The world knows Napa and Sonoma Valley when it comes to California’s wine regions. But there is a hidden gem located in the Central Coast of California that can give the northern valleys a run for their money.
Collectively, the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills made up this much-loved retreat in the Santa Barbara County for Angelenos (folks living in Greater Los Angeles). This up-and-coming wine region is a late bloomer. Even though the Franciscans Missionaries brought the grapes here back in the 1700s, the vineyards did not survive. It was only in the 1960s that the region saw its first winery.
In 2004, this region attracted a lot of attention when the movie, Sideways, was released. The movie went on to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. A large part of the movie was filmed in the area of the Central Coast, and interestingly made an impact on the sales of Pinot noir and Merlot in western United States shortly after its release.
Located 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, visitors can choose from a variety of towns and use it as a base to explore the region. It also makes a great road trip on the way up north to San Francisco, which is about 4.5 hours away.
What makes this region unique is the weather pattern. Facing the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Maria Valley frequently has fog drifting in so cool climate grapes like Pinot noir, Syrah and Chardonnay thrive here. Heading inland to the Santa Ynez Valley, you can find warm climate varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc as well as Rhône and Italian varietals.
The vibes in this region is much more relaxed and unpretentious. If you are a beach person, Santa Barbara makes for an excellent base. If you much prefer quaint little town, there is Solvang and Los Olivos, located inland in the Santa Ynez Valley.
You won’t miss Solvang when you get there as you are immediately transported to a Danish town where windmills and half-timber houses line the downtown. Back in 1911, this Danish village was settled by a group of Danes who brought with them the architecture and culture. Today, more than half of the residents here are of Danish descent.
In addition to the tasting rooms of the wineries in the area, you can have excellent Danish pastries from the many bakeries in town. What’s interesting is you will be hard put to find an American establishment like Starbucks or McDonald’s in the town.
If you want a little bit of history with all that drinking and eating, visit Mission Santa Inés, located in Solvang, which is one of 21 Spanish missions in California.
If you prefer somewhere less kitschy, Los Olivos is a charming option. While it is renowned for its wineries and tasting rooms, there are also good restaurants focusing on creating cuisine from local produce. The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café is a great place to start. The wine merchant carries over 500 wines and the “wine wall” served as the backdrop for the movie, Sideways. The café uses local, wild and organic ingredients in their dishes.
Other nearby towns in this region include Buelton and Lompoc. Both offer a variety of accommodation options. For a different kind of wine tasting experience, why not consider the Central Coast?
Tips for First Time Visitors:
- The nearest international airport is LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and the nearest Amtrak stations are Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo. You will need a car to travel within the wine region.
- To save time commuting, plan as a road trip either up north to the San Francisco Bay Area or down south to Los Angeles.
- If you are planning for wine tasting, appoint a designated driver as California has very strict laws and harsh penalties for DUI (Drinking Under Influence).