“Santa Rita Hills—isn’t that near Napa or Sonoma?” Before Sideways hit it big with the 2004 Oscar for Best Picture, most people had trouble pinpointing this world-class wine region on a map. Visiting the area then was a sleepy, small-town affair, with a few tasting rooms leading the tourism charge. Five years later, the Santa Rita Hills, 45 minutes north of the city of Santa Barbara, is still a laid-back, welcoming place, the international spotlight having only refined tourist offerings and, thankfully, not detracted from the raw beauty of the region.
Begin your day on the far Western edge of the Santa Rita Hills appellation, with coffee and a doughnut at the South Side Coffee Company in the city of Lompoc. Ironically, Lompoc was founded in 1874 as a temperance colony; get your coffee to go and wander half a block down South H Street to see the mural painted in honor of the region’s history as a haven for teetotalers.
After breakfast, make a quick stop to the ugly but famous industrial park where many of the region’s best wines are made. Behind the Home Depot on East Ocean Ave, the Sobhani Industrial Park, affectionately nicknamed the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, houses such luminaries as Longoria Wines, Stolpman Vineyards, Palmina, and Fiddlehead Cellars. While most of the wineries here are not open to the public for tasting (choosing to site their tasting rooms up the valley in Los Olivos), Palmina’s cozy tasting room, which focuses on Italian varietals, features knowledgable and friendly staff and a convivial communal table for tasting.
Make your way out to Santa Rosa Road via Highway 1. Santa Rosa Road, one of the thoroughfares between Lompoc and Buellton, is the best vantage point from which to see the region’s best vineyards. To the north, catch glimpses of Evening Land Vineyards, Seasmoke, Mount Carmel, Sweeney Canyon, and Sine Qua Non’s first estate vineyard, Eleven Confessions. On the south side of Santa Rosa Road, the native adobe brick Sanford Winery is a must-see, as is its affiliated famous old-guard vineyard, Sanford & Benedict. If the coastal fog layer hasn’t yet burned off, a drive along Santa Rosa Road is positively breathtaking. Bring your camera.
If you’ve stopped at a few tasting rooms, by the time you hit Buellton at the end of Santa Rosa Road, you’ll be thinking of lunch. The best spot, hands down, is A-ru Sushi, in a little shopping plaza just off the intersection between Highway 246 and the 101. Owner Jina Bae buys her fish personally at the Los Angeles Fish Market, and the quality of the fish rivals that of the best sushi we’ve tasted—anywhere. If you are not in the mood for sushi, the Kalbi short ribs and agedashi tofu are delicious, and if you are lucky, the blue crab miso soup will be on the specials menu. Don’t miss it.
After lunch, take the back roads to Los Olivos, which serves as the wine region’s Tasting Room Central. Along Ballard Canyon Road, you can spot Rusack Vineyard (built by a member of the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame), Jonata (sister estate of Napa’s Screaming Eagle, and the Stolpman Vineyards estate. In Los Olivos, the purists who want to stick with Santa Rita Hills pinot noir can visit Longoria Wines on Grand Avenue (Los Olivos’s main drag); those who care to branch out should stop in at Stolpman Vineyards or Tensley for award-winning syrah and other varietals.
For the best of both worlds, Chris Benzinger’s Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop is a good compromise, offering tastings of a diverse range of local wines. Finish up the pre-dinner tasting around the Saarlos & Sons Tasting Room fire pit, munching on Enjoy Cupcakes’ wine-based cupcake tasting flight.
The meal to cap off your perfect day should be at Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern, run by (of course) brothers Matt and Jeff Nichols. Diners can choose between a casual burger in the tavern or a more extravagant meal in the dining room. If you opt for the dining room, ask for a table near the open kitchen to see the expert teamwork of the kitchen staff. Whatever you decide, dinner at this former stagecoach stop will anchor your visit in history. Movies come and movies go, but this spectacular wine region is as old and enduring as the hills.
What & Where:
South Side Coffee Company (105 S H St., Lompoc; 805-737-3730)
Palmina Tasting Room (1520 E Chestnut Ct., Lompoc; 805 735-2030)
Sanford Winery & Tasting Room (5010 Santa Rosa Road; 805-735-5900)
A-ru Restaurant (225 McMurray Rd., Buellton; 805-686-9001
Longoria Wines Tasting Room (2935 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-0305)
Stolpman Vineyards Tasting Room (2434 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-0400)
Tensley Tasting Room (2900 Grand Avenue Suite B., Los Olivos; 805-688-6761)
Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop (2905 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-7406)
Saarlos & Sons Tasting Room (2971 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-688-1200)
Enjoy Cupcakes (2971 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 805-451-0284)
Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern (2350 Railway Avenue, Los Olivos; 805-688-4820)
Some Great Books on Santa Rita Hills Wine: Matt Kramer’s New California Wine and California’s Central Coast: The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles and we can’t blame you if you are itching to see Sideways again after reading this article! Here’s a link to the movie.