• Nicole Leonetti

Santa Barbara Wine Country Weekend Guide

I have been going to Santa Barbara Wine Country since 2006, and over the years it has definitely become my “happy place”. Did I originally go because of the film Sideways? I certainly did – and I make no apologies for it. It is a great film and I credit it for developing not only my love for this region, but also for the wine itself. I must confess that I was more of a cocktail girl back in 2006 – but that’s another story. Now, I try to get up to Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Lompoc, and Los Alamos as often as I can. I always love going to replenish my wine inventory and to say hello to my favorite wineries. It’s a beautiful place with the friendliest people and a slower pace that is a welcome respite from the chaos that is LA. I’ll walk you through my idea of a perfect weekend up in this extraordinary location.


Leaving from LA, of course:


Friday night:

Leave work a little early, though don’t stress if you can’t! I would recommend doing this trip for the first time in the summer, so you have the light to see the beautiful ocean as you drive up north! Now, if you leave after work on Friday, most restaurants will be closed by the time you make it all the way to wine country, so I always stop in Montecito for dinner. Montecito is beautiful and Oprah lives there, so that’s reason enough for me to make a stop. Here are some perfect dinner suggestions:

Lucky’s: Really great steak place in Montecito. I love the atmosphere, the wine list, and the porterhouse! Just a good time all around and the perfect start to a wine weekend.


Cava: This restaurant has delicious Latin cuisine and strong margaritas. Sometimes you need some tequila before you consume copious amount of wine. I can never decide what to get here because everything looks so appetizing, but I typically stick with the Cava Combo. I would love to try the fajitas, but am unable to for reasons too complex to get into in this weekend guide!


Bettina: I am crazy about pizza! Bettina has Neapolitan style pizza with seasonal California ingredients and a comprehensive wine list with great Italian wine options. For pizza, I feel like you should get the Margherita Pizza, as well as a more adventurous pizza to balance out your meal. It’s a seasonal menu, but right now I would want the Chanterelle Pizza with Sottocenere truffle cheese, mozzarella, fontina, thyme…they had me at Sottocenere!


After dinner, you can continue driving up to wine country to your hotel. Lodging will be a big decision you have to make. How do you decide where to stay? Since Santa Barbara wine country has many different towns to stay in, you really have to dig deep and figure out what you want out of your visit. Do you want to be able to walk to bars and tasting rooms? Do you want to be in close proximity to a particular restaurant or winery? Do you just want to stay at the nicest place possible? Or do you want to splurge on wine rather than overnight accommodations? Here are a few of my favorite spots and the reasons why they work for me:


Solvang:

I love Solvang so much! Solvang is a Danish village in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country. It is a trip and it’s amazing! They have Danish bakeries, activities, and windmills everywhere! They also have wine tasting rooms and many bars & restaurants. So, I like to stay in Solvang if I am with a few friends and I know we will want evening activities. Here are some nice places to stay:


The Landsby: This is a nice, bougie boutique hotel in Solvang. They have a great restaurant, Mad & Vin, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant also has a cool bar where you can get snacks and drinks after a long day of tasting.


Hotel Corque: Another elegant hotel in Solvang, Hotel Corque is home to a fabulous restaurant, Root 246. Root 246 is another great option for a nice dinner in Solvang – or, you can enjoy fun apps and/or cocktails at the bar, if you do not want to commit to a big meal.


Wine Valley Inn & Cottages: I love this place! It’s a bit more affordable than the other two options and it includes a daily breakfast, as well as an evening wine reception. I can vouch for the wine reception – they are very generous with their pours and there is cheese involved, so this place is for me!


Buellton:

Conveniently located right off of the 101, Buellton is where my favorite restaurant, The Hitching Post II, is located, as well as my second favorite restaurant, The Hitching Post Tasting Room (the burgers are insane!). Something to consider—while there are other restaurants, stores, and hotels in Buellton, it is not as walkable as Solvang. If you want to do any nighttime activities, you will likely have to Uber. Buellton is a great option, however, if you would prefer a quiet night at the hotel after a day of wine tasting!


Santa Ynez Valley Marriott: I’ve stayed at this Marriott property many times, and it’s lovely and very convenient! The hotel has all of the modern amenities that you would expect and a nice large pool to hang out in. Bonus: You can use Marriot (Bonvoy) points, if you have them!


Los Olivos:

Charming! That’s the best way to describe Los Olivos. It’s just the cutest little town. You feel like you are on a movie/tv set when you are walking around. They have so many tasting rooms and a number of incredible restaurants. I would recommend Los Olivos for a romantic weekend getaway rather than a place to rage with friends. I really want to live here one day, so let me know if you can arrange that!


Fess Parker Wine Country Inn: The best way to describe the Fess Parker is that it’s fancy! It’s really beautiful inside. They have a spa and their restaurant, The Bear and Star, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Los Alamos

Wow! That’s what I can say about Los Alamos! I consider it the Las Vegas of wine country. I can’t really get into the details of why, but people do love to have a good time in Los Alamos! It’s a tiny little town with (seriously) one street and an Old West vibe. But they definitely know how to pack the fun into a small area! They have so many phenomenal restaurants that you can spend a whole weekend just in Los Alamos. Los Alamos is great if you want to be within walking distance to nice restaurants, but also want a chill locale with not a lot of people.


Skyview: Skyview was a roadside motel that is now a luxury boutique hotel! It’s fairly small (as most boutique hotels are!), so try to book early if you have your heart set on staying here. They have a brunch & dinner restaurant - Norman – that you should try to get to.


The Alamo Motel: The Alamo is an actual roadside motel, but I must say it’s very chic! It was actually inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s home! So cool! They also have a Muni Wine tasting room located right outside of the hotel. This feature makes it much easier to deal in case you ever show up to check in before check in time and your room is not ready yet.


Wherever you end up staying you really cannot go wrong! Get a good night’s rest and I wouldn’t stay out late on Friday night because Saturday will be a full day. Trust me!



Saturday:

Good morning! Time to jump out of bed and get ready for the day! You can grab a quick breakfast – I would make sure it includes carbs and lots of hydration to prepare for the day.


For Saturday, I’m going to give you a lot of options. It will be a sort of “Choose your own wine adventure”, if you will. I think you will quickly realize that you need to make multiple trips to this region and that’s perfect. Come as often as you can, and you can experience all they have to offer. Also, I would suggest getting some sort of transportation for Saturday. A driver, Uber, or a kind friend that doesn’t drink. Whatever works for you!


AM Wineries:

So, most wineries open between 10-11 a.m. and close between 4-5 p.m. Here are a few suggestions on where visit before lunch on Saturday. I would suggest selecting two wineries from the list below to go to before lunch. You may be able to fit in three if they aren’t “appointment-only” spots. If you are doing three, I would highly recommend sharing tastings with whomever you are with.


Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard: Why do I love Fess Parker? Mostly because it opens at 10 a.m.! It’s one of the earlier wineries to open, which makes it the perfect first stop on your day of tasting. They also have good wine – so that’s helpful as well! I enjoy their Big Easy, which is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah. I always like to pick up a bottle or two of their Traditions Port Style wine as well!


Andrew Murray Vineyards: Opening at 10:30 a.m., Andrew Murray is right down the road from Fess Parker, which makes it a nice second stop for the day, if you are starting on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. I love Andrew Murray – they have Rhone varietals so it’s a little different from some of the other wineries you will be visiting this trip. While the vineyard has a small tasting room in Los Olivos, I would go to the beautiful tasting room at the actual winery. I love their Grenache and the Roasted Slope Syrah! Also, sometimes Andrew Murray himself will be walking around the winery! He is so kind, and his knowledge about wine makes it worth bothering him for five-minutes or so to talk.


Foxen: Foxen opens at 11 a.m. and is another lovely stop along the Foxen Trail. They have two tasting rooms on Foxen Canyon, but I’m going to suggest that you pass the fancy, newer tasting room and keep driving to Foxen 7200, which is referred to as “The Shack”. It’s a smaller tasting room that is much more intimate and rustic, and I always enjoy tasting wines there! I love their Pajarito, which is a Merlot/Petit Verdot blend.


Demetria: Demetria is also located on Foxen Canyon, but you have to plan ahead for this winery since you need to make an appointment for a tasting here. Sometimes I’ll go to one other winery on Foxen first and then make an appointment for Demetria and relax here until lunch. Demetria is beautiful! I highly suggest experiencing a tasting here! They have a lovely outdoor patio with gorgeous views of the vines. They don’t rush you at all and you can sit and chat with your friends or whoever you are with on your trip. They also have cats! They are very adorable, but you might want to warn anyone who may be highly allergic. They have Rhone and Burgundy style wines that you will surely enjoy. I am partial to their Viognier and North Slope Syrah. I would definitely recommend Demetria early in the day since the road to get to Demetria is narrow and very curvy! Best to feel 100% for the ride up!


Grassini Family Vineyards: Ok – so if you are not doing the Foxen Trail, then I recommend going to Grassini first thing on Saturday. They have a tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara, as well, but you need to go to the actual winery (you'll need an appointment for this). It is definitely off the beaten path in Happy Canyon, but the drive is super scenic and the tasting experience is awesome. I adore their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. Don’t get me wrong – I love Pinot Noir – but I will never turn down a good Cab.


Brave & Maiden: If you go to Grassini first, then I would recommend a stop at Brave & Maiden before lunch since they are on the same side of town. This is another winery the requires an appointment for a tasting. It’s a newer winery and the tasting room is stunning! You can do a seated tasting where they really take their time and walk you through each wine. I quite enjoyed the Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon here as well.


Lunch:

You will certainly need food at this point. Where you decide to go for lunch will probably depend on which wineries you go to first and your plans for after lunch. So, I’ll let you know where these restaurants are located and then you can select accordingly:


Industrial Eats: Located in Buellton, Industrial Eats is truly a gem! I think it’s a good option if you are planning to go to any of the wineries I will suggest for the afternoon. It can get busy here on weekends, so don’t be surprised if you see a line. It’s worth it, though, I promise! Industrial Eats is a counter service spot where you order and then they bring you your food at the table. They have the most amazing sandwiches, pizza, and salads! Depending on how hungry you are you can share a sandwich and a pizza with someone. But, just to warn you, the portions are large! The sandwiches can be overwhelming, but they are delicious. I love the Smoked Turkey Sandwich with Basil Mayo and Arugula. For pizza, I typically get the Prosciutto, Taleggio, Parmesan, Arugula. I always order anything with Taleggio!


Hitching Post Tasting Room: I know I talk about Hitching Post often, but there is good reason – seriously! The tasting room is a great lunch spot because it is centrally located in Buellton and has the best burgers. The Best! You can pop into the tasting room and purchase a bottle of wine to have with lunch and then you sit outside in the most beautiful surroundings to enjoy your meal.


Bell’s: Oh, Bell’s! It’s just lovely! Bell’s is in Los Alamos, which makes it a good option after the Foxen Wine Trail. They also have a few tasting rooms in Los Alamos you can visit before or after lunch. Bell’s serves French Bistro Classics and their menu is frequently updated. They are open for dinner, as well, so you can add this to your list of dinner options if that works better for your itinerary! The food will really blow you away. The food is both visually stunning and delicious, so it’s pretty much perfect. I don’t care what else you order, but please do not leave without getting the Santa Barbara Uni with Regiis Ova Royal Caviar & Creme Fraiche Mille Crepe. Trust me.


Los Olivos Café: Ahh, I always look forward to lunch at Los Olivos Café! Located in – you guessed it – Los Olivos, it’s also a great place to for lunch if coming from Foxen Canyon. It’s technically called the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café. which is great news because that means they have an incredible wine list! I’m sure everything on the menu is great, but I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve always ordered the same thing… for the last 10 years. Why mess with something I love? I like to get the Baked Brie to share at the table because…cheese! Then I get the Steak Cobb Salad. Perfection! There are what seems to be an endless supply of tasting rooms in Los Olivos, so you can check them out before or after lunch as well – depending on how you are feeling.


PM Wineries:

Here are my suggestions on where to go after lunch. Why would I recommend some wineries before lunch and some after? I really have no idea. I just tend to think of a few of them as “afternoon options” for reasons that I am unclear on – but you can really go to the wineries in any order you want.


Pence Vineyards: Pence! Pence is fantastic! You do need to make an appointment here for one of their tasting experiences – and they are all definitely an experience. You really can’t go wrong with any of them, but I always love the Personal Tasting in the Canyon! It’s such a beautiful place. You really have to experience it to understand. Their Rhodesian Ridgebacks make such sweet and fun companions during your tasting. Pence also has wine – delicious wine! They start their tastings with red wine and end with white, which caught me off guard the first time, but it all makes sense once you do it. I am not a huge chardonnay fan, but I will always purchase a few bottles of theirs. But their Pinot is really where it’s at. Their estate Pinot Noir is heavenly!


Melville: Further down Rte. 246 from Pence, you will find Melville – which is also right next door to Babcock. Melville is another great place to stock up on Pinot. My favorites are the Sandy’s Estate Pinot Noir, as well as the Anna’s Block. No appointment necessary for Melville and it’s a beautiful setting, so you should stop by at some point during your weekend.


Babcock: So, you cannot go to Melville without going to Babcock. They are extremely close to each other yet so different – you should really experience both! You do not need an appointment for Babcock, so it’s very convenient to just go from Melville to Babcock or vice versa. I know you probably had a very satisfying lunch if you ate at any of the places I recommended, but one of my favorite things to do at Babcock is get a glass of wine and some cheese/breads and sit outside for the afternoon snacking and sipping away. Just amazing! But you should definitely do a tasting because they have some great wines to check out. Also – their tasting room is very cool. They have all sorts of merchandise to look through, as well as a large record collection so I always find something to buy of course. Especially after all of the wine! This is another Pinot place for me. I love the Ocean’s Ghost, as well as the Slice of Heaven Pinot Noir.


Spear: Spear is also on Rte. 246 and I highly recommend checking it out. It is an appointment-only winery so you do need to plan ahead, but it’s a beautiful place and the wine is fantastic. Being in the Sta. Rita Hills, they have the usual Pinot, Syrah and Chardonnay, but they also have a stainless Chardonnay that I quite enjoy. They also have a female winemaker which I am always excited to see and support!


Ok, I think I figured it out! I tend to start with wineries that are further away from where we are staying and make our way closer to the hotel as we go through the day. They actually do mention this in the film Sideways, but it’s just good logistics for general life, as well. So – the order of wineries is really based on where you are staying. Since I don’t know where you are staying, they are just in a random order! Of course, if you let me know where you are staying, I can assist you with an itinerary just for you.


Dinner:

So – you should really try to pull yourself together after all of the wine and freshen up for a nice dinner. There are so many options and a lot of them are based on where you are staying. I mentioned many of the hotel restaurants earlier and all of those are good options – and the Hitching Post II is always a great choice for a nice steak dinner. But here are even more options!


Pico: This restaurant is in Los Alamos so a great idea if you are staying in Los Alamos – but even if you are not – just take an Uber. Pico features Californian cuisine and has an extensive wine list. I’m not just saying this because of my cheese obsession, but I would really suggest getting a cheese/charcuterie board. They have such unique cheese/charcuterie selections and it’s so beautiful – you will love it! They change up the menu frequently at Pico, but if they have a Seared Local Fish option that’s a good way to go.


SY Kitchen: SY Kitchen is located in Santa Ynez and is just a quick ride away from Solvang. They have yummy Italian food in a comfortable setting. I always like to share pizza and pasta since I could never decide between the two. For pizza, I love the Burrata & Sausage. And then for pasta, the Maccheroncini al Brasato with Short Rib Ragu, Fresh Peas and Ricotta Salata. They have creative cocktails and a comprehensive wine list which includes many Santa Barbara wine favorites as well as many Italian options.


Trattoria Grappolo: More Italian! Sorry, but I could really be happy eating Italian food every night. Trattoria Grappolo is in Santa Ynez and is a great place. It’s very cozy and a perfect spot for – you guessed it – pizza and pasta! Try the Tortelloni Burro e Salvia (Tortelloni stuffed with spinach, ricotta, parm in a butter sage sauce). For pizza, I’m fond of the Pizza Crudo e Rucola (White Pizza with Mozzarella, Garlic, Prosciutto Crudo and Arugula).


The Gathering Table: The Gathering Table is located in the Ballard Inn (in Ballard of course). Just a short drive from Solvang or Los Olivos, Ballard is a little town you need to check out. They have Asian & French fusion cuisine at The Gathering Table along with a wine list featuring many of the wine valley favorites. They have larger communal tables that are perfect for larger groups, but -- don’t fear – they also have smaller more intimate tables for the more socially averse among us.


After dinner, you will probably be about ready for bed. However, if you paced yourself accordingly throughout the day, there are a limited amount of bars in the area that you can check out. If you are in Los Alamos, then I would recommend the 1880 Union Saloon. It’s always a crazy time!


Sunday:

Good morning! You may need a big breakfast this morning and if that’s the case I would suggest going to Solvang Restaurant. It’s a cute Dutch-themed restaurant with a huge breakfast menu. Everything is good, but do not leave without ordering Aebleskivers! I typically order a normal breakfast and then share an order of Aebleskivers with the table. What are Aebleskivers? (I just like typing the name if you couldn’t tell) Aebleskivers are like delicious pancake balls! They serve them with Raspberry Jam and powdered sugar. They are so amazing!


After breakfast, you should check out of your hotel and continue the wine journey for just a little bit longer. I would do two wineries before heading back to LA. For the first one, I would choose between the following two:


Sanford Winery: Sanford is so beautiful and has a very special place in my heart. After your tasting, take a glass outside, hang out with whoever you are with, and enjoy the amazing scenery of the Sta. Rita Hills. Their wine is on the higher-priced side compared to some of the other places you have gone to this weekend. If you are wanting to bring wine home from Sanford make sure to save some money in your budget. Their delicious Pinots are definitely worth it!



Peake Ranch: I like this place! It’s fairly new and has a gorgeous tasting room in the Sta. Rita Hills. Due to their location, they are naturally known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I would definitely check it out!


Ok, on your way out of town, I would stop at one more winery! Folded Hills is another new-ish winery that just opened their tasting room earlier this year. It’s right off the 101 on the way out of Buellton. I go into depth on why I love this place in my Paso Robles weekend guide. So, check that out, as well. It’s just the perfect stop!


So – you’ve had breakfast, you’ve had some wine, and you are driving back down to LA, but you will want lunch on the way to deal with all of the traffic. I love stopping at Padaro Beach Grill in Carpinteria. It’s another great place to stop for several reasons. First of all, Carpinteria is fun to say. Secondly, it’s on Santa Claus Lane, which always makes me happy. Lastly, it’s right on the water. Order your yummy burgers, fries, and maybe one last glass of wine (I’m never driving just so you know), and reminisce about the weekend and all of the crazy things that happened - this conversation will take place all while staring at the Pacific Ocean. After lunch, you’ll get in your car and sing your heart out to the cast recording of Hamilton the whole way home! Wait…maybe that’s just me…

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