Santa Barbara is sometimes referred to as the American Riviera because of its ever-pleasant weather and its stylish sense of history. The city is a popular weekend destination for people from the LA Metro, which lies just to the south. There is really only one major road into and out of Santa Barbara. This gives it an isolated feel. However, people who venture inland are greeted by the Santa Ynez Valley, a land of impressive landscapes, charming small towns and endless vineyards. Though it lacks the notoriety of the viticulture havens of Sonoma and Napa, the Santa Ynez Valley's wineries are not unknown. They were featured in one of the most famous movies to celebrate the wine culture of California, the award-winning indie flick Sideways. Even if you haven't seen this movie, you will undoubtedly be enchanted by this unique region.
The vineyards of Santa Ynez have the kind of sophisticated-yet-rustic charms that characterize the world's best winery destinations. There are also two very unique towns in the valley that everyone should visit. The first is Solvang, a village started by Danish settlers. It still retains the charms of its founders' motherland. You can see windmills, Scandinavian-Style buildings and even decorations such as viking helmets. Some people find Solvang quite touristy. Still, there is something attractive about the idea of taking a cruise through the town in a horse-drawn streetcar. Also, some of the bakeries and restaurants are owned and run by the descendants of the original Danish immigrants. So there is an air of authenticity here if you are willing to look below the surface.
One of the best reasons to visit Solvang is because it is a major base for companies that provide tours of the surrounding vineyards. Since many of the wineries are small family-run operations, they can be hard to find. A guided tour puts them within reach of casual visitors. Yes, you may have to sacrifice some flexibility while on a tour, but a tour guide will take care of the driving (a nice perk...for obvious reasons) and get you to wineries that you might never discover on your own. Similar tours also start out in Santa Barbara, but most of the wineries are a good 45 minutes to 1 hour away from the city, so staying in Solvang can really save you some time. Also, keep in mind that Santa Barbara is the name of the city, and also the county. Santa Barbara County covers a large area, with some vineyards more than two hours away from the city by car.
Los Olivos is another attractive base in the Santa Ynez Valley. Los Olivos is a timeless Californian town, with historic architecture and rural charms. It was founded along a rail line at the end of the 19th century, and the Victorian architecture of that time has been lovingly cared for over the decades. Regular events are held in the center of town throughout the year. As its name suggests, Los Olivos has a number of olive groves. Many wineries in the area have olive trees in addition to vineyards and venues like Rancho Olivos offers artisan olive oil that is made with a hand press. Like Solvang, Los Olivos is a great base for taking a tour that will bring you to the best of the more than 100 vineyards in the area. The Fess Parker Country Inn and Spa, owned by the legendary actor who portrayed Davy Crockett, is a great place to spend the night or to enjoy a massage after a long day on the wine trail.
Wine tours are a good way to introduce yourself to the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, but it is also a great idea to immerse yourself in the valley by actually staying at a winery. This area is undeniably scenic and once the day's tour groups have left, most wineries offer almost complete privacy. You can have a meal or wine tasting session all by yourself and wander the vineyards without anyone else in sight.
The 55-acre Sunstone Winery and Estate is a unique property in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. It was built using limestone imported from France and wood beams that came from a lavender-processing factory once owned by England’s Queen Victoria. These timeless surroundings, which would not be out of place in Tuscany or the Loire Valley, combined with the beauty of the Santa Ynez Valley, create an ideal wine-themed vacation experience. The villa has five guest suites, each with its own decor and antique furnishings. Terraces provide unending views of the landscape, while Sunstone's fireplaces offer a warm atmosphere, and the courtyard adds to the timeless appeal.
Guests have access to the winery tasting room and can also sample artisan cheeses, olives, oil and vinegar. In short, Sunstone is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Have you been to Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley's wineries? Share your experiences in the comments section below.