Last Updated on June 3, 2023
Santa Maria, along the Central California coast, offers a wonderful weekend excursion from Los Angeles or San Francisco. The gorgeous green hills create the perfect landscape for clean, moist air moving in from the ocean that you can feel and smell.
Spectacular wineries, interesting family farms, peaceful natural settings and unpretentious dining highlighted my exploration of the area.
Wineries in Santa Maria Valley
The rolling land and coastal breezes create the perfect environment for growing grapes. The lovely vistas and pleasant weather also provide an ideal setting for tasting wine. The Santa Maria Valley American Viticultural Area boasts 34 tasting rooms within easy driving distance.
Presqu’ile is a family-owned winery here dedicated to crafting exceptional, cool-climate wines. Their spacious outdoor patio provides expansive views for your enjoyment while sampling wine with a healthy lunch.
The sandy soil enables good drainage for the vines and lends a unique minerality to the grapes. I enjoyed visiting the narrow underground cellar lined with stacked barrels along each side.
The winery mainly purchases barrels from a single seller in France and each barrel is marked with the type of wood grain and year created. Piping carries the wine from the fermenting containers located on the floors above the cellar to each barrel.
Presqu’ile uses grapes from their own vineyard as well as neighboring vineyards to create spectacular Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah wines.
Chef Julie Simon loves gardening and has created an organic plot to provide fresh ingredients for her gourmet meals. I feasted on white bean stew with crushed cilantro and peanuts, chicken wings with caramel and sriracha sauce, along with a rich farmer’s cheese. This was accompanied by a butter lettuce salad with Asian pear, edamame and shiitake mushrooms in a lime vinaigrette.
Riverbench Vineyard and Winery also offers a lovely patio set among trees and flowering vines. The vineyard, established in 1973, is one of the oldest in Santa Maria. The grapes are planted on the bank of the Sisquoc River, also known as the Santa Maria Bench.
I sat listening to almost constant birdsong snacking on a charcuterie picnic lunch. Cheese, salami, quince jam, rosemary crackers, and almonds arrived in a metal basket complete with a cutting board and cheese knife. My favorite wines were the sparkling Blanc de Noirs and the Clone 115 Pinot Noir.
A chilly wind was blowing on the day I visited Cambria Estate Winery so I sat indoors next to a picture window overlooking the large steel containers and rows of barrels below the tasting room. They also offer a lovely outdoor patio as well as tables and chairs on a small hill with a panoramic view.
Cambria is completely women-run with daughters Katherine and Julia learning the business from their mother Barbara. They focus on sustainability and drawing the flavors of the land into their wines.
Dewlson Family Farm
When Judy and Ron retired from the Navy, they dreamed of creating Dewlson Family Farm to share with their children and future generations. They bought 20 acres of land and planted rows of Lisbon Lemons with ground cover in between to reduce erosion. They have since added another 20 acres of lemons as well as experiments with many other types of plants.
Judy led me on a fascinating tour where I was able to sample many of the fruits of their labor. We walked through a greenhouse filled with various types of coffee plants. She explained that the beans must be hand-picked due to their different stages of maturation.
She was also cultivating several types of tea plants imported from China. I was shown many other trees and plants that I hadn’t seen before, such as passion fruit, pink lemonade trees, Buddha trees, and Finger Limes.
Judy works diligently with many exotic plants to determine how and where they grow best.
Dewlson Family Farm offers tours by reservation as well as coffee and tea tastings. I sampled a few teas then gathered some herbs from the garden outside the red barn to bring home for brewing my own.
I couldn’t resist doing some shopping among their homemade soaps and preserves. I even brought home a gorgeous tea set to enjoy.
My learning and exploration of the Santa Maria area continued in the town of Nipomo at The Luffa Farm. I had no idea that luffa sponges grow on vines and start off looking like long green squash. For over 30 years, the farm has been processing the sponges in a gentle way that keeps the luffa soft and delightful for use. They also sell many popular handmade products such as bath teas, soap, and lotion.
A Depression era migrant labor camp in Nipomo is the location of photographer Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” picture, perhaps the most recognizable image ever captured on film.
Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat
Between October and February, thousands of endangered Monarch butterflies rest in Nipomo at the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Habitat. However, this 19-acre grove of soaring Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees is worth visiting any time of year.
During my April visit, the trail was peaceful with only the sounds of singing birds and the breeze playing through the trees. The air smelled fresh and earthy and a dappled sunlight streamed down through tall branches.
Educational signboards and picnic benches are conveniently located at the entrance to the trail just along a side street.
Oso Flaco Lake
Oso Flaco Lake sits just a short distance from the coast, about a 25-minute drive from the town of Santa Maria. A picturesque boardwalk stretches across the lake. Birds swooped all around me with their constant chatter as I crossed the placid water on a Sunday morning.
A walk extends through the dunes another half mile to the ocean. The boardwalk itself is mainly flat and easy to traverse, although sand spills onto the path in some points. Part of the trail leads out to the beach while another terminates at a lookout over the water.
Whales, dolphins, and seals as well as many other sea creatures pass through this area. The parking lot is easily accessible at the end of Oso Flaco Lake Road and a wide path, less than a quarter of a mile long, leads down to the lake.
Dining in Santa Maria Valley
Shaw’s Steakhouse & Tavern has served authentic Santa Maria BBQ since 1953. Through the kitchen’s large window, guests can watch their steaks being grilled over a red oak fire. I thoroughly enjoyed their filet mignon with garlic bread, crispy French fries, and Santa Maria-style Pinquito beans.
Ten minutes from Santa Maria, the small town of Orcutt offers many wonderful restaurants. Cups & Crumbs has a spacious outdoor patio and a handful of tables indoors. The Banana Split Crepe bulges with bananas, strawberries, and Nutella, delightfully topped with a chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
Entering Trattoria Uliveto was like walking into a friend’s house with lively conversations going on. I love classic Italian food and my Ravioli di Spinaci was soft and bursting with flavor in a cream butter sauce. The crème Brûlée dessert came with slices of strawberry on top and was so lusciously rich I couldn’t finish it all.
Cubinissimo Cuban Coffeehouse & Cafe lives up to its name with lively Cuban music in the background and colorful photos on the walls. I savored my breakfast of tostones and a large plate of mixed tropical fruit. The Cuban sandwiches and plates of rice with Cuban-style meats made me want to return later in the day.
Santa Maria Valley had not been on my radar before this trip and now I can’t wait to come back. The beautiful landscape, welcoming people, great food and wine, and interesting adventures are well worth a visit. And many returns.diningnaturewine