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Wine travel

How California’s Santa Ynez wine country became the hipper, cooler alternative to Napa

Blessed with an abundance of photo-ready vineyards and Michelin-rated restaurants, this laidback region has blossomed into a foodie paradise. Kevin E G Perry digs in

Thursday 17 August 2023 14:10 BST
<p>The Santa Ynez wine region has a highly desirable climate for wine-making </p>

The Santa Ynez wine region has a highly desirable climate for wine-making

Making wine in California is a competitive business. While the north of the state is home to some of the most celebrated grape-growing regions in the world, in the last few years many young winemakers who’ve found themselves priced out of Sonoma and the Napa Valley have instead been flocking south to the Santa Ynez Valley. Centrally located in Santa Barbara County, this up-and-coming area has established itself as a cooler, more boutique and (somewhat) more affordable alternative to its powerhouse northern neighbours.

It helps, too, that Santa Ynez is just a couple of hours’ drive from Los Angeles. This prime location has helped the area attract a host of creatives drawn by the more relaxed pace of life and the temperate weather. The Santa Ynez Valley benefits from a geographical quirk: in California, most mountain ranges – and thus valleys – run north to south. In Santa Barbara County, however, the valleys run east to west due to shifts in tectonic plates some 20 million years ago. This means that every morning the area is cooled by a sea breeze, creating a highly desirable climate – and making it a world-class location for growing grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The valley comprises six hamlets, each with its own distinctive character. There’s the quaint, Danish-inspired village of Solvang; the historic town of Santa Ynez; the tiny, tasting-room-filled Los Olivos; the growing towns of Ballard and Buellton; and Los Alamos, which is steeped in real-life cowboy heritage. The way the surrounding land is used is another thing that sets the Santa Ynez Valley apart from the more well-known northern Californian wine regions.

“In Sonoma, you have farm country,” explains Daisy Ryan, executive chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred foodie destination Bell’s in Los Alamos. “Down here, it’s ranch country. That history runs deep.”

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Where to eat


Opened in 2018 by Daisy and Greg Ryan, this sublime bistro quickly earned a stellar reputation – and a Michelin star in 2021. They describe their cuisine as ‘Franch’ – that’s French meets ranch – and make exquisite use of produce that’s largely sourced from within the surrounding 20 miles. Fresh seafood is brought in daily, including the Santa Barbara uni, which is hand-caught by local fisher Stephanie Mutz and served with caviar atop a soft and light French omelette. Other highlights of the lunch menu include a rich, decadent braised beef cheek sandwich with Basque peppers, and an exquisite steak tartare. At dinner, from 5pm to 8.30pm, they offer a Prix Fixe menu for $90 (£70). The decor is fittingly Gallic, with vintage Kronenbourg and Cognac Rouyer signs on view in their sun-dappled patio. Très belle, indeed.

The Tavern

California classics at Mattei’s Tavern include pork belly and huge scallops

The Santa Ynez Valley’s most recent addition to the Michelin guide is Mattei’s Tavern, which reopened in December last year following a sumptuous renovation. Chef Rhoda Magbitang’s menu is stuffed full of Californian classics. There’s pork belly that melts like butter, served with clams, and sizeable scallops with corn miso and English peas. The lengthy, inventive cocktail list is not to be ignored, especially the sensational Golden Spur, which offers an aromatic, romantic blend of lavender vodka and golden honey.

Bar Le Côte

A new arrival on the Santa Ynez scene in the summer of 2021, this seafood tavern in Los Olivos has an open kitchen and an upmarket Spanish tapas bar vibe. Chef Brad Mathews sources the finest seafood from Santa Barbara and further afield, including the divine Mere Point petite oysters which arrive from Maine. Ingredients this good lend themselves to being served raw, so don’t miss the scallop crudo with pickled mighty cap mushrooms, or the Santa Cruz island halibut crudo with dried tomato and basil. Soft shell crab is served with shaved cabbage and plum preserves for a taste somewhat akin to a deconstructed Po’Boy, while whole sea bream comes perfectly marinated in chilli. Like Bell’s, Bar Le Côte is both a destination restaurant and the sort of place locals swear by.


The Pastrami Reuben is a highlight of the lunch menu

Another unmissable spot is the delightful PeasantsFEAST in Solvang, which was recently added to Michelin’s California Guide and awarded the Bib Gourmand recognition. The surrounding town may trade on its Danish heritage and picture-book architecture, but here Michael and Sarah Cherney offer seasonal, locally sourced food with an emphasis on the homemade – the only thing they don’t make themselves is the ketchup. There’s hearty fennel soup, a fresh, crisp Brussels salad, and colourful (and flavourful) pickled vegetables, but the highlight of the lunch menu has to be the pastrami Reuben. The pastrami is hand-cured for two weeks, then smoked for a day – the care that goes into it is evident from the taste. The restaurant itself is cosy and welcoming, with rattan furnishings, shelves filled with cookbooks and a classic rock playlist so you can enjoy some Creedence while devouring a meal you won’t forget.

Where to drink

Casa Dumetz Wines

Sonja Magdevski owns Casa Dumetz and makes top quality wine

Located just across the road from Bell’s in Los Alamos, the Casa Dumetz tasting room is the perfect spot to begin your exploration of Santa Ynez wine culture. Owner Sonja Magdevski is a winemaker herself, producing under her own Casa Dumetz, Clementine Carter and The Feminist Party labels, and also an expert guide who can arrange tours to local vineyards such as Portico Hills.

The Hilt Estate

A beautiful, sprawling estate comprised of three vineyards, The Hilt Estate is also home to tasting room The Barn, which offers one of the most diverse line-ups of wine to be found anywhere in Santa Barbara County.

Babcock Winery and Vineyards

A visit to Babcock isn’t just about the excellent wines and rolling vineyards. There’s also a hangar-sized “retro rock’n’roll” venue and vintage shop featuring old LPs and a party atmosphere.

Where to visit

Zaca Creek Ranch

Experience ranch life with llamas and alpacas

It would be a crying shame to leave the Santa Ynez Valley without getting a real taste of ranch life, and Zaca Creek is the place to do it. One of the last of the grand rancheros granted by the Mexican government in “alta California”, it comprises some 1,600 acres of pasture and is still a working cattle ranch. They offer regular farm tours that allow visitors to get up and close with their animals, including a charming herd of llamas and alpacas, and an enormous Tamworth pig named Walker.

Where to stay

The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, Auberge Resorts Collection

The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos has real Old West history: it first opened in 1886 as a stagecoach stop, and a guest book from that year is still on display. Fortunately, the amenities have been thoroughly updated since then. The storied landmark reopened in February after being given a luxurious make-over by Auberge Resorts. New buildings have a modern farmhouse design in keeping with the tavern’s rustic Western aesthetic, and the lavish rooms include private patios where the scent of lavender is never far away. There’s also a spa, fittingly known as The Lavender Barn, and a serene outdoor swimming pool with a bar offering a Mediterranean-inspired menu.

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Svendsgaard’s Danish Lodge

A charming motor lodge in Solvang built in keeping with traditional Danish architecture, this small hotel is well located for exploring the nearby bakeries and the Hans Christian Andersen museum. There’s also an outdoor pool for cooling off in the heat, and the lodge offers a straightforward continental breakfast each morning in the lobby.

Wine Valley Inn

Also in Solvang, this quaint inn and cottages get the basics right with just enough old-world charm. The hotel offers on-site bicycle rental for those looking for a sedate way to explore the surrounding area, a 24-hour gym and outdoor fireplaces for unwinding in the evening. Hot breakfasts are complimentary, and rooms are pet-friendly with a $25 fee.

Getting there

The nearest airport is in Santa Barbara, with services to Portland, Seattle, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

For international arrivals, the closest point of entry is LAX, which has direct flights from London via British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United and American. From there, it’s a two-to-three-hour drive north to the Santa Ynez Valley; you’ll likely want to hire a car to truly explore the variety of the region.

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