Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Summer's over and things are gearing up - maybe too much. This week was [The Man I Love]'s birthday, and because both our schedules were so busy, we didn't get a chance to do anything special. Bummer, huh?
So Friday, he called me at work - he had a plan.
We hopped in the car around 5 pm and drove along the Pacific Coast, and through the maritime fog that comes ashore each evening. Our destination - Northern Santa Barbara County. We were going to spend the weekend touring the wine country.
Isn't he smart?
We got a room in a Best Western motel in Lompoc. We arrived around 8 pm, and got a good night's sleep before a day of exploring.
A recent movie was shot in this part of California, and it brought much fame and attention to Santa Barbara County wines and wineries. Some locals have mixed feelings about it - pleased it brought more attention and tourists to the area, but unhappy with inaccuracies and stereotypes.
Even so, it's a beautiful part of the country. Saturday morning we set out from our motel in Lompoc going east on Highway 246, driving through the vineyards and the rolling hills, to the towns of Buellton, Solvang and Los Olivos.
Lompoc began as an agricultural center of the flower industry, growing both cut flowers and nursery flowers. As we drove, we encountered this field of yellow marigolds. The color is so brilliant against the misty blue of the hills. The red in the foreground are rows of russet chrysanthemums.
We took a sidetrip to look at some fields, and said hello to these guys, who walked right up to the gate at the sound of our car.
The road dipped downhill to a valley beneath this mountain, and then brought us to Buellton. A notable steakhouse is located here, that was featured in That Movie. We continued on, and ended up in the town of Solvang.
This weekend was Solvang's big Danish Days festival, with a parade this afternoon. We decided to avoid the crowds, cutting north on toward the small town of Los Olivos. We drove through winding hills, planted with rows and rows of vines. Alongside one vineyard, the borders of the road were planted with roses, perennials, and annuals.
This was Rusack, a small winery. We pulled into the gates - this would be our first tasting.
If you haven't done this, here's how it works. You step up to a counter in the tasting room, where one or two or more attendants greet you. Tastings cost between $5 and $15, but you can split a tasting between two people, which is what we did.
For each tasting, you receive a small amount of some 5 to 6 wines, ranged from the lighter and least expensive to the heavy hitters. Some wineries only offer one assortment - others have a variety of tasting menus, based on price or type of wine. If there's something you're interested in that's not on the menu, you can ask if they'll substitute something else.
There's a printed list telling you what you're tasting, usually with a short description and a price. In Santa Barbara wine country, there's much discussion of where the grapes are from - this area has several micro-climates, with variations in inland heat and ocean-cooled winds, or the composition of the soil. Many wineries grow only some of their grapes on the property where the tasting is held - they have other acreage planted in other areas. Some buy grapes from other growers - in this part of the County, these are usually specialty growers.
Here at Rusack, the vines we drove past were Syrah and Sangiovese, dark purple clusters of grapes thick beneath the wide leaves, all swathed in a protective netting. They also grow semillion on this property. Their east facing hill is warmer, and doesn't get the cooling of ocean air at night. Their pinot noir and chardonnay wines are made from grapes grown in the Sta. Rita Hills to the west.
We really enjoyed the syrah bottled by Rusack, and the attendant suggested another local winery specializing in that wine that we might enjoy. We ended up buying about four bottles, and were delighted to find that for the price of the tasting, you got to keep the souvenir glass - a nicely shaped glass printed with the winery name.
We continued on, and came to the small historic town of Los Olivos. The main street is lined with small stores, cafes and boutiques, good for strolling. Tasting rooms alternated with art galleries for a pleasant afternoon walk. We stopped for lunch, and had a sampling of the other famous crop grown here.
After lunch, we stopped in at Richard Longoria winery's tasting room, housed in an historic building. This space was just the tasting room - the winery itself is located elsewhere. We were given our souvenir glass and invited into the garden to the side - a shady space with clusters of seating, and a table where ice buckets and wine bottles awaited, presided over by a young woman with a full arm tattoo of butterflies and flowers. We tasted the lighter white wines out here, enjoying the sun and flowers. A jug of cool water, flavored with cucumbers and limes, was available to refresh and clear the palate. The final wines on the tasting list - substantial reds and interesting blends - were offered inside.
Many small wineries don't offer their wines to retail stores. Instead they rely on local restaurants and walk-up sales. They also sell through "wine clubs" - people sign up to receive a shipment of wine at certain intervals through the year, at a discount price. You get the wine-maker's choice, not yours, but if you're adventurous, it's a fun way to try new wines. We joined Longoria's club at the least expensive level, because we enjoyed their wine so much.
Wine tastings typically go from 11 am to 4 pm, so we plotted a route that took us to two other wineries on the way back to our hotel. We had dinner reservations later, and wanted time to freshen up.
On the road back to Lompoc, we stopped in at Babcock Winery. It was located on a south-facing slope, between Buellton and Lompoc. The tasting room was in a large modern barn atop the hill. Huge stainless steel crushing and pressing machines stood on the pavement outside the big double doors of the winery.
Here, they get a little more of the cool ocean fogs and breezes, and can grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Here, too, they grow one of my favorite grapes, Pinot Gris - a white wine grape more commonly grown in Oregon. We bought a bottle of Estate Grown Pinot Gris called "Naughty Little Hillsides" - apparently, these hillsides are tough to cultivate!
We continued on into Lompoc, looking for the last winery we'd visit that day, Fiddlehead Cellars.
It took awhile to locate the tasting room, which was in a prefab building in an industrial park behind a Home Depot. Yet don't be fooled - Fiddlehead is the real deal. The guidebooks specifically noted Fiddlehead's wonderful sauvignon blanc wines, from grapes grown in the eastern Santa Ynez valley. Despite the workaday location, the wines were wonderful and the pourers knew their stuff.
The next morning, we set out to visit a couple more wineries before returning to Los Angeles.
Back to Los Olivos, we first visited Rideau Vineyards. Their tasting room is in an old restored 19th century adobe house nestled among beautiful gardens, and is elegantly furnished in decor that evokes the owner's New Orleans heritage. Our pourer was a gracious Irishman who allowed us to substitute varieties we were interested in, and when we signed up for the Wine Club, we were given two Reidel crystal glasses.
Just down the road from Rideau is Beckmen Vineyards. Off the main road, you drive down a narrow winding road and come out in a parking lot before a red barn. The huge stainless steel tools of the modern wine trade are here, perhaps ready for the fall harvest.
Beckmen had been recommended to us by another winery selling syrah wine - evidence of the collegiality among vintners in the region.
This was an airy, modern tasting room, with pleasant hosts and a pretty cat, who seemed to enjoy the admiration of visitors. Although we were thrilled by their syrah wines, one of the standouts - and a bargain - was Beckmen Vineyard's offering of a grenache rose wine. It was so delicious, and so affordable, that we bought several bottles.
Here, home in Topanga, you can see it. Anything this pretty has to taste delicious, doesn't it? And in the spirit of collegiality - we drank it from the pretty glasses we got from Rideau Vineyards.
If you get a chance to visit Santa Barbara County's wine country, I know you'll have a lovely time. If you can't visit, you might enjoy it vicariously by watching That Movie - the locals have mixed feelings about it, but it has certainly put this area on the national map.
The restaurants we enjoyed on our trip were The Jetty in Lompoc, Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafe in Los Olivos, The Hitching Post II in Buellton, and Root 246 in Solvang.