It's harvest season in Santa Barbara wine country, and the grapes are hanging fat and purple and heavy on the vines. It's the perfect moment for a picnic in the vineyards.
FOR THE RECORD:
Road name: A Sept. 5 article about the best places for a wine country picnic in Santa Barbara County said Buttonwood Farm and Beckmen Vineyards are on or near Pintado Road. The correct name is Alamo Pintado Road. —
From the bucolic, tree-lined lanes of the Santa Ynez Valley to the winding roads and steep, ocher slopes of Ballard Canyon and further west to the softer landscape of the Santa Rita Hills (you sense the sea just beyond), there are dozens of wineries where you can picnic.
Pack up a spread, something as off-the-cuff as sandwiches or as carefully thought out as a layered vegetable terrine and a rustic peach tart and make the drive a couple of hours north. But which winery to choose for the afternoon idyll? And what are the dishes that travel best, even benefit from an overnight rest?
We've scouted winery picnic spots around Santa Barbara County and found the most pastoral, the most gorgeous, the most convenient. But first, the menu.
Dishes that speak of late summer feel right now. Heirloom tomatoes, which are so great this year, make a salad no one can argue with -- just slice them in the morning before you leave, drizzle with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, great olive oil and torn basil leaves. The flavors will meld on the way as you drive.
But ripe tomatoes take on a completely different character when you slow-roast them to concentrate and deepen that marvelous flavor, so instead, you might want to turn them into a gorgeous red soup that you chill overnight. Bring it along in a thermos, or in a jar in your cooler, along with some pistou (France's version of pesto, minus the pine nuts) or crème fraîche. Serve it in your best plastic low-ball glasses, swirling a little pistou or crème fraîche on the surface of each at the last minute (no spoons necessary).
The main eventTHE centerpiece of the menu is a butterflied leg of lamb stuffed with olives and figs and served cool. Roast it the night before, tuck it into the fridge, and slice it in the morning -- the pretty streaks of cured olives, black Mission figs and flecks of rosemary mean you need neither sauce nor condiment.
Served hot, it would feel too heavy this time of year (and, man, it can get hot in these vineyards), but cooled down, the flavors mellowed overnight, it's fantastic for a picnic, especially with a great Syrah.
A minted cucumber salad, dosed with thick Greek yogurt, provides a cool, refreshing counterpoint to the lamb. Salting the cucumbers before you make the salad makes them release much of their water; this also prevents the dish from getting soggy overnight. Bring fresh mint separately in a paper towel or plastic bag, then tear it and add it at the last minute so it doesn't discolor.
A simple dish of flageolet and cannellini beans, cooked till tender and laced with olive oil, shallots, rosemary and a generous confetti of fresh parsley, pulls it all together. A traditional match with lamb, the beans are great served at room temperature; the soft flavors of the beans and the herbs deepen overnight.
For dessert, tarts and crisps and crumbles are great this time of year and go well with the late-summer menu, but you really don't need anything more complicated than some great ripe fruit and cheese. Seckel pears are just coming in; nectarines are still fabulous, and of course figs still rock.
If it's Saturday, you might want to do your fruit shopping at the wonderful farmers market in downtown Santa Barbara; it's right on the way. The market, near the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota streets, is smaller than the Santa Monica Wednesday market -- it feels like a backyard garden party -- but many of the same farmers show up and even shop there. Lately, there have been wonderful peaches, plums and apples from Mud Creek Ranch. The market also provides good crudité opps: breakfast radishes from Jimenez Family Farm or multicolored carrots from McGrath Family Farms.
Fortunately, you don't have to worry about buying the cheese ahead of time -- there are a few shops in Santa Barbara with excellent selections (see information box). If you have easy access to great bread, you might want to pick that up before you hit the highway; there's pretty good bread in these shops too, but nothing as good as a fresh pain rustique from Breadbar or a baguette from Le Pain Quotidien.
When you pack it all up, tuck in a wooden cutting board or two -- they do double duty as platters (you can cut the bread and cheese right on them). Don't forget water -- harvest season can mean searing heat -- and a corkscrew.
So where, then, to picnic?
Maybe you got a later-than-planned start, and you're famished by the time you hit Santa Ynez. Just take a left from Highway 154 onto Mission Drive (Highway 246) heading west, and less than half a mile away, there's a pretty, peaceful spot at Gainey Vineyards.