The laid-back wine region is more attractive than ever as its first luxury resort, Auberge’s The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern, opens and local restaurants earn Michelin guide distinctions.
By Elycia Rubin
Before Alexander Payne’s 2004 film Sideways shined a spotlight on the Santa Ynez Valley, it was mostly in-the-know oenophiles and moguls seeking an out-of-the-way escape who were drawn to the unassuming charm of this California wine region.
“There’s something about that moment when you’re driving into Santa Ynez where you just exhale and feel like you’re a million miles away,” says Warner Bros. TV senior vp Shannon Howard, whose family has purchased a home in the area after visiting over the past 17 years. “It’s an amazing contrast to Los Angeles and a wonderful place to feel rejuvenated.”
While the area’s unpretentious ambiance persists nearly 20 years after Sideways premiered, what was a few decades earlier a sleepy clutch of ranchland towns — that also attracted the wealthy in search of space and privacy — has evolved into a celebrated wine and food mecca with a growing number of Michelin-approved restaurants, swanky shops, boutique hotels and architecturally striking wineries.
Not surprisingly, these offerings lured many Angelenos seeking to leave the city during COVID, leading to a boon for the area. “Living here feels like a permanent vacation,” says Link Entertainment talent manager Brad Stokes, who moved with his family to the area in 2021. “It’s been great for our kids, there are less distractions, and I feel more productive.”
Home to the native Chumash tribe, who own and operate the Chumash Casino Resort, the Santa Ynez Valley now has its first bona fide luxury resort to boot.
Auberge Resorts Collection has just completed a renovation and expansion of the craftsman-style The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern (rooms from $950 a night), a former stagecoach stop in the town of Los Olivos that reigned as the social hub of the Santa Ynez Valley for more than a century.
Post-renovation, the inn still oozes a low-key vibe, featuring a saloon-style bar, a modernized barn for events and 67 cozy-contemporary guest rooms, including four original cottages, with four-poster beds and wood-beam ceilings. There’s also The Lavender Barn spa, featuring an olive tree-dotted serenity pool and offering complimentary fitness and meditation classes along with body and facial treatments (from $180) featuring designer Jenni Kayne’s Oak Essentials skin-care line. The inn’s multiple dining options are highlighted by The Tavern, a restaurant where executive chef Rhoda Magbitang holds court at the open kitchen, sending out inventive yet unfussy creations such as a delightfully addictive crispy cauliflower enhanced with almond dukkah and spiced honey.
Entertainment marketing executive John Rosenberg compares the Santa Ynez Valley — located a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from L.A. — to another beloved wine growing destination with undulating hillsides across the Atlantic. “The topography is similar to Tuscany, and you have an incredible lifestyle with outstanding food and wine,” says Rosenberg, whose family (including his father Lee, a founder of Triad Talent Agency) has lived in Los Olivos for more than 20 years. “Between horseback riding, golf, and the arts, there’s also a bit of culture for all ages while maintaining that small town feel. Being flashy or ostentatious is rejected here.”
THR looks at more beguiling spots to visit in the valley, which encompasses six hamlets, each emanating their own distinctive flair: the Danish-inspired village of Solvang; the historic town of Santa Ynez; the tony Los Olivos (brimming with tasting rooms), the burgeoning towns of Ballard and Buellton, and Los Alamos, steeped in authentic Western heritage.
Teeming with Scandinavian architecture and mom-and-pop shops crammed with colorful tchotchkes, Solvang (meaning “sunny fields”) is a windmill-speckled village founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants searching for a plentiful region to uphold Denmark’s traditions in America. It’s situated on land bordering the Old Mission Santa Inés.
European-style bakeries offering pastries and butter-drenched cookies still pervade the quaint, pedestrian-friendly epicenter bordered by Copenhagen, Atterdag, Alisal and Mission Streets, but so do newer, award-winning cafes, quaint museums showcasing art and the heritage of Denmark, wine tasting rooms helmed by imaginative vintners, and newly refined inns.
Situated in the center of the village is The Landsby (from $299 a night), a full-service, 51-room hotel decked out in Scandinavian charm. It’s home to a bustling bar scene and one of the area’s culinary delights, Mad & Vin restaurant. With its courtyard gardens (one of them overlooks Jule Hus, the town’s jubilant Christmas shop) — peppered with outdoor seating nooks, fire pits and twinkling light — you’ll be inclined to linger in this inviting setting for hours.
Other stays include The Winston (from $305) built inside the historic Old Mill Clock Tower, where “touchless” service means guests check in solely with an access code and nary a front desk staffer in sight. Each of the 14 individually designed guest rooms, some of the more spacious in town, incorporate splashes of jewel tones and oversized headboards.
And industry-frequented Alisal Ranch (from $595, inclusive of breakfast and dinner), is where Kevin Costner has vacationed. Swathing guests in a down-home rustic luxe aesthetic, the resort — located just a couple of miles from the center of town — offers horseback riding, archery, golf, family game nights, locally sourced ranch cuisine, and Yellowstone vibes galore. From March 19-23, Alisal is offering its WildWonder retreat designed to spark curiosity in inspiring new experiences such as a coffee workshop, cooking demos, intention setting, and line dancing lessons, all lead by celebrated artisans.
Where there’s exceptional wine, there’s obsession-worthy food, and Solvang delivers in droves. Chef Michael Cherney and his wife Sarah opened Peasants Feast in 2020 two weeks after COVID hit. Their mac & cheese, buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, carnitas tacos, and numerous other comforting delicacies sustained the community and weekenders during challenging times.
Now, nearly three years later, the restaurant has been touted with a Michelin Bib Gourmand distinction and they’ve expanded. Just across the street is their second establishment, Peasants Deli & Market, where visitors line up for freshly sliced Iberico ham, flawlessly roasted pastrami sandwiches, Instagram-famous caviar cones, Kobe beef carpaccio, and other gastronomical pleasures, adjoined by their newly opened 90’s inspired arcade complete with pinball machines and Pac-Man.
Juicy tomahawk steaks and truffled orzo risotto are just some of the top menu items at Sear Steakhouse, now under the command of owner and executive chef Nathan Peitso, whose family is behind Kenter Canyon Farms and Roan Mills. Leonardo’s is the go-to for elegant Italian dishes including short rib ravioli and chicken marsala. The lively Fitzpatrick’s Tavern, located right below The Winston Hotel, whips up a solid corned beef and cabbage, Cobb salad with house made dressing, and other pub fare. If you’re with the little ones, the burgers, salads and fries at Chomp always deliver (and there are one-of-a-kind finds next door at Vanderlei Vintage).
Satisfy your sweet tooth directly across the street at Swedish Candy Factory, home to Stafford’s Chocolates, where Polkagris, the Swedish candy stick invented in 1859, is handmade on site. A traditional Solvang breakfast is necessary and that’s what you’ll find at Belgian Café, Paula’s Pancake House and Solvang Restaurant where visitors line up for Aebleskivers (the famed tennis ball-shaped pancakes) doused with powdered sugar and raspberry glaze. And some of the town’s tastiest cookies and pastries are at Danish Mill Bakery.
Then there’s the vino. But first, a brief lay of the land. The Santa Ynez Valley is made up of a number of distinct AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). There’s Happy Canyon, the warmest micro-climate and prized for Cabernet Sauvignon, among other classic Bordeaux varietals including Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc. Then there’s Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon, where Rhône (Syrah, Grenache, Viognier) and Bordeaux varietals also flourish, and Santa Rita Hills, regarded for top-drawer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the favorite of Miles, Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways) thanks to the marine layer and Pacific Ocean breezes that create an ideal microclimate for the grapes. Pro tip: most winery/vineyard visits require reservations, and tastings generally last 60 to 90 minutes.
Solvang is home to more than 15 tasting rooms, including vintner Dana Volk’s Dana V. Wines. She specializes in handcrafted Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache Rosé, and Chardonnay, and has an expansive outdoor patio. Feliz Noche Cellars is where vineyard manager/winemaker Felipe Hernandez creates Mi Pasión (a knockout red blend), Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Crawford Family Wines is also worth a visit for a taste of their Pinots as is Lost Chord Guitars, a music venue-meets-art gallery and guitar shop owned by guitarist and songwriter Chris Peloni and his wife Kim. Wine and beer are served and if you’re lucky you might catch Jeff Bridges performing with his band The Abiders; Peloni is their music director.
For a deeper dive into the winemaking process and some of the most astounding views of the surrounding hills, a tasting with Gretchen Voelcker of Piazza Family Wines and her own label, Luna Hart Wines, is enlightening. Voelcker emphasizes organic fruits and unfiltered wines with minimal human interference to “enhance the aromatics,” she says, and relishes melding science and creativity with a dash of “woo-woo” in her poetic winemaking: “I rack in conjunction with the moon.” After tasting her Sauvignon Blanc and Graciano, you’ll toast to her celestial approach.
Afternoons here are made for sipping fine wines and nibbling on charcuterie amid oak-tree-sprinkled vineyards. Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard, part of the Gleason Family’s portfolio, and Rusack Vineyards are two of the most tranquil spots to indulge in these pleasures. Further enticements at Buttonwood include a bites menu, available Friday to Sunday, along with a curated marketplace of sundries and freshly picked produce from the estate.
Once quiet and unassuming, the Western-style town of Santa Ynez is abuzz and where you’ll now find some of the valley’s best dining options and appealing boutiques, along with tasting rooms like Cross Hatch, slowly starting to pop up. It’s also the location of the 14,000-square-foot Santa Ynez Chumash Museum and Cultural Center, slated to open this year.
Discerning shoppers will be right at home at Santa Ynez General and vintage fashion shop Brass Tack. One can even have a bespoke hat designed at KJ Murphy’s by the chapeau master himself, Kevin Murphy.
For salads, sandwiches and baked goodies, go to The Lucky Hen Larder, The Baker’s Table or Pony Espresso. With its clapboard interiors and vast outdoor deck, The Victor, with dishes like mesquite-grilled Santa Maria tri-tip frites, is the newest entry to the town’s restaurant scene. It’s adjacent to the Santa Ynez Inn (from $399), which is undergoing a refresh and will reemerge as The Genevieve around March 15.
One of the most blissful retreats is the 22-room Hotel Ynez (from $167). Tucked away on a hilltop, this 22-room sanctuary offers an oak-tree-shrouded central courtyard with bocce ball court, cozy firepits and loungers (even more lovely in the evening with the twinkling lanterns), along with a parasol-surrounded swimming pool and guest rooms featuring designer bedding, patterned textiles, and outdoor hammocks.
Feast on traditional American cuisine such as prime rib, perfectly chilled hearts-of-romaine salad with roasted garlic dressing and baked horseradish-dill crusted salmon at the consistently enjoyable Brothers Restaurant at Red Barn. And S.Y. Kitchen, part of Toscana Restaurant Group, is another local favorite, serving modern Italian.
When one thinks of deep, complex California cabs, it’s usually Napa that comes to mind, but Happy Canyon, Santa Ynez’s secluded AVA, is getting in on the action. Nestled in the far eastern foothills of Santa Ynez, Happy Canyon sees summer temperatures that often exceed 100 degrees. There, visitors can find several vanguard producers of estate-grown, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. Roger Bower, owner of Crown Point Vineyards, looked to Napa when it was time to appoint a winemaker, tapping Simon Faury (who hails from the globally revered Harlan Estate).
There’s also Happy Canyon Vineyard, home to the Santa Ynez Valley Polo Classic, where executive winemaker and president Sean D. Pitts will guide visitors through a tour and tasting of their Piocho and Barrack Family Estate wines. For a full vineyard getaway, the property boasts four newly renovated guest cottages available to wine club members for bookings.
At the Tuscan-style Star Lane Vineyard, the California cabs are inky and elegant. And there’s Hollywood lore there too — the property was reportedly once a popular escape for film stars during the 1940’s.
Find other memorable tastings in Santa Ynez at Vincent Vineyards, lauded for their Bordeaux varietals enjoyed at their main bar or outdoor terrace; Brave & Maiden, where guests sip in a dramatically modern setting designed by Backen & Backen Architecture (whose clients have included Jeffrey Katzenberg); and Roblar Winery, where visitors can sit under a vine-covered pergola to enjoy their wide variety of estate grown wines and a farm bites menu.
This quaint hamlet boasting Victorian architecture and Provence-inspired courtyards is wall-to-wall with inviting tasting rooms — around 30 and growing.
Standouts include Dafoe Wines from Santa Barbara County native Rob Dafoe whose forte is classic, minimal-intervention vinos such as Albariño, Syrah and Grenache. Taste Grüner Veltliner at David and Anna deLaski’s certified organic and biodynamic Solminer. Try winemaker James Sparks’ bright Chardonnays at Liquid Farm, where the boho chic space is equal parts tasting room and boutique. Actress-turned-winemaker Sunny Doench Stricker is the name behind lower-alcohol, acid-driven wines like her Rosé of Grenache (a.k.a. The Porch Pounder) at Future Perfect. Savor Ernst Storm’s knockout Gamay and Sauvignon Blancs at Storm Wines. At Grimm’s Bluff, enjoy opulent California cabs, along with one of the silkiest estate olive oils.
One of the most festive atmospheres can be found on the covered back patio of Carhartt Family Wines, founded by extended family of the owners of the clothing brand. Under the artistry of mother-and-son winemaking team Brooke and Chase Carhartt and husband/dad Mike Carhartt, they produce more than 26 wines. Born and raised in Santa Ynez, Chase is a winemaking wunderkind, and has travelled across the globe to hone his craft. Carhartt Venture is his newer label and embodies a playful, progressive style inspired by his travels. The family also offers an in-depth private tour and tasting by appointment at their Rancho Santa Ynez estate along with The Retreat at 11 Oaks, a 5-star gated vacation home rental.
In the mood for a little adventure? Journey down the rural, 30-mile Foxen Canyon Wine Trail to experience some of its 16 prized wineries. Zaca Mesa is known for their estate grown Rhône varietals. And at Fess Parker Winery, founded by the star known for playing Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, cozy up by the floor-to-ceiling fireplace or on one of the many cushy outdoor sofas to savor their Rhône and Burgundian creations. “We can now showcase and share our beautiful wines accordingly,” says principal Ashley Parker Snider, Fess’ daughter, referring to the winery’s recent renovation.
The dynasty of Fess Parker (who died in 2010) extends to hospitality with the 19-room Fess Parker Wine Country Inn (from $455), which is undergoing renovations and has prime positioning in the heart of Los Olivos; it boasts a heated pool, two additional VRBO-style cabins just down the block, and one of the top reservations in town, Nella Kitchen & Bar, also part of the Toscana Group. The restaurant’s pinsas alone merit a visit. A tempting cross between pizza, flatbread and focaccia, these creations — including the Bianca, made with fior di latte, caramelized onions, scarpetta and five-hour Bolognese from chef Lucas Crestanelli — are airy on the inside with a crispy exterior and wildly addictive.
Foodies will also approve of the spirited seafood dishes (such as dry aged Branzino) at Bar Le Côte from Daisy and Grey Ryan, who are also behind the buzzy one Michelin star Bell’s in Los Alamos. The Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café offers cheese plates, salads and pizzas. Lefty’s is the cutest coffee bungalow, tucked away on a residential street. (A few blocks away, LOU Los Olivos will soon open, selling contemporary clothing, resort wear and accessories.)