Visiting the Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County is like stepping back in time. One of the Central Coast’s most historic wine regions, its culinary roots stretch back to when the horsemen and cattle herders of Spanish Mexico—known as vaqueros—lived off the region’s fertile land in the 16th and 17th centuries. As home to California’s original cowboys, Santa Maria’s country-western essence is 100% authentically its own. Add the elegant, earthy wines from Santa Barbara County’s first officially designated American Viticultural Area (AVA), and it’s easy to see why foodies have long been making the pilgrimage to this low-key, laid-back grilling and sipping paradise. Located an hour and 15-minute drive north from downtown Santa Barbara, the Santa Maria Valley is a sublime spot for a scenic day trip or leisurely wine-infused getaway. Here are some enticing, palate pleasing possibilities to consider when planning your next grape-centric escape.
The Lay of the Wine Land
Santa Barbara County’s northernmost wine region produces some of the area’s most sought-after Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The revered Santa Maria Valley appellation is bounded by the San Rafael Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west. Thanks to complex soil conditions, diverse microclimates and a truly rare transverse (east-to-west oriented) geography, the growing season is particularly long and fruitful. So much so that Santa Maria Valley grapes from legendary vineyards like Bien Nacido are often used by winemakers throughout the county and far beyond.
You’ll have your choice of 34 different tasting rooms to visit that range from rustic and modern to countryside and urban settings. For a meandering scenic country road experience, taste along the picturesque Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. The views at Presq’uile Winery on the outskirts of town make it a place to linger, and the clusters of wineries and eateries in Orcutt can keep you entertained for hours on end.
Santa Maria Style Perks
While the wines are indeed fine, the Santa Maria style tasting experience is as casual and unpretentious as it gets—blue jeans are a staple of the local “uniform” and winemakers are often on site to meet and greet you. The lack of stuffiness and welcoming spirit extends to your furry friends—dogs are generally permitted at wineries, which are equally kid-friendly, if you happen to be traveling with the whole family.
The seasonal Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley runs on Saturdays and Sundays starting from Memorial Day weekend in May through mid-October. The hop-on-and-off loop starts at the Radisson Hotel and makes stops in two Orcutt locations as well as Presq’iule, Cottonwood and Costa de Oro wineries. With prices as low as $10, there couldn’t be a more pleasant, affordable and convenient way to wine taste car-free.
If you’re staying in a local Santa Maria Valley hotel, the ongoing “Show Me Your Key Card” promotion will give you access to complimentary tastings at seven local wineries (and Naughty Oak Brewery, too!) by simply showing your hotel key.
Santa Maria Valley continually receives accolades like “Best BBQ in the West” from the likes of Sunset Magazine and other trusted food and travel resources. When you’re ready to cut into some tender tri-tip grilled over native live oak coals, hit hot spots like the original Hitching Post in Casmalia, Far Western Tavern in Old Town Orcutt, Jocko’s in Nipomo and Shaw’s Steakhouse on Broadway. Local groups also commonly hold fundraiser barbecues on the weekends, so as you drive down the main drag of Santa Maria (Broadway), use your sense of smell to home in on temporary barbecues set up in shopping center parking lots. These traditional tri-tip meals are served with sides of Santa Maria style pinquito beans, salad and garlic bread—that’s as authentic as it gets.
Santa Maria is also renowned for its stand-out strawberry crops. Ten different varietals of juicy, sweet goodness are harvested all year round so it’s well worth a stop if you see strawberries at a roadside farm stand like Darensberries. Berries are also plentiful at the weekly Wednesday and Saturday farmers’ markets.
Mark Your Calendar
Santa Maria Valley is very much a year-round destination, but some annual events are well worth planning a visit around. Local restaurants serve pork-centric dishes paired with six different Pinot Noirs at Cambria Winery’s Pork & Pinot (November 18, 2018). A farmers’ market, live music and photo booth round out the afternoon of savory fun. Every January, more than a dozen restaurants and wineries participate in Santa Maria Valley Restaurant Week (January 16-27, 2019) with prix fixe menus and one-of-a-kind wine pairings.
Get into the winter holiday spirit at Foxen Canyon Christmas on the Trail (December 8-9, 2018). The $45 weekend passport ticket includes up to 20 1-oz. pours at 13 participating wineries, a Susie Q pinquito bean and barbecue seasoning stocking stuffer and logo glass. Live music, food tastings, discounts on holiday wine shopping and other entertainment are also on tap. To kick off the summer season, the annual Foxen Canyon Wine Trail Passport (last weekend in June) offers a similar passport program.
Check out the calendar of events for upcoming live music performances and themed tasting events happening nearly every week at Santa Maria Valley wineries.
No matter when you visit or where you go, the people of the Santa Maria Valley will ensure you are treated like old friends—or even better yet, family.