6 days…where to go in wine country?
Join us on our journey through California’s Central Coast Wine Country and a little beyond.
Day 1 Las Vegas to Monterey
We left Vegas before dawn and drove to the coast. We skipped LA and hit the coast in Ventura County. Day 1 was mostly driving with a bit of sightseeing along the way, with the final goal being Monterey.
This is a flash trip so there are more areas to discover and explore that we passed by. Yep, the Central Coast is full of great wine country. In Santa Barbara County you can also visit, Buellton, Lompoc and it’s Wine Ghetto, Santa Ynez and then the many wineries all around the county. San Luis Obispo Country also has great tasting rooms out at Avila Beach. While we didn’t visit those areas this time, you can find more about them here at Crushed Grape Chronicles, just do a search!
Santa Barbara – the city
We took a break in Santa Barbara by Sterns Wharf to soak up some of the ocean and the morning. Santa Barbara, the city, has plenty to do for an entire vacation and if you love wine, we can enjoy plenty here without leaving the city on the Urban Wine Trail. Sterns Wharf is home to The Conway Family’s Deep Sea Tasting Room; The Funk Zone (the hip area close to the beach) has lots of great laid back tasting rooms and the El Paseo further in the historical district has even more tasting rooms.
On this trip however, we kept driving. We took the 154 into Santa Barbara Wine Country. We drove through Los Olivos, with the plan to return. This town houses multiple wine tasting rooms and some great restaurants. It is a great place to park and walk, taste and eat. You are highly likely to run into winemakers in the tasting rooms and restaurants.
We drove onto the 101 from here, heading north past Los Alamos, which is another great spot to do weekend tastings. There is another Municipal Winemakers tasting room in town as well as Casa Dumetz Wines. Full of Life Flatbread is a great dinner spot and if you need beer, Babis Beer Emporium (same owner as Casa Dumetz) is a perfect spot to sit outside and enjoy some really great local brews. On the weekends there is often music and Casa Dumetz has a Friday night “Words to Live By” speaker series which covers a wide range of topics with an eclectic group of speakers! But yeah, we didn’t have time to stop here either….on we drove.
Next to drive through is SLO (San Luis Obispo). You begin by passing Laetitia where they do Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and have an amazing sparkling wine program that is Méthode Champenoise (that’s the really good tiny bubbles). Further in you will find more wine trails and downtown SLO which has beautiful tree-lined streets, lots of art and great food.
Paso Robles is up next and there are so many wineries here that I won’t even try right now. They recently divided into 11 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Before dividing, this one area was the Paso Robles AVA and covered about 614,000 acres. (for some perspective, Napa is only 1/3 of that size). This place deserves a bit of your time. Take all 6 days here. It’s close enough to the beach that you can spend a day tasting and a day on the coast and then back. We do stop here on our way back…we’ll get there on day 4.
We kept driving to arrive in Monterey for the first evening and with limited time, we went to Cannery Row to enjoy the view, taste some wine and have a bite at A Taste of Monterey. You can taste at the bar or get a table and do a flight and order food. We found a great table with a view (and a seagull companion) and enjoyed a couple of flights along with some bacon wrapped dates and…pardon me I drool when I talk about these… Inzana Farms Almonds & Pistachios, which are roasted in olive oil, brown sugar, cayenne, thyme.
Day 2 Monterey to Sonoma
The sky was lit up beautifully behind the clouds as we headed out from Marina California, just south of Monterey in the morning. We hit the road to make the drive to Sonoma.
We started the day with some bubbly at Gloria Ferrer in Carneros. The wine, the view, the gardens and the service all started the day off beautifully. We will do a detailed post on our tasting later…for now, just soak in some of the beautiful scenery and bubbles.
This is the southern end of Sonoma and we made one more stop in the area at Viansa. The grounds here are beautiful and the views phenomenal. They are committed here to preserving the wetlands habitat that surrounds the vineyards. After soaking up the views, it was time to head into the city of Sonoma.
We had time for a visit to the Sonoma Plaza to relax and watch the ducks and take in some of the art.
At the center of the plaza is the City Hall built in the early 20th century. It was built with all 4 sides identical, so as not to offend any of the merchants and businesses on the surrounding square. It has a beautiful duck pond on the corner where I rested soaked in the calm and enjoyed some of the wonderful large art pieces.
Now it was time to head across the street to Corner 103 where we had a 2pm Cheese Experience Scheduled. This is a great way to start a wine trip, they will guide you through a tasting of Corner 103 wines, paired with cheeses and help you to find our what your preferences are. Schedule in advance and allow at least an hour and a half.
(And watch for an in-depth posting on our experience here)
Day 3 finds us Exploring Napa, more of Sonoma and then making the trip a little south to the Livermore Valley. Much of this day takes us out of the Central Coast region and into what is considered the North Coast Region of California Wine Country which encompasses, Napa, Sonoma, Lake County, Los Carneros, Solano County and Mendocino.
Day 3 Started with a drive into Napa, destination Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. Yountville is a glorious place to start the day and a Café au Lait and a Pain au Chocolat eaten on a bench outside Bouchon Bakery is the way to go. We then enjoyed a stroll through beautiful Yountville where there is art around every corner. We also made a stop at the French Laundry Gardens to see what they were growing.
We had not set appointments ahead of time and wanted to do a bit of driving and sightseeing, so we got back on Highway 29 and stopped for photo ops at Opus 1, Robert Mondavi, Gott’s Roadside (where you really have to have lunch), and Chateau Montelena. The drive through Calistoga and into Northern Sonoma on Rt 128 is stunning with Spanish moss dripping from the canopy of the trees over the road and the smell of cedar in the air. The roads here are curvy, so it’s best if you have not overindulged in tastings before making the drive, but the slower driving allows you to roll the windows down and soak in the air. The North Coast is noted for it’s redwoods and cool climate.
Sonoma – Russian River Valley
We jumped back on the 101 and made our way south to the Russian River Valley and to Balletto Vineyards. In conjunction with Sonoma County.com they have a self guided walking tour where you can learn about the local wildlife, grape varieties, soil types water conservation and see the baseball field built on the property.
From here we left the North Coast and drove on to the Livermore Valley arriving in time to enjoy a tasting at the gorgeous property at Wente Vineyards. This stunning property has a full concert series in the summer, they have an 18 hole golf course and an award winning restaurant. Founded 130 years ago they are the country’s oldest continuously operated family owned winery. The grounds are stunning and there are tables outside where servers will bring you tastings or wine by the glass.
Day 4 we were up early and heading to the coast again. This time through San Jose then onto Rt. 17 to Santa Cruz. This glorious stretch of road is notoriously dangerous, but is tree lined and beautiful running through Scotts Valley with Redwoods to the North. This drive takes you to Santa Cruz and then Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. We drove to just before Davenport and enjoyed the scenic drive up Bonny Doon Road for a bit. Then it was back to enjoy the coast on Bonny Doon Beach. It was still early, so we hopped back on the 1 heading north and took in some more of the coast. We came upon Theodore J. Hoover Natural Preserve in the Rancho del Osos- Big Basin Redwoods State Park. As you drive up the coast looking at the ocean suddenly this burst of mountainous beauty catches your eye from the other side. We stopped and took in a little of the view before heading back down to Davenport and the Bonny Doon Tasting Room.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Tasting Room
Bonny Doon…there is so much to say here. The first of the Rhone Rangers, Randall Grahm has been a winemaking pioneer in California. I will treat you to a full post on Bonny Doon, Randall Grahm and all of the really great and interesting stuff, but for now…visit the Bonny Doon Vineyards Website and have a quick read. We had an amazing tasting in their tasting room which sits right on the Pacific Coast Highway, then went across the street to enjoy the view and have a picnic lunch.
Paso Robles – Tablas Creek Vineyard
We hit the 101 and proceeded to Paso Robles heading straight for Tablas Creek Vineyard, where we did a tasting and took a look at where the vines were in veraison. They were pouring two interesting wines, Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir. Tablas Creek imported Clairette Blanche to the United States in 2003, it was released to them in 2009 and planted in 2010. The half acre block of Clairette Blanche at Tablas Creek is one of the only plantings in California. The Terret Noir is a blending grape from Chateauneuf du Pape. This vine was brought in from the Beaucastel Estate in Chateauneuf du Pape, as part of Tablas Creek’s goal to have all the Chateauneuf du Pape varieties. Watch for tastings and pairings with these two rather unique wines. And if you are a wine geek, get yourself to Tablas Creek Vineyard. If you can’t make it there, visit the website, you will find a ton of fascinating educational information on Rhone wines. Of course you will also find loads of information here on our website. We were lucky enough to do an interview and tour with Jason Haas their General Manager and had fascinating discussions on a wide range of topics including the Rhone Varieties, the Adelaida AVA and using Foudres, dry farming and more.
A little more PCH
Then it was back on the road to Solvang in Santa Barbara County where we would stay for the next 2 nights. Luckily were were not in a hurry, so we drove SR 46 to the Beach and up a little to Cambria and then took the Pacific Coast Highway to Morro Bay and SLO before getting back on the 101 to see sunset out the back window and moon rise out the front as we drove into Buellton.
Day 5 started with a stroll of the charming city of Solvang in the morning. The sun was out, the temperature was just right and it was the perfect way to start the day. Nestled in the middle of Santa Barbara County, Solvang feels like you have stepped into another world. This historic Danish Village in the middle of California was founded by Danish-Americans in 1911. Solvang translates to “sunny field” in Danish. The town has embraced the Danish Architecture and the town is dotted with windmills. The streets are enchanting and you can find aebleskivers (a Danish dessert that is like a donut hole) at many restaurants. If you enjoy shopping or window shopping, you will be in heaven. There is a store for everything here. Walking the town you will find courtyards and corners to explore. Or you can rent a bicycle or a 4-wheeled surrey! They have an outdoor theatre, the Solvang Festival Theatre that runs productions throughout the summer. Every Wednesday there is a Farmers Market in Solvang Park in the afternoons. There are great restaurants, wine tasting rooms and really, something for everyone.
Foxen Canyon to the Santa Maria Bench
We finished our walk and got in the car again to head up into Foxen Canyon. With over 200 wineries, 6 AVAs, and over 21,000 acres of vineyards Santa Barbara County has quite a bit of area to explore. We had limited time so we headed north from Solvang. We took Ballard Canyon Road though the Ballard Canyon AVA which is known for it’s Syrah, and noticed that Larner Vineyard had netted for birds. As the fruit starts to sweeten the birds like to feast so the green netting helps to keep them out and save the fruit. At the top of the Canyon we stopped for another gorgeous view from above Saarloos & Sons beautiful Windmill Ranch Vineyard.
Foxen Canyon Road is a beautiful drive with the San Rafael Mountains on the right and views of Firestone, Curtis (where Andrew Murray has his winery) and Koehler Vineyards as you round the curve to meet with Zaca Station Road. This is a perfect drive to get a sense of the sweeping area that Santa Barbara County covers.
We had some vines to visit at Riverbench to see how they were growing. Back in 2014 we watched as they planted a new front block. Still in Santa Barbara County, this does take you into the Santa Maria AVA. You can see below how much these vines have grown since we saw them as babies in 2014.
We continued into the Santa Maria AVA to see how Bien Nacido Vineyard was doing after the Alamo fire. The Whittier fire pulled much of the fire department away and vineyard staff worked very hard to keep the vines at Bien Nacido safe. This is a revered vineyard and you will find it’s name on some of the best labels. We met Chris Hammell their vineyard manager at a Syrah Seminar. While they are known for their Pinot Noir, they are also growing some amazing Syrah. You can hear Chris talk about it here.
From here we headed back to Los Olivos where you can find the largest selection of Santa Barbara County Tasting rooms within walking distance of each other. After a walk about town we headed to Crawford Family Wines for a tasting. We had met Mark Horvath, owner and winemaker a while ago at a Syrah Seminar at the Spring Vintners Festival and had wanted to get by to taste his wines. His wife Wendy was manning the tasting room and we had a great conversation and tasting with her.
We stopped at Larner for a tasting and to have lunch out front on the patio in front of the Los Olivos General Store. This sits on the corner of Grand Avenue and Alamo Pintado Avenue by the flagpole in the center of town. You get the view of Andrew Murray’s Tasting Room across the street among others.
We then finished out the day at the best place to finish your day in Los Olivos, Carhartt’s. It’s just down the block on Grand Ave. They stay open a little later than the other tasting rooms and get pretty busy at the end of the day. They have the tiniest tasting room (you can squish 5 people in if you try really hard, but the back patio here has a bit more space and is heaven. Joe, as always, took great care of us.
As you can see, we had to gloss over most areas. You could easily spend 2 to 3 days or more in each area. We put almost 2000 miles on the Prius, but we tasted a variety of wines and saw an amazing portion of the beautiful state of California. Day 6 was the drive back to Vegas. We soaked in as much of the coast as we could on the drive. But this was just the quick version of the trip. Check back here as we delve into the details on each of the places we visited.