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On the road in Santa Barbara


I’m in the little town of Santa Ynez, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. The weather is coolish. As in the North Coast, Central and Southern California have had their coldest summer since the 1940s. Meteorologists are now saying it’s because there’s been a big old low pressure trough cleaving the West Coast for the last six months, but they seem unable to say why the normal weather pattern of trough-ridge-trough-ridge has been discombobulated, let us hope temporarily.

Vintners down here don’t seem as freaked out about the vintage as those in the North Coast, though. I think the main reason for that is because they basically don’t have to worry about rain, even though the harvest is 2-3 weeks later than normal. Precipitation falls off rapidly south of San Francisco, although it’s also true that in an El Nino year, L.A. can have more rainfall than the City by the Bay.

I like the drive down from Oakland to the Santa Ynez Valley — that is, once I’ve busted out of Bay Area traffic. The drive this morning was a nightmare. Every freeway in the area was gridlocked. Even the traffic reporters were impressed, and they’re a pretty hard-boiled bunch. It took me 1-1/2 hours to get to San Jose. That’s only 40 miles. Thank goodness for CDs. I put on “Revolver” and it hasn’t lost a thing over the last 45 years. The Beatles are rock’s Beethoven.

Past San Jose, the 101 opens up. People knock the 101 but to me, as a wine lover and someone who appreciates California geology, geography and history, it’s a fabulous road. First you hit the Coyote Valley, still verdant despite on the verge of being gobbled up by San Jose. Then there’s that long, tortured stretch through the hills of San Benito County, old, rugged, rural California, at this time of the year golden and craggy and just fine to see. I always look for the turnoff to the Monterey Peninsula. It’s a sign I’m about to break out of Northern California to the Central Coast.

Then you come to the city of Salinas, so drab, so ugly, and yet so useful — California agriculture wouldn’t exist without it (and vice versa). All of a sudden, you pass a little curve, and wham! There it is, the great Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, all green and flat like a vast billiard table. To the west, the majestic Santa Lucias, gleaming purple and beige in the Fall sunshine. What an amazing success story for Pinot Noir. I always keep an eye out for Mark Pisoni’s little house in Gonzalez, just off the freeway.

At this time of the year the Salinas Valley is a beehive of activity. Not so much for grapevines, which are mainly in the hills, but for row crops. Mile after mile, field after field I saw workers, hunched over, picking our lettuce, radishes, the pricy arugula we munch in restaurants. These people are mainly Mexicans. Some of them, I would think, are illegal. It fills me with shame to know that these hard working men and women, and their families, are the targets of such political venom.

I like to stop at the Starbucks in Paso Robles for a pick-me-up cappuccino. I know a lot of people who won’t patronize Starbucks, but the fact that it’s a chain doesn’t really bother me. Then you drive down over the Morro grade from inland San Luis Obispo to San Luis, the temperature drops, and a little while later comes another place I always look forward to seeing: where the 101 comes to Pismo Beach and, with breathtaking suddenness, there it is, the blue Pacific.


Past the Seven Sisters of the Arroyo Grande, which always remind me of Brian Talley, because he told me about those bizarre volcanic peaks. But you really have to cross the Santa Barbara County line to feel like you’re in Southern California. It’s hard to say just why. There are palm trees in San Francisco. The hills and mountains aren’t that different. It’s a quality of the light. Cezanne would have liked to paint in Santa Barbara. If you know David Hockney’s landscapes, they have that luminous quality.

I pulled off the 101 in the Los Alamos Valley, at Highway 154, which takes you to touristy Los Olivos and, a few miles later, Santa Ynez, where I type these words. I like to stay at the Santa Ynez Inn. I stopped by to say Hi at winery on the way, and the owner, a friend, told me Parker prefers to lodge in Los Olivos. Chacun a son gout, as they say.

I had a small dinner at Grappolo, the local winemaker hangout (and why, oh why don’t they complain that the wine list features Parker and Spectator ratings? WTF is up with that? Santa Ynez winemakers, get on the ball!) Other than that, the evening is very beautiful and warming: a heat wave is setting in. If it’s 90 degrees in the North Coast, it will be a good thing. If it’s 100, it could doom this vintage. On this visit to Santa Barbara, I will blind taste a lot of wines, tour Happy Canyon and several properties, and do an amazing interview I’m not allowed to talk about yet. All this will duly appear in the pages or on the website of Wine Enthusiast. But tonight is all mine, alone by choice, under a harvest moon, with the crickets chirping, content to be in a place I love.

  1. Very excited you are visiting Santa Barbara County. Can’t wait to hear more about your trip and this amazing interview. Enjoy Happy Canyon!

  2. I have been trying to conjure up the identity of the person you will be interviewing and I keep coming up with folks whose memory lingers on like Fess Parker and Julia Child, Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. And frankly, I am stumped. Maybe its Bart Giammati, the star of Sideways.

    OK, I give up. But, I do want to send kudos for your description of the drive to Santa Barbara Co. Every word rings true.

    And yes, for every lament that one hears in the North Coast, one should hear hosannas south of the Bay because being a couple of weeks late in an area that gets little rain while the North Coasters are sweating bullets should make those southerners feel pretty comfortable this year.

  3. I love the way you have captured the essence and rhythm of the road between San Jose and Santa Ynez. When I’m traveling the same stretch, I like to stop at the King City Starbucks off of Broadway to grab a quick coffee and fill my car at the gas station right across the street.

    If you’re still here this weekend, check out the list of local wines available at Full of LIfe Flatbread Restaurant in Los Alamos.

  4. King City is THE stop between SB and the Bay Area.

    Steve, are you going to check out Franc Fest? All sorts of Cab Franc from the area, undoubtedly including Happy Canyon. I like the ones from Los Alamos most, I think, since it’s a medium cool climate.

  5. You’re reminding me it’s been too long since I have found the time to visit the Santa Ynez valley. It’s where we vacationed when I was a kid growing up in Southern Cal. And it’s where I first learned to taste wine as an adult, learning about the Mediterranean varieties that I now produce myself. Great description of the drive!

    ps: Add the Sierra Foothills to your list for coldest summer….

  6. George Rose says:

    Hi Steve:
    Be sure to pay a visit to Rusack Winery in Ballard Canyon. For my money, John Falcone is one of the top winemakers in Santa Barbara County.

  7. Rich Tanguay says:

    Thanks Steve… that felt like I was right there with you.

    And, I agree with George — go hang out and taste with Falcone…

  8. I say go hang out–for your next trip out of Oaktown–with El Jefe @ Twisted Oak in Calaveres. The Sierra Foothills deserve your prose.

  9. With the exception of the stop at Starbucks (I prefer Margie’s Diner for iced tea), your description of the drive and the joys of the central coast and the California that the big cities left behind 30 years ago, warmed my heart.
    Nice to see that there are a few others who just love that drive.

  10. Matthew Mann says:

    I’ve made that drive more times than I can count and I feel like I just made it again. Marvelous travelogue. I can taste the bolognese at Grappolo right now…and complaining about the slow service. But it’s highly recommended. Thanks Steve. I look forward to reading about the rest of your Santa Barbara trip.

  11. Rich, I’ve tasted with the great Falcone. He is high on my list of California’s great winemakers.

  12. He George, I’ve known and respected Falcone for years. A great winemaker at Rusack and his own Falcone.

  13. Greg, I don’t know about the Franc Fest.

  14. “I put on “Revolver” and it hasn’t lost a thing over the last 45 years.”
    Not only not lost it, I think seems better and more refined with age. The Pauillac of Beatles albums?

    I’ve found Joe Cocker and Leon Russell’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman” live album an excellent tool to get me from the East Bay down through the Salinas valley.

  15. Christian: “Pauillac of Beatles” Love it! But what would that make Abbey Road?

  16. Smoother, rounder and more seamless – obviously more Merlot in it, probably a Pomerol.

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