Los Olivos, a tiny town tucked away in the rolling hills above Santa Barbara, will give you that wine country fix without the expense of a trip to the Bay Area. Once horse country, the little hamlet still has a kind of cowboy feel to it, with Jedlicka's feed and tack store one of the biggest buildings around. But throughout the area, ranches have given way to vineyards, bed and breakfasts, coffee bars and boutiques. For those fed up with the hustle and bustle of Planet of the Grapes, i.e. Napa, Los Olivos remains a great alternative. It's still largely unspoiled, with its post office, spiffy storefronts and Old Glory, flying from a flag pole in the middle of town.
Where to find it
Northwest of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley. Take Highway 101 to the 154 for a scenic drive through the San Marcos Pass -- an old pony express route -- past Lake Cachuma. Turn west on Alamo Pintado and south on Grand Avenue.
The main drag
Alamo Pintado, a sleepy country road, was named for cottonwoods standing sentinel along the way. In fall the trees earn their name -- pintado means painted -- as they turn hues of green-gold and rust. Alamo Pintado turns into Grand Avenue in town and back into Alamo Pintado just south of town.
More and more boutiques and galleries spring up each year, but a few stand out. At Wildflower you'll find willow and Adirondack chairs, dried and fresh floral arrangements, and decorator items for the home in garden themes. Oarlie's offers offbeat antiques such as chintz teapots, mink stoles, tapestry pillows and estate jewelry. For earthy contemporary folk art, take a look at talavera pottery, hand-carved wooden bowls, turquoise jewelry and small area rugs at Tatiana Maria.
The Central Coast gains more prominence each year in the heated California wine market. A stay of several days would be required to do it justice, but for just an hour or so of wine tasting, Los Olivos offers a highly concentrated sampling. In town, stop at Andrew Murray, which offers Rhone-style wines bursting with fruit such as Marsannes and Syrahs, and at the Los Olivos Tasting Room & Wine Shop, where you can try the latest from vintners such as Qupe, Au Bon Climat and others. Hop back in the car for short jaunts to Blackjack for a good value Chardonnay and Beckman for outstanding Cabernets and red meritage blends. If you've got time, don't miss Byron, which offers world-class Chardonnay, elegant Pinot Noir and other wines on Tepusquet Road in Santa Maria.
Just as in Napa, you've got to decide: to picnic or not to picnic? Stock up at the Country Store and stuff the hamper with ready-made sandwiches, cheese, cold cuts, homemade carrot cake muffins, chips and sodas. There's a lawn with picnic tables in town or choose one of the wineries with picnic areas: Fess Parker and Beckman are nearby, and Zaca Mesa is worth a short drive for its serene picnic site on a hilltop. Make sure you observe their rules; some wineries require reservations or purchase of their wines to go with your picnic. For a sit-down meal, the best value in town is the Los Olivos Cafe. What began as a bistro and deli has expanded into a wine-tasting room and restaurant with a concrete horseshoe bar dividing the two. The room glows from the light of old-fashioned lanterns and the menu is rustic Italian with hearty pastas, risottos and pizzas that won't break the bank. After wine tasting and a good meal, you'll need a strong cup of java before hitting the road. Panino serves espresso drinks, snacks and desserts in the former Los Olivos Garage building.
The nearby town of Solvang, a.k.a. Danish Disneyland. Its high concentration of souvenir shops and motels makes it much more touristy than Los Olivos. Do stop if you're the Sugar Plum Fairy -- it's a kingdom of sweets from ableskivers to Danishes and chocolates.
1. The Country Store, 2948 Grand Ave., (805) 688-6750
2. Oarlie's Antiques, 2933 Grand Ave., (805) 688-5027
3. Tatiana Maria, 2920 Grand Ave., (805) 688-9622
4. Los Olivos Tasting Room
& Wine Shop, 2905 Grand Ave., (805) 688-7406
5. Andrew Murray Vineyards, 2901-A Grand Ave., (805) 686-9604
6. Panino, 2900 Grand Ave., (805) 688-9304
7. Wildflower of Los Olivos, 2900 Grand Ave., (805) 693-8283
8. Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchant, 2879 Grand Ave., (805) 688-7265