we were doing this. We’ve never heard of a secret winery before! I felt like we were going to visit a member of a secret society – like in the movie “Eyes Wide Shut.” I hope we feel welcome there! And I’ve gotta to tell you, “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes still gives me goose bumps to this day – because I can’t fully describe the feeling of that drive and how incredible we felt when we got there.
As we finally rounded the last curve to the right, we could see the tan colored house up ahead. Wow, it was so beautiful – like a villa set in the Tuscany hills! And the scenery was incredible! Rolling hills of grape vines in every direction and not another house or road in sight! And there were a lot of nice cars here. I mean, it felt like we had stumbled upon a private reserve mansion, and as we looked at each other, we wondered how many people even know about this place?
As we made our way past a cherry red Ferrari, and into the hub of the operation, we expected to see a movie star but we didn’t. And that was a funny thing. It was like four or five guys in a kitchen with bottles and wine boxes everywhere. Plus, a cash register and some merchandise – but beautiful chaos. And then, a man said to me, “What’s the name?” I said, “Jay.” He said, “Yes, for two, right this way.” And there you go. They certainly know whose there. He lead us out the back door, and to a small metal table on their outdoor cobblestone patio, and that’s where we met our server, Cliff.
Cliff was very cool, and very California – and he’s the guy pouring the wine in the pictures. He welcomed us to Demetria Estate and asked us what kind of wine we liked. We almost had to pinch ourselves. We had never been to any winery ever that had such an elaborate and beautiful setting, and that made us feel like we were on our own special vacation – when technically it was just a tasting! My god, they could probably charge fifty bucks a couple and it would be worth it. But it was only ten each. And the glasses were ten each. So we got two tastings, two glasses, and a lifetime of love for Demetria. For if I were to go much further into detail about how perfect it was sitting there and drinking wine and holding hands, I think I might cry, because eventually we had to leave. And for the record, Cliff is the guy everybody should have pouring wine for them in paradise; because he knows a lot about wine, he gives healthy pours, and he lets you hang out as long as you want; some people even had picnic baskets and looked like they were having an amazing time, staying there all day. Oh, Demetria!
Winery #4 – Beckmen – Never Enough Time For Wine Tasting
Having soaked up every drop of Demetria that we possibly could, we left with barely enough time to get to our final destination at Beckmen Vineyards – which I had found through an online video called “Visiting The Vineyard” prior to our trip, and designated as one of my “must see” places before we left. It was already well after four, and Beckmen closes at five! So Jay cranked up the Alabama Shakes and drove those windy roads like he knew exactly where to go. And as we curved around the beautiful countryside, I realized that for the second day in a row I felt like I was living in a dream. It’s not just the wine, or the country side, or the excellent company. It’s everything all wrapped together – like magic fairy dust had been sprinkled in my eyes. I was on cloud nine. Is there a cloud ten?
After a couple wrong turns near Roblar Avenue and Alamo Pintado Road (and losing precious time!) we finally found it, rushed up the driveway, parked the car, got another couple great pictures (then almost mistook the owner’s house as the tasting room), got to the tasting room, and with only a few minutes to spare, they accommodated us at the end of their busy bar for one last tasting. Phew! We made it.
Now, it’s important to note. There’s a good reason why tastings end at five p.m. (and occasionally six.) After hours and hours of people in and out and pouring wine and lots of talking, laughing and drinking, things get to be a bit of a mess. And that explains the chaos at Demetria. It doesn’t take long for even a veteran winery to become a frat house. And that’s what was happening at Beckmen at 5 o’clock. The wine was pretty good, and the people were getting noisy, but they really needed to close, clean up, and start fresh for the morning. And heck, maybe we did too. So after Jay bought a stone coaster with the Beckmen logo on it (to go with the Los Olivos General Store stone coaster he bought for me yesterday), we headed back up the street to Los Olivos for dinner. Beckmen was worth the effort, but there is no way to top Demetria – and so on that, our Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting journey had ended.
Our Santa Ynez Wine Country Dinner At Sides Hardware
By now, we were starving! Since we were so close to Los Olivos, and we had heard such great things about Sides Hardware and Shoes restaurant, we knew we had to go there to celebrate our “anniversary dinner” of sorts – since we had been dating a year as of that weekend. And what a great year it has been!
We parked in front of Barbieri on Alamo Pintado Avenue and walked in through the front door. Such a quaint location, and a great renovation of an incredible historical landmark. There were photos on the walls depicting the original location. The present structure still resembled that faded old hardware store in the dusty western valley, lifetimes ago, which looked like it served as one of the few locations for pioneers to shop and feel a sense of civilization. It was neat to observe this piece of the past while we waited for the hostess to see if she could fit us in their busy Saturday night dinner schedule.
We did not know we needed reservations, but they found us a table nonetheless. We started with a bottle of Foxen Pinot and shared an order of Fried Calamari. We split our entrees of Hanger Steak and Diver Sea Scallops, and for dessert, we had Ice Cream By The Scoop. Everything tasted fantastic and we were more than satisfied. Sides comes highly recommended, and you can add us to that list!
We strolled the streets of Los Olivos one last time after dinner before heading back to our hotel for the night. Wow, what a great day! And we began to feel the apprehension that we would be flying out the next day. We truly wanted to stay longer, because we really fell in love with this place and even more with each other. So if you ever get the chance, check out Santa Barbara County wine tasting and fall in love all over again.