Exploring the Wines and Wineries of the Santa Maria Valley

I discovered my passion for wine and wine tasting while visiting the famed Napa and Sonoma regions of California. Since I live near Los Angeles and don’t get up to No Cal as often as I’d like, I’ve found that seeking newer wine regions in Central and Southern California help satisfy my insatiable desire for wine tasting. My favorite region, just two hours north of Los Angeles, is Santa Barbara County. We have spent days exploring the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys and have not come close to discovering all the hidden gems this region has to offer.

We recently spent a day with friends, in the beautiful Santa Maria Valley, visiting wineries along the Foxen Canyon Trail. Santa Maria is known as one of the coolest grape growing regions in California and most recognized for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals.

After a hearty breakfast and a two-hour drive up the coast, our first stop was Martian Ranch and Vineyard. The winery has a cool vibe with indoor and outdoor seating, outdoor games and even a Martian themed face-in-the-hole board to take photos in. We were warmly greeted by Oscar, who not only did a great job telling us about the wines and the region, he was very entertaining and had us laughing the entire visit. Martian Ranch is a biodynamic farm and vineyard. This method emphasizes the farm as a whole system focused on the connection between the farmer, soil, plants, animals, and cosmos. They carry that theme, along with the winery name, into the names of all of their wines, including, “Down to Earth”, “UFOric”, “Mothership” and “Dark Energy”.

They offer a great selection of both whites and reds and all reasonably priced. Some of our favorites were their Rosè of Mourvèdre, a Gamay Noir, amazing Syrah and best of all, their Tempranillo. Oscar was kind enough to pour us a couple of special items, not on the current tasting, which made the visit even more special. Their tasting fee was waived with our 3 bottle purchase and we got to take home a pair of cool rolling wine glasses and an alien headband for joining their wine club.

From there it was off to Zaca Mesa. This is a beautiful winery with a large tasting room and ample outdoor patio with picnic tables. This was the perfect setting to do a tasting and enjoy the lunch spread we packed. Since this is a larger, more well-known winery, it was considerably busier and the service was not as personalized as Martian Ranch. They offer two tasting options, a mixed flight or a reserve red flight each consisting of 5 wines. We opted to do one of each to give of us a chance to sample all of the wines available. While some of their wines are highly rated, their selections are limited and they are a bit on the expensive side. The reserve tasting consisted of all Syrah’s and the mixed flight was a selection of different varietals. In addition to loving all of the reds on the reserve tasting, we particularly liked the Viognier, Z Cuvee, and their Grenache.

Next stop on our agenda was Rancho Sisquoc Winery. This is a very rustic winery, with a great woodsy setting, with lots of outdoor areas to picnic. The service here was great and all of the wines were exceptional! The tasting included 6 wines with your choice of red & white or all reds and the fee was waived with our purchase. While we loved everything we tried, the stand-outs were their Cabernet Sauvignon, the Syrah and two of their blends, The Sisquoc River Red (Cab, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Sangiovese and Petite Verdot) and their Tre Vini (Petite Verdot, Sangiovese, and Merlot).

Our final stop was at Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Some friends are wine club members there and recommended it. While the winery is simple and non-descript with wines were the most interesting selection of varietals we have ever experienced. Traditional varietals such as Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon were offered and were fantastic. They also offer lesser-known varietals, which they refer to as heirloom varietals. These are more rare grapes and are less used here in the US. Some we sampled were Verdelho, Touriga, Aglianico, Negrette, and Tannat. It was refreshing to get out of our comfort zone and try several new and unique wines. If you are looking to try something different this is a must stop.

What would a day of wine tasting be without a great meal to top it off? Santa Maria is known for its tri-tip and we had to try out a place famous for their steaks and barbecue, Shaw’s Famous Steak House. It was like stepping back in time in terms of décor but everything the locals raved about for the food was true – Tri-Tip Perfection! Big, hearty portions and all perfectly cooked. The corkage fee was only $10 so it was an easy decision to open a couple of our purchases from the day of tasting.

The Santa Maria Valley may not have the mystique of Napa or Sonoma but the wine and wineries in this region can rival any up there.

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