In Your Prime: Take a trip to wine country

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Just 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the Santa Ynez Valley is home to quaint wine-tasting rooms, pastoral rolling hills, and charming ranch towns — some seemingly pulled straight from spaghetti western sets. Yet most people driving north from the City of Angels stop 30 miles short of it, in the posh coastal getaway of Santa Barbara.

Their oversight can be forgiven: Santa Barbara has always eclipsed the greater Santa Ynez area in terms of five-star resorts. And even though Alexander Payne’s film “Sideways” gave mainstream cred to the valley’s pinot noirs over 15 years ago, Napa and Sonoma remain an obvious lure for high-end oenophiles.

That’s changing. A handful of upscale resorts and destination restaurants are raising Santa Ynez’s profile enough to match the high standards of its characteristically savory-yet-aromatic pinots and strong, citrusy chardonnays, which have long drawn those in the know.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“Santa Ynez Valley is a hidden gem,” says Samuel Eisenman, vice president of Highway West Vacations, a company that has opened four hotels in the area since 2013. Its latest, the year-old Winston, has 14 rooms with wood-beamed ceilings, brightly colored walls, velvet-upholstered headboards, and Moroccan chests in the heart of Solvang. “The culinary scene has elevated over the past several years to reach L.A. caliber,” he says.

Except here you can also do things like go horseback riding or soar over the vineyards in a glider, in between mingling with winemakers at local tasting rooms. The region has begun drawing inspectors from Michelin, who recognized multiple Santa Ynez spots in the latest edition of their guide.

Auberge Resorts is also on the verge of opening the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern. It’s housed in a 135-year-old, whitewashed Craftsman building that served as a stagecoach stop during the Gold Rush and a speakeasy during Prohibition. More recently it’s functioned as a wedding backdrop for fancy Californians.

Its 6.5 acres will also include a handful of mostly new, ranch-style buildings —including several cottages and a two-story “guest house,” all designed by Santa Barbara’s DMHA architects and San Francisco’s AvroKo — that offer a combined 67 rooms. Assuming it’s anything like the company’s flagship in Auberge du Soleil, which gave Napa its first fine-dining restaurant and five-star hotel in the 1980s, the Inn stands to transform the Santa Ynez Valley into a gastrotourism mecca.

If Santa Ynez Valley has been quietly simmering for years, its growth has only been catalyzed by COVID-driven road trippers seeking outdoorsy yet sumptuous locales. Here’s a primer of the region’s sweetest towns, coolest boutique hotels, and most ambitious farm-to-table restaurants.

Getting the Lay of the Land

Driving from Los Angeles to the Santa Ynez Valley is easy, even by the city’s notorious traffic standards. Once you pull off the iconic 101, it’s a scenic 45-minute drive along the mountain-hugging Highway 154.

Nomenclature here can be confusing. Santa Ynez is both the valley and a town within it, and the entire winemaking region is referred to as Santa Barbara Wine Country, even though Santa Barbara is more of a gateway to the area than an actual part of it. Just as Napa is the catchall name for a series of small towns — Calistoga, Yountville, St. Helena — so too is Santa Ynez, which also contains agriculturally chic Los Olivos, quirky Buellton, Old West-style Los Alamos, and the traditional Danish village of Solvang.

And it’s not just filled with grape growers, either. You’ll also find lavender fields, horse ranches, and an abundance of crops that typically get bought up by L.A. chefs and patrons of the Santa Monica farmers market.

Where to Eat

L.A. chefs used to come up to Santa Ynez just to visit their esteemed growers. Now they come to eat, too.

Last September, Nella Kitchen & Bar opened in a modern farmhouse on Los Olivos’ main drag. Its staples, which include five-hour tagliatelle Bolognese and Roman pinsas (flatbreads), are Italian facsimiles made almost exclusively with local ingredients — served either in an airy indoor dining room or on the spacious patio. Its creative team has clout: Chef Luca Crestanelli and partners Kathie and Mike Gordon also own Toscana in L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood and the Santa Ynez favorite S.Y. Kitchen, where locals go for live music and rustic, wood-fired pizzas.

Solvang has perhaps the greatest concentration of new destination spots. There’s the meat-centric Sear Steakhouse, where more than 100 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs from the owner’s farm steal the show; Peasants Feast, a craft-sandwich shop whose patrons sometimes wait two hours for smash burgers and fish tacos made with hand-pressed tortillas; and the recently opened Coast Range & Vaquero Bar, which prominently features proteins from its sibling and namesake, the Coast Range ranch.

Things get edgier in Buellton, where the graffitied warehouse exterior of Industrial Eats gives way to a carnivore’s paradise. Inside, a restaurant and craft butcher shop peddles delicacies like thick cuts of bacon (by the pound or on gorgonzola-topped pizzas) and beef tongue (to make at home or eat in sandwiches). The year-old Tavern at Zaca Creek also prioritizes the nose-to-tail ethos, with dishes such as grilled bone marrow and barbecued pork collar with squash blossoms and nectarines. (There’s also a stellar cast-iron pizza topped with caviar.)

In recent years, the hardest reservation in the area has been the French bistro Bell’s, in Los Alamos. It’s soon opening an offshoot in Los Olivos called Bar Le Cote, set to offer a casual, seafood-centric menu.

Where to Shop

The best shops tend to be clustered on the main streets of each town, oftentimes alongside quaint general stores that look retro but generally aren’t.

In Los Olivos, Global Eye is the collaboration between wabi sabi-style ceramist Kristen Cramer and black-and-white photographer Michael Robertson, who put together a polished selection of home goods from around the world.

The plush blankets by RO Smit Studio — made by artisans with mental or physical impairments — are so chic, you could wrap one around you and wear it out of the house. Look for them at the 1,000-square-foot Santa Ynez General, which also sells minimal ceramic dinnerware and leather bocce ball sets.

It’s all about food shopping in Solvang, a town defined by its Scandinavian heritage. Founded by Danes in 1911, it even has a copy of Copenhagen’s famed Little Mermaid statue. Pop into any of the pastry shops on and around Mission Drive for flodeboller cream puffs or aebleskivers, which are tennis-ball-shaped fritters. Then hit up Cailloux Cheese Shop for an overwhelming array of locally made cheeses, olive oils, jams, and chocolates — the perfect gifts to bring back home.

Where to Drink

Wineries here have intimate tasting rooms and require reservations, best made over email with a few weeks’ notice. Demetria is one of the most progressive: While most of the region’s higher-end producers lean toward traditional methods, this 46-acre outfit has focused on biodynamic Rhone wines like the citrusy sparkling “Papou” (a proprietary grenache blanc blend) since its founding in 2005. It also serves award-winning pinot noirs in a whole-cluster fermentation style that tamps down sweetness.

Tucked into a canyon surrounded by rolling hills in Buellton is Alma Rosa, whose winemaker, Samra Morris, earned her pedigree at St. Supery and the Michael Mondavi Family Estate. It showcases what this region does best: minerally chardonnays, fruit-forward rosés, and spice-laden pinot noirs.

The easiest one-two punch starts at Santa Ynez’s Crown Point, esteemed for its warm cabernet sauvignon, and wraps up at the award-winning Bordeaux-centric Happy Canyon Vineyard next door. Not far away, on the north side of town, is The Hilt, whose new tasting room, designed by Howard Backen, serves excellent chardonnays and pinot noirs with what may be the most idyllic view of all.

Where to Stay

The aforementioned Winston may be the latest and most luxurious of Highway West’s hotels in the area, but it has good company in its sibling, the Vinland, which is appropriately Scandinavian given its central Solvang setting. Ditto the Landsby, an independently owned boutique hotel, also in the Dutch town, whose style is all clean lines and soothing monochrome.

Also new and noteworthy is Hotel Ynez, which opened in March with 18 cozy rooms —they have fireplaces, mini Smeg fridges, and Mascioni linens — midway between Solvang and Santa Ynez. Its highlight is a central courtyard with hammocks and roaring firepits.

“Things haven’t even peaked yet,” says Kimberly Walker, who owns both Hotel Ynez and the nearby Skyview motel in Los Alamos. “There’s a genuine sense of hospitality, and people who would normally visit Sonoma or Napa are realizing that and coming here instead.”

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