Getting ready to set out on the gravelly trail, Diego and his girlfriend, Cash, are rubbing noses. It's a warm spring-feverish day in April in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the two can't seem to get close enough. And I can't avoid watching. Diego, my horse for the next 90 minutes, has a thing for this mare, and because I'm just along for the ride, who am I to intercede? Besides, as a novice equestrian, I welcome Diego's distraction — anything to avoid being thrust into a full gallop as once happened to me in the rocky desert outside Palm Springs.
But that was just your ordinary bronco-busting adventure. Today I'm riding with Vino Vaqueros (vaquero is Spanish for "cowboy"), the only local tour pairing Santa Barbara County's ranch culture with the region's ever-expanding wine offerings. No, this isn't the "Ol' Wine Trail" en cheval, though it could be funny watching tipsy tourists slide their feet into the stirrups, goblets in hand. Rather, this almost-perfect trifecta includes a late-morning ride, a wine tasting and a light lunch, all at the 714-acre Fess Parker Winery.
Vino Vaqueros, the brainchild of 30-year-old Peter Ganibi, offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience a far more intimate view of the vineyards and ranchlands than they'd otherwise get from a car window or even a bike. A lifelong horseman and for the last decade a professional polo player, Ganibi spent his late teens "hot walking" thoroughbreds at Santa Anita racetrack. (Nowadays, Ganibi also trains polo and race horses at Ellen DeGeneres' old place, the Armour Ranch.) Having traversed Santa Barbara's answer to Napa and Sonoma for four years, Ganibi wanted to share the "true Santa Ynez Valley experience" with others.
This place, says Ganibi, "used to be all cowboys, but these days when people come here, they see vineyards as well as horses and cattle, so I thought, 'Why not mix them for the real adventurous people?'" In February 2009, he presented the idea to the winery's president, Eli Parker, quickly getting the green light. Vino Vaqueros did its inaugural ride that same month.
From Los Angeles, take U.S. 101 north to California Highway 154. Take the Highway 154 off-ramp and turn right to Zaca Station Road. Turn left and continue on Zaca Station Road for five miles to the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard.
On this day, a Swedish couple, their two girls and I are being guided by Cindy McClellan, a veteran horsewoman and children's' riding instructor.
"OK, everybody has the reins," McClellan says. "To make a right turn, bring your hand over to the right. To make a left, bring it to the left. To stop, slide your hands forward and pull back. Kick your legs to go forward." McClellan's best advice: "Sit up straight, be like Jell-O, riding on the back pockets of your jeans."
And we're off — slowly proceeding up an oak-shrouded trail ("Don't get bushwhacked!" McClellan says) with my horse and Cash neck on neck. True, my leg is getting an occasional squeeze between those powerful hindquarters, but the pack is as mellow as its serene leader.
"We're gonna stop here while I open the gate," McClellan says, surveying the rolling terrain. "We could see some wildlife today." In these parts, that means deer, bobcats and, yes, mountain lions, although we encounter only some bulls and McClellan's own free-roaming horses.
"All the bulls are really fat and healthy with all this fresh grass." The region's eternal spring, slowly building since the first October rains, is just past peak. But beyond the gold-green of newly leafing California oaks and the splashes of purple lupine painting the hills, there's an addictive tranquillity to the place no matter what season — something you can't fully appreciate from the road or even the grapevines adjacent to the tasting room.
This is not a vineyard tour with oenophilic chatter bouncing through the air. And that's fine with us. Better to marvel at nearby Figueroa Mountain, one of the best wildflower-viewing spots in the county. After looping around from a high point — where we successfully lined up the horses for a group photo — some of that calm is broken when McClellan's other horses hear her voice and start following us, eliciting a round of snorting and whinnying as we return.
After dismounting, Ganibi appears and leads us on the short walk to the bustling tasting room, a notable contrast to our recent sojourn.
If you're under 50, you'll probably wonder at the space's proliferation of coonskin cap memorabilia — until you encounter the display case filled with DVDs of the 1960s "Daniel Boone" TV series starring a coonskin-clad Fess Parker. (Parker died in March at age 85.) Younger visitors may recognize the space as the site of that unforgettable scene in "Sideways" in which Miles swigs from a spittoon of burgundy-colored liquid.
Maybe that's not the best segue to our tasting, but as James Zarling pours the first Ashley's Chardonnay, a 2007 vintage named after Fess' daughter, our glasses are filled with "aromas of apple, pear, cinnamon and a touch of butter." This is followed by a 2008 Santa Barbara County Viognier, tinged with "white peaches, vanilla and cashews." "This originated in the South of France, a great summertime wine," Zarling tells us.
After a few sips it's on to the reds, with two versions of the region's celebrated Pinot Noir. First, a limited-production 2007 Pommard Clone, which, according to the tasting guide, is "brooding and moody with notes of cherries, Oriental spice and dark plums," followed by a 2006 Bien Nacido that really did have a "mushroomy and spicy" flavor as described. And though a super-smooth 2007 Syrah American Tradition Reserve got a decided thumbs up from the group — "It spends so long in the oak barrel, you get smoked meats on the nose," Zarling says — the 2006 Rodney's Vineyard Syrah, named after Fess' late son-in-law, is the hands-down winner and rated, unsurprisingly, "outstanding" by the Wine Advocate, an independent consumer guide.
Not exactly the term I'd use to describe the lunch that followed — sandwiches from the nearby Los Olivos Deli. (Ganibi will do a barbecue for groups of six or more.) No problem. With the swirls of fine wine and the pasture trails fresh in our minds, it didn't really matter … to the adults. "That was so boring," says 11-year-old Mette, who was forced to stand back 10 feet from the bar. "When you grow up, you can do the same to your kid," her father replies.