Santa Ynez Valley: Temperate & Tempting

Golf and grapes thrive in the ideal climate of the northern Santa Ynez Valley

With its rolling hills, mild temperatures and Pacific Ocean influence, the northern Santa Ynez Valley on California’s Central Coast is a place to beat the heat, taste the rich fruit of the vine and enjoy small town flavors — all just an hour or so north of Los Angeles.

The area is rich with history that goes back to before California became a state and miners rushed in, drawn by the lure of golden riches. The Chumash people had been living in the coastal and mountainous regions of the Central Coastal region for hundreds of years before the Spanish came, commissioning Franciscan priests to build missions and develop agricultural endeavors that not only grew, but thrived in the rich soils.

In the northern Santa Ynez Valley, Mission Purisima, built in 1787, was the eleventh in the Spanish Empire’s extensive mission system and was considered a remote, but active, outpost. Today, the mission is considered among the most complete and authentic Spanish restoration projects in the West. But, the mission that stands today just north of Lompoc wasn’t the original Mission Purisima; that structure was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, and you can still see walls from those buildings in Lompoc.

A hidden gem of a golf course is on Vandenberg Air Force Base, between Lompoc and Santa Maria. Built in 1958, the Marshallia Ranch Golf Course is named for the 167-year old Marshallia Ranch House, which is the oldest building on the base. Considered one of the top military golf courses, the 18-hole, par-72 public course designed by Bob Putman is fairly flat and walkable, but the winds from the nearby Pacific can make play challenging.

Between Lompoc and Buellton, the small valley of the Santa Rita Hills, also known as Sta. Rita Hills, encompasses a windy eight miles in the northern Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. It was planted with Pinot noir in 1971, and has grown to 59 vineyards and 2,700 hundred planted acres along with becoming its own appellation. Although there is a smattering of other varietals in the area, Chardonnay in particular, the Pinot noir grape reigns supreme, as the region’s climate and soil make for the perfect combination for the growing of this grape.

The valley runs east-west, instead of the typical north-south, which makes for a unique blend of temperatures influenced by the nearby ocean. The valley also has a sandy, loamy soil with a lot of calcium. This combination creates an environment where the fickle Pinot noir not only grows, but thrives, yielding small clusters of tiny grapes that have an intense flavor and thick skins. Because of this high quality fruit, Santa Rita Hills wine makers approach their Pinto noirs from a multitude of stylistic angles, allowing them to express their creativity in many ways. The resulting wines give Pinot noir fans of a treat worth repeating.

Many tasting rooms and vineyards are located close to Lompoc, and the area’s wine trail map illustrates what the region has to offer. One of the stops on the trail is a business/industrial park that has become a central tasting spot in town. Dubbed the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, the 21 wine producers that call this area home will not only give you a unique tasting experience, but also a no-frills look at winemaking and an opportunity to hear the stories of the wines first hand from those who make them.

Nearby, Scott Cellars, named for owner Peter Scott Fraser, has focused on small lot wines since beginning operations in 2005. This boutique winery has just consolidated its operations under one roof in Lompoc and is known for its Pinot noir and Sangiovese.

If you’re looking for something to eat after visiting the wineries in town, La Botte Italian Restaurant in Lompoc is family-owned by Nick and Caterina Agate. The couple, originally from Marsala, Italy, opened La Botte in 1981 and deliver fresh, hand crafted and delicious traditional fare including chicken Marsala and spaghetti Bolognaise, along with sweet finishers like tiramisu.

Just a few minutes south of Lompoc on Highway 246, La Purisima Golf Course offers a challenge to players on its par-72, 18-hole course. The public course, designed by Robert Muir Graves, shares its name with the nearby mission and at some spots has views all the way to the ocean. The course is challenging and becomes even more so in the afternoon when the winds come off the Pacific Ocean.

For another taste of Italy while you’re in the area, the Melville Winery is a great place to stop. The Mediterranean-inspired tasting room surrounded by vineyards where you can picnic will make you want to stay and relax for a while. The winery also offers a vineyard to bottle tour, and tasting where you can get an up-close view of the winemaking process from fruit to bottle. Melville’s estate winery focus is on Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.

A scenic drive will take you to Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards. Award-winning wines are made from its three estate vineyards, each with its own microclimate allowing for the growth of many varietals. When visiting the tasting room, you’ll feel like you’re stepping into a slice of rural life, complete with a patio, gorgeous views and a green barn where you can sit outside and taste wines from each of their labels — Dierberg Wines, Star Lane Vineyards and Three Saints.

The history, golf, wine and good food of the northern Santa Ynez Valley, just a quick drive from the Pacific, make this sleepy slice of the Central Coast an up-and-coming destination that will make you a repeat visitor.

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