Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> California's Central Coast 2008 Part I

California's Central Coast 2008
Part I

Santa Barbara

Last month, Linda and I were lucky enough to be able to spend a week touring California's central coast. It had been 10 years since we were last there, and boy, has it changed. We found some great places to stay, eat and taste wine and for the next few weeks, we're going to be sharing these travel ideas with you.

We flew into Los Angeles on Sunday, the best day to drive anywhere in LA, and went north to Santa Barbara where we spent two nights near "Sideways" country. Then on to Paso Robles, in the center of the state, for another two nights and lots of wine tasting where big reds are king. Finally, we finished up in Pacific Grove (Monterey) where we found some amazing restaurants and scenery, and then flew out of San Francisco on Sunday morning.

On our way into Santa Barbara, we got off of 101 in Montecito, just south of the city. A friend had told us we should drive through the small, quaint seaside town, home of the Four Seasons Biltmore, so we could see how the upper one percent lives. And, they live well... the Simons have a home there, so you can imagine the rest. The coastal road leads you right into Santa Barbara and back to semi-reality. Linda was checking out Santa Barbara Magazine in our room and discovered that for only 10 to 25 million, you too, can be part of that community near the water....

We did find an elegant boutique hotel, the Spanish Garden Inn, just a short walk from State Street, the shopping and dining heart of the city. With only 23 large rooms and suites, first-rate amenities, a nice pool, a reasonably good, complimentary breakfast (it's relative...you do pay for it) and most important, multiple newspapers and good coffee at 6:30 in the morning (which our bodies knew was 9:30 am).
Spanish Garden Inn
915 Garden Street
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Spanish Garden Inn

State Street is the usual assortment of high end apparel stores, galleries and restaurants anchored by a Nordstrom. If you are a fan of the catalogue "Territory Ahead", it's their home and they have an outlet store near the ocean end of State. If shopping is your thing, you can't do better. There are actually five working wineries in lower downtown, and while we didn't visit, Jaffurs is a standout, based on the great bottle of Roussanne that we had at lunch.

The restaurant choices are pretty much endless, but jet lag reduced our first evening to delivery pizza recommended by the staff, which was really, really good... it's Rusty's Pizza, if you ever need a pizza in Santa Barbara. Our second night we found out how good dining can be where the competition among independent fine dining spots must be intense. We chose Bouchon, a spot that most reviewers seem to think is among the best in the area.

Bouchon, French for wine cork, is located just off State Street in a cozy, well appointed space that blurs the line between indoor and outdoor seating. And, as expected, the food was outstanding and service very professional and very accommodating...so much so that when we passed on a cheese course but mentioned that we would have loved to try the Mount Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, they prepared us a cheese plate with just one cheese along with the fruit compote, candied walnuts and homemade crackers, and only charged five dollars, a third the price of the full three cheese offering.

The wine list was extensive, very locally oriented, and not too pricey, hovering at about twice retail, normal to low markup back home. Since we had met with Steve Beckman that afternoon and walked his Purisima Mountain vineyard, we chose the 2005 Beckmen Purisima Block 6 Syrah that tasted even better with food than it had when we tasted it earlier in the day (coming soon, about $45 retail).

The food was exquisite, I began with an Escargot "Napoleon," sautéed escargot in delicate white wine butter sauce layered with phyllo. Linda chose the farmers market heirloom tomatoes with fresh basil leaves, Purple Haze goat cheese and basil infused olive oil. Both were more than ample servings and as good as they sound. For the main event Linda had the bourbon and maple glazed duck breast, served in medium rare medallions with duck confit, a succotash with apple wood bacon and butternut squash. Mine was the braised short ribs in a tomato beurre blanc with a truffled polenta. By the time we had finished trading bites I was not sure which dish I enjoyed more but I have to give the edge to the duck, there is just something about duck confit... probably the fat content.

The best part... dinner with two glasses of Pinot Gris and a similarly priced bottle of red cost $30 less than the dinner we had at Eddie Merlot’s on our anniversary last month, and I really can't say that there was any comparison. Not bad for dinner at one of the best restaurants, in one of America's most expensive cities.
Bouchon Santa Barbara
9 West Victoria (1/2 block west of State St.)
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
(805) 730-1160
www.bouchonsantabarbara.com

"Sideways" Country

Our first day took us to "Sideways" country, the area about 50 miles up 101 from Santa Barbara and made famous by the movie. And, I don't think I would have said "made famous" before I saw the changes. We visited Santa Barbara and the Los Olivos area about 14 years ago and, wow, what a change. In fact, in talking to winery owners and tasting room staff, we discovered that the Sideways effect didn't just apply to Pinot Noir sales, it created a real boom in wine tourism in the area. I suppose I never really thought about it, but the film's biggest effect was to let 13 million people know that serious wine country was only a three hour drive to the north.

Kaboom! The last time we visited Los Olivos, it was a dusty crossroads with two small wine tasting rooms that served a large group of vintners too small to support their own rooms, along with a small rustic restaurant that served a pretty good lunch. Now, in the space of two blocks in either direction of the crossroads, there are 12 winery tasting room, two multiple winery tasting rooms, art galleries, a very high end grocery/deli/wine store, five very nice restaurants and the new Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa. Quite a change... if you visit, leave enough time for lunch and a morning or afternoon of wine tasting and browsing. In fact, had we seen how nice the Fess Parker Inn was before planning the trip, we might have reconsidered staying in Santa Barbara. Just to the north is the Foxen Wine Trail. And up Foxen Canyon Road you will find five wineries, most worth a visit, including Curtis, Fess Parker, Firestone, Kohler and Zaca Mesa.

The real action though is just to the south between Los Olivos and Solvang, in the center of the Santa Ynez Valley and just to the west in the Santa Rita Hills area. Well over 30 wineries and tasting rooms are clustered within a very drivable area. The population center is Solvang, a town of 5,400 founded in 1911 by a group of Danish immigrants.

Over the ensuing hundred years it has been turned into a Danish themed tourist attraction, complete with windmills, touristy shops, bakeries, and a downtown that could pass for Denmark. There are plenty of Nordic sounding restaurants and motels and even a copy of Copenhagen's famous "little mermaid" statue. It's a serious blue hair bus trip destination that is also going through a serious "Sideways" inspired transformation.

Solvang is home to the Hitching Post Restaurant, where Miles' famous Merlot tirade occurred. The main drag, on the way in from 101, is a sea of chain motels that starts to give way to windmills and restaurant signs featuring smorgasbords and æbleskiver (round Swedish pancakes) as you near the center of town. But things are changing. Between the Christmas shops and bakeries there are now seven tasting rooms, including one of my favorites, Stolpman Vineyards who turn out some first rate Syrahs along with some other more obscure varietals that are a lot of fun to taste. The restaurant scene also appears to be changing with a number of wine oriented bistros popping up among the "family dining" establishments. While we were only able to spend a short time there, I think that Solvang would make a good base of operations for a few days of tasting provided you do your homework on accommodations and dining. We also heard great things about the Ballard Inn and Restaurant just a couple miles up the road from downtown Solvang.

Some wineries of note worth visiting are Beckman, Foley, Alma Rosa and Gainey... I am sure along with plenty of others that our limited time prohibited us from visiting.