By Katie McElveen
The best wine tasting tours are no-pressure affairs involving beautiful scenery, welcoming vintners and, of course, delicious wines. Nothing embodies this ideal like Los Olivos, where intimate tasting rooms and wine bars offer relaxed journeys into the 50 wine varieties grown in the region. To make the experience even easier, The Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort has established partnerships with more than two dozen area wineries, each of which offer complimentary tastings to guests of The Alisal. Book the Sip, Saddle & Spa package and you’ll also receive a complimentary bottle of Santa Barbara wine to enjoy with your dinner one night.
Just fifteen minutes from The Alisal, Los Olivos is a 19th-century stagecoach stop that’s been transformed into an artsy village filled with shops, cafes, galleries, and 20 wine tasting rooms, all within easy walking distance. There are also plenty of restaurants where you can enjoy Santa Barbara wines with a meal or a snack.
If you’re lucky, Christina Larner will be behind the counter at Larner Winery’s jewel box of a tasting room, pouring samples of the wines that she and her husband Michael, a geologist by trade (and UC Davis grad), have been making under the Larner label since 2009.
Start with the Rosé, a blend of all their red varietals that fills the mouth with lively fruit and ends with a dry finish; Syrahs are earthy but bright and compelling, with plums, herbs, and black pepper. Larner’s style comes through in the Elemental Estate GSM blend, a fresh but earthy blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. In addition to producing wine, the Larners own and run the adjacent Los Olivos General Store, which stocks local lavender products, olive oils, honey, and pistachios as well as lovely gift items, cookbooks, and wine glasses.
Confident, complex, and focused, SAMsARA’s wines reflect the winemaker’s belief in traditional and sustainable production methods like whole-cluster fermentation, long barrel aging, and bottle-conditioning before release. During the tasting, ask staff members to pull out the plastic cylinders from behind the counter, each of which have been filled with soil from specific vineyards. Take a whiff, then taste the corresponding Pinot Noir or Syrah. You’ll never wonder about terroir again. SAMsARA’s wines are big and bold, but with enough finesse to keep them beautifully drinkable, both alone and with food. While you’re there, take a look around the all-white space, where a selection of ethically produced clothing, candles, decorative items, and artwork decorates the shelves.
When Tom and Marilyn Stolpman bought their estate in 1990, the land was covered in oak trees and wild mustard. Today, a remarkable variety of Rhone and other varietals flourish on that land including Roussanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Petit Syrah, Syrah, and Sangiovese. Look for the Estate Syrah, a composite of grapes from different parts of the estate and the red-fruit-filled Cuadrilla Blend, profits from which are returned directly to vineyard workers. On the white side, the limestone-driven Sauvignon Blanc is fresh but rounded out with pear flavors; for a change of pace, give the glamorous late-harvest Viognier a try. If the weather’s nice—and it almost always is—consider taking your tasting outside, where you can enjoy the wine under the big persimmon tree that shades the yard.
Most wineries in the area have wine clubs that offer members exclusive bottlings and discounts on tastings and purchases. Joining is a great way to support these local producers—and taste a lot of delicious, one-of-a-kind wines.
If you’d rather spend the day in the countryside, consider a road trip toward Lompoc, Buellton, Santa Ynez, or Santa Maria, where wineries like Rusack, Melville, Foley Estate, Rideau, and Zaca Mesa offer tastings with views of vineyard-lined hillsides. The Alisal staff is happy to make recommendations and pack a picnic, complete with a basket and tablecloth, to take with you to enjoy with your wine.
Whatever you choose—an afternoon in Los Olivos or a tasting tour amid the vines—be sure to return to The Alisal in time to enjoy a bit of your bounty amid the verdant gardens (or on your patio) as the sun sets behind the mountains.
About the Contributor
Travel and lifestyle writer Katie McElveen discovered the joy of wandering when, as a teenager, she made a wrong turn in rural South Carolina on the way to a family vacation and ended up taking back roads nearly all the way to the beach. Since then, she hasn’t stopped exploring, although she now travels with a map and more than $3.00 in cash. Based in Columbia, South Carolina, Katie has shared her discoveries through her work in magazines such as Real Simple, Business Traveler, Modern Bride, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Town & Country, Southern Living, Spa and Tennis.