Wine Country Itinerary: Santa Maria Valley

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By Robert P. Farmer

In its post-Sideways era, Santa Barbara County has cultivated Wine Country prestige even as it has survived its own reputation to emerge as one of the great, serious wine-growing destinations. Among the appellations of the region is the Santa Maria Valley, which in addition to being the county's first officially approved AVA, is also one of the few valleys in California enjoying an East-to-West orientation. It's therefore foggy a lot, and windy, as the sea air pushes in along the coastal breeze. The mild climate results in a longer growing season and ideal conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay. It's no surprise these varietals have become synonymous with Santa Maria Valley. But the intrepid wine taster will find plenty else of intrigue grown among the 19,000 acres of vineyards.
Stop 1: Costa De Oro Winery & Gold Coast Marketplace
Situated at the northern end of Santa Maria wine trail, the Costa De Oro Winery has become an essential jumping-off place for tasting in the valley--especially since the debut of its market. After a sampling in the friendly tasting room, peruse the Marketplace where the full array of chards and pinots is for sale along with locally grown produce, farm-fresh cheeses, and other gourmet fare--all perfect for packing a picnic to go.
Tasting Room: 1331 S. Nicholson Ave, 805-922-1468; Marketplace and Tasting Room is open daily 11am-5pm
Tasting Fee:  $5, includes tasting glass

Stop 2: Riverbench Vineyard & Winery

The grapes from these vineyards were once experienced only in bottles from other regional wineries. But in 2006 the first vintages under the new Riverbench estate name were released--and the reception has been emphatically upbeat. This is a good spot to glimpse the future of the valley; the small portfolio of chardonnay and pinot noir is well crafted using sustainable growing practices. The tasting room, with great vineyard views, is built in a restored Craftsman-era house, providing a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere to sample the offered selections. Tours of the vineyard and winemaking facility are offered by appointment.
Tasting Room: 6020 Foxen Canyon Rd, 805-937-8340; Open in 10-4 daily.
Tasting Fee: $5

Stop 3: Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards
It's now safe to say that the name is more firmly associated with the winery (and nearby Inn) than it is with Davy Crockett, whom Fess portrayed once upon a time on TV. Today's Fess Parker is a family-run winery producing premium, award-winning pinot noir, chardonnay, and reisling. Though the tasting room and visitor center are still eager to remind you of the Disney-era past, the focus is on the latest vintages, and the hospitality is always in ample supply. And if you simply can't resist, you can indeed buy a raccoon-skin hat in the gift shop (fake, of course).
Tasting Room: 6200 Foxen Canyon Rd., Los Olivos. 800-841-1104; Tasting room and visitor center open 10am-5pm daily.
Tasting Fee: $10, includes tasting glass

Stop 4: Lucas & Lewellen
At the southern end of the trail in the town of Solvang, is this Tuscan-inspired tasting room, whose gracious, familial charm belies the seriousness of its wines. Known for its bold red varietals, including a well-structured cabernet franc and a velvety cabernet sauvignon, the Lucas & Lewellen label is relatively new, though its winegrowing roots run deep. At the tasting room, the staff is friendly and conversant--and may well include the namesake proprietors. You'll also find an assortment of gourmet fare, fine cheeses, and esoterica befitting the region. Worth the effort to hop a few doors down and visit the Mandolina tasting room, featuring Italian-varietal wines from the L&L estate--including the wonderful "Toccata Classico."
Tasting Room: 1645 Copenhagen Dr., Solvang, 805-686-9336; Open daily 11am-5:30pm, (Mandolina tasting room: 1665 Copenhagen Dr., 805-686-5506)
Tasting Fee: $8, $12 for reserve tasting, includes tasting glass

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