In 2004 my interest in wine had finally grown beyond just what was found at the local supermarkets. Having only been in Southern California for a few years, I had yet to explore the Santa Barbara area much at all. My need for exploration wanted me to look for wineries nearby, and I discovered that there were lots of wineries up near Santa Barbara about 1 1/2 hours away. At first I was overwhelmed. There were plenty of subregions and wineries scattered all over, so how could I choose where to go? I found a map online that listed about a dozen wineries in a town called Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley.
I had never heard of this little town. How could so many wineries all be located in one place? “Who cares” I told myself, it seemed like the easiest place to go that would allow me to try several wineries back to back. Smartphones didn’t really exist yet in 2004 the way they do now. That weekend I grabbed my trusty California state map and took a day trip from Los Angeles to Los Olivos to see what wineries I could find.
The town was easy to find, just a block off Highway 154 and was like stepping back in time. It had one central square block that encompassed much of the main businesses and town center. There was even a flag pole in the very center of town. A saloon still stood from days gone by and had been turned into one of the only two restaurants available for dinner. Most of the houses also didn’t look like they had changed much in decades, but only freshly painted with updated businesses inside. There was also a tiny local market with a barbecue cooking tri-tip for lunch sandwiches.
Los Olivos once had a train station in the late 1800s that brought people in from all over. The station closed in the 1930s and the town slowly began to die off. Los Olivos was used in the 1980s for the film “Return to Mayberry”, a TV movie for “The Andy Griffith Show”. I could see why, it fits one’s idea of what an old small town would look like from times gone by.
There were a decent amount of cars parked all over town, and a handful of people walking from house to house in the town center. From my understanding, seeing that the town was dying, several of the nearby wineries started purchasing/renting the central houses. This slowly rejuvenated Los Olivos as a one stop location for people to taste multiple wines without having to drive miles between each actual winery.
I fell for the place really fast. I love history, was just getting into wine, and Los Olivos was pretty quiet overall for a nice peaceful weekend getaway to relax. The tasting rooms were calm and the employees pouring wine were happy to teach us newbies about wine in general. I quickly became infatuated with Syrah from this region and began to notice the huge difference between it and the Shiraz/Syrahs I’d find at the supermarket. These here were fuller bodied with more tannins and deep colors. This region of California had learned that they do quite well with Rhone varietals. Because of these spectacular wines, I found myself going back to Los Olivos often.
I eventually also discovered Solvang nearby, at first because it offered the closest available lodging to Los Olivos. Solvang itself also had quite a few wine tasting rooms, but they certainly weren’t it’s main attraction. Solvang was founded in the early 1900s by people from Denmark. In honor of this, the town had an almost Disneyland-esque look with old Danish-style buildings and lots of Danish foods and pastries. It was much more touristy than Los Olivos, but their tasting rooms weren’t terribly busy either.
This was where I first discovered Gewürztraminer at Presidio Winery, which became one of my favorite wines over the years. So much so that I bought cases of it to serve at my wedding reception. About a year after my wedding, I learned that the winemaker was retiring so I quickly began hoarding every bottle I had left. I then went on a hunt to find other Gewürztraminers similar enough to it before my supply was all gone. Their style was a bit sweeter than what I think most people are used to Gewürztraminers tasting like. It also had a bit more bubbles than the others and lots of pears and apples on the tongue. None of the other Gewürztraminers I tried from the US or Alsace, France had similar sweetness levels. Though Germany is more known for their Riesling’s,they too do make Gewürztraminers. Since German wines are graded on sweetness, I felt I had to give them a shot. Thankfully, I was able to find a few Gewürztraminers from Mosel that have similar enough levels of sweetness. While it won’t fully fill the hole left by my favorite Gewürztraminer, it will make my sadness a little less!
Only about a year after I started visiting Los Olivos, the peacefulness I had grown to enjoy would be short lived. The movie Sideways came out in late 2004, and began to put this sleepy little area on the tourist wine map. By late 2005, tour buses started showing up with loads of people.
My all time favorite red wine is a Syrah from a specific vineyard in this region. There was just something about Syrahs made from grapes grown at the Colson Canyon Vineyard. Back then, several wineries made Syrahs from this vineyard and they all tasted relatively the same… phenomenal. One particular winery made them regularly so I usually found myself at their tasting room. They eventually went into financial troubles by 2007 and disappeared. Finding wine from this vineyard suddenly became difficult, and it wasn’t until around 2010 that I discovered Tensley wines was making it. I quickly became a big fan of them.
I opened a 2015 Colson Canyon Vineyard from them and I probably could have kept this bottle for at least another 10 years. It’s such a strong bodied Syrah with crazy deep colors and an intense aroma of dark fruits. It’s a powerful wine with lots for the senses. Maybe Tensley picked up on this, because they eventually purchased the vineyard. I’m not even sure any other winery makes Syrah from Colson Canyon anymore.
When I first started going up there Arthur Earl Winery (in Los Olivos) and Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards (in Solvang) had already been making wines for a long time. They were two of the more established wineries in that area and both offered a much wider variety of options than the others.
Through Arthur Earl, I learned quite a bit about several Italian grapes. For this tasting, I opened a bottle of their Sangiovese from 2012. It was a very thin red wine with earthy notes and lots of olive aromas and flavors. I’m guessing this wine wouldn’t have been too good in a few more years. It was still enjoyable now, but the olive sensations were starting to overwhelm everything else I could taste.
From Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards, I opened a 2012 Petite Verdot. This wine had held up much better than the Sangiovese from the same year. It was still somewhat bold with fig and dried plum aromas. I think this is a testament to Petite Verdot’s signature strong tannins. Petite Verdot has a unique taste that not everyone likes as much, but I actually enjoy single bottled Petite Verdot though it isn’t done too often. This was still a very good wine that could have been saved a few more years.
It’s now been roughly 15 years since I first started exploring the Santa Ynez Valley. Los Olivos has gone from a sleepy little town to a place with several food options, lounge bars, boutique clothing and art stores, lots of tour buses, party buses, and much more. Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I liked the simpleness it had before. Especially since several of my favorite wineries have retired or shutdown. But time moves on, and I can’t just stop enjoying wine from an area that I very much love. I must get back out there and try to find new wineries to enjoy. The problem is that there are about 3-4 times as many options now. It’s much more saturated with tasting rooms, harder to try them all, and I can sadly no longer spend entire weekends up there trying wines all day. Life, responsibilities, etc. All the boring stuff. This, right here, is where it is important for these wineries to have a good Internet presence. Before my last trip up there, I did some quick research so that I could maximize my time and only focus on those wineries on my list.
Blair Fox was a new addition to my favorites list from this most recent trip. They too make full bodied wines with their Syrahs and Grenaches being the standouts. For this tasting, I opened a 2015 Blair Fox Grenache. It’s such a good wine. Lots of potent strawberries, a nice amount of tannin, and a memorable finish of berries all over my tongue. It probably could have been aged a bit longer but I really can’t hoard all of my wines forever.
Blair Fox is actually also the name of the winemaker himself. He’s one of many people in that region who moved up the ranks through the “granddaddy” winery of Santa Ynez, Fess Parker. This winery was founded by the actor Fess Parker who played Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett during his acting career. From what I’ve read, he was the one of the top people who helped put this wine region on the map. Over the past few decades, his wine business grew to be quite large and set the foundation for wine in this region. It employs lots of people and many of these people have gone on to start their own wineries. Fess Parker has a huge tasting room with picnic grounds, live music, and more. They also own hotels and restaurants. Some of their wines are more massed produced and distributed further than the other smaller wineries.
In those earlier years, I couldn’t always get up to this region often enough and it would suck when I ran out of wines from the Santa Ynez Valley. I discovered that this Frontier Red blended red wine was actually made by Fess Parker. They obviously have more higher end single varietal wines, but this wine had it’s place at a dining table as well. While it wasn’t as top notch as my usual favorites, it had the same basic taste and aromas of that region that I had grown to love so much. It often would fill that gap until I could get back up there again. This wine is usually available at World Market or BevMo if you are interested in something cheaper that can give you a rough taste of this region.
Many of these wines I tasted today are near and dear to my heart. I do miss those long gone like Kahn Winery, Daniel Gehrs Winery, and Presidio Winery, but I will continue exploring the new wineries starting up when I can. Los Olivos and touristy Solvang may have become more popular these days, but this won’t stop me from enjoying a wine region that I have grown up with.
Next time you are in Southern California, I highly recommend you stop into these areas and enjoy their wines.
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