Last Updated on July 7, 2023
In the words of a hotel manager, “Santa Ynez Valley is like Napa Valley used to be.” With those words echoing in my head, I headed out from Palm Springs on a road trip to see for myself.
The minute you take the turn off Highway 101 onto Highway 154 in Santa Barbara, your view changes immediately heading up San Marcos Pass. Winding your way around the curves on the two-lane highway is a bit intimidating, but sneaked peeks into the distance reveals rolling hills and giant oak trees scattered on the horizon.
Each of the five towns, Ballard, Buellton, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Solvang, have diverse personalities. There are 100 plus wineries in the area,. Take time to soak in the ambiance of each one of the wineries, taste, and learn about their wines.
Then, head out to explore the area, talk to the locals, and learn more about the history and why they love calling this area home.
Long Lazy Lunch in Santa Ynez Valley
Following the 30-minute drive from Palm Springs, you might be ready for lunch and a relaxing spot. On the outskirts of the town of Santa Ynez is a lovely shopping mall. The Mercantile Store touts its history beginning in 1973. The inviting patio, with flowers and customers enjoying their lunch, catches your attention at The Lucky Hen Larder.
This is no ordinary restaurant, for their staff is constantly experimenting and shaking up people’s beliefs about what a restaurant should serve. There is no corn syrup, GMO, food dyes, or artificial ingredients used in their creations. Instead, seasonal produce provides the resources to make dining here a unique, relaxing, and healthy eating experience.
The Heart of the Valley
The lovely Ballard Inn is in the small community of Ballard in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. One would not expect to find an Inn this size perched so close to busy Baseline Road. However, its welcoming flowers, white-picket-fence, and neatly painted gray and white buildings are quick to suggest you are about to have a memorable experience.
This hotel has recently been renovated, but retains many of the charming details of the original building built in 1985 without compromising its guests’ comfort. Lounging areas both inside and out are abundant.
The Inn’s décor is fun to browse; who would think framed antique key plates would be the perfect staircase wall accent?
If you plan to come to the Santa Ynez Valley for wine tasting and you want a gourmet dinner, you will need to make a reservation before your arrival. The Gathering Table, owned and operated by Chef Budi Kasal cuisine, has a reputation for excellent and unusual meals making it a special place to dine when in the Valley.
Beautiful wooden picnic-like tables make it a unique place to have dinner and share the days’ adventures with fellow guests. These conversations may result in you learning about even more places to explore.
Learn About Wine
The Gainey Winery sign welcomes you as you turn into the drive that takes you through hundreds of vines laden with grapes. One can only imagine the scene once the grapes turn a deep purple, ready for harvest.
Their tasting room once served as the storage for the wine barrels. It has been repurposed. Now it is an expansive, well-appointed wine tasting room with beautiful displays of their wines and empty barrels serving as décor and props for educating guests.
Where to Find a Beer
Next you might want to head to the industrial district of Buellton. Keep your eyes open because Figueroa Mountain Brewery is tucked back away from the road. Once you park your car, you will see a sprawling establishment because their beer is brewed on-site.
Huge vats serve as the backdrop for your inside dining and sampling beer flights. If you prefer, you can dine outside in their yard furnished with tables and colorful umbrellas. Staff will gladly deliver your selection to your table.
Call your friends and have them meet you there for their beer goes great with their huge nachos plate or giant pretzel.
Take a Walk After Lunch
Head over to Solvang. Just driving through town has a way to make you smile. You will feel like you have been transported to another country. Danish architecture abounds in restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops that offer you some of the most delectable pastries you have ever tasted.
There is a reason there is a line out the door of Mortensen’s Bakery. Not only is their selection gigantic, their Cherry Danish, in the word of one of the three bears, “it is just right,” not too sweet or tart.
Need Fresh Produce?
On First Street in downtown Solvang Santa Barbara Certified Market welcomes residents and visitors from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The market was established in 1983. Besides Solvang, five other market locations are held on different days of the week.
Most of the vendors at the market have primarily organic produce. Besides fresh produce, you can find special dips, various cheeses, and even some locally made crafts that may be that unique souvenir you were looking for to remind you of your memorable adventures here. Only service dogs are allowed in the market.
Explore a Spanish Mission
Looming large at the edge of the town is the Old Mission Santa Ines, built in California from 1769 to 1836 by the Spaniards. It was the first settlement in the Valley of Europeans who were Franciscan priests.
While the history of the Mission is extensive, today is also known for a May event where 600-plus cowboys ride from the Valley below and through Mainstreet in a parade wearing pink shirts showing their support for breast cancer. Once they assemble in front of the Mission, the officiating clergy comes out to give them a blessing before they head out on their 30-mile ride to their camp.
A Dry-Farmed Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley
Stolpman Vineyard was started in 1993 after Tom Stolpman had done extensive research and discovered the finest wines in France were produced on land where there was limestone. After much searching, he found a location in Ballard Canyon with the cool breeze from the Pacific Ocean conducive to growing grapes and purchased 200 acres. Today, this thriving vineyard is known for its fine wines produced through dry farming, saving thousands of gallons of water yearly.
From the beginning, Tom knew he wanted to hire employees full-time. Encouraging new ideas from his employees has made this winery known for experimental practices and fostering new approaches to growing grapes. Their educational tours, offered monthly, are fascinating and bring people to understand the wine-growing process better.
Small Towns Jewels
When you visit Santa Ynez Valley, you will want to take some of the roads less traveled, for it is there you will discover places like Los Olivos. This small unincorporated area is sure to grab your attention for the afternoon.
Art galleries, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants with a name like Brother’s Restaurant at the Red Barn quickly clue you into the fact this is a western-style town. If you have wanted some western clothes, check out Jedlicka’s Western Wear. On the other hand, if you are a gardener, you will want to check out J Woeste, but plan on spending time for their outdoor art is so whimsical you will find yourself pulling out your camera more than once.
Santa Ynez Valley is a place you will want to go back to more than once. Each of the five towns, Ballard, Buellton, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Solvang, have diverse personalities. There are 100 plus wineries in the area, though it is suggested you visit a couple of wineries a day. Take time to soak in the ambiance of each one of the wineries, taste, and learn about their wines. Then, head out to explore the area, talk to the locals, and learn more about the history and why they love calling this area home.