At the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country are the towns of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Solvang, and Santa Maria. These small farming communities are often overlooked in favor of the surrounding beach communities. But underneath their small-town charm is a big equestrian history, rustic Western lifestyle, and even prohibition-era ideals and temperance movements, ironic for an area with a now-thriving wine industry.Santa Ynez has always been a laid-back horse and farming community, unaffected by time. That it is now the gateway to the wine region does not detract from its agrarian roots.Solvang started in 1911 as a Danish retreat. It is still ripe with Scandinavian heritage as well as a new modern sensibility, though the theme park atmosphere is not lacking in kitsch. In the 1950s, far earlier than other themed communities, Solvang decided to seal its fate by keeping a focus on Danish architecture, food, and style, which still holds an allure nearly 50 years after its conception. An easily walkable town, Solvang is close to the now-famous ostrich farm from the movie Sideways.
Solvang is also home to Mission Santa Inés, bakeries, miles of rolling paved roads for bikers and cyclists (Lance Armstrong once trained here), oak-studded parks, and the well-known Solvang Theaterfest, an outdoor event and theater venue. The Chumash Casino is nearby if you need your one-armed-bandit fix.
Santa Ynez has always been a laid-back horse and farming community, unaffected by time. That it is now the gateway to the wine region does not detract from its agrarian roots. Los Olivos is an artist’s enclave and a wine taster’s dream. The central flagpole, sitting boldly on Grand Avenue, is the de facto rallying point for tourists, since there are still no stoplights in the area. Within a two-block radius of the flagpole are a dozen tasting rooms, half a dozen excellent restaurants, and a few art galleries representing some of the best local artists. Unpretentious and simple, it’s a perfect oneday getaway—unless you also use it as a base to explore Lake Cachuma, Figueroa Mountain, or the broader wine region, in which case you’ll need several days.
Santa Maria is the workhorse of the agricultural area within Santa Barbara County. Driving through Santa Maria you see fields and vineyards on both sides of the freeway, and it’s easy to assume it’s merely a farming region, but Santa Maria also has a strong Western history, not to mention the now famous Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue. Though it’s now built up with housing, there are still small charming areas like the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe, the historic Santa Maria Inn, and the single best mission on the entire Central Coast, Mission La Purisima. There is also Vandenberg Air Force Base where you can watch missiles and rockets take off, wineries that produce some of the top-scoring and top-selling wine in the country, and the Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival.
Planning Your Time
This region has many small towns with distinct personalities and one major city, Santa Maria. Santa Ynez and Los Olivos can both easily be visited within a day from Santa Barbara. Solvang is a five-minute drive from Santa Ynez and Los Olivos, but it is suggested that visitors reserve an entire day for this town. Santa Maria is a 15-minute drive north of Solvang, and because it has a lot more outdoor recreational opportunities, it is best to reserve an entire day for a visit to this area as well. In a weekend, you can get a feel for all of the towns in the Santa Barbara Wine Country, but as always, more time is necessary if you want to really explore these areas in depth.
Today we call it wine country, but this vast expanse in Northern Santa Barbara County is really two valleys—the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Maria Valley—and they were not originally known for grapes or wines. Santa Maria was originally farmland, and still is, producing strawberries and broccoli, among many other crops. Between 1869 and 1874, four of the valley’s prominent settlers were farming on 40 acres of land where their properties met to form a four-square-mile city that became known as Grangerville, centered on Main Street and Broadway today. It was renamed Santa Maria in 1905; it is the agricultural heart and soul of the county.
The Santa Ynez Valley is made up of Solvang, Santa Ynez, and Los Olivos; these towns were formed more out of necessity, as Los Olivos and Santa Ynez were stagecoach and rail stops. In the late 1800s the stagecoach from Santa Barbara stopped twice a day in Santa Ynez at the College Hotel, then proceeded down Edison Street toward the main stagecoach stop at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, which eventually became a railroad stop. Solvang, which means “sunny fields,” developed as a settlement for the Danish who migrated to these sunny fields in 1910. The town fathers bought 10,000 acres and the town was created in 1911. The goal was to create a home away from Denmark; the first building was the Lutheran Church, the second building to be built was a Danish folk school, which still stands today as the Bit O’ Denmark restaurant.
The first documented viticulture in California dates from 1779 at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in Southern California, and eventually grapes were grown throughout the mission system. The so-called “mission grape,” a hybrid of different types, was high in sugar content, low in acid, and produced a thin sweet wine that by many accounts of the times, wasn’t all that good. But this grape dominated the industry until the end of California’s Mexican era in the late 1840s. By that time, wine and brandy production was a significant source of income for some of the missions. Old Mission Santa Barbara established a vineyard and winery around the 1830s. Grapes were used not only to make wine, but also raisins, which were handy food for travelers. But grape production was not limited to the missions.Currently there are 64 different varieties of grapes planted throughout the county on 21,000 acres. Pinot noir and chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties, with chardonnay commanding an astounding 40 percent of that acreage; pinot noir comes in at 25 percent.About 1820, San Antonio winery was built in what is now Goleta. The lonely historic adobe winery is still standing nearly 200 years later, though on private property. Another commercial winery, the Packard Winery, was built in 1865, also in Santa Barbara, and in the late 1890s about 200 acres of grapes were being turned into wine on Santa Cruz Island. Near Mission La Purisima grapes were planted in the 1880s as well, and a few of those vines still survive today, though they are now on private property.
When the first commercial grapevine plantings were made after prohibition in the 1960s and 1970s in the Santa Maria Valley, grape growers and vintners planted anything and everything, without regard to the end product. It has taken Santa Barbara nearly 20 years to understand its soil, its climate, and what is best suited for their diverse growing regions and the American Viticultural Area’s (AVA) federally recognized grape growing regions. Currently there are 64 different varieties of grapes planted throughout the county on 21,000 acres. Pinot noir and chardonnay are the most widely planted varieties, with chardonnay commanding an astounding 40 percent of that acreage; pinot noir comes in at 25 percent. The wine industry in Santa Barbara County is thriving, in spite of the fluctuations of the economy, transitional markets, fickle consumers, and inconsistent harvests.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Santa Barbara & the Central Coast.