Often referred to as the “American Riviera” for its almost Mediterranean climate and Spanish colonial style architecture, the picturesque city of Santa Barbara benefits from its location, sandwiched between the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sprawling Pacific Ocean, providing sun, sand and sea, as well as forested outdoors adventure. On this occasion our visit was relatively short as we were intent on heading deeper inland in search of the Californian grape. For any of you who’ve seen Sideways, this is the region of America that Jack and Miles journey to in search of salvation from their mundane everyday lives.
The first stop on our wine country adventure took us to Solvang, a small community in the Santa Ynez Valley, founded by Danish settlers in 1911. Danish heritage can be witnessed in the architecture of the town’s buildings, including a replica of Copenhagen’s Round Tower (Rundetårn) and Little Mermaid statue, as well as windmills, bakeries, beer houses and merchants commonly found across Denmark.
The number of beer and wine tasting rooms around this small town is daunting but we found Solvang Brewing Company offered a great selection of region wines as well as in-house brewed beer. Paired with platters of house-made sausages, mustards and pretzels, we happily bed in for an afternoon on the patio. The Solvang Bakery was another highlight, filled with freshly baked, traditional pastries, cakes, breads and some rather impressive ginger bread structures. The carrot cake we sampled was light and moist with generous rich amounts of cream cheese frosting.
From Solvang we drove further north through huge fields of ripe strawberries giving off intoxicating, aromatics into the crisp mountain air. Never have I tasted such sweet strawberries, and what makes it better is the knowledge that you’re buying direct from a local farmer who has picked this delicious fruit that very same morning. The same praise has to be given to the Californian avocado. Larger fruits with vibrant green interiors that are rich and buttery in flavour. So good you can select a ripe fruit from the branches of a tree, slice in half and eat using a spoon to scoop the ripe flesh directly from the skin. Home made guacamole deserves these kind of avocados, I only wish they were to be found on English soil.
Next stop was at Cottonwood Canyon Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. Cottonwood Canyon was one of the original California vineyards planted in a north-south direction which allows for maximum sun exposure, yet opens the vineyard to cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean, less than twenty miles west. Morning and evening fog, trapped by the eastern San Rafael Mountains, also influence Cottonwood Canyon’s grapes. The estate itself is beautiful with ideal temperatures for sipping wine on the patio overlooking the vineyards. We sampled a number of wines including Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir.
Our final destination on our wine trail was San Luis Obispo, home to one of the largest Famers Market in the central California region. The market is held every Thursday evening and encompasses five blocks of the downtown area that is shut to vehicle traffic specially for the market. Fresh produce, like fruit and vegetables, make up the majority of the market stalls, but you won’t be short of food vendors, drinks tents, local boutique shopping and even live performance art from local towns folk. The locals queuing for Rib Line took our attention and we weren’t sorry we waited in line. Smokey, tender pulled pork dressed with a tangy house-made barbecue sauce, piled high on a sourdough roll with thick cut ‘slaw. Punnets of local strawberries and a few scoops of gelato rounded off a successful day’s eating and marked the end of our travels through this beautiful region of California.