I used to think the closest (and best) place to go wine tasting was in Napa. I’ve been to Napa. There are many, many vineyards there, and with a quick flight to San Francisco and an hour bus ride, you’re there.
I was wrong. I was so unforgivably wrong.
Behold! 13 handsome bottles of Syrah, Cabernet (red AND white! Yes, WHITE cab!), Pinot Noir and Grigio, Bouchet, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Grenache. All of them are so delicious we had to buy them, and all are from Santa Barbara wine country but, more specifically, from the Santa Ynez Valley.
What is the Santa Ynez valley, you didn’t ask? I’ll tell you, because when I was looking to do wine tasting over a long weekend without having to fly, I had to do some freaking homework. The Santa Ynez Valley is about thirty minutes past downtown Santa Barbara, and it consists of Solvang (where we stayed), Los Olivos, Buellton, Ballard, and Santa Ynez. You can stay in any of these towns and get to vineyards easily (I’d recommend Los Olivos or Solvang, for cuteness reasons), but we decided to stay in Solvang, and I’ll tell you why.
For starters, we booked things last minute and Solvang had more options than any of the other towns. (And by more options, I mean everything was booked solid, and there was literally one option left, and that was the Mirabelle Inn.)
Luckily, Mirabelle is an amazing little boutique B&B. It’s a nine room hotel and within walking distance of downtown Solvang. The staff gave us a complimentary mini bottle of champagne upon arrival, and every room comes with a fireplace. They also made our stay incredibly easy and relaxing: they book wine tours, massages, and dinner reservations for you. And every morning there’s complimentary breakfast, and it’s actually delicious.
The town of Solvang itself is kitschy: it’s modeled after Denmark and has a high number of Danes in the area. Clogs and functioning windmills were BOUNTIFUL. But perhaps the best thing about the town are all of the tasting rooms that line the streets (our favorite was Lucas & Lewellen, and we ended up going back the next day).There are also delicious bakeries offering Danish treats. If you go, definitely try the Napoleon Hats, which are shortbread cookies lined with chocolate and a marzipan filling… I’m drooling.
Solvang closes early, like 7 p.m., but the restaurants stay open until 10 (ha! but seriously). I’d recommend making reservations in advance. I’d read online somewhere to do this, and I’m glad we did. Things get crowded, because everything else is closed, and we wouldn’t have been able to eat had we not made rezzys.
One place that was walking distance from Mirabelle was the Succulent Cafe. I’d read on Yelp about it, and the free biscuits, and was sold. Admittedly, the free biscuits were not outstanding, but if it’s free, it’s me. And the food and interiors more than made up for all that.
Inside it’s all dark wood and shelves upon shelves of wine. We started off dinner with a cheese and meat plate, and finished with some amazing pork belly. The waitress was attentive, but also let us take our time. We sat in the restaurant for two hours, and split a bottle of wine. It was nice. AND! And. We made it back to Mirabelle in time to catch the Hannibal finale. It was a good night.
We wound up eating out in other parts of town on Saturday and Sunday, like in Los Olivos, where I had a life changing tri-tip sandwich at a diner, and absolutely perfect shrimp pasta at Trattoria Grappolo in Santa Ynez. We took cabs whenever we went out at night, mainly because we had more wine drinking to do. It’s really not a long drive to any of these places, and the locals at the restaurants are super friendly. (We befriended a vineyard owner at Grappola, who shared wine from his home with us. It made me feel special.)
All of this and I haven’t even mentioned the reason for which we actually came: the wine tasting.
In both Solvang and Los Olivos there are plenty of tasting rooms. A tasting room is exactly what the name suggests: a room where you can stand and taste. There are bartenders (nee, bartenders extraordinaires), who know a lot about the wines and will pour you sizable tastes of the wine that are roughly 1/6 of a glass. If you like something, you can buy a full bottle, it’s not a bad business model.
Los Olivos definitely has a little more atmosphere with their rooms, and many of them offer patios and lush gardens where you can sit on an adirondack chair and sip to your hearts content.
I would highly recommend signing up for a guided tour, though. Mirabelle booked our tour through Stagecoach, and it was a full day experience that totally made our trip. From 11 until 5 p.m., we were shuttled around in a small bus with two other couples and a guide named Lee who knew the area and vineyards very well. He took us to Dierberg Vineyard, where there was live music and a patio overlooking the absolutely stunning hills. We stayed there for an hour and tried about six wines.
Then there was lunch and wine tasting at Bella Cavalli farms, which had beautiful horse stables on the property (I made a new colt friend named Steve).
And our last two stops were the Qupe tasting room in Los Olivos (it wasn’t much in terms of views, but the wine was delish), followed by Brander.
The Brander vineyard was very neat; an old property with vines that are close to 100 years old. You sit in a shaded courtyard and the family who owns the vineyards talks to you about the wine while they pour. We had enough time there to walk through the vineyard itself with a glass, and that was pretty magical.
We ended up buying four bottles from Brander. Granted, it was our last stop and it could’ve been the wine talking, but… hey, now we can kind of say that we have a wine “collection,” or something.
If given the chance to go again, I totally would. So, basically, if you’re down to drive to the Santa Ynez Valley, let me know and I’ll meet you there. (Not even joking. Not even a little bit.)