Ahh, wine tasting. One of the little joys of adult life. To be clear, pouring yourself a goblet of whatever red was on sale at the supermarket followed by whatever white your friend left at your last party does not count. I’m talking about actually tasting wine, as in caring about how it tastes, and doing it in a bonafide wine country.
If you don’t live near or haven’t visited one of America’s wine producing regions, wine tasting, as you likely know, is sort of like a pub crawl, but instead of hopping from dive bar to dive bar, you’re driven (by a designated driver) from gorgeous winery to gorgeous winery. At each stop, a trained wine professional pours you sips of that winery’s signature wines and drops some wine knowledge on you along the way. At the end, you’ll be able to purchase a bottle of your favorite wine to enjoy then and there or to take home. In the case of the latter, that bottle will be perfect to serve at your next dinner party or Netflix ‘n chill night in. In either case, you’ll be able to sound like a real live adult when you say, “Oh this Syrah, I picked it up in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.”
Never heard of the Santa Ynez Valley? Don’t worry, you’re not alone — as far as California wine regions go, most people only know Napa and Sonoma. Heck, lots of Californians still say “What? “Where?” at the mention of the Santa Ynez Valley (making you all the cooler when you get to be the first person to tell your friends/Tinder dates about it).
From Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Valley is an easy 45-minute drive northwest — which is why it’s often referred to as “Santa Barbara Wine Country.” And while the region has been producing wine for the past few decades, the Santa Ynez valley could be likened to Napa’s more youthful, laid back, Southern California sibling (and by comparison, it’s significantly less crowded, built-up, and ritzy).
Its best known town is Solvang, which was originally established by Danish pioneers and today looks as if it was transported here from a Danish fairy tale or built to serve as the “quaint European village” at Disneyland. There are windmills, danish bakeries, and gingerbread-like buildings throughout — it’s a bit touristy, but in the best way. The Valley is also home to places like Los Olivos and Santa Ynez, with their refined cowboy town vibes, and Los Alamos, a barely there pioneer town full of surprises (trendy motel: check; world-class bakery: check, cool bar: check).
Simply put, if you ever plan to take a California road trip or visit Southern California, the Santa Ynez Valley should absolutely be on your itinerary. And to make sure you enjoy yourself when you get there, we’ve compiled this introductory guide with tips on where to drink, where to stay, and where to eat.