When I visited my parents in Marina del Rey this January, they told me we were going to Santa Barbara County for my birthday weekend to do some wine tasting.
Having grown up in Pennsylvania, I had never heard of the valley. Before my trip to Santa Barbara County I had only toured Mt. Nittany winery in State College, Pennsylvania with some of my college friends. There I bought a sweet, syrupy blueberry wine a child might enjoy atop an ice cream sundae. This “juice” would not be called “wine” when sipped next to the Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons of California; those were wines that could culture one’s taste buds regardless of the valley or vineyard of their origin.
Santa Barbara County, as one of the top wine regions in the world, is a relatively “up-and-coming” meritage of wineries, a sea of rolling green valleys that open to the Pacific Ocean. The ocean breeze and fog that sweep inland make the region one of the coolest wine growing regions in California. Each of its five distinct valleys (the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Los Alamos Valley, and Happy Canyon) host a variety of microclimates, producing distinctive and outstanding varietals and blends. Dotted in between the valley are small towns, whose streets are concentrated with tasting rooms and restaurants. If you are looking to be introduced to winetasting and winemaking, the wineries on the Foxen Canyon wine trail offer an intimate experience, especially in January when the cool temperatures keep other tourists at bay.
My parents and I originally planned to visit the most popular wineries (according to our complimentary hotel book) on the Foxen Canyon wine trail on our first day. These were deemed to be Zaca Mesa, Fess Parker, Curtis and Firestone, and a smaller winery north of the others called Rancho Sisqouc. This cluster of wineries lay in Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara’s northernmost appellation. We planned to start at Rancho Sisquoc, and then move south down the trail, ending with Firestone.
The drive to Rancho Sisquoc was fairly long from our hotel in Buellton, fifteen miles east of U.S. highway 101 on Foxen Canyon Road. We arrived at a lone rustic-looking cabin sitting among orange trees. “Pete,” a friendly black-and-white furred dog, trotted up to greet us. The place seemed so deserted that we thought it was closed.
Inside, an older man named Daniel greeted us. Daniel was the most friendly and knowledgeable wine pourer we met on our tours that day. He told us that Rancho Sisquoc is unique from other wineries in the valley because all of its wines are estate wines, or wines using grapes grown solely on its vineyards. The vineyards span an enormous three hundred and ten acres. It is the second oldest winery in Santa Barbara County (Lafond Winery and Vineyards being the first,) pressing its first grapes in 1972. Because the grapes here have been in the ground longer than grapes in other wineries and grew on plentiful land, the wines are both high quality and reasonably priced.
The tasting fee here was the lowest we paid, only eight dollars per person for six wines of your choice. One of the reasons we visited Rancho was to get a couple of the modern wine glasses they use for tastings. The wide bottom and relatively narrow top is intended to both preserve the aroma of the wine and to enable easy swirling.
After an hour of tasting and talking with Daniel, we bought six bottles of wine. My favorites were the 2010 Syrah (88% Syrah & 12% Petite Syrah, $25 retail) and 2009 Cellar Select Meritage (37% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Malbec, 7% Pt. Verdot & 77% Cabernet Franc, $30 retail). The winemaker, Alec Franks, switches the variety and the amount of grapes in the blends from year to year.
At the end of our tasting at Rancho Sisquoc, Daniel recommended that we visit Kenneth Volk because of its great variety and quality of reds. (Which all in our party were strongly biased toward.) Kenneth Volk is larger than Rancho Sisquoc and serve tastings in the barrel room on the weekends instead of at the bar. Its atmosphere was a little more formal than Sisquoc’s rustic feel. My favorites at Kenneth Volk were the Spanish varietals: the 2009 Tempranillo ($36 retail) and the 2009 Tannat ($36 retail), both from their Bella Collina Vineyard. Their 2009 Zinfandel ($36 retail) was also stunning, earning the Double Gold, Best of Class, and Best Zinfandel awards. Because its wines were not estate (some grapes are imported and not grown on the vineyard,) the cost of the wine was about twenty percent more than those at Rancho Sisquoc.
After our tasting, we used the picnic area outside of Kenneth Volk to eat lunch. Here we savored sandwiches of Italian bread, Fontana and mozzarella chasse, ham, turkey, and olive oil, and chocolate-covered almonds for dessert.
We visited FOXEN’s original “tasting shack” by the recommendation of our pourer at Kenneth Volk. Called foxen 7200, the shack is actually a renovated blacksmith’s workshop filled with shelves of vintage knick-knacks, including a sign that read “hippies use the side door.” My favorite wines were the Bordeaux-style “Range 30 West” ($40 retail) and the 2010 Mission ($30 retail), a Port-style wine.
We ended our tour with the second of the five wineries we had planned to go to, Fess Parker Family Winery & Vineyard in Los Olivos. My parents found their own stores of Fess Parker depleted after family and friends visited for the holidays, and wanted to bring home more of the renowned wine (reds of course.) The atmosphere at Fess Parker was much grander than anything else we visited. It had multiple bars and an elegant lounging room with large windows that looked out onto a stone patio with café tables. It was cold and sunny so most people stayed inside. The winery is named after Fess Parker, the former actor who played Davy Crockett in Disney’s T.V. mini-series and Daniel Boone in Twentieth Century Fox’s series. Coonskin hats top the wine bottles, which is also the winery’s logo. Parker’s rugged TV characters had inspired it.
After three other tastings with generous pours, however, I was less interested in wine and more ready for a nap. When I visit Fess Parker again, I’d like to do so when my palate is fresh. Their Traditions Port Style Red (29% Touriga Nacional, 28% Souzao, 22% Tinta Cao, and 21% Alvarelhao; Barrel Aging: Non-vintage; three to five years in old port barrels, $24 retail) was my favorite wine.
Because my stepdad signed up for Fess Parker’s wine club, we were treated to a free tasting for two at Epiphany Cellars’ tasting room in Los Olivos the next day. Epiphany is owned by Fess Parker’s son and has a 2008 Petite Syrah (100% Petite Syrah $30 retail) boasting a beautiful burgundy ink color that tastes outstanding. Its 2011 Grenache Blanc (100% Grenache Blanc, $25 retail) was the only white during our trip I liked.
Better than Napa?
Wine tasting on the Foxen Canyon Trail for me was more than just an excellent way to be introduced to different flavors of wine. It inspired me to think of travel as a way of savoring new experiences. The peaceful ranch atmospheres fought my impulse to finish tastings as quickly as possible so that I could hit all the “must-see” wineries. In the end, we only made it to two of the wineries we had planned to visit.
My early disappointment about not visiting Napa quickly vanished after visiting Rancho Sisquoc, my favorite of the four we had visited. I had held Napa up as an ethereal representation of what wine tasting should be, when in fact, the mass tourism of the wineries there probably diminishes the authenticity I had witnessed at the smaller wineries.
But does this rule it out for me as a travel destination in the future? Absolutely not! If you are new to wine tasting, the Foxen Canyon Trail is a perfect introduction to the Californian art.
To make your experience memorable, here are some tips of wine tasting I learned on the trail:
1. Map out the wineries you’d like to see, but seek recommendations from your pourers. Some of the smaller wineries we visited didn’t appear on the maps of Santa Barbara wineries we found online. It also helps to taste with someone who has visited the area before.
2. Visit smaller places if you are looking for an intimate experience. You will also learn more about the wines and the winemaking this way. For example, we visited Foxen’s older tasting room called “The Shack,” instead of its newer solar-powered facility.
3. Pour out the wines you don’t absolutely love. After about three tastings (six wines each), your palate wears out. When all the wines start to taste good, you’ve probably have had enough.
4. Space out the drives between wineries and have a designated driver. This will give your body time to process the alcohol between tastings. At Curtis and Firestone in the Santa Rita hills, there is a hiking trail you can take.
5. Consider packing a picnic lunch the night before that you can take with you. Many of the spots have picnic tables. At our picnic at Kenneth Volk, the employees generously provided us a knife to cut our loaf and even offered to open a bottle of the wine we had purchased.
6. Join the wine clubs at the wineries you like in order to take advantage of “members only” discounts. You could save between five and ten dollars per bottle. Many of the clubs are free and give you perks for signing up.
7. Make friends with your pourer. You can learn a lot about the winery, and winemaking in general from talking with these experts. I always thought Malbecs were native to Argentina because that is the section you buy them from in stores. But I learned that the grape is actually French, and just happens to grow particularly well in Argentina’s climate. The Malbecs in the Santa Rita Hills also grow well because they are the same distance from the equator as Mendoza, Argentina is. But the Malbecs in California are “jammier” than those in Argentina because of the ocean winds from the Pacific. I thought I didn’t like Malbecs because the ones I tried were all from Argentina, but I found I especially liked those from California (try Rancho Sisquoc’s 2009 Malbec, $30 retail).
8. Be prepared to spend some money. The tasting fees we paid ranged from eight dollars to twelve dollars, although some fees are waived if you buy a certain amount of wine.
1. Chug the wine. This isn’t college – wine tasting is hardly a race. People will simply smell the aroma of the wine for minutes before taking a sip. Tasting is savoring.
2. Overdo it. Your palate wears out after about three wineries, as does your sobriety. We made the mistake of tasting at four and felt nauseous for the next day and a half.