In my book, an ideal wine escape is close to home, sports exceptionally interesting juice, and boasts affordable places to eat and sleep. Angelenos need look no further than the Lompoc Wine Trail, a quick 2 1/2 hour jaunt up Highway 101. Forming a loop circling from Lompoc to Buellton along Highway 246, it’s the perfect route for sampling wines from California’s exciting, relatively young Sta. Rita Hills American Viticultural Area. Best known for balanced, complex Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, there are also many very tasty wines being made here from Bordeaux, Rhone and Italian grape varieties.
First granted AVA status in 2001, the appellation is made up of two east-west oriented valleys, whose tawny, vine-studded, hills are hit directly by cooling maritime winds. Morning fog and mild temperatures make for a long growing season and lower vine yields, resulting in highly concentrated flavors. Farmers here tend to avoid extended hang time, so fruit notes are fresh versus jammy, and wines tend to shine with acidity. Even though recent lab experiments purport that minerals in the earth do not impart flavor to wine, for some reason I want to believe that alluvial soils contribute to the strong mineral backbone characteristic of this AVA’s offerings.
Start your explorations at the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. A collection of 17 tasting rooms representing 20 producers, the Ghetto offers an easy, one-stop introduction to the area. If your usual image of wine tasting, however, is of wending up long, tree-lined driveways to chateau-like sites, be prepared for a shock. Picture instead a barren, asphalt-paved industrial park, but don’t let that stop you; the wines and welcoming atmosphere vastly overcome the visuals. Highly recommended: Ampelos Cellars (the only certified biodynamic, organic and sustainable vineyard in Santa Barbara), Jalama, Longoria, Palmina, Stolpman Vineyards and Taste of Sta. Rita Hills. Lompoc Wine Ghetto 200 N. 9th Street, Lompoc, CA 93436. 805-735-8937.
Mosey down the Lompoc Wine Trail along Highway 246 to visit larger, estate wineries. The relaxing drive takes you through verdant farmlands, and includes the scenic towns of Buellton, Los Olivos and Solvang, good stopping points for meals or lodging. Many of these wineries do tastings by appointment only. Highly recommended: Babcock Winery and Vineyards, Clos Pepe Vineyards, D’Alfonso-Curran Wines, Dragonette Cellars, Gainey Vineyard, Hitching Post Winery, Melville Vineyards, Pali Wine Co and Sanford Winery and Vineyards.
Restaurants: Avant Tapas Bar, Jalama Beach Cafe, Paula’s Pancake House and The Hitching Post II.
Budget lodging: Holiday Inn Express Lompoc, Quality Inn Santa Ynez Valley Buellton, Solvang Inn and Cottages.