Santa Barbara, California
Our first introduction to Santa Barbara wine was found locally at our favorite wine shop, Princeton Corkscrew Wine Shop. Patrons have the amazing opportunity to meet vintners and taste their wine through various tasting events at the store. Two events brought in Longoria Winery and Stoplman Vineyards and we were blown away by the quality of the wine. We knew Santa Barbara was worthy of a visit- we packed our backpacks and off we go.
At the time of booking, a 5AM flight going west always seems like a great idea- the time zone change works in your favor- then the reality of waking up for a 5AM flight sets in and you say “what on earth were we thinking?” After a long morning of plane travel, we hopped in a rental car (less than pleasant experience with Enterprise) and drove from Los Angeles airport (LAX) to Santa Barbara.
Exhausted and starving by 2PM, we arrived at our first destination- the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach (my parent’s recommendation from their time out there). While a tricky parking situation, we could tell why the second we got out of the car. An absolutely gorgeous day with the sun shining and a cool breeze revealing palm trees nestled on a sandy beach underneath rocky cliffs. Paradise achieved after a very long day! We were quickly seated at a table by the window where we were mesmorized by the large windows giving us uninterrupted panoramic views of the ocean.
The menu had us drooling so we opted for several plates to split so no one had to make a tough decision.
- Wine- Lincourt Steel Chardonnay Sta Rita Hills 2014- the special highlighted on the menu that got us into conversation with the two couples around us top left
- Cup of the housemade New England chowder bottom middle
- Fish tacos- combination of mahi-mahi, swordfish & sea bass sautéed with peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro on corn tortillas with avocado salsa and pico de gallo that was served with spanish rice mixed with black beans and grilled corn bottom left
- Pan roasted crab cakes with chipotle aioli and house made coleslaw bottom right
- Lobster & truffle mac and cheese- cavatappi pasta, lobster, shaved black truffle, Gruyère cheese, leeks, shallots & herbed breadcrumbs- literally all of our favorite things top right
The food was all excellent and while the location may have traditionally had us searching for other options (given it was the only place to eat at a popular beach) the food far surpassed a tourist trap ranking. We were seated in between two older couples who, upon hearing we were from out of town and here for the wine, had no hesitation in providing us with ample recommendations, and good company as well. It was a nice treat that they were both so generous in sharing their favorite things about Santa Barbara (one even drew us a map!).
After a very enjoyable meal, we took a long walk on the beach dipping our toes into the freezing Pacific water and watching the off leash dogs have the time of their life dodging in and out of the ocean to rescue tennis balls and frisbies. Yeah, I think we could get used to this.
Armed with a wide variety of recommendations from our new friends, we made our way into the downtown of Santa Barbara. We started near Paseo Nuevo and began exploring the busy street full of shops with beautiful designs. It was unfortunate we were still full as there were many food options. There was a lot of activity lining the streets- entertainers, musicians, pay to hold a snake or exotic bird- but my favorite was at periodic corners there were free standing fully painted (each different) pianos that anyone could sit and play. I learned it was a collaborative music experiment from 2013 called “Pianos on State“- guess they never removed them from the public.
One destination on our list (endorsed by our Boathouse friends) was the Santa Barbara Courthouse (#1 thing to do on TripAdvisor if you can believe it!). We took ourselves on a self guided walk through the building, admiring the intricate tile details, the sweeping Spanish architecture, and historical decorative paintings. The tower was unfortunately closed when we arrived though I read the view from the top is incredible.
We continued our stroll past the numerous wine shops before Kevin needed a recharge of coffee so we stopped at Dune Coffee Roasters– the photos on the wall were adorable- before finishing our tour of State Street.
Tempted to wine taste, we could feel the energy dwindling so we decided to make our way to the Airbnb in Santa Ynez, about a 45 minute drive away, before it got too dark outside. As a side note, I highly recommend this Airbnb as a great home base for exploring Santa Barbara wine county- a lovely room and host! We followed the adorable Post-It notes to our room and the bed never looked more welcoming. Fighting the urge to sleep, we decided while we weren’t wildly hungry but could venture out for dessert. One of the places on our Boathouse friend’s list was a short ten minute drive in Los Olivos- The Wine Merchant Cafe.
My tired grumpies diminished upon entering the amazing space- a large bar in the middle, to the right the dining room, and to the left an entire wall of retail wine. We grabbed seats at the bar and regretfully had no more real estate in our stomachs for a full meal- the menu looked incredible. It was even a challenge just picking the desserts we wanted as they all sounded so yummy.
- Wine- I ordered a “refreshing white” Chenin Blanc, Champalou 2015, Vouvray, France (I know, probably should have went local but this was delicious) and Kevin ordered Pinot Noir, Lincourt 2014, Rancho Santa Rosa, Sta Rita Hills which he really enjoyed. Funny, when we first got into wine Kevin almost exclusively drank Pinot before we got into Italian, French, and bigger Italian wines. This trip definitely had him rediscovering the Pinot flame.
- Artisan cheese plate featuring Roquefort AOP from France (sheep, soft, creamy, blue vined), Drunken Goat from Spain (goat, semi-soft, mild, red wine soaked), and Irish Porter Cheddar from England (cow, mild, porter infused) accompanied by homemade fig jam (could have had spoon fulls of this), grapes, candied nuts, apples and crostini top left
- Kevin ordered the french toast bread pudding with bourbon-maple ice cream bottom right
- I ordered the “S’mores”- chocolate ice cream, flourless chocolate cake, crumbled graham crackers, honey, and toasted marshmallow fluff bottom middle
We were (as always) thrilled that we did not go straight to bed and instead indulged in wine, cheese and chocolate! What could be a better combination? Honestly, my dessert was insane- so amazing! A great wine list and solid menu options makes this a great go to while wine tasting in Los Olivos. We hurried to bed with even fuller stomachs looking forward to our first full day in wine country.
Numerous well rated breakfast spots led us to the town of Solvang, a preserved Danish town positioned in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country. I couldn’t stop giggling as we approached the town at 9AM- it was as if we were in an iconic EPCOT World Showcase pavilion. We ate at The Belgian Cafe ordering traditional savory crepes- I ordered the spinach souffle while Kevin ordered the ham with cheddar- both came doused in melted cheddar cheese. In an attempt to taste the crepe, the melt cheddar easily scraped away as we enjoyed our breakfast.
We then walked the main drag, Copenhagen Dr, taking mental inventory of all of Solvang’s offerings, including multiple pastry and chocolate shops, though most of the shops did not open until after 10AM (Sunday hours). As we finished our lap, the smell of fried dough from Solvang Restaurant pulled us in. While there was a long wait to sit for Sunday breakfast, a take out window permitted us instant access to Aebleskiver- ball shaped pancakes topped with powdered and homemade raspberry jam. Yes, they were as good as they sound.
I know Solvang has a major tourist appeal and the traffic later in the day definitely confirmed that but I still think it worth a trip just to see the town’s style and decor.
The drive through Sta Rita Hills gave us our first glimpse of the countless acres of grapevines. The scenery throughout wine country was really exquisite- giant rolling hills that engulf every direction with vines scattered throughout. Our first stop was Longoria Winery in Lompoc and we arrived promptly for their advertised 11AM opening. At our local wine shop, this was probably the only tasting we did where we bought all three bottles that the vinter showcased so needless to say we were both really looking forward to this tasting. When we pulled into the parking lot, the excitement abruptly paused as it appeared they were setting up for an event- food truck, music band, long banquet tables. We immediately jumped to despair as we have been burned by private events closing public tastings before (thanks, Plumpjack) and we only had today slotted for wine tasting. I sent Kevin to the door just in case we had a chance and I have to say, I was genuinely surprised when he came out waving me in. Not only were they open, Longoria was having their Harvest Open House where we would be tasting their new releases and some library wines as well – not to mention taking advantage of the band (Moonlight Trio) and the food truck (Cubanissimo Food Truck)- best surprise!
We had the tasting room to ourselves and really enjoyed the company of the staff as they walked us through the new release (and enjoyed non-napa tasting prices, $15 a tasting for five wines). Kevin and I both walked away with clear favorites-
- Mine was the 2013 Chardonnay from Rita’s Crown Vineyard – like popping a Werther’s caramel in your mouth- incredible body, texture, taste and I could not stop smelling my glass- even after the wine was all gone! It was my best friend for the afternoon.
- Kevin’s was the 2015 Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard, Estate– best expression of Pinot with good depth, not overly fruity, well balanced acidity and tannin
Next, we ventured outside to the party where we had the absolute pleasure of meeting Rick Longoria, founder and winemaker, and his assistant winemaker as they poured some of their library wines for us, including a 2008 Pinot Noir, 2010 Syrah, and 2007 Evidence (a Bordeaux style blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Merlot and Malbec). Such a treat to not only meet and speak to Rick about the vineyard, his life and how it started, but then to taste these rich library wines really elevated our experience.
Not expecting to spend as much time here as we did, we reached a point where we could stay, get a glass of wine, and enjoy the music and food truck or move onto the next star on the Google map. We were having such a lovely time here so we decided to screw the quantity and focus on quality- we each got a glass of our favorite wines (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and paired it with an order of yuca fries from the food tuck listening to “Cumbiabilly” enjoying the beautiful California sun.
We left Longoria around 2PM which gave us enough time to squeeze two more vineyards into our day before dinner. Both stops were not “stars on the Google map” but were instead recommendations from the people we encountered- Lafond Winery (recommended by the assistant winemaker at Longoria) and Melville Winery (recommended by our Boathouse friends as well as Lafond). We learned quickly that the amount of time we slated for Santa Barbara wine was nowhere near enough to see everything!
Our dinner plans tonight took us to The Hitching Post (featured in the movie Sideways). Getting out of the car, our senses were overwhelmed with grilled meat. Even on a Sunday night, the crowd began to fill up the dinner room so we were happy to have made reservations.
- Wine- we had to get the Pinot Noir Highliner, featured not only in the movie but was well rated by the lovely people who recommended The Hitching Post to us.
- Grilled artichoke- steamed then grilled whole, well seasoned (we had never eaten whole artichoke before so picture the struggle we had figuring out why so much seemed inedible… ha! We figured it out by the end!) top middle
- Kevin ordered a combination of the classic filet mignon and the smoked duck breast accompanied by split pea soup, house salad, and rice top left, top right, bottom left
- I ordered the pork baby back ribs with house salad and baked potato bottom middle
The meats were exceptionally cooked and well flavored. I have to say that I really enjoyed the artichoke, side dishes, and salad- speaks well that a steak house can also master the details. The Hitching Post also has an extensive wine list in case you are not in the mood for Pinot.
Not quite ready to throw the towel in, we decided to try another spot for dessert. We drove through Los Olivos and realized other that the Wine Merchant Cafe and a few other restaurants, most of the town was closed. Los Olivos is home to over 50 tasting rooms so this area is bopping during business hours but a ghost town at night. We decided to drive to downtown Santa Ynez for SY Kitchen. We were able to grab the last two seats at the bar for a quick dessert. Kevin ordered the “not so classic” tiramisu (pick-me-up!) and I ordered the homemade chocolate and mascarpone gelato with caramelized bananas- yum yum yum. The perfect end to a great day.
The morning came fast as we packed up our backpacks (so much easier with packing cubes!) and made our way back to Solvang for breakfast at the very popular, Paula’s Pancake House. After the rich meal from the night before, I was certainly in an oatmeal kind of mood so I got that with a banana and toast and Kevin ordered the Danish pancakes, which ended up being thin crepe with pancake consistency. Everything was good though I was blown away when we got the bill. Kevin’s Danish pancake combination platter was $10.25 (plus he got a coffee) so I was stunned when the bill was over $30- how much was oatmeal, toast, and a banana?? Apparently a fortune- the banana was billed at $2.95… for a banana that is $0.19 at Trader Joe’s. Look, I know we were eating out but that margin for a banana seems ridiculous. Who knew my healthy breakfast would have been such a lavish endeavor- should have just ordered a pancake! A reminder to scrutinize the menu a tad closer next time (for those interested, the oatmeal was $5.75 and the toast was $2.75).
Moving on from breakfast, we had seen enough of Solvang so we hopped in the car to brainstorm- we had a solid gap of time before our 11AM appointment. We recalled passing a sign for Ostrichland USA on our drive to the Hitching Post so curiosity took us to (as posted on the sign) “Feed this Bad Boy”.
The parking lot was empty at our 9AM arrival- $5 a person for entry, $1 a bowl of food. Given strict feeding instructions- arms out, firm grip on the bowl handle, do not tease the birds as they get frustrated when there is no food- we grabbed one bowl and made out way to the feeding terrace with signs warning “we bite”. At first, we do not see many ostriches but within seconds we began is visualize them in the distance. As more ostriches began to emerge, their walk quickly turned into a gallop. Instinct urged us to step back as the amount of food we had would not nearly be enough for the number of prehistoric creatures rapidly approaching- we were definitely the first visitors for the day and the ostriches were hungry. We finally got the courage to feed an ostrich as the bird forcefully peaked our bowl, flicking the pellets into its mouth. Our bowl lasted us about fifteen minutes with several ostriches and emus- we had the place to ourselves but I can imagine this place getting crowded at peak times.
Ostrichland USA did not take up as much time as we needed so we stopped by Corner House Cafe in Los Olivos for coffee. As we sat with our drinks, we enjoyed bird watching woodpeckers and hummingbirds!
Our 11AM appointment was with Stolpman Vineyards. Stolpman Vineyards was also featured at our local wine shop for a tasting and not only was their wine top notch but we also had a great conversation with Peter Stolpman who currently runs the family vineyard. We reached out to him when planning our trip to Santa Barbara and he kindly invited us to the property to see the vineyard and taste his wine.
We had a phenomenal afternoon with him (and his two dogs- Earl and Baron!) as he drove us through the miles of vines and finished with an extensive tasting of their collection. We even had the pleasure of meeting and tasting with his father, Tom, who started the Stolpman Vineyard. Stolpman Vineyard is known for their Syrah varietals which were all outstanding. Our favorite was the 2014 La Croce which is fifty percent Syrah and fifty percent Sangiovese. It has been rare that we have found a Sangiovese varietal outside Italy that we have genuinely enjoyed but this combination created a new profile for the wine- it had great depth and tannin- could definitely continue aging. Another wine that Stolpman is known for is the La Cuadrilla that is a profit sharing program with the workers. We couldn’t have imagined a more perfect experience learning about the Stolpman vineyards and tasting so many different wines, especially so intimately with Peter and Tom- it was a special treat that topped off our time in Santa Barbara wine county.
Visiting Santa Barbara wine country fully exceeded our expectations with its beautiful landscape, perfect weather, and absolutely delicious food and wine. As we began our long and scenic drive along the coast to Los Angeles for the rest of our trip we were already planning our return to Santa Barbara!