Room to Breathe in the Santa Ynez Valley
The Santa Ynez Valley offers an abundance of great food, wine and sunshine, but it’s the valley’s people and its relatively untouched way of life that makes it one of the best places to discover the real California
by Meghan Glennon
There’s wine in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, but Napa this is not. There are no limestone monoliths set into the hills or tasting rooms built in the style of grand palaces or, for gourmands, any Michelin-starred restaurants (though Michelin might have good reason to shoot a star into the valley at some point soon). There are millionaires and billionaires tucked away in the hills in stunning estates, but mostly you’d never know they were there—and when they’re walking around the small community of Los Olivos they’re in jeans and maybe even dusty cowboy boots. There are horses—lots of horses—and quiet valley towns that look like perfect re-creations of dappled old California daydreams. There are flowers everywhere and the sky is almost always cerulean, framing the rolling golden hills that are themselves decorated with seemingly endless green lines of grape vines. Ancient oaks, parks, a beautiful waterfall and friendly, open people sharing some of the best wine you’ve ever tasted; this is a hidden valley where you can find some of the relaxed California perfection that just doesn’t seem so easy to come by anymore.
When my husband was just starting out as a journalist and working at the Lompoc Record in Santa Barbara County, he lived in Solvang. His apartment had a Dutch door and was located above a quilt shop behind a windmill. There was a speaker outside his bedroom window that started belting something resembling polka music early every morning, one of many in the town (though his mysteriously went silent not long after he moved in) and white Christmas lights in all of the trees, which are still there. Horse-drawn trolleys for tourists, shopkeepers in Danish-ish costumes, a Hans Christian Andersen Park, stores selling Christmas ornaments year-round or offering the insanely sweet aebleskiver pastry on almost every corner, salty herring candy, office buildings disguised as quaint thatched-roofed cottages and busloads of tourists… Solvang is what Danish Disney dreams are made of, but somehow, incredibly, it all works and its charm manages to break through its kitsch. The new Landsby hotel is a beautiful embodiment of modern Scandanavian design, and shopping at The Copenhagen House feels closer to being in a top modern design studio than it does to being in Hansel and Gretel’s cottage. Beyond that, it’s in Solvang that you’ll find some of the best food in the valley—you’ll have to wait in line to get it, and you’ll eat it outside and under a windmill, and it’s glorious. At Bacon & Brine, Chef Pink and Courtney Rae are serving up absolutely heavenly food—with authority (baconandbrine.com). Chef Pink, aka Crystal DeLongpré, is a 17-year food and restaurant industry veteran who worked in New York with Chef April Bloomfield at both The Spotted Pig (one of my favorite restaurants) and The Breslin, and in Oakland at Camino Restaurant with Chez Panisse alum Chef Russell Moore. Working with her is her wife and partner, Courtney Rae DeLongpré, aka Fermentation Goddess, who’s responsible for all things brined, fermented or otherwise probiotic. Together they’re on a mission to deliver hyper-local (nothing except spices is sourced from more than 10 miles away), organic and sustainable food, and so far their mission is a serious success.
Courtney Rae’s skills bring such items as spiced pickles and kimchi, and with Chef Pink’s creativity and chops in the kitchen, the menu is an inspired selection of new experiences. I tried the fried Brussels sprouts with ponzu and sesame and the Not So Ramen sandwich with dashi-braised pork loin, togarashi, scallion, sesame and egg. I kept putting it down thinking I was too full to eat another bite, but kept picking it up again until it was all gone. Incredibly, just a few hours later, I was craving another one. My husband had the BLK sandwich with house-made bacon, heirloom lettuce and kimchi, which he ate so quickly I didn’t manage to get a bite. There was even a kind of donut+bacon dessert that was sinfully wonderful. Bacon & Brine would sit just fine among the high-standard modern eateries in so many cutting-edge Brooklyn or LA neighborhoods; by siting it here Chef Pink and Courtney Rae have elevated the entire valley, and the long lines at lunchtime don’t lie. We’ll definitely be back.
Another great foodie resource in the area is Cailloux Cheese Shop. Currently tucked into a rented commercial kitchen in Buellton—across from the perpetually packed Industrial Eats, which serves incredible artisan pizzas and other great food— Janelle McAtamney is quietly building her dream. The cheese monger has a master’s degree in geology and a passion for cheese, and she sees the two as connected.
“Cheese is tied to the earth,” she says. “And both geology and cheese are slow, process-oriented things, with geology a great lens through which to see the world.”
She fell in love with cheese while working at a creamery in Vermont. She also worked as a midwife and as a welder, but she kept coming back to geology and to cheese, traveling for the former and engaging with the latter in such places as Patagonia (sheep’s milk cheese) and Nepal (yak’s milk cheese). Now, the Massachusetts native has brought her knowledge to the Santa Ynez Valley, where she’s sourcing some of the best cheeses from around the world and presenting them beautifully for local tasting rooms and in custom gift baskets for consumers. A storefront in Solvang slated to open this summer and we can’t wait to visit. For now, people can order a basket or schedule a wine and cheese-pairing event at www.caillouxcheeseshop.com
Fans of the movie Sideways will find much to love in the Santa Ynez Valley—much of the movie was filmed here, and the restaurants, tasting rooms and specific sites often have signs indicating they appeared in the production. Golfers in particular will remember that, in the film, the two lead characters spent some time on course—on the River Course at the Alisal Guest Ranch, as it turns out, not far from Solvang’s downtown. The course plays along the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and features four lakes among its 6,830-yard layout. Following the path of the Santa Ynez River, gently rolling fairways are framed by mature Live Oaks, native sycamores and elderberry trees. With vineyard views as well, the course is as inspirational as it is fun to play; just please don’t re-enact the scene from the film, in which the protagonists turn and start hitting golf balls at the foursome behind them after receiving complaints of slow play—effective perhaps, but not advised.
From Solvang, if you head toward the town of Ballard (which still has a still-functioning one-room schoolhouse, originally built in 1882) you’ll find Quicksilver Ranch, which breeds and sells miniature horses. Drive in and treat yourself to the joy of petting one of the cutest animals in the world. Not as cute, perhaps, but certainly interesting, if you head the other direction out of Solvang, west on the way to Buellton, you’ll find OstrichLand USA. Exactly as you’d expect, it’s a sprawling paradise for the strange two-legged descendants of dinosaurs. You can get roughly as close as you’d like to them (they’re behind fences) and even feed them. The birds can get pretty aggressive with the food and might try to rip the feed bowls out of your hand, so the bowls are stuck to dust pans, which offer great handles for gripping. There’s a gift shop for all of your ostrich-themed needs that also sells fresh ostrich and emu eggs and which features a curious case full of autographed eggs, including one signed by Jane Seymour.
Karen Steinwachs did what most people in high-power, pressure-cooker jobs only dream about: She quit. Then she decided to make wine. She went from the male-dominated world of tech to the male-dominated world of winemaking and found success in both. When she first decided to stop staring at a screen and start getting her hands dirty, she called many of the friends and acquaintances she’d made in the wine industry—this time she wasn’t asking about her wine club membership, she was asking for a job—and the response was less than positive.
“They were thinking, ‘she’s a girl, she’s old and she doesn’t know what she’s doing,” Steinwachs said. “I could hear it.”
When she called Norm Yost, winemaker at Foley, he offered her a harvest job and then tried to dissuade her from taking it by saying it would only pay $7/hour, it would be intense work and it would only last six weeks. Karen was undeterred.
“It was hard work, shoveling pinot noir stems all day,” she explains. “I had blisters on my feet and I discovered that you can’t buy women’s work boots—you have to buy small men’s. At the farm supply store here they have some in pink, but I didn’t want pink.”
She turned a temporary job into a three-year position before moving to Fiddlehead Cellars as an assistant winemaker to Kathy Joseph. She honed her skills there before striking out on her own and becoming the winemaker at Buttonwood, which is also a working farm. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering her determined career shift, Karen is fearless in her winemaking. Besides producing phenomenally delicious pours, she’s constantly experimenting with new ideas. One example: she comes from a brewing family and decided to bring her passion for wine and her family history together in Hop On, a hopped Sauvignon Blanc that captures all the hoppy aromatics of an IPA without any of the bitterness. It is refreshing, fantastic and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. I think it would be amazing with BBQ. Beyond that, she organized the valley’s first women’s winemaker dinner: “There were 30 women, and it wasn’t all of us,” she said, immediately causing me to wonder if I could somehow tag along at next year’s. I don’t make wine, but I’m happy to enjoy it—and the company of some amazing women. Here’s hoping.
Los Olivos is idyllic. There are no gas stations, supermarkets, billboards or chain restaurants. This is the place you want your kids to grow up, and where you want to grow old. Everywhere you look is a perfect photograph waiting to be taken. It’s a small town, but not small-minded, and the people here like it just the way it is—so do we. This is where we stayed on this trip, at the lovely and luxurious Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa. The room was wonderful, the service excellent and the pool area is the perfect place to spend a lazy warm afternoon. The spa here is top-notch, but the latest star of the property is the new restaurant: The Bear and Star. Chef John Cox has taken fine dining in Los Olivos and the entire valley to the next level here. He’s growing his own mushrooms on site, raising vegetables and catfish in aquaponic harmony, employing local craftsmen and women in the decor and other aspects of the experience—and then there’s the ranch.
The 714-acre Fess Parker Home Ranch is located in Foxen Canyon, seven miles from the inn, and is home to Wagyu cattle, chickens, quail, rabbits, pigs and bees as well as heirloom and organic fruits and vegetables. This is Chef Cox’s supermarket and he puts it to exceptional use. The smoked Wagyu carpaccio appetizer and steelhead trout entrée were extraordinary, for example, and there’s so much more to sample. A beautiful menu of savory options joins brilliant cocktails—including the first mezcal-based drink that I actually enjoyed (my husband has always liked it)—elegant desserts, and a very well-considered decor to set the bar very high indeed for local cuisine. Even breakfast is a treat, with house-made yoghurt and genuine attention to detail in dishes that might otherwise be considered “standard.” We had a sneak peak at the new room service delivery boxes, which are charming, and it’s details like that which put this restaurant and the inn itself on a completely different level. For travelers to the area who demand the absolute top in accommodations and fine dining, this is it.
That’s not to say that Los Olivos doesn’t have other great eateries—it has plenty, starting with the charming Sides Hardware and Shoes (located in the old hardware store) and the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café, a longtime staple. Don’t miss a wander through the whimsical garden fantasy that is J Woeste or a game of bocce in the garden behind the Coquelicot tasting room. There’s also a treasure box of a store at the back of the garden selling artisan goods. Los Olivos is tiny, but there are more tasting rooms than you could visit in a weekend. One of our favorites on this trip was Dreamcote, which feels like the creative space of a haute Malibu hippie. Winemaker Brit Zotovich offers great whites and, should you want it (and you might after a weekend of tasting), a respite from wine altogether in the form of her hard cider, which is excellent. We also stopped in at Tessa Marie where we met Tessa and tasted her Italian varietals; the Vermentino was beautifully bright and we liked the Sangiovese as well. As a side note, my grandfather Bert Glennon was the cinematographer on the Davy Crockett miniseries that helped to cement Tessa’s grandfather Fess Parker as a star, so when I took her portrait maybe something came full circle. Or maybe that was just the wine wondering…
As a girl growing up in the LA area, the Santa Ynez Valley was simply a freeway exit that we always passed on the way to my family’s property in Sonoma County. It was quirky billboards that counted down the miles to “Pea Soup Andersens,” a restaurant and inn that is still open in Buellton and still serving pea soup. We never stopped, not even for gas. There was a long weekend at Zaca Lake when I was around 10, which is nearby, but the cabin we rented was supposedly haunted and definitely run-down, so we never went back. Years later when a new boyfriend—now my husband—suggested a long weekend in Solvang, I scoffed but decided to humor him. Then I fell in love with the place (and the man).
We returned many times over the years while we were dating and watched the valley blossom into what it is today. We’ve stayed in the cheapest hotels there and the best, and we’ve never had a bad time. In 2010, we decided to make our love affair with the valley official and got married at a local winery, Gainey Vineyards, under the magnificent Live Oak on their grounds.
We’ve been back to the valley many times since then, and in recent years we’ve enjoyed re-discovering it with our daughter, Beatrix, watching her pet the miniature horses, stare wide-eyed at all of the charming madness in Solvang, laugh at the ostriches and even play under our favorite tree. Sometimes, out of nowhere, she even asks to go to the place we got married, “the place with the big tree.” Considering the great food, great wine and top accommodations, we rarely say no.