When thinking of California wines, the first place that usually comes to most people’s minds are the Napa and Sonoma Valleys just over an hour’s drive from San Francisco. As an annual visitor to that region, I fully understand why. But I recently had the pleasure of visiting California’s central coast region and was thoroughly impressed both with the quality of wines and the characteristically dialed back nature of the area:
Fans of the wine road trip movie “Sideways” will recognize the name Solvang, the town we made our home base for the duration of our extended weekend stay. Known as the “Danish Capital of America” there’s no mistaking it as anything else with its windmills and numerous references to Hans Christian Anderson, the Little Mermaid and the Danish Royal Family.It’s borderline tacky but somehow manages to pull it off and clearly the number of people that are attracted to it don’t seem to mind.
Accommodation choices outside of Solvang that are near wineries and tasting rooms are limited as there is only one hotel in Los Olivos and Lompoc is unattractively industrial. We chose The Hadsten House, a “bed & breakfast” which is better described as an upscale luxury motel. Don’t let the outside fool you, the rooms were sizeable with nouveau-European design, complimentary drinks and appetizers were available 3pm-5pm, the breakfast consisted of a hot buffet and there was an indoor pool, outdoor Jacuzzi and 2 outdoor fire places that we happily made use of for our evening nightcaps.
“Sideways” also proved fruitful for makers of Pinot Noir when the independent movie surprised everyone to become an Oscar-nominated favourite. The main character despises Merlot and opts instead for the relatively unpopular Pinot Noir—the lightest of the red wine varietals. After the movie became a bona fide hit, sales of Pinot Noir shot through the roof. And while we actually are fans of Merlot, we learned quickly to stick with the grapes that are known to grow well in this region namely Chardonnay, Syrah and, of course, Pinot Noir. We were not disappointed. Foley, Melville, Blair Foxen and Brewer-Clifton were some of the specific wineries we tasted and we found it difficult to decide which outshone the other. Interestingly enough, while we rated Brewer-Clifton our favourite for its wine, it was the one winery that had a tasting room in the “wine ghetto” of Lompoc—an industrial row that is visually unappealing but houses some of the best tasting rooms of the region. (In case you’re wondering, they do this largely because they get their grapes from a variety of vineyards instead of just one). Both Foley & Melville had beautiful wineries and tasting rooms so we would have to give them the nod for overall tasting “experience”. All of them had excellent and knowledgeable staff and we didn’t walk away from any empty handed.
Another option is to discover one of the many tasting rooms within Solvang and Los Olivos. You can choose to do a specific winery such as Blair Foxen or Alfonso-Curran but our runaway favourite was the “Tastes of the Valley” which featured several different wines and varietals from the entire area. Our only regret was that we didn’t discover it at the beginning of our trip so that we could have made time to go back. Great wines, excellent service and cozy venue with a bar, seating area and fireplace for the cool evenings. On weekend evenings they also feature live music.
Like all wine regions, it’s fairly easy to find great food. We opted for Root 246 at the Corque Hotel in Solvang our first night and despite our high expectations, it far exceeded them in everything from the food and the service to the ambiance.
This is definitely a one-off or special occasion type restaurant but well worth the investment if you’re a “foodie”. The second night we decided to play it by ear and figure out where we would go as the day wore on. That decision was quickly made at the Brewer-Clifton tasting room when the lovely Kristen absolutely insisted we go to her favourite place, an Italian restaurant in Santa Ynez called Trattoria Grappolo. Now when I say insisted, she actually called to make a reservation for us to ensure we had a great table and check if we could bring our own wine! We arrived for our 8:15pm seating to discover an absolutely packed neighbourhood restaurant with a line up about 10 people deep. We quickly discovered why—the energy, food and wine was simply fantastic and it was clear that everyone else there was having an equally great experience. All in all a fantastic long weekend that made us feel we had been gone for weeks.
We chose to fly to Los Angeles as we were meeting friends who lived there but the closest airport would be Santa Barbara which would save you about two hours of driving. That being said, the drive was far from demanding especially when you could bypass the highway and take the scenic route. We stopped in Malibu for lunch on the water at Geoffrey’s which was excellent and made for a nice break before the final leg to Solvang.
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