Wines of Santa Barbara
Although I return to California fairly often -- mostly to the northern part of the state -- it has been many years since I have had the pleasure of going back to southern California, a place I used to call my home. So I literally jumped at the opportunity to combine business with a touch of nostalgic pleasure as plans came together for a trip to Santa Barbara.
Escaping the Winter Chill
As we left Chicago, the temperature was five degrees below zero -- the wind pushed the chill to nearly twenty below -- and the plane was full of passengers who were more than ready to leave the arctic freeze behind. As the wheels left the ground, I was mentally already back in Santa Monica, recalling the frequent trips to Malibu and beyond when I would drive north on the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) at every opportunity when I managed to get some free time. It was crowded even back then, but my apartment was only two blocks from the beach; a brief walk of perhaps three minutes and the crowds would seem to disappear from sight, almost blending right in with the coastal range to the east and behind me. Often I could feel almost alone on the sandy shore of the Pacific Ocean. I had not been back to the L.A. area for several years and I wondered if much had changed... it hadn't really -- it was just more crowded than I had imagined it could ever be.
Even the cramped quarters of the 757 did not quite prepare me for
the mob scene just outside of LAX where, on a Friday afternoon -- a
result of some poor planning on my part -- Lauren and I were met
with the full assault of the "getaway day" traffic. I had thought
that perhaps we would be getting to Santa Barbara at around 5:30pm
or so. After experiencing the over-crowded Sepulveda Boulevard
traffic and then entering the congested parking lot known as the San
Diego Freeway (northbound), I had my doubts that I would ever get to
Santa Barbara. I had decided that it would be foolish to attempt a
stop in Santa Monica to drive past some of my old haunts -- there
simply wasn't enough time -- and I decided to take the Coast Highway
instead of following the 405 to 101. That way wasn't any better; it
took almost an hour to drive the approximately 17 miles to Malibu.
But north of there, traffic eased a bit and soon I felt as if I
could breathe again. Besides, the air was some 75 degrees warmer
than Chicago and it was a beautifully cloudless afternoon.
The vastness of the Pacific reached up to swallow the giant yellow setting sun just as we reached Pt. Mugu, so we stopped along the road to watch the spectacle and snap a few pictures. I thought that there might be a chance to catch a glimpse of the "green flash" but the sun fell behind an offshore island and we lost the opportunity. I didn't care - the freshness of the salt air was exhilarating and I was ready to head farther north. We passed through the twilight as we wended our way past Port Hueneme and finally through Oxnard and Ventura, where we picked up Route 101 to finish our journey into Santa Barbara. The last 35-40 miles were driven in total darkness and the Santa Barbara exit signs were welcome relief; it was not quite 7pm local time.
Santa Barbara at Last
After a long day's travel, Yvonne and I had finally arrived at our first night's destination: the Fess Parker DoubleTree Resort in Santa Barbara, California. It was a beautiful sight, situated in an absolutely ideal location just across the street from the ocean and not far at all from the marina, with ample venues by the way, at which to enjoy some excellent California cuisine! For this particular night however -- after checking in to our room -- all we needed was a relaxing cocktail, some snacks... and a well-deserved, restful night's sleep. The first two of those were provided by the Barra Los Arcos, just off the lobby and open daily from 11am to midnight where "A tasty appetizer menu and specialty drinks are available." After some Grey Goose on the rocks, a glass of Fess Parker Chardonnay, some excellent crab cakes, a salad and some soothing conversation... both Yvonne and I were ready for 8-hours of sweet dreams!
Traveling the Wine Trail
An early breakfast the next morning was in the Cafe Los Arcos in the hotel lobby area, where we discussed the day's plans with the concierge. He recommended several local sights to check (e.g. the Del Loco Nuevo, Shopping Center, downtown area and the marina where Brophy Bros. Restaurant is located); he also provided directions to the Fess Parker Winery (and, we found out, about 30 others also existed!), a destination we had put at the top of our list since our first glass of his tasty chardonnay several months ago. The trip over the Santa Ynez Mountains -- part of Los Padres National Forest -- was full of sharp curves but the day was perfect and the scenery gorgeous as we climbed steadily uphill from the coast. Upon reaching the highest point, somewhere around 4000 feet in elevation, we stopped briefly at a "Vista Point" to take a look at what the vista had to offer. Unfortunately, "taggers" had left their mark on nearly every possible rock and limb, but the graffiti was easy to ignore when one is confronted with the panorama for which no camera could do justice.
The smell of chaparral and pine, and the the beautiful blue canopy over the endless jagged peaks and deep valleys were reward enough. We were on what we were told was an old covered wagon trail and I found it difficult to imagine the trials and tribulations of taking even a horse across these hills, let alone a covered wagon. Thank heaven we had plenty of horses under the hood of our car!
Firestone Vineyards & Curtis Winery
We sailed down the other side of the hill and past Lake Cachuma, Santa Ynez and made a brief stop in the small town of Los Olivos where we bought a light snack at a local store and relaxed at an outdoor table, just enjoying the day, the weather and some conversation on a delightfully perfect morning, before continuing the last few miles to Firestone Vineyards, our first tasting venue of the day. There are probably more than two dozen vineyards dotting the valleys here, in an area that is as Mediterranean a climate as one could find without actually going to Europe: summers are long, very warm and almost without rain, save for the occasional thundershowers in late summer; winters are short, mild and can be rainy with nights that can be quite cool. This is a sea-tempered climate, and all these factors of course are perfect for the growing of grapes. The area has unique gravelly loam with rocky sub-soils that -- along with the climate -- combine to create a marvelous environment for wine production.
Firestone is a beautiful facility, situated on a hill and surrounded by 500 acres of estate vineyards. The tasting room features an island bar and picture windows that overlook the vineyards. Although we opted not to take advantage that day, tasting and tours are less than 30 minutes in length and are offered daily. Just up the road from Firestone is the Curtis Winery, one of a collection of boutique estates established and owned by the Firestone family. Here the wines are crafted in the Rhône-style and are in a whole different class flavor wise. For me, they were just a bit sweeter, but I enjoyed all of those that we tasted - from the drier Sauvignon Blancs to the rich Syrahs to the Dessert Port-style wines.
We followed Zaca Station Road back to the east onto Foxen Canyon Road and located the Fess Parker winery, founded by none other than the Fess Parker of television and movie Daniel Boone fame, and more recently of the Fess Parker Double Tree Hotel fame. In 1987, Parker purchased a 714 acre ranch and established Fess Parker's Winery & Vineyard. He also purchased the the Grand Hotel in Los Olivos. Now called Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa, the 21-room Victorian-style Inn is a great venue for dinner, or lodging... or both! But we were more interested in tasting his award winning wines on this particular day.
At Fess Parker, there are four vineyards that occupy about 700 total acres and total production is about 50,000 cases per year - quite a sizeable operation! We tasted about five different wines - including an extremely tasty Chardonnay and an incredible Syrah - and actually bought two that we would later share with some friends. I could have stayed for a long while; it was a beautiful day and the winery offered opportunities for picnics in the vineyards that I know we would have really enjoyed. But alas, we had scheduled ourselves for at least one more tasting and we decided that if we wanted to be in any shape to drive back over the hill, we needed to head out. We purchased a few gifts for clients and drove back to 101 to wend our way toward Gainey winery.
On the way, we drove through Solvang, a small town with supposed Danish heritage and a definite Scandinavian look and feel that I had last visited with my parents more than 30 years ago. Solvang still had potential for a quaint feel, but on this particular Saturday, it was more like the town was giving away $100 bills; cars and people were lining every possible street and sidewalk. We snapped a few pictures and left; we just didn't feel like fighting the crowds. But actually, that's just what we ended up doing when we arrived at Gainey Vineyards, just to the east of Solvang. After seeing three limos in the parking lot - and judging by the number of people there whose years couldn't have been too far beyond legal drinking age - our only conclusion was that a certain recent movie involving wineries in this area may have brought out more "tasters" than would be normal. It was difficult to even get close to the tables where employees were offering samples and trying to describe the wines to the hoards. Our $10 per person tasting fee wasn't worth the hassle... although I must admit to liking a particular red wine (merlot) that a particular actor claimed he would not drink on his "tour" of the wineries in the area. By the way, a certain ostrich farm on the same road (also pointed out in the movie) was also teeming with curious tourists. No one leaving the place seemed at all happy with their experience; the birds could be more easily seen from the road.
The trip back to our hotel seemed much shorter than the trip out to the wineries - which was a blessing since we were looking for some peace and relaxation. We took some time to unwind in the hot tub at the hotel while reflecting on the day's journeys before showering and talking about dinner. Unknowingly, we had chosen a weekend that was sandwiched between two holidays, and everyone in the western hemisphere had the same idea regarding dinner: "Let's go out for dinner tonight!" After getting a sense of the wait times (1 1/2 hours or more) and fighting the unusually large crowds, we decided that dinner on our own balcony was a better option... and it certainly was, although we unfortunately missed the opportunity to try the sample the seafood at Brophy Brothers restaurant in the marina which was recommended to us by the concierge. A late-night walk on the beach did wonders for our jangled senses, and the serenity of the Pacific, the cool night air and a nightcap were all we needed to help provide another restful night's sleep.
Sunday morning came much too soon; it was time to head south to Oxnard. However, before we left we decided to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the open-air patio of the Cafe los Arcos. If the salt air from the Pacific Ocean doesn't help work up an appetite, I'm not sure what will. A fresh Smoked Salmon Plate for Yvonne, the hotel's version of Eggs Benedict (Eggs Santa Barbara - with crab instead of Canadian Bacon) for me, and some fresh orange juice and coffee were exactly what we needed for our final taste of Santa Barbara before checking out...
Read about the next part of our journey to Oxnard, CA.
View a 360° virtual tour of Santa Barbara beach