Central California: The Santa Ynez Wine Valley

View from the tasting room at Lafond Winery, Buellton, California

In the Santa Ynez Wine Valley, 40 minutes north of  Santa Barbara in Central California, the game plan is easy:

Pick up two wine glasses, gaze up at a windmill and head off down a garden path.

To reach the Santa Ynez from Santa Barbara, head north on the 101 and take the exit for Solvang.

Solvang, or “sunny field” in Danish, looks like a Disney interpretation of Denmark — but was in fact started by Lutheran Danes back in 1911 as a place to quietly practice their religion and celebrate the architecture (windmills) and treats (waffle cookies) of home.

Even before gaining fame as the location for the movie Sideways, Solvang was crowded, kitschy, and full of people dressed like they’re going to an amusement park. There’s a big Thomas Kinkade Gallery and shops selling nothing but Christmas swag all year round. But for all its endearing tackiness, it’s worth an oenological stop.

There are some excellent winery tasting rooms right in downtown Solvang.

After a recent visit, I suggest:


At the D'Alfonso-Curran Tasting Room

This fully biodynamic winery in actually located in the nearby (but much cooler) Santa Rita Hills AVA. Winemaker Doug Braun specializes in pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah, and he’s passionate about the Demeter-certified, cyclical system of farming he’s been practicing at Presidio since 1991. The care he takes shows in the product: I was impressed with the the dry, crisp 2008 Presidio Estate Rosé and the hint of sweetness in the 2008 Alisos Vineyard Gewürtztraminer. The tasting room has a full array of picnic snacks for sale, in case you live not by wine alone. (1603 Copenhagen Drive #1, corner of Mission Drive & Atterdag Street, (805) 693-8585)

D’Alfonso-Curran Wines
The tasting room collaboration of husband and wife team Kris Curran and Bruno D’Alfonso. Both are Santa Maria Valley winemaking stars: D’Alfonso was long the head winemaker at Sanford, and Kris worked as head winemaker at Koehler before developing many of the legendary pinot noirs at Sea Smoke.D’Alfonso now creates wines under two of his own labels, DiBruno (specializing in Italian varietals) and pinot-focused BADGE. Kris (now also a winemaker at Foley) has her own eponymous label, Curran; I took home her bold 2005 Reeves’ Ranches Syrah.The couple is always accompanied by their four gentle German Shepherds; you’ll often find the dogs curled up in different corners of the tasting room, or wandering over to say hello. (1557 Mission Drive, (805) 688-3494)



Heading west out of town towards Buellton, some of the most popular area wineries are along Route 246.

Our favorite tasting rooms here are:

The tasting room courtyard at Alma Rosa

Alma Rosa
In an isolated spot at the top of a long dusty driveway, this tasting room is little more than an airy shack. But, the happy creation of a married couple, this winery makes delicate pinot noirs and an excellent, buttery chardonnay. Mostly, it’s a lovely spot with a perfect little fountain courtyard (pictured here), a great big fat cat, and friendly staff.

Greg Brewer of nearby Brewer-Clifton is also the vintner at this big Mediterranean villa, where the focus is on pinot noir. Melville’s 2008 Pinot Noir is comparable to one you’d find in Oregon’s North Willamette, with just a hint of fruit and a soft finish.

Our least favorite:

They have excellent wines (that are easy to find in stores and restaurants) and a setting worthy of Argentina’s fabled Mendoza trail, but we find the staff here cold and dismissive…even to each other.

The wine cave at Sunstone

Elsewhere in the area, be sure to try:

Buttonwood Farm
Both their red and white wines are simple and ready to drink, and the secondary attraction is the gorgeous flower and herb garden out back. With a glass of wine in hand, while away some time looking at the flowers and not having to be anywhere else.

We think this is the most beautiful winery in Santa Barbara County. Set at the top of a hilly road in an old stone house with a big open porch, it’s surrounded by an acre of prime picnic land; their white wines are the stars. While here, ask to see the wine cave.


Beat the crowds:
For maximum elbow room at area wineries, try tasting between 11-noon and 3-4 pm .

Where to stay:
From May to September, The Ballard Inn & Restaurant, a small country inn on a quiet street with friendly staff, a cozy porch and delicious food in a very small, romantic dining room.

From September to May (when it’s not fully booked), the Alisal Guest Ranch, an idyllic country getaway snuggled into 10,000-acres of fields, creeks and rolling hills.

Where to eat:
Besides the Ballard, check out The Hitching Post II for dinners of heavenly BBQ and local wines, and Root 246 for creative, (almost entirely) locally-sourced cuisine.


See related posts

Romancing the Old West: Alisal Guest Ranch
Central California: The Santa Maria Wine Valley
Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail
Central California: Santa Barbara
A Santa Barbara “ReTweet”…I Mean, Retreat
Lean Times for Luxury?
The Best of Central California


  1. There is another alternative to going to wineries. You can also go to a traditional wine bar, sit down and have a flight of wines from different producers. We are the primary tasting room for Au Bon Climat, Margerum, and Arcadian in addition to hosting 25 other wineries. Check us out in Solvang next time you visit.

    Print this comment and bring it with you and we will give you $7 off our best Grand Cru tasting.


  2. It’s posts like this that keep me coming back and checking this site regularly, thanks for the info!

  3. those thick and heavy borosilicate wine glasses are the best but they are very expensive ~;, ”:

  4. Wine tasting in Santa Barbara county is a once in a lifetime experience. Rolling hills and acres upon acres of beautiful scenery and wine! It is the perfect couple getaway. My husband and I had a wine tasting couple trip a few months ago and it was so much fun. Spent a lot of time in Solvang and Santa Barbara as well. We stayed down by the beach and it was the best of both worlds. The Sandman Inn (www.thesandmaninn.com) was really accommodating and really affordable!

  5. The Central Coast is one of the best coasts in my mind! It doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Southern California traffic, but has the great beaches, weather and wine to beat anyone out! Santa Barbara is ideal if you want to be on the coast and Santa Ynez and Solvang is great for wine loves who are more focused in what they want to see and do while traveling. I personally would recommend the South Coast Inn (www.goleta-hotel.com) close to the wine orchards and the beach and great for couples.

  6. Obsessed with wine country in Santa Barbara/ Ynez. The wine is great and the atmosphere is even better. So many places and types to choose from, trust me, the options are endless. Try a good white wine or pinot- you will never go back! This is the time to get to wine country before the winter weather ruins it for all of us! Great place to stay? The Sandman Inn (www.thesandmaninn.com) in Santa Barbara. You get the best of both worlds-good prices and the beach!

  7. The Santa Ynez valley is one of my favorites for wine tasting, it’s no Toscana but the similarities in taste (and even atmosphere!) is astonishing! So if you can’t make it out to Italy, go to Santa Ynez. I was there this past summer and loved every minute of it. They are incredibly close to the forever lovely Santa Barbara and their beaches are phenomenal!


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