June 2019

Placeholder Travel Guides | Santa Ynez Valley With Shira Levine

Beyond Napa And Sonoma: California's Other Wine Country

To drive along the craggy coastline of California is to witness some arrestingly majestic landscape. Those awe inspiring vistas can make even nonbelievers feel they are traveling through God’s country. (or dog’s country, but more on that later.) The equal parts sunny to breezy climate; the diverse, mineral-rich soil — enhanced during a decent rainy season; and regions fortunate to flourish — unscathed, or at least not devastated by wildfires — all contribute the necessary ingredients to create some seriously drinkable wine. So much so, that the state of California collectively produces the most wine in the whole of the United States. The Golden State is home to 3,674 wineries with locations scattered and tucked away along and inland from the glorious, bucket list favorite, the Pacific Coast Highway.  

When we think of California wine country, we typically envision the world renowned Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The recent Netflix Amy Poehler film, Wine Country, supports such recognition, as have the filmed jaunts into grape territory of the Kardashian/Jenners and Housewives of Orange County. The movie Sideways put Los Olivos within the Santa Ynez Valley on the map, thus, igniting some winedar for another California region, and that very successful dislike for merlot. Destination wineries exist well-beyond the usual suspects and pour a variety of varietals here in California. From Monterey and Mendocino to Paso Robles, Healdsburg in the Russian River Valley, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Lodi, then down south to Temecula and across the border into Mexico to Valle de Guadalupe, great grapes grow everywhere. So, determined to kick off and maintain an idyllic, relaxing summer, I did the dirty work and took my own girls trips to wine country — hitting the road—dogs in tow. My personal quest: To find some pretty perfect pink wines at a location with pup-friendly vibes, paired with breathtaking views. My prize discovery: Los Alamos, California

Somewhere between the moon and New York City is California's idyllic, grape-friendly coastline. 

Less than 2.5 hours away from my home in Los Angeles and just past Santa Barbara, lies my favorite destination, a standout amongst many road-trip-worthy options. This tiny, one street, wine and food town is the other LA, also known as “Little Los Angeles.” It’s not the Los Alamos of New Mexico, nor, the Alamo of San Antonio, Texas, either. In California’s Los Alamos, tasting rooms and wineries aren’t as frenetic as those in close by Los Olivos, or, at the uber touristy Danish town of Solvang. Check those spots out, sure, but relish in the fact that this tiny gem nestled within the Santa Ynez Valley can feel like your own personal discovery. (It’s not, but nice to feel like it is.)  

Los Alamos has a ridiculously cinematic lone street, and it’s the main drag: Bell Street, which comes up easy for GPS directions. Bell Street is short enough —seven blocks —where you can wing it and find where you want to go and more without an address number. Think: Old West- (historians say back in the day it wasn’t much more than a stagecoach stop)-meets-muted 40+ something-hipster with a palate for high quality, local, artisanal, and precious — just not eye-rollingly precious — yet. 

Today, with a population just shy of 2,000, those seven blocks are a total it spot for tasting wines in the calm company of dogs and babies. California wine country in general, is very dog and child friendly given it’s in the company of booze. While Los Alamos brings it with charming, tasty local wines, it also dazzles culinarily. Attracting transplants who want to slow down, but haven’t gone full Sedona woo woo, Angelenos and New Yorkers seem to be finding their way along that little strip that very slowly seems to be extending. Within this drag visitors indulge in organic and local feasts, ensuring no one is stuck with only real cow milk or soy lattes. Go to Bob’s Well Bread Bakery for oat or almond milk lattes among countless devastatingly delicious house-made delectables! (Owner Bob Oswaks is a former Hollywood executive who has been referenced as “going from Breaking Bad to baking bread.”) Chow down at gourmet, local, artisanal foodie spots PICO, Plenty, Bell’s and Norman. Pass through to shop for affordable antique and vintage items at Depot Mall, Sisters Gift & Home, T & T Antiques, Suite B, Gentleman Farmer, and Terramonary for porcelain dinnerware. Drive (or cycle) the few miles into Solvang for classic Western, desert, and cowboy threads at Pacific Northwest Trading Co, or to Los Olivos to Jedlickas to score your favorite pair of cowboy boots.

The quirky Victorian Mansion on Bell Street.

Although wonderful to enjoy as a day trip, after all that wine tasting, shopping and food, you might as well stay the night and drink your new favorite bottle before comfortably crashing at one of Los Alamos delightfully quirky accommodations:

I am obsessed with the Victorian Mansion, home to six mural-themed suites replete with hidden bathrooms, plunge tubs, spiral staircases, dumbwaiters, and an Egyptian sarcophagus, among other eclectic treasures. Love the 1956 Cadillac convertible bed in the 50’s Suite. I got to sleep in a wooden caravan chariot in the Gypsy Suite. Other favorite rooms in the mansion include the French and Pirate Suites. It’s too easy to miss the 33-room mid-century Skyview Motel, as the chic Palm- Springs-vibe desert hideaway is covertly tucked along a ramp that leads to an interstate. The highest point in town, Skyview sits on a vineyard, up a palm tree lined driveway, and recently went through a hipster revoation of its initial 1959 build. The pool and pool deck are total glam, and are adjacent to the aforementioned restaurant, Norman — a kind of small town see-and-be-seen must named for Norman Bates. Come for live music via a baby grand piano, and up your Instagram game with design pics of all that gold starburst decor. Two other fabulous spots to crash at are the trendy Alamo Motel which has a tasting room called Muni on site, and a firepit. The RoadHouse, a 3-bedroom Old West relic established in 1882 is another exceptional go-to. It’s run by the couple behind PlaceInvaders, the dinner and brunch party series located in remarkable residential spaces across the nation, so expect charming details and party perfect accommodations . 

Lompoc Wine Ghetto: a collection of tasting rooms, wineries, and production facilities. 

With the quest to discover the perfect summer rosé my Los Alamos agenda, the area has become a region that hasn’t disappointed on the pink front for a few years thanks to all that rain, and the blessing of not being obliterated by the California wildfires. Let’s be clear: rosés are no long a run-off product of excess wine sweetened with sugar and sold on the cheap. The rosé style of winemaking is one of sophistication, deserving the same respect and prestige of white and red wines. In fact, rosé is far more superior when it comes to versatility as it pairs well with everything. Anyway, in town, about two blocks deep is the town’s first tasting room, Lo-Fi Wines. They carry wines so local that some grapes hail from one of the owner’s backyard, and then other grapes come from the Skyview Motel’s vineyard less than a mile away. It’s easy to adore Casa Dumetz winery, female-owned and run by two New York transplants, with a beer garden next door. They have a lovely rosé, but also dazzle with a grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend awesomely called The Feminist Party. At the newly-opened (again, by a few NYC transplants) Bodega, the Brooklyn vibes come through, as biodynamic and organic wines pair well with their outdoor beer garden, bocce ball court and firepit.

Impossible not to enjoy the sunset and pool views while dining outside at Norman at the Skyview Motel. 

Definitely get in the car (with a sober driver) to detour off Bell Street for other nearby and stunning rosé sipping spots, among other varietals. Equidistance from “downtown” Los Alamos and Los Olivos, and technically a part of the latter is the Demetria Estate. They have an award-winning pale pink bubbly grenache rosé and killer views. Upon request they can be on-leash dog friendly. North 15 minutes on the 101 lands you in the Santa Maria Valley where the Pres'quile Vineyard sits. Locals consider the landscape from Pres’quile’s perch to present the area’s most mind-blowing views. Their pinot noir and syrah blended rosé is super summery —crisp, with strawberry hints so not too dry. A Jeep tour through Gainey Vineyard’s compound covering some of the 1,800 of Santa Ynez acreage makes it all the more easy to appreciate tasting Diane’s Rosé. Made from pinot noir, it is named for owner Dan Gainey’s wife — and can be tasted indoors in their historic barn, cellar, or, outside sprawled across the scenic lawn with your pups. For me, Melville Vineyard in the Central Coast city of Lompoc is the destination that rocks the summer’s tastiest rosé. Made from pinot noir grapes in the Santa Rita Hills, the hints of mushrooms and strawberries make their 2018 the bottle I took home.

Speaking of Lompoc, just 19 miles southwest of Los Alamos lies what locals call the “wine ghetto.” It reflects nothing socioeconomic or crime-based, but rather is an off-the-beaten-wine-trail, popular-yet-also-overlooked stretch of rooms worth checking out for high quality blends to explore and enjoy without the crowds. Hop the dozens of wineries and tasting rooms within the low key warehouse complex for the day to minimize the driving. Fun and tasty fact: Both Kurt Russell and Pink make wines in Lompoc. Montemar Wines is the go-to for hanging out comfortably and enjoying the local vibes with their backyard vegetable and herb garden compound with all their varietals, but namely their summer rosé. The Lompoc Wine Ghetto for the most part is a taste and go kind of place, without much attention to keeping people hanging for long. Montemar is the exception with live music, big dinners and lots of bottles poured! (Introduce yourself to owner Steve Arrowood and he’ll take good care of you.) Other ghetto favorites include: the Stoplman Winery, Samsara, Fiddlehead and Flying Goat Cellars — all with notable rosés.

On the road food tip: Pop through the town of Buellton, “Home of Split Pea Soup” with a population just under 5,000 for a bite at the exceptional rustic, homegrown Industrial Eats. Taste next door at Alma Rosa Winery, and a few steps further at the Buscador and Helix tasting rooms.

Wine, dogs, and a heavenly view from the outdoor perch at Demetria Estate. 

Los Alamos and its surroundings are proof positive that the more wineries and vineyards open for folks to explore, the less likely any of us will ever be victim or victimize dinner party guests with a gag-worthy glass of Yellowtail, or worse, a pour of Charles Shaw, aka “Two Buck Chuck.” 

PHOTOS: Shira Levine