Photo courtesy of Jim Farber. 

California's bucolic Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara provides a break from the bustle of a visit to Los Angeles.

The same year cannons rained down shells on Fort Sumter, signaling the opening salvo of the Civil War, passengers aboard the newly founded Overland- Coast Line Stagecoach route connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles arrived in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley community of Ballard. After a night’s stay the stage wound its way through oak-covered hills and made a rest stop at a rough-hewn eatery that’s still in operation, the Cold Springs Tavern, before topping the San Marcos Pass and making the long, winding descent to Santa Barbara.

Once home to 10,000 Chumash Indians, the valley witnessed the arrival of the Spanish, who established the Mission of Santa Inez in 1804 on the outskirts of what is today the kitschy Danish town of Solvang. When the region became part of the new republic and then the state of California, an agricultural industry quickly emerged that produced olives, peaches, walnuts, prunes and, most importantly as time would tell, grapes.

Today cattle still graze on the softly rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley. But it is the cultivation and creation of wine (particularly Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mouverdre, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier) that have transformed the Santa Ynez Valley into a world-class wine-lovers’ destination. The quieter side of the valley includes the quaint town of Los Olivos, the nearby community of Ballard and the delights to be found by exploring the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

In 1885 an enterprising 22-year-old would-be farmer from Albany, New York, named Alden March Boyd paid $8,000 for 157 acres overlooking Alamo Pintado Creek. He constructed a two-story house, planted 5,000 olive trees and named his new property the Rancho de los Olivos. But it was the arrival of the Pacific Coast narrow-gauge railroad two years later that put the region on the map. Soon the first Hotel Los Olivos was receiving visitors and a newly built courthouse was trying cases.

The original hotel burned down in 1885. But a year later a new Los Olivos Hotel rose in its place that was owned by Felix Mattei. The popular spot soon became known as Mattei’s Tavern and has been in operation since that time. In January, however, the tavern will close its doors in order to begin a major renovation that will transform the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern into a boutique hotel and wine-country resort that will feature a restaurant, full-service spa, outdoor pool with a bar, retail boutique selling local craft foods and artisan wares, a gym, onsite parking and valet, and 3,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor special event and meeting space. The project is being overseen by the tavern’s current owner and executive chef, Robbie Wilson.

On Dec. 15, 1954, a 29-year-old gangling 6-foot-6-inch Texan from Fort Worth named Fess Parker appeared on television for the first time as Davy Crockett. Produced by the Walt Disney Co., the initial three episodes caused a national merchandizing sensation. From coast to coast young boys were sporting buckskin shirts and coonskin caps and toting replicas of their hero’s trusty flintlock rife, “Old Betsy.” The series and its 1964 follow-up (for NBC), “Daniel Boone,” made Fess Parker a very wealthy man.

Drawn to the Santa Ynez Valley, in 1987 Parker bought a 714-acre ranch just to the north of Los Olivos. As a former Texan, his initial plan was to raise cattle. But when he realized that a few enterprising vintners had begun planting grapevines and producing wine, Parker decided grapes were a better investment than doggies. The Fess Parker Winery and Vineyards had its inaugural harvest in 1989. And since Parker was no fool when it came to marketing his wines, to this day each bottle features a label that includes an insignia resembling a coonskin cap. The winery, with its lushly landscaped grounds and spacious tasting room, is one of the most popular stops on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. And if you happen to be there on a less crowded Monday, Wednesday or Friday, be sure to look for a gregarious older fellow named Jack behind the bar. Between pours of Petite Syrahs and Viognier, Jack’s happy to share stories about his many meetings with Parker and his family, who now also operate Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa in “downtown” Los Olivos.

Fess Parker Winery, however, is just one stop on the beautiful landscape that makes up the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. It also includes Koehler, Zacca Mesa, Tres Hermanas, Foxen and Rancho Sisquoc. But no tour of the trail is complete without a visit to the Andrew Murray Winery, whose enterprising namesake is credited with bringing Rhone varietals to the region. 

Andrew Murray was first introduced to the richly flavored wines of the Rhone Valley as a young man traveling in France. Determined to become a vintner, he honed his craft at UC Davis’ department of enology and viticulture. In 1990, the Andrew Murray family vineyards were founded by Jim and Fran Murray with their son, Andrew, as chief vintner. Formerly the Curtis Winery, the newly designed Andrew Murray tasting room is an elegant glass and stone structure that overlooks the vineyards below. It is an ideal setting in which to sample whatever wines are on the tasting menu. During a recent visit the staff was pouring, to our mutual delight, a pair of aromatic 2014 Syrahs, a varietal blend Murray has named his “Esperance,” a 2014 Cinsault and Cabernet Franc, and a crisp 2015 Grenache Blanc. It’s also possible to take a peek inside the richly fragrant storage facility where the wines of the future are peacefully slumbering.

Not so long ago, before the movie “Sideways” turned the Santa Ynez Valley into a wine-tasting frenzy, Los Olivos was a quaint little town with one very nice wine bar and restaurant, the Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Cafe, and a couple of tasting rooms. Today tasting rooms outnumber any other enterprise in town. Currently the number stands at 27, and it’s growing. There are signs that proclaim, “Specializing in Pinot Noir!” Some are brand-new, spacious and elegant, like Epiphany. Others are cozy with a decidedly friendly, so-glad-you-stopped-by ambience, such as J. Wilkes. It’s wine-tasting heaven.

When the time comes, however, that you can’t take another sip, there are several other wonderful places to discover. There’s Jedlicka’s Saddlery, one of the few authentic places left that celebrate the valley’s Western ranching heritage. Available here is anything from a 10-gallon hat to halters, reins and saddles. In contrast, J. Woeste is one of the most delightfully eclectic garden shops you can imagine, whether your fancy is for a set of custom-tuned wind chimes or a multicolored flying pig welded out of old oil drums. And for a memorable lecture on the history of corkscrews, delivered with an abundance of facts and humor, by all means seek out Pumacasu and its erudite owner, Carlos Cerecedo.

After a full day of exploring and wine-tasting there is no nicer retreat in the region than the 15-room Ballard Inn bed-and-breakfast. Located just south of Los Olivos in the serene community of Ballard, the inn has earned recognition as one of the most romantic in the country. The intimate 25-seat dining room (closed Monday) features marvelous farm-to-table meals, as well as ocean-to-table creations by Chef Budi Kazali. When I visited, the menu featured Santa Barbara Halibut With Crispy Soba Noodles and Shrimp Saffron Beurre Blanc ($34), Seared Duck Breast With Brandied Apples and Bacon Brussels Sprouts ($35) and Rack of Lamb With Shishito Peppers, Eggplant, Mozzarella and Tomato Miso Sauce ($36).

Each room features its own tasteful theme design, several with fireplaces ideal for cold winter nights. A full breakfast and evening wine-tasting are included. After breakfast or dinner you can walk through the rural countryside and be serenaded by the mooing of cows, the hooting of an owl or the friendly bleating of goats.

Located just 2.5 hours north of Los Angeles, Los Olivos and the Santa Ynez Valley offer an idyllic getaway while you’re visiting the city. Cheers.


For general information on the Santa Ynez Valley:

For general Information on Los Olivos:

Fess Parker Winery:

Andrew Murray Winery:

The Ballard Inn: