Wine tasting and climate thoughts in south-central California/Santa Ynez
ON AND AROUND THE CALIFORNIA COAST - It was cool and foggy at 9 a.m. one day last week when I left Santa Barbara and started out over the hills towards the Santa Ynez Valley. The temperature probably was around 10 or 11 degrees Celsius. By the time I was just a mile or so inland, the coastal fog started to break up.
By the time I hit the pass that takes you up over the craggy, dry coastal mountain range and into the valley, it was bright sunshine and starting to warm up nicely. At 11 a.m. in Los Olivos, it was probably 23 or 24 C, without a trace of wind.
It’s quite common in California to have coastal fog in the mornings and afternoons, but plenty of sunshine mid-day. That’s especially true in summer, which is why folks at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and at the Four Seasons Biltmore resort in Santa Barbara sell more sweatshirts than t-shirts.
The inland valleys get cooler at night in California, but they can often be blazing hot when it’s cool and still a bit foggy on the coast. Hence the glorious sunshine in Los Olivos one day last week (see photo), when I stopped for a sandwich and some wine-tasting on my way from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach, a couple hours north.
It’s a tiny town of maybe 1,500 folks, with a reliance on farming and ranches and also wine-growing, which is an interesting dynamic. There’s really only one street in town, with a large flagpole waving the Stars and Stripes in the middle of the intersection, and there are brightly painted clapboard-Victoria buildings radiating out on two short streets, with maybe a dozen shops and a post office and a big whack of wine-tasting shops.
Panino is a great spot for a high-end sandwich with turkey and fancy fixings such as roasted red peppers or arugula. Take a spot outside and bask in the sun.
There are a couple of women’s clothing shops and an art gallery or two, plus a saddle shop specializing in western tack and Pendleton shirts and such.
There are several wineries to choose from. My personal favourite has long been Consilience, which makes silky, smooth but powerful Syrahs and Rhone blends and has its own tasty line of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The guy at the shop suggested I marinate a steak in the balsamic prior to grilling, and it sounds like a good option some day.
Fess Parker’s Los Olivos Inn is in town, and it’s a fine place to bed down for the night or taste some local food and wine. And there are tons of great wineries scattered all around the valley, which includes the Danish town of Solvang and also has Buellton, where you’ll find the famous Pea Soup Andersen’s food spot and a large group of motels and hotels. The Hitching Post II restaurant, made famous in the movie Sideways and featured in my blog last week, is only a couple minutes from Los Olivos.
I was heading north and wanted to try some new wineries, so instead of going up Highway 101 towards Avila Beach I tried Santa Rosa Road, which is a lonely and beautiful, winding road that passes several wineries on the way from Buellton to the town of Lompoc, near Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Mosby winery didn’t impress me much, although they had some interesting Italian varietals; most notably some beefy and pretty decent Lagrein. Much more interesting was Alma Rosa.
There’s a small sign out front and a huge line of cactus along the road, which tells you something about the climate. You then drive up a long road and up to a tiny, ramshackle tasting room filled with hundreds of thoughtful paperback books about politics and world affairs, with a nice, shady porch off to one side.
They specialize in Pinot Noir as the cool, foggy air slides over the low-lying coastal hills at night and cools the grapes; something Pinot Noir grapes love. They do a wide range of wines, from bright and cheery and cherry-tasting to deep and smoky wines with beetroot and deeper, darker flavours. It might be the closest Pinot I’ve had to the wonderfully tasty stuff they produce in Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand, which has a similarly dry climate with warm days and cool nights.
Besides which, it’s a great spot for local men in cowboy boots or maybe Hawaiian shirts congregate to chat about Pinot varieties and sunshine and grapes and all sorts of stuff. Most definitely worth a stop and it’s only 10 or 15 minutes off Highway 101 near Buellton.