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Santa Barbara County (plus a few miles North) is Wine Country Too
For many in the U.S., the phrase “wine country” connotes the Napa or Sonoma Valleys. More accurately, “wine country” has come to commonly mean a region where there are a great number of stellar wines, restaurants, and accommodations that that make visiting a highly worthwhile event. Not many places truly qualify. However, in recent years Santa Barbara County has evolved into one of the world’s leading wine producing areas, and it offers some terrific restaurants and hotels as well. Today we will write not just about wines, but about Santa Barbara “wine country,” which generally stretches from Solvang north to the county line. But because they are close, we include some places a few miles north as well (call it wine writers’ license if you will). One thing we need not do is hype the weather – it is central coastal California after all, so the days are sunny and dry from spring to summer, while the nights cool to perfect for early al fresco dining. What we will tout you on, however, are a group of outstanding wineries, fine restaurants, and lovely inns.
-The Ballard Inn: Recently purchased by Budi and Chris Kazali, this always classy inn has received whatever might have been needed to keep it in the upper echelon of the region. Wonderfully managed by Christine Forsyth, you can enjoy one of 15 rooms (12 upstairs in the main house and 3 on the first floor in the “annex”), many of them with wood burning fireplaces. An added bonus is the best restaurant in the area (see review below). Room rates are $215 - $305.
-The Fess Parker Inn and Spa: A truly elegant inn and spa right in the middle of Los Olivos and its myriad of tasting rooms. A place where fine service abounds, the restaurant is a perennial Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner (see review below). In this quiet area, you will enjoy the opportunity to have a late night drink in the lobby before bed, or, on selected nights, be entertained with some light music. Room rates are $260 -$360.
-Brothers at Mattei’s Tavern: The building is an old stage coach stop (for both room and board), and is fascinating in and of itself. The restaurant was recently purchased by two brothers (surprise) well trained in the culinary arts, and they have created exciting food using many of the local ingredients (if you can persuade them to prepare their wild mushroom risotto you will be in heaven). A very nice wine list is featured, and the bar area is also a "in" place for a drink. Located in Los Olivos.
-Café Chardonnay at The Ballard Inn: New inn owner Budi Kazali is also the new chef at Café Chardonnay, and what an addition to the entire county. Trained in Boston and San Francisco, Chef Budi has brought country French cuisine with Asian influences to the wine country. His use of ultra fresh cuisine reflected itself in our halibut entwined with the tastiest tomatoes we can recall, and his creativity was evident in the yellowfin sashimi with a blood orange sauce, marvelous mussels with a chardonnay/lime broth, and deftly spiced Thai soup with seafood. A well thought out wine list with excellent regional wines is a perfect compliment to the experience. If you visit the area, this is number one. Be "warned," the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Located in Ballard.
-Chef Rick’s: Rick Manson has put together one of the Valley’s best loved restaurants, not only because of the quality of the food and wine list, but also in terms of an opportunity to enjoy yourself. It's a fun place. Rick's coconut crusted shrimp and gumbo are special. Located in Santa Ynez.
-Jocko’s: Look out, because it is superlative and hyperbole country. This local favorite in the small town of Nipomo serves simply the best grilled meats we have ever tasted. To add to the food’s excellence are gargantuan portions and fair prices. Don’t look for ambiance, but as you try to find Jocko's, watch for the blinking red traffic signal that acts like a beacon. You must not miss the sweetbreads (so rich that 3 “good eaters” shared one entree as an appetizer), even if they are not your usual thing, and do order beef or pork here. Search out this restaurant, take your best wine for a $4.00 corkage charge, and don’t tell anyone else.
-The Vintage Room at The Fess Parker Inn and Spa: The wine list is a perennial winner of the Wine Spectator’s award of excellence, but it has some soft areas. The cuisine is Continental, and served by a professional staff. It is quite good, but lacks the inventiveness and “je ne sais quois” that seems to be present in dishes presented by the best places. Shrimp may be the thing to order. Though not spectacular, an evening here is relaxing and satisfying, and the prices are surprisingly fair. In Los Olivos.
Wines and Wineries:
We feel the first three wineries mentioned are at least a step above the rest insofar as the quality of their products, and the next three are just a step below the first set. The balance of this list is in order of general preference, meaning that if you have a limited time, we recommend you visit these establishments (or decide not to do so) in the order we have covered them. Of course, any winery might have a particular wine or two that is better than some wine found in the wineries we have generally rated as higher.
-Alban: Grower of the country’s first Rhone varietals, John Alban is a hot vintner right now, and his winery even hotter. Superlative quality in all his wines.
-Arcadian: Is anyone studying Pinot Noir any deeper, or bottling so many outstanding single vineyard and blends of this varietal, than Joe Davis? Probably not. And don’t forget his Chardonnays, either.
-DomaineAlfred: Terri Speizer owns and already makes Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that you will never forget. His foray into the Syrah market will no doubt be just as successful.
-Andrew Murray: Amazing wines considering the owner (Andrew) is only 32 years old. All are well constructed, elegant, and great representatives of California styles.
-Byron: Always a safe choice, and usually a very good one because the prices are fair. Best bets are Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, with Syrahs close by.
-Foxen: Don’t be put off in any way by Foxen being in our second tier. Dick Dore and Bill Wathen create excellent wines. While they don’t have the depth of those in the first rung above, they are less expensive and perhaps even more approachable for the casual wine drinker.
-Fess Parker: Improving all the time, especially their single vineyard selections.
-Foley: Very good Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Second label is LinCourt, which has some nice values, if not outstanding quality.
-Rideau: Worth the trip just to see the property, but don’t miss some of the elegant wines. The Estate Syrah and the white Rhone blends are exceptional.
-Lucas and Lewellen: A surprising winery of quality. There are about 25 different varietals grown and bottled, so they can’t all be good, but the Cabs and Italian reds are well worth consideration.
-Lions Peak: Stop in for three reasons – the Petite Sirah, the red blend called Lioness, and the gorgeous labels that all feature . . . what else – the king of beasts.
-Io: Same winemaker as Byron, and same ownership (Mondavi). But excitement lacking in the wines.
-Royal Oaks: Relatively new, the mantra here is to produce better than just drinkable wines at $12 per bottle. For the most part, they are succeeding.
-Stolpman – Not bad wines, but the most confused tasting room we might have ever seen. The staff seems more intent on pouring what they have left over in stock rather than the current releases.
You can easily spend three days and nights in Santa Barbara wine country and never be bored. Give it a try.
-The Ballard Inn:
2436 Baseline Avenue
Ballard, California 93463
805/688-7770 • 800/638-2466
-The Fess Parker Inn and Spa:
2860 Grand Ave
.Los Olivos, CA 93441800-446-2455
-Brothers at Mattei’s Tavern:
2350 Railway Ave.
Los Olivos, CA, USA 93441
-Café Chardonnay at The Ballard Inn:
2436 Baseline Avenue
Ballard, California 93463
805/688-7770 • 800/638-2466
1095 Edison St.
Santa Ynez, CA 93460
125 N. Thompson Ave
.Nipomo, CA 93444
-The Vintage Room at The Fess Parker Inn and Spa:
2860 Grand Ave.
Los Olivos, CA 93441
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.