Getting Sideways in Central California (Santa Ynez Valley – Part II)

My second most requested place for travel advice after Ireland is for people going to Santa Barbara and the nearby wine country. The area started booming after the 2004 indie hit Sideways (Think “WE’RE NOT DRINKING ANY MERLOT!”). Pro-tip: Don’t mention that quote or “the movie” up there. The locals have all heard it already. And please do drink the Merlot – it grows particularly well in this region! I travel up to the Santa Ynez valley MULTIPLE times a year for my day job, so I know the area pretty well! I’ll break this down into two posts: Santa Barbara & Santa Ynez Valley.

The Santa Ynez Valley is my favorite spot for wine-tasting local to LA. Temecula is closer, but the quality isn’t as good. I haven’t been to Paso Robles yet. I’ve heard raves, but it’s farther of a drive. Napa/Sonoma/Healdsburg require a really long road trip or a flight. Something to keep in mind is that this is a very small, happy community. Things will close early. Cell data is not so good. Unplug and enjoy it!

If you’re deciding between Santa Barbara & going up to the Valley, they’re both worthwhile but have different vibes. SB is still a city and you’ll be going to tasting rooms and not seeing any grape vines. You do have the advantage of the beach and amazing ocean views in SB. SY is more of the Napa-like experience and is much more chill. But it’s land-locked.

Getting around

  • Driving there: When you drive up from LA, your GPS will probably tell you to take the 154 North. It’s a really pretty scenic road with a cool bridge. But it’s also SUPER windy through the mountains and there are big trucks and drunk drivers there. I never take this road unless there’s a bad accident. Opt to stay on the 101 North and enjoy the breathtaking ocean views.
  • You can also take the train and rent a car from Santa Barbara.
  • When you’re touring around the wineries, there are two ways to get around:
    • Have a 100% sober driver that doesn’t touch a drop and takes you everywhere. There are a lot of drunk drivers on the road up there. You need extra caution. If you can, hire a car service.
    • My trick is to use the Santa Ynez Valley Transit. It runs frequently, is super affordable, and will hit up Buellton, Solvang, and Los Olivos. It doesn’t go super late, so you will need other options for dinner transportation.
    • I don’t recommend Uber/Lyft for the most part in this area. You might think it’s the way to go to save some money, but there are few drivers, and the cell service is so bad in the valleys, you might end up being stranded.

Where to stay: 

  • Hands down, my go-to for the area that is always my first choice is the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton. My first pick for where to stay is usually the place that will let you use or earn loyalty program points. Not staying for free or earning free nights is silly. But this place goes above and beyond as somewhere I’d seek out on my own. It’s been newly remodeled (though the web page hasn’t been updated as of the time of publishing this post), the staff is phenomenal (say hi to Martha S. at breakfast for me!), the new lobby bar is a great place to hang out, and they have an amazing breakfast with bacon that is my specific weakness and the reason I’m not a vegetarian.  The gym is spacious and it’s really great that you can walk to Firestone Walker for dinner (see more below) and other restaurants
  • Elsewhere in Buellton: This is a great truck stop place with lots of little motels, you can probably find something last minute easily. They’re building a brand new Hampton Inn at the moment.
  • Solvang: This is tourist central. It’s an adorable Dutch community with lots of kitschy shops and bakeries and Instagrammable windmills. This is the only place in the area with bad traffic. Some good restaurants, great hotels. But all of the winery tasting rooms in Solvang are crap.
    • Landsby: Super new and chic! Has an amazing happy hour.
    • Hotel Corque: I stayed here when I was in a wedding because this is where the bride was. Loved it. Would be great for a romantic get-away.
    • Holiday Inn: If you want something more economical, there’s one in Solvang
  • Lompoc – I don’t recommend you stay here unless you’re going for work and need to be near the base. But not even then. There are 1-2 decent restaurants, everything else is a chain, and due to the prison being there, not the safest neighborhood. It’s better to stay near the good restaurants and commute than to commute and have a glass or two of wine with dinner. If you must, the Embassy Suites is popular for their happy hour.

Where to eat: To narrow it down, best of the best are Hitching Post II, Sides, and Jocko’s. If you don’t go to Enjoy Cupcakes you are living your life wrong.

  • Buellton – when you want the closest to your hotel
    • Avant: Super good food. Get the Yuppie Crack (goat cheese stuffed dates wrapped in bacon with a balsamic drizzle). The best thing about this place is the wine vending machines! They give you a card and you can walk around and pick the wines you want. You can do a taste, a half glass or a glass, and it will charge you accordingly. That way you can try a variety from the area!
    • Figueroa Mtn Brewery (FMB): This is my favorite brewery ever! They opened a restaurant in the spring of 2017 and it’s faboo! Great mac & cheese and roasted brussel sprouts. Upscale pub grub.
    • Firestone Walker: I go here A LOT. They are super walkable from the Marriott. The food is quite good, and Firestone is famous for their beer and their wineries, so you can get whatever suits you! Love the steak tacos and great artisan pizzas.
    • Hitching Post II: This place was made famous in Sideways. And for reason. OMG the steak is so good here. Probably the second best steak in the valley. My trick is to go for steak sandwich night and sit in the bar area. Or go sit in the bar area when they have the hamburger special. There is this piece of bacon they serve on the burger that is the closest I have been to Nirvana. (Note that there are two Hitching Posts. The other is in Casmalia, I’ve only ever been to the one in Buellton on the 246.)
    • Gino’s East: Great pizza place. They used to deliver to FMB, but I’m not sure if they do anymore since they opened their own restaurant. If you want healthier, they have a good low-carb salad.
    • Industrial Eats: Also near FMB, this place does catering, has a great deli counter, and has amazing food and is a great spot for dinner.
    • Al Fresco Picnics: Great for grab-n-go to take with you for lunch at the wineries!
    • Albertson’s: Don’t discount swinging by the grocery store for stuff from the deli, or grab some salami, cheese, and strawberries to take with you to the wineries.
  • Solvang
    • Succulent: If you haven’t caught on yet that bacon is a weakness of mine, let me tell you that they have a desert here that has bacon on it. I am seriously salivating right now thinking about it. This place has two halves – one is a great deli spot to get your lunch time sandwiches or charcuterie to take to wineries, and there’s a great restaurant that has a nice outdoor space and a view of a windmill.
    • New Frontiers Market: I stop here all the time for a quick sandwich to take to wineries. My go-to if I need healthiness!
    • Root 246: This place is fancy and expensive with small portions. Still worth it! In the Hotel Corque. This is attached to the only “night club” in the area where you can go if you still want to party late.
  • Los Olivos:
    • Enjoy Cupcakes: THESE CUPCAKES WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE! RUN DON’T WALK!
    • Panino: Amazing lunch spot! Great sandwiches and salads. We have taken a group bus trip up to the area for seven years in a row, and we always get everyone lunch from here. They have an Artichoke Bisque which is PHENOM.
    • Sides Hardware and Shoes. Ok, this place is a 12/10 amazing, go out of your way to go here place. Great wine, cocktails, everything. They have an appetizer that’s bacon (yep) that is transformative. Amazing lamb dish and the brussel sprouts are not to be missed.
    • Los Olivos Cafe: Another spot made famous by Sideways. And for cause, because this place is really good. Great food, cute outdoor patio, and a wine shop!
  • Farther out:
    • Cold Spring Tavern: Has a quaint old west look and amazing food.
    • Jocko’s: Do you want to eat the best steak you will ever have in your life? Go here. Orgasmic. Also has the best pork chop ever. I don’t go here really often because Nipomo is pretty far from where I stay. There will be a long wait, even if you have a reservation. If you change your reservation and add someone, they are militant about it and will drop you from the rezzie list and treat you like a walk-in.
    • Vineyard House – This place is in Santa Ynez and is seriously romance romance romance! If it’s a warm night, go here and sit outside on the patio. They have a lobster ravioli that my friend Paul cries about it’s so good.

Where to drink wine: Best of the best is Sunstone. Demetria is great but farther out. It’s polite to tip your pourers about $2. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll go in to the bank and get a bunch of $2 bills if I know I have a big tasting day. You can always ask the pourers for recommendations. Usually they’ll have coupons for you to go to their other affiliated wineries for free tastings, but those aren’t necessarily the best ones. Ask what they’re drinking right now that’s not from their winery.

  • Santa Ynez Valley
    • Sunstone: This is the place. The best wine, worth a little higher price to taste. Make sure you get the Eros. This is also the most beautiful place in the valley – it looks like you have left California and stumbled upon a chateau. If you have Thom or Sean pouring for you, give them a high five. I am a member of this winery, they are AWERSOME.  There’s something magical about the courtyard here. Sit and listen. (See featured photo)
    • Kalyra: Right next to Sunstone. They have a great patio, and a laid back surfer vibe. The Orange Moscato is amazing.
    • Lincourt: This is outside the Los Olivos limits. I am also a member here. If you want to join a winery, I recommend Lincourt, Foley or Firestone because it’s one big club and you can taste for free and get perks
  • Los Olivos: This is where I send everyone. It’s not wineries, but a bunch of little tasting rooms. You get the most variety for your buck here.
    • Saarloos & Sons: This is hugely popular. Adorable tasting room, and the wines all have family history and stories that go with it. However, IMHO the wines are overpriced for their quality compared to other wines in the region. Only drink here if you can have Keith or another member of the Sarloos family pour for you and tell you the stories.  See my mention of the cupcakes, above. This is where you’re supposed to pair the cupcakes with the wine. But I usually pop in and get a box of mini cupcakes and take them to another winery.
    • Dreamcôte: Amazing. Off the main path, super cute and family-run. They have a great desert wine that has a rocket on the label that I love.
    • Carhartt: Very small tasting room, but delish. Great patio. Family run.
    • Artiste: An amazing experience. The wine maker is the same dude as from Sunstone. He “paints” with the wine, blending it based on inspiration. You can paint in the tasting room as the wine moves you. Super worth a visit. If you go to here or Sunstone first, if you mention you’re going to the other one, you can usually get a coupon. The wines were amazing a few years back, but recently I haven’t really liked how they drink.
    • Dragonette Samsara are across the street from each other. Just good wine.
    • Epiphany: Great patio, gorgeous tasting room. Good wine.
    • Daniel Gehrs: Go here for port. Amazing garden in the back.
    • Andrew Murray: I like the big bold reds. If you do too, taste here!
  • Solvang: Nope. Nothing to see here. Move along.
  • Others
    • Demetria: This is a 10/10 for the location and experience. You must call in advance to make an appointment. Very far away, and a long drive from the gate to the villa to taste in. Great wines, I like their chard that they keep in concrete eggs instead of barrels. There must be magic fairies living on the patio, there’s a beautiful sense of peace there. Bonus: winery pets.
    • Firestone: Knock-you-upside-the-head-gorgeous views. Delish wine. This is part of the Foley Group with Lincourt and Foley – a great wine club to join. One of my great friends got married here and it was so fabulous. (Watch this video to get inspired. Bonus footage of Hotel Corque and Enjoy Cupcakes)
    • Fess Parker: This is the big commercial place up there. But it’s gorgeous. I took my friend here to look as a possible wedding venue. The wine is fair – not bad but there are better places. You’ll probably have it recommended to you.
    • Foley: One of the ones on the West side of the 101. I go here all the time because I can taste for free as a member of the Foley wine club (through Lincourt, but also through Firestone). Really good wines, gorgeous views. Amazing lawn to picnic on.
    • Dierberg: Only been to this place once and really liked it. They have cornhole and fun lawn games that make for a great overall experience too. On the West side of the 101, double it up with Foley.
    • Gainey: A bigger name in the area, kinda like Fess Parker. Beautiful tasting room and grounds.
    • Roblar: Had nothing but good experiences here.
    • Wine ghetto in Lompoc: I’ve never tasted here because I’ve never gotten it to work out with my driving situation. But I have friends that are fans!

Where to drink beer:

  • Figueroa Mountain Brewery: UGH. SO GOOD. Seriously FMB is my favorite brewery ever. Slightly different offerings at all of their locations, the biggest is the one in Buellton. Great outdoor patio with bocce and horseshoes and fire pits. If they have Zero to Sexy on tap, you must get it.
  • Firestone Walker: Any serious beer drinker will know all about this place. They have a side room called Barrel Works where you can taste all the deliciousness. Say hi to Melissa if she’s pouring at Barrel Works. The Stickee Monkey and Parabola and Succaba are seriously mana from heaven. Maybe better than bacon.
  • Valley Brewers: This is a recent and amazing find of mine. You go into a brewery store, walk through a door marked “private” and suddenly you’re in a speakeasy that is craft beer heaven and oh so cute!

Where to hike:

  • Refugio Road – from 246 go South on Refugio road and you’ll pass Sunstone on your right. Keep going until the road ends and there’s a big cement block. It’s a fire road that’s good to hike on, but be aware of mountain dirt bikers. Love this hike!
  • Grass Mountain and Figueroa Mountain are great, especially in the spring when the flowers are blooming. Bonus that you can drive by Neverland Ranch.
  • Gaviota: Amazing hike with ocean and mountain views. I would exit off the 1 and park past Vista Del Mar school at the south end of San Julian Rd.

What else is fun to do? 

  • Vino Vaqueros – Take a trail ride through gorgeous mountains, then stop and enjoy a glass of wine afterwards. This is genius. Great for all levels, patient guides that will teach you about riding.
  • Chumash Casino – This is a big thing up there. I’ve actually never been, but it’s super popular. If you want to keep partying late, it’s one of the few places you can go.

Don’ts:

  • Pea Soup Andersons: Bleh. There are a gajillion better places.
  • AJ Spur’s: Was in Sideways, but I hate all the dead animal decor. Some people rave about the food, but I think it’s just ok.
  • Wine tasting rooms in Solvang. I haven’t found anything good here.
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8 comments

  1. […] My second most requested place for travel advice after Ireland is for people going to Santa Barbara and the nearby wine country. The area started booming after the 2004 indie hit Sideways (Think “WE’RE NOT DRINKING ANY MERLOT!”). Pro-tip: Don’t mention that quote or “the movie” up there. The locals have all heard it already. And please do drink the merlot – it grows particularly well up there! I travel up to the Santa Ynez valley MULTIPLE times a year for my day job, so I know the area pretty well! I’ll break this down into two posts: Santa Barbara & Santa Ynez Valley […]

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  2. Great post – thanks for coming up and writing about us! Just wanted to correct some spelling errors: Saarloos, Carhartt. Andrew Murray. Plus, we have a bunch a new restaurants in Solvang you have to try when you come back: Toscano, Bacon & Brine, Petros, Leonardo’s, Copenhagen Sausage Garden.

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  3. Thanks so much Liz! I’ve been trying to go to Bacon & Brine for about a year now, but Yelp said they already closed down. I tried to call the number and nothing happened! We have two Petros locations in LA – I’m actually going tonight!

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  4. Next time you are in The Valley, take a very short drive to Los Alamos. This tiny little town makes Los Olivos seem like a booming metropolis. Some excellent new restaurants are making it the new place to go. I’ve enjoyed Plenty which is is open for breakfast and has a charming, slightly rustic patio. They serve mimosas with fresh orange juice. Bell Street Farm has amazing sandwiches, salads and soups. They have a great deli, too. A fun tasting room with good wines is Cafe Du Metz or Dumetz (can’t remember the spelling). All these places are on the main drag of Los Alamos. And there are others I’ve heard raves about but haven’t actually been there.

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    • Thank you Diane! I should have added Full of Life Flatbread to my list – that’s one of my favorites but it slipped my mind because I was thinking geographically. I’ll check out your recommendations!

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