This spring, as we’ve done for the past few years, myself, Mrs. Top Ducker, Slim Mex, and Mrs. Slim took off for a holiday away from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Mrs. Ducker and I have been going to Santa Ynez Valley for a weekend trip here and there pretty much every year since we’ve been together. Usually with at least one other couple. The Ices have gone, and we’ve also made the trip with The Nose (not listed in the Meet The Duckers article, will have to make an amendment), who introduced me to this gorgeous area of California that is often overlooked in favor of Napa, Sonoma, or the Temecula wine regions, but let me tell you, Santa Ynez takes a back seat to none of these areas. The relaxed atmosphere, breathtaking views, and delicious wines have me looking forward to returning before we even leave.
Normally our escapades have us leaving Las Vegas early on a Friday morning, and coming back Sunday afternoon. This time though we decided to alter how we go about this, and it worked out fantastic. We found some nice accommodations in Solvang that offered a stay 2 nights, get 1 night free deal for mid-week stays, so we set the schedule to leave Monday morning and come home Thursday, providing an extra day, while also avoiding that weekend crowd.
We hit the road all bright eyed and bushy tailed. We had a mullet car, business in the front (a sober driver) and party (snacks and music) in the back. We don’t head directly to Santa Ynez Valley, we of course have to make a pit stop in SoCal to pick up our travel companions, Mr. and Mrs. Slim. Once we’d gotten them stashed in the back, we made our way to Santa Barbara.
Summerland Winery used to be a staple of our trips, about 5 minutes south (or an hour, its southern California highway 101 traffic) of Santa Barbara, we had skipped this stop the last few times in favor of getting to our primary destination of the day. This was mostly because we hadn’t been huge fans of the wine the last couple times we went. But wine isn’t Coca Cola or Pepsi where you expect the same exact taste and quality every time you pop a can. Wine is a living, breathing, piece or art. You’re going to have better vintages, better or worse varietals, and we wanted to give Summerland another shot.
We were not disappointed. Its always been a nice tasting room, with friendly, informed staff, we love the front porch, but as I said, the wine had not been the best. Not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination, but they could do better, and better they did. We all enjoyed the pouring list which included a couple of nice whites, a red blend, and Syrah, but my favorite was a 2013 Orange Muscat that I absolutely loved. They’ve definitely earned the right to be on our itinerary next trip.
Our second of five wine tastings on Monday was at one of our constants, Oreana, we try to mix and match what tasting rooms we hit every time, there are so many great ones that we could spend a month in the region and not properly spend enough time trying all the splendid tastes, smells, and views the area has to offer, but there are a few staples of every trip with Oreana being one of them.
Located in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, Oreana looks like a mechanic’s garage at first glance, but looks can be deceiving as when you walk inside you’re greeted by affordable, tasty wine. Always a favorite is their Project Happiness offerings. They make a red blend and a white blend table wine that is a must pick up any time we go. For a while we were able to pick some up at Trader Joe’s, but alas, that was a limited offering, leaving us to make sure to stock up when we make our annual pilgrimage.
Across the street from Oreana is another stop we make every year. It is seemingly always busy, Santa Barbara Winery whether it be on a Friday late afternoon or Monday mid-day always seems to have a decent sized crowd. For my tastes, their whites are much better than their reds, but then again, wine pallets are a very personal thing.
Always a favorite here are their Chardonnays, they had 2 offerings on their white tasting list, including one from Lafond vineyards, a vineyard with their own tasting room next door, but with whom Santa Barbara Winery does a lot of sourcing/work with.
Normally at this point we’d make one more stop next door at Lafond, but we wanted to explore the Funk Zone a bit as the area has seen a growth and revitalization in recent years.
We knew where we were headed for dinner, so we started wandering in that direction towards the beach to see what looked interesting and different. Our first new tasting was at a themed tasting room called Area 5.1 Wine certainly an interesting place, especially for any conspiracy theorists or star gazers. Their tasting list included numerous blends with names such as Equinox, Close Encounter, Celestial, Collusion, and Conspiracy Red.
Some of the blends were better than others, my travel companions, who were a bit more “served” than I had been at this point (I was the driver), were enthralled with the Conspiracy Red, a blend that included predominantly Cab Franc and Merlot with some Cab, Syrah, and Tempranillo mixed in.
We next wandered further towards the beach and made a stop at DV8 Cellars, a little tasting room tucked back and away next to a brew house bar. The primary draw honestly was the artwork on their bottles I had seen. The Slims have a young son who absolutely adores race cars, and DV8 had bottles and artwork littered with cool looking race cars.
DV8 was quite the experience. We were the only ones in the place aside from the pourer managing the place who managed to slice his hand open while we were there. The angle they were going for with their wines were some bold pairings and mixing of tastes. Their stated goal was to Deviate from the Norm, and that they did. The results are not what I’d call classically good, but well worth the stop just for the interesting results. They had a carbonated Rose’ on tap, available for sale in growlers, we finagled getting a sip, which for me was the highlight of the tasting.
At this point, as you can tell from the photos below, my travel companions were in a very happy place:
So we made our way to dinner, a nice restaurant overlooking the beach, and pier that we’ve made our go to spot every trip, Santa Barbara FisHouse As someone who could spend hours upon hours at the beach at night, just taking in the sights, smells, and sounds, there is no better way for me to end the first day of vacation than dinner on the beach. I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re in the area.
After finishing our day in Santa Barbara we make the roughly 45 minute trek north to Santa Ynez Valley where we shack up for the remainder of our trip. In years past we’ve stayed in Buellton, or Lompoc, but this year we stayed in the heart of Solvang. A gorgeous little community that looks and feels like it was plucked from Denmark and dropped in California.
We had booked lodging at the Royal Copenhagen Inn. Located right on the Solvang’s main road. The rooms were nice enough, clean, safe, and comfortable, which are the primary qualities I’m looking for. Honestly for my travel dollars, unless I plan on staying at the resort for the duration of my travels, I tend to not be overly concerned with the hotel, but this place more then met my needs. Coupled with the mid-week deal we got, the bill in total came to about $250 for 3 nights, I was very happy with this choice and would stay again without hesitation.
I woke up early, not at all on purpose, but as a creature of habit. So before any of my cohorts were even thinking of waking I was out and about walking the gorgeous little town, taking in the sights and feels.
Numerous bakeries filled the air with the smells of fresh pastries being baked. Seemingly every corner had a windmill, and the details of the architecture was fantastic to behold. Their claim to fame is a replica of the Little Mermaid statue found in Copenhagen.
During my personal excursion I was also smart enough to make a stop at Subway to grab sandwiches for lunch that day as our travels would not be taking us by any places to get a proper meal (that’s a helpful hint should you decide to follow our path).
Before heading out towards Foxen Canyon Road, we grabbed breakfast at Paula’s Pancake House a decent enough spot for breakfast, it was only a few hundred feet down the street from the Inn. The food was decent enough, normal breakfast fare, though the wait was a bit much for a weekday morning.
Once we were finally out on the road to a full day of wine tasting, we made our first stop, Firestone Winery in Los Olivos. While we did not partake, they do provide tours of the grounds, and discussions on the wine making process. The tasting room itself was gorgeous, large, and open with multiple tasting/pouring areas. I found out, while speaking with the pourer, that they are part of the Foley Family of wines. As residents of Las Vegas that became a main talking point as Bill Foley is the owner of the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team.
It had been years since I had been to Firestone. Normally we start the day on the north end of Foxen Canyon road and make our way back down, finishing on Grand Ave, and thus have a tendency to skip some of the tastings on the southern end of the road in favor of getting to the Grand Ave tasting rooms, a mistake that we won’t likely make again. Mrs. Ducker and The Slims had never been, and I think months later they’re still holding a bit of resentment for withholding Firestone from them previously.
Just down the road from Firestone was Andrew Murray Vineyards located at the old Curtis Winery tasting room. We had been to the Andrew Murray E11ven tasting room on Grand Ave, but not the Andrew Murray location itself.
The tasting room itself had a very modern feel to it, but yet felt inviting. The young woman pouring that morning was very friendly and informative about the wine. Like Firestone, Andrew Murray is what I would consider to be a higher end wine. Of the 7 wines on the tasting list were 3 Syrahs, each one seemingly better than the last, and all exquisite. We ended up leaving with a 2014 Alisos Syrah that I’m looking forward to breaking out soon.
Just down the road we made our way to Fess Parker winery, the actor best known for portraying Davey Crockett in a Disney mini series founded the winery some years back.
Fess Parker had several nice Pinots and Chards. The grounds themselves were fairly empty relative to what I had normally encountered, but that was to be expected considering it was a Tuesday morning. Previously when I had been to Fess Parker the place was packed, a lot of the crowd being formed by families with children having a picnic out on the spacious lawn.
We spent a nice long while here just relaxing, soaking in the sun and enjoying the wine we were tasting. It didn’t hurt that we found a nice area outside and they started bring the pours to us.
After three stops, everyone was feeling pretty good. Each tasting room had its own ambience, and all were gorgeous, but it was time to move on. At this point we had been to three locations that the Slims had never been, but we needed to make a stop at one of the group’s favorites.
Zaca Mesa is a stop we’ve routinely made each trip, and they never disappoint. They have a nice family area just outside the tasting room that includes large games. They always have the jumbo chess game going, but I’ve also seen jumbo jenga and other adult sized kid games out. Hiking trails, picnic areas, and music playing outside provides for a fun, relaxed environment. Their “Z” collection is always met with smiles and approval, the Z Three, Z Cuvee, and Z Gris.
We took advantage of the picnic tables to enjoy our sandwiches as this was approaching the midway point of our day. We originally intended to hit up the Foxen Wine shack, and maybe Tres Hermanas on our way to my favorite winery, but at this point we had spent so much time enjoying the offerings of the various grounds we had been at already, and our last two planned stops were must stops, and we didn’t want to feel rushed.
That being said, I did have to make a couple stops to take in the scenic vistas and just drink in the views.
Our fifth stop is at my favorite winery. Full disclaimer, of all the wineries I’ve visited, in Napa, Temecula, Santa Barbara proper, and Santa Ynez, I belong to one wine club, and it is Rancho Sisquoc.
In the ten years or so of trips to Santa Ynez, I’ve never tasted a varietal, or year from Rancho Sisquoc that I haven’t enjoyed. The grounds are fantastic. And they’ve got dogs trotting around greeting everyone.
The Tre Vini, The Meritage, the River Red, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot, Syrah, Reisling, I could go on and on, they’re all aromatic, quality, and affordable wines. But my all time favorite is the Sylvaner. A fruity wine that I usually enjoy crisp and cold. Yesterday at the pool I accidently left the bottle out (yes, I killed the bottle by myself yesterday) and when warmed it went from a cool crisp citrus taste to tasting just like apple juice (of which I am a big fan)
Rancho Sisquoc is nestled back off the road. You’ll see the signage out on Foxen Canyon Rd. but the grounds themselves are found by following a long windy beaten down path that runs along with a farm on the left side and wooded area on the right. We’ve seen all sorts of wild life welcoming us to the tasting room, including horses.
As we closed down Rancho Sisquoc, we moved to our last wine stop. A newer vineyard that The Nose had encountered and whose virtues he had been extolling for a couple of years. Up until now I had not made the stop as our first stops on Foxen Canyon had always been Rancho and Kenneth Volk Wines but with Kenneth Volk’s tasting room closed on Tuesdays, we mixed it up and decided to check out Presquile Wine
This place was huuuuge. It felt like we were walking into a Scientology compound, or something like it anyways. Picture if Richie Rich grew up and started a vineyard. State of the art everything. Large patio, large tasting room, concert venue area, this place is very nice. The wine itself everyone else loved. For me, I enjoyed other locations more. For my pallet it tasted a bit acidic, but Mrs. Ducker, and the Slims all really enjoyed it. Though the bottles were a bit pricey.
As it was now 5 PM, and the tasting rooms were all closing, we moved on to dinner. We stopped in Buellton and A.J. Spurs if you’ve seen the movie Sideways, its just a couple doors down from The Hitching Post, and also where Jack met Dotti, the full figured married waitress. AJ’s serves some decent steaks, all of which come with a stew and family style sides.
On Wednesday our plan was to hit up a couple close tasting rooms, and then be in Los Olivos’ Grand Ave. neighborhood around lunch time, before making back to Solvang to hit up some of the tasting rooms around town within walking distance to the hotel, I had my eye on Carivintas
Welp, as Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
We stopped at Pea Soup Andersens for breakfast. If you haven’t been, its a must stop off the 101. Good food, an interesting gift shop with food to take home, as well as gifts. Its a local institution.
Once we had properly filled our stomachs we headed down highway 146 to Foley Wines which, like Firestone, is owned by Bill Foley. A bit more reserved than the Firestone grounds, its wine was of no lesser quality. Unfortunately they had not yet released their Rose’ which was one of our favorite purchases the previous year.
Foley’s was a nice appetizer for our next two stops. Located right next to one another, actually sharing a driveway before veering off in their own directions, Babcock and Melville wineries.
As good as Babcock Wines are (no matter what else you decide to purchase here, make sure you pick yourself up a bottle of their Naughty Nectar Pinot Gris, it is delicious) it is the tasting room that makes this a must stop. If you can spend less than an hour walking around, tasting the wines and just surveying all the Americana and nick-nacks around the barn, then you’re really just not an interesting person. Every time we’ve been we’ve really enjoyed the fun interaction with the staff.
Moving from Babcock, and its old fashioned Americana feel, we move literally next door to Melville Winery which has the feel of sipping wine on the patio of a Tuscan villa.
Melville, while pouring some decent whites, really pour some outstanding reds. A variety of Pinots and Syrahs really highlight the tastes of a region known for the quality of its Pinot Noir. This continues to be a must stop on any tour of the region. The combination of the tranquility of the tasting room along with the complexity of the wines leaves you spending so much time just sitting and enjoying.
As a result, we looked up and it was already mid-afternoon when we thought we’d be heading to Grand Ave. shortly after noon.
Coquelicot Vineyards was our first stop when we got to the Grand Ave area. Grand Ave in Los Olivos is an area of restaurants, and tasting rooms all grouped together. On a nice Saturday afternoon you can’t go wrong just going from tasting room to tasting room. Think of it as the ultimate pub crawl, but in wine form. We hit Coquelicot first, they specialize in organic wine, meaning the grapes are grown organically. They have a nice little backyard type area where you can take your tasting and sit outside relaxing. The quality of the wine, to me, is just okay. Its not bad, but not a must stop for my money.
I had made a point when planning to have Kaena Wines on the agenda because I had read that they had a Tempranillo, and because it is a Hawaiian themed location, and the Slims are all about the 8 islands.
The best part of Kaena were the doggies chilling in the tasting room that the patrons had brought with them. We did grab a Grenache that wasn’t too bad. But in hindsight, as we ran out of time, and skipped a lot of the rest of Grand Ave. I would have rather have stopped at Dragonette or not having rushed through our visit to the Sanger Family Wines which we did make a quick run too as they have some tasty olive oils that they sell, and Slim Mex needed to re-stock.
After leaving Grand Ave, we headed back to Solvang, only to find that Carivintas was closed on Wednesdays. We stumbled around the town a bit more before finding ourselves sitting on plush couches sipping on some wines at Casa Cassara’s tasting room. I ended up grabbing a bottle of their Dago Red blend, as much for the taste as for the cool looking bottle I planned on displaying once I finished enjoying the wine. I say planned because I unfortunately broke the bottle before I had a chance to drink it.
After steaks, and fish we decided to just stroll down to the local burger joint, Chomp which wasn’t bad, and for sure a family friendly location. The menu is exactly what you’d expect from a burger shop.
We originally planned to spend half the day, the late morning, hitting up a couple more wineries that none of us had been too, Gainey and Sunstone on the way out of town. Unfortunately we had to make sure the Slims were back home by 1 PM, and with California traffic being what it is, we didn’t want to take any chances with them not making it. Since then I keep seeing photos of Sunstone on various social media accounts, and it still pains me that we haven’t made it, it looks absolutely stunning.
We stopped for breakfast at a quaint little breakfast place that seemed like its been around for about 100 years, Solvang Restaurant which is home of “Arne’s Famous Aebleskiver” which apparently is a Danish pancake ball. I’m not one prone to trying new things, but it was pretty good, especially with a bit of jam slathered on. Of all the eateries in town, this is the one I’d most recommend.
After an incredibly fun, relaxing, tasty time in Santa Ynez we made our way back to Vegas in time before our dog forgot about us. Four days, 17 wine tastings, various olive oils, food, and time at the beach. Everything a nice relaxing vacation should be. No lines waiting for giant mice, no overpriced beers and tight uncomfortable seats watching a ball game, its a vacation that could turn to a lifestyle.
So take my recommendation, next time you’ve got a nice 3 day weekend, head to Santa Ynez, its a short trip to a whole nother world. Away from the stress and noise of modern day life.
Next year, we’ll make it a full week, and maybe take a whole van full of friends. Not much I’d love to do more than share this with all my friends. And If I’m wanting to take them, you should know the experience is worth your time and money. Absolutely feel free to reach out with questions or comments. I’d also love to hear about any experiences or recommendations you have for the area.
- By Jason Sullivan
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