Making wine in California is a competitive business. While the north of the state is home to some of the most celebrated grape-growing regions in the world, in the last few years many young winemakers who’ve found themselves priced out of Sonoma and the Napa Valley have instead been flocking south to the Santa Ynez Valley. Centrally located in Santa Barbara County, this up-and-coming area has established itself as a cooler, more boutique and (somewhat) more affordable alternative to its powerhouse northern neighbours.
It helps, too, that Santa Ynez is just a couple of hours’ drive from Los Angeles. This prime location has helped the area attract a host of creatives drawn by the more relaxed pace of life and the temperate weather. The Santa Ynez Valley benefits from a geographical quirk: in California, most mountain ranges – and thus valleys – run north to south. In Santa Barbara County, however, the valleys run east to west due to shifts in tectonic plates some 20 million years ago. This means that every morning the area is cooled by a sea breeze, creating a highly desirable climate – and making it a world-class location for growing grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The valley comprises six hamlets, each with their own distinctive character. There’s the quaint, Danish-inspired village of Solvang; the historic town of Santa Ynez; the tiny, tasting-room filled Los Olivos; the growing towns of Ballard and Buellton; and Los Alamos, which is steeped in real-life cowboy heritage. The way the surrounding land is used is another thing that sets the Santa Ynez Valley apart from the more well-known northern Californian wine regions.
“In Sonoma, you have farm country,” explains Daisy Ryan, executive chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred foodie destination Bell’s in Los Alamos. “Down here, it’s ranch country. That history runs deep.”
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Where to eat
Opened in 2018 by Daisy and Greg Ryan, this sublime bistro quickly earned a stellar reputation – and a Michelin star in 2021. They describe their cuisine as ‘Franch’ – that’s French meets ranch – and make exquisite use of produce that’s largely sourced from within the surrounding 20 miles. Fresh seafood is brought in daily, including the Santa Barbara uni, which is hand-caught by local fisher Stephanie Mutz and served with caviar…