Read Western Wanderings in the April 2004 issue of Sunset for more on the post-"Sideways" Santa Ynez.
Near the baptismal font at Old Mission Santa Inés, a small landscape painting portrays a valley that looks much as the Santa Ynez Valley would have when this mission was built some 200 years ago. Lines of mountains drop down to rolling foothills. A bright sun lights a river shimmering gold. The painting seems to mirror the classic California landscape that endures in this valley just over the mountains from Santa Barbara. Or, to a modern visitor, it could easily be a wine label, invoking as it does a valley that has become one of the world's top wine regions.
Today, the Santa Ynez Valley produces a diverse range of superb varietal wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. With the wines have come other sophisticated pleasures. Once mainly ranch country, the valley now supports some great restaurants and charming country inns. Yet it hasn't forgotten its cowboy past.
The tasting room experience here remains relaxed, where winemakers often do the pouring and are eager to talk with you about the basics of Santa Barbara County's varietals or the latest Syrah clones. And when you have enjoyed your wine, there is always the country itself. In spring, the hills shine an almost Irish green; patches of California poppies glow brilliant yellow orange. Above the hills rise high purple mountains; below, the valley's undulating contours are outlined by the white fences of horse farms and rows of vineyard grapes. Small towns -- Los Olivos, Ballard, Solvang, Santa Ynez -- retain a powerful, unhurried charm.
"The draw of this place is its simplicity," says Jim Fiolek, vice president of Zaca Mesa Winery, as he looks out at the lengthening shadows of the oak trees. "You get one harvest a year, and you're inexorably moved into that rhythm. There's an expansion of time here. It's just a great place to watch a day go by."