From Montecito to Monterey, This Is the Ultimate Coastal Wine Country Road Trip
With a spectacular car and an open mind, we hit the road to take a freewheeling, slightly unconventional food and wine-focused road trip up the California coast.
Living in the West, we’re spoiled by proximity to some of the most vibrant, varied, and beautiful wine growing regions in the world. From the verdant Willamette Valley with its misty mornings and spectacular Pinots, to Walla Walla Washington’s gently rolling hills and stunning Syrahs, to the Valle de Guadalupe’s dramatic landscape and ingenious blends. Any one of them is a worthy road trip that will reward a tour of its vineyards and landscape and responsible tasting. But California in its enormity and diversity and beauty is the location I choose to explore on a three-day blast up the coast to experience some pinnacle wine and food experiences. It is an itinerary that blends new and classic stops with the goal of ditching the wine country cliches and maximizing satisfaction along the way: lots of in-town exploration. No official tasting flights. I’d rather get the flavor of a town or a region as a traveler first, drinker second. Evenings are the time to sit down and enjoy wine, ideally with a meal.
To ensure a speedy and equally superlative driving experience I am fortunate enough to be able to secure a loan of one the world’s greatest touring vehicles, the Aston Martin DBS. Touring cars at this level blend road trip-worthy creature comforts such as adjustable seats, suspension settings that favor comfort (though sport modes are always a button push away), and an aesthetic that matches the beauty of the stops along the way.
The idea: Instead of plunking down in one AVA or wine growing district, I decide to hug the coast northward and dip into stops along the way in perpendicular pursuit of food, hotel, and wine experiences, covering ground and racking up miles and smiles. My southern launching point is Los Angeles, a car Valhalla in its own right, with stops on the central coast in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma County, and Napa Valley. Long tastings are out for obvious reasons. You can always responsibly taste at your hotel, an Ubered restaurant, or at home.
The car: The Aston Martin DBS. In a subdued gray tone on the outside with alcantara trim on the inside and 12 cylinders under the hood, I have a vehicle that makes the trip a delight in between stops. The engine (with the charming plaque on its block reading: “Hand built by Luke Wembley”) is a marvel, throwing down silky smooth power on those stretches of the 1, the 101, and 5. It’s an objet d’art as much as a supercar, its fiberglass cladding elegantly draped over the frame with ingenious scoops shuttling air through the wheel wells to hold it down and cool the brakes. Everywhere I stop, from a Shell station on the 101 to the town square in Sonoma, car fans pepper me with questions and ask for a peek under the hood. I keep it in touring mode which soaks up the road and keeps me at a confident clip as I carve my way up the coast.
Just two hours north of Los Angeles sits Ojai, one of the most charming little towns in Southern California. Surrounded by ranches and citrus groves and a handful of wineries, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to one of those fantasy farmscapes of California you see on the side of vintage fruit crates. The boho enclave has in recent years seen an influx in visitors drawn by its charms (a city law prevents large scale development and as a result it’s blissfully free of tall buildings, big-box stores, and big chains). In the past few years its dining scene has been elevated by a number of new restaurants rounding out its hippie-hipster-ranchy vibes.
I’m a big fan of the new restaurant Rory’s Place, which is a must-visit for its wood-fired meat and fish, breads and pizzas, and a wine list featuring local bottlings. Since opening last year it’s become a buzzy spot attracting locals and bold-faced names alike who linger on its patio sipping wines and nibbling on crudo.
But I arrive in Ojai mid-morning and swing by the Dutchess, the other most talked about new restaurant that serves as a culinary community hub of sorts. Partner and baker Zoe Nathan is also behind Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, and other fine establishments. It’s an all-day restaurant and cafe with a wide-ranging menu of pastries, sandwiches, grain bowls, and breakfast items. It also has an extensive Burmese menu thanks to chef Saw Naing, who channels his childhood in curries, rice dishes, and a weekly skewer night on the patio. The bar is always open and has an expert selection of non-alcoholic cocktails if you’re not imbibing, but I have a quick coffee before strolling around the town.
I browse the stacks at Bart’s Books, the preposterously charming open-air used bookstore that’s been a long-standing national treasure to in-the-know bibliophiles, and then head to Ojai Tortilla House for hearty al pastor tacos (get the loaded “specialty” version) rolled with handmade rosemary-scented tortillas and wrapped in foil that I eat in nearby Libbey Park. After lunch I pop into the boutique In the Field. If the Ojai boho chic look had a starter kit, this is where you’d find it: Perfectly picked, locally made surf wear, jewelry, caftans, hats, and home goods make this the top lifestyle shop in Ojai.
From Ojai it’s a short drive to my final stop for the day: the Rosewood Miramar Beach, the sprawling coastal resort that’s the crown jewel of Montecito. Dotted with bungalows, multiple pools, and a stretch of private beach, it offers a refined escape from the moment you arrive at the cobblestone roundabout at the grand entrance. I settle into my suite and head over to the Manor Bar, the resort’s excellent cocktail bar, with its wood paneling, dim lights, and low slung lounge areas. While it’s known for its extensive top shelf cocktail program, I decide to have a taste of something grown and made not far from the resort so I order a glass of Donnachadh Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills just inland. With its medium body, berry fruit, and long elegant finish it’s the perfect aperitif to precede my dinner at Caruso’s, the Michelin-starred restaurant that offers views of the Pacific and precisely prepared local seafood. I opt for the tasting menu which features local Channel Island spiny lobster to taste the terroir of the ocean.
The next morning I take the 101 up the coast, the DBS anchored securely on its 21 inch tires, the 12-cylinder engine thrumming gently as I surge northward into Sonoma. In record time I get to the southern end of the county and arrive at Scribe, the winery that expanded the idea of what a tasting experience can be with its hacienda and its gracious patio, open-fire cooking, tasty California-Mediterranean menu, and low-intervention wines that possess a balance that delightfully offers a fresh alternative to the bigger more traditional winery experiences in the area. People joined the Scribe Viticultural Society club in droves and it’s now some 10 years old and still a uniquely refined and relaxed experience that sets the standard for Sonoma. We photograph a story for the magazine with Scribe head farmer Stephen Carter and culinary director Kelly Mariani, who runs the winery with her brothers Andrew and Adam.
From there I go to the town of Sonoma for lunch at Valley Bar and Bottle, the restaurant and bottle shop of your dreams. You can get coffee and a breakfast sandwich in the morning, a bowl of crispy rice with Dungeness crab and furikake for lunch, or lamb with garlic yogurt and a glass of gamay at night. (Read our feature on Valley Bar and Bottle for recipes and more!)
That night I settle into MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa in the town of Sonoma, which recently completed a multi-year refresh that has turned the property into an immersive retreat that offers an expanded spa, an artist’s cottage with artists in residence who create work on property, upgraded rooms with fireplaces and outdoor showers, and Friday evening “pours on the porch” featuring tastings of local wines for guests.
Napa Valley is next and here I head straight to Stanly Ranch, a brand new Auberge property that has taken the modern farmhouse concept and applied it at the highest level to this resort that’s planted with vines and ambles over gently sloping hills. It’s a luxurious evolution of a wine country resort: There’s a gift shop stocked with California brands, books, and housewares that could easily be transplanted in a trend-aware neighborhood like Silver Lake; and you won’t see any pseudo Tuscan flourishes that used to proliferate in the wine country. It’s luxe California-pride. I dine at Bear, where the menu perfectly encapsulates the possibilities of wine country cooking, all in a soothing Scandinavian-inspired space with soaring ceilings and an open kitchen. Dishes are fire-roasted, carefully assembled, often featuring flavor packed international ingredients like nudja, nuoc chuam, and serranos. Things are pickled to add vibrant pops. So I have ember-roasted tiger prawns, chicken with harissa, and possibly the most beautiful farm vegetable crudité with dip I’ve ever seen.
Having reached the northern tip of my trip, the next day I wend south toward home, stopping in Santa Cruz, the funky beach town turned tech haven where you can hit the vintage boardwalk, watch the longboarders, hike the redwoods, and experience a timeless California coastal vibe year-round. I head to Apéro Club, one of California’s best natural wine bars and bottle shops. It’s a groovy little shop specializing in zero-zero wines, which means no added yeast and no added sulfur. It’s a high-wire way of making wine that results in vibrant bottlings that are the truest expression of the grape. I pick up bottles of earthy funky Pinot Noir from local organic winery Madson to take back home. I walk around the corner to Bantam, one of Santa Cruz’s best restaurants that serves killer pizzas, wood-fired meats, and seasonal specialties, like chicory caesar salad, an insane gluten-free fried chicken with crackling crust served with autumn squash, and, of course, a smart list of wines, including local bottlings. Pro tip to score a great seat: Do like the locals and line up right before they open in the evening and you’ll get the pick of the patio or the cavernous main dining room.
To close out my trip I book at Dream Inn on the waterfront right next to the boardwalk with its old-school carnival rides and a Ferris wheel. Here I pay extra to park the precious DBS in the private lot by the lobby. The Dream Inn is a legendary spot that hosts concerts by the pool, once was the temporary home of Patti Smith who wrote poetry and a memoir here, and is the preferred spot for any traveler who wants to soak up the funky vibes of the town. I head out onto my patio with its view of the spinning Ferris wheel and the rolling waves and decide to uncork a bottle of the Madson I scored at Apéro Club. I sip it watching the evening sky turn shades of a purple, violet, and orange until the sun sets completely. It’s a serene and vivid end to a vinous road trip that shows you can experience the best of wine country where it comes to life the most: in the cities, the towns, and the tables of the California coast.