Santa Maria Valley is nestled between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. Part of the Central Coast of California, within Santa Barabara County. The Santa Maria AVA (American Viticultural Area), runs east to west. Delimited by the San Rafael Mountains/Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west. The Opening to the Pacific ocean allows for the fog and coastal breezes to pass through the valley, providing for a longer growing season. It is the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County, and the region’s first officially approved AVA.
The Santa Maria Valley has recognition for high-quality grape growing and winemaking. With just over 30 established wineries, their vineyards, owners, and winemakers gained respect statewide. Due to their cold climate, a high percentage of the 7,500 acres planted to vine are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a lesser amount of Syrah. They also grow Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Grenache, Merlot, Roussanne and Cabernet Sauvignon. The three more famous vineyards in the region are, Tepusquet, Sierra Madre, and Bien Nacido. There are three predominant soil types in the area, well-drained sandy loam, clay loam soils and alluvial soils. The terrain has slopes with elevation variations from 200 to 800 feet.
The three more famous vineyards in the region are, Tepusquet, Sierra Madre, and Bien Nacido. There are three predominant soil types in the area, well-drained sandy loam, clay loam soils and alluvial soils. The terrain has slopes with elevation variations from 200 to 800 feet.
Over our four-day visit to Santa Maria Valley, we had the fantastic opportunity to visit small family own wineries and bigger corporate operations. All of them have something in common, flavorful well made quality wines that represent the soil and climate that surrounds their vines.
Great Quality Wines
1. What a delight to share quality wines with Dave Corey “Mister Moreved,” owner and winemaker for Core Wine. Dave poured many of his well-crafted wines at his beautiful tasting salon at Oldtown Orcutt. Dave does not grow any grape vines, but source grapes from several grape growers. He maintains solid relationships with local grape farmers and produced outstanding wines. Among the well-crated wines we tasted with Dave, we enjoyed 2007 Cuvée Fletcher and 2008 Mister Moreved, both made with fruit from Alta Mesa Vineyard. Core wines are well balanced, showing intense fruit flavors, pleasant acidity and restrained oak nuances.
It was a real pleasure to chat with Dave, it was like talking to an old friend. He is very knowledgeable about wine and willing to share his vast knowledge with us.
2. Also located in Oldtown Orcutt is Nagy Wines tasting room. Winemaker and owner Clarissa Nagy greeted us in her eclectic and charming space. Clarissa shared with us her passion for wine and how she started in the wine industry.
Photos by Julie Santiago
“It was never my plan to make wine. My original plan was to work with food. Fortunately, food and wine go together. Through that means, wine found me. I met my husband while working at Byron Vineyard. We made a barrel of 2002 Viognier as a wedding favor. I do not grow grape vines but work with several vineyards, mainly in the Santa Maria Valley AVA, to get the best fruit expression. In the course of my career, I have been blessed to work with some amazing people and vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Our region and specifically Santa Maria Valley has captured my heart and my palate. I balance my time between family and winemaking.”
Clarissa poured a delicate and flavorful 2013 Nagy Pinot Blanc, made with grapes from Bien Nacido Vineyard. Lemongrass and honeysuckle aromas, with crisp acidity and flavors of tangerine, ripe Anjou pear, and notes of tamarind. We followed with an elegant and crisp Viognier, two distinctive vintages of Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir (2011 and 2012) and an oak restrained yummy Syrah.
The white and red wines at Nagy wines showed intense fruit flavors, pleasant acidity, and judicious use of oak contact on the red wines. Clarissa believes in minimal intervention during the winemaking process, allowing the grapes to express the character of their place of origin.
3. Cambria Estate Vineyards and Winery its own and run by the Jackson family. Tasting Room Manager, Nate Axline shared with us the history of the property. For the last 30 years, the Jackson family has farmed the property with sustainable practices, respecting the land and allowing the grapes express the crushed seashells in the alluvial soils and climate conditions around the vineyards.
The cold weather, temperature fluctuation and the fog that lurks in from the ocean at night; creates the perfect conditions at Cambria’s estate vineyards to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A highlight of the visit was trying four clones of Pinot Noir side by side. We tried Clones 2A, 4, 23 and 115. We enjoyed the experience of identifying the difference between the various clones; more or fewer fruit flavors, earthy notes, mineral properties, texture differences and more.
4. Riverbench Vineyard located on the southeastern edge of the Santa Maria Valley specialized in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They started planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in 1973. Riverbench Estate vineyards consist of 107 acres planted to Pinot Noir and 77 acres of Chardonnay grapes. After decades of selling grapes, they produced their first wine in 2004. At the Riverbench tasting room, your furry four-legged family member is welcome, and you can even buy a sparkling squeaky toy bottle. We enjoyed four delightful Pinot Noir wines and a Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé sparkling wines. Their winemaker Clarissa Nagy achieved well balanced elegant wines that entice you for more.
At the Riverbench tasting room, your furry four-legged family member is welcome, and you can even buy a sparkling squeaky toy bottle. We enjoyed four delightful Pinot Noir wines and a Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé sparkling wines. Their winemaker Clarissa Nagy achieved well balanced elegant wines that entice you for more.
5. Built into a hillside, Presqu’ile Vineyard sits in a privileged location with ocean and vineyard views all around. Estate Manager Cameron Porter walked us trough the state of the art production facility, caves and welcoming tasting salon. Cameron shared with us:
“The Murphy family, from Louisiana, bought the property in 2007. 200 acres, sixteen miles from the Pacific Ocean with 11 acres planted to Pinot Noir grapes. They called the estate Presqu’ ile (the Creole word for “almost an island”), honoring a dear Gulf Coast family gathering place lost to Hurricane Katrina, and because they envisioned the property as an island-like haven among the vines.”
The Murphy’s planted sixty more acres of vines. With the help of a Santa Maria Valley vineyard expert, they designed the new vineyard as a mosaic of various blocks ranging in elevation between 700 and 1,000 feet. The vineyard estate features 32 acres of several clones of Pinot Noir, 17 acres of Chardonnay, 16 acres of Sauvignon Blanc and small blocks of Syrah and Nebbiolo.
Cameron offered us several wines while walking trough the multi-level modern style building. We tried a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, well-balanced Chardonnay, several expressive Pinot Noirs and elegant Syrah. We also tasted older vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, confirming our opinion about how well crafted these wines are. Presqu’ ile produce 85% of their wines with their estate vineyards but also make a small production from some of the premium vineyards in the area, including Rim Rock, Steiner Creek, and the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard.
6. Under heavy rain, we arrived at Foxen Winery and Vineyard. We started our visit on their newest solar-powered tasting room and winery estate. In this property, you can taste their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Rhône-style wines. Great hospitality at arrival, we stood at the bar. Our host was a local woman with family history back to the early 1800’s. She shared with us the winery history, “Bill Wathen and Dick Doré started the winery back in 1985 at the historic Rancho Tinaquaic. The winery is named in memory of William Benjamin Foxen, and English sea captain and Dick’s great-great grandfather. Captain Foxen adopted the distinctive anchor as his ranch cattle brand, which became the trademark of the Foxen Vineyard & Winery.”
Our first wine, an elegant 2014 Chenin Blanc from old vines, Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley. Elegant wine with ripe yellow fruit flavors, bright acidity, and pleasantly dry finish. We tried several delicious Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, all of them had a particular intense fruit character. Some of the Pinot’s a bit more earthy, spicy, little more acidic; all of them truly representing the nuances of the soil where they grow and the pleasant cool climate of this blessed Santa Maria Valley.
Still, under torrential rain, we stop by The Shack Built in the 1860’s as a blacksmith shop. In 1987 it became Foxen Vineyards first tasting room. Today you can taste Bordeaux and Italian-style wines. We tasted robust Sangiovese, Sangiovese blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Santa Maria Valley offers an excellent selection of places to stay, from B&B’s to chain hotels. We enjoyed our stay at the historic Santa Maria Inn Hotel, located in the middle of town in Santa Maria. The hotel is close to many great restaurants and over 50 wineries and vineyards. The hotel itself has a highly rated restaurant that serves contemporary California cuisine, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you happen to visit in Christmas time, take advantage of their famous Christmas day brunch buffet.
Santa Maria Valley BBQ
Santa Maria Valley is known for their traditional style of BBQ. Their particular flavor profile comes from a dry rub that includes salt, granulated garlic, black pepper, and herbs. According to local barbecue historian R.H. Tesene, “The Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when residents began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over the hot coals of a red oak fire.” The origins go back to the mid-1800’s when cowboys from the local ranches met to have a meat feast over open fire pits. The tradition is to serve the meat with sides of pinquito beans, fresh salsa, vegetables, tossed salad and fresh grilled bread.
On the early days, the favorite cut of meat for BBQ was the Top Sirloin. Back in the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz accomplished mastery in cooking the tri-tip cut, rapidly becoming a staple of Santa Maria Style Barbecue. The grilling method is an open pit, fired with red oak wood. The grill, usually made of iron, has a hand crank device that allows for lifting or lowering the grilling grid to the desired distance from the coals. We enjoyed dinner at three BBQ staple restaurants.
Our Introduction To Santa Maria Valley BBQ happened at Shaw’s Steakhouse, established in 1953. This restaurant located in downtown Santa Maria was at walking distance from our hotel. The first thing they served us was a small dish of raw vegetables, with a side of homemade salsa, something new and unexpected for us but very common here. We decided to go with pork instead of the traditional beef cuts. Both the baby back ribs and the pork chop were cooked properly and full with flavors.
Our second exposure to Santa Maria Valley BBQ was at The Hitching Post, featured in Forbes Magazine as one of the 10 Great BBQ Joints in the USA. Located at Casmalia, just a ten minutes drive from downtown Santa Maria. This restaurant feels welcoming with a lot of old western town character. What about the delicious grilled artichokes, everyone should start with this appetizer.
We are not red meat eaters, but we venture to try the fillet mignon and quail and the prime rib. Both dishes cooked to perfection with excellent seasoning and a pleasant note of red oak smoke. The red meat cuts showed a nice crust and very juicy inside. The quail was tender, juicy and full of flavor. We enjoyed dinner with a bottle of a local Bubbly. 2010 Blanc de Blancs Goat Bubbles-Sierra Madre Vineyard. A clean, refreshing sparkling wine with Brioche, green apple, and hints of citrus.
Our last dinner on this memorable trip to Santa Maria Valley Wine Country was at Far Western Tavern. Located in Oldtown Orcutt, this restaurant looks beautiful, classy and welcoming. Excellent service from start to finish. We felt welcomed from the moment we entered until the hostess greeted us on our way out. Exquisite food, we started with sweetbreads and grilled artichokes as appetizers. For entree, we order from the classics. Bulls Eye, a 14 oz. Signature boneless rib eye and the 12 oz. fillet mignon with the Pinot Filet Option (Pinot Noir Mushroom Reduction Sauce, Tobacco Onions). We also had their classic salsa with a side of beans and an order of grilled vegetables.
Photos by Julie Santiago
The fillets, cooked as we order, medium. The seasoning was just right, nice texture on the meat and very juicy. The vegetables were tender and tasty. To complement dinner, we ordered a bottle of 2014 Rancho Sisquoc Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine showed intense dark fruit flavors, mild spiciness, moderate oak and firm tannins. A great wine selection for steak dinner. We finished the Rancho Sisquoc Cab Sav with dessert, a delicious dark chocolate brownie topped with vanilla bean ice cream.
When thinking in a new California wine region to explore, take advantage of all Santa Maria Valley has to offer:
- Excellent quality wines
- Beautiful scenery wine country
- Their proprietary BBQ style and superb restaurant selections
- Wide variety of accommodations
- Hospitality wherever you go