A Weekend in Wine Country

June 12, 2007 at 8:29 pm (Travel, Wine)

Heather had a rare three nights off in a row this weekend, and I had been suggesting to her for days that we use the opportunity to get away, maybe camping or to my parents’ cabin. But when she countered with a weekend up in the Santa Ynez Valley, touring the Central Coast’s wine country, I couldn’t say no. So, we reserved one of the last open hotel rooms in Solvang, and away we went!

Our hotel was the Hadsten House, right on the western edge of Solvang, that is currently undergoing major renovation (presumably one of the reasons it still had vacancies). Upon our arrival, we weren’t thrilled: The whole central building, including the main office, the pool/jacuzzi area, and the restaurant and spa, were a dirty, dusty construction area. The rooms were so nice, however, that Heather forgot all about the outside. At the risk of sounding like a brochure for the hotel, the room’s decoration and custom furniture were very elegant, the bathroom was well-appointed and a bit eclectic at the same time, and the flat-screen TV kept us entertained when we were too tired to move. So, I guess it was worth all of the money we paid for it. We wouldn’t have spent much time in the pool anyway, or so I kept telling Heather…

Our friends Matt and Lisa joined us just for the day, and the four of us drove north to Los Olivos and the Foxen Wine Trail to try out Fess Parker‘s wines. I’ll confess, I don’t remember being particularly blown away by any of them (although there were only a handful of wines the whole weekend that I really, really liked, I’ll grant). From there, we backtracked to Bridlewood, which has a beautiful tasting room and grounds with a little duck pond, and horse and pony breeding, and would have been a lot of fun with kids. Again, however, I wasn’t particularly excited by the wines. In their defense, that may just be my tastes: I don’t like the heavy, tannic reds or the acidic whites that are so popular with “proper” wine enthusiasts. Nonetheless, not excited.

Things looked up, however, when we got into Los Olivos proper and headed to the Epiphany tasting room. The winemaker, it turns out, is Eli Parker, Fess Parker’s son, and the wines were very interesting, especially some of the very drinkable red blends, and I personally loved the Roussanne and Marsanne. They both had a warm, nutty aftertaste that reminded me just a bit of the Guava Wine we found in Hawaii last December. We also enjoyed chatting with the tasting room staff, specifically Sandy (I think that was her name; I was a few tastings to the wind by this point), and learning about the history of Los Olivos: It turns out that that town was the set for Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show! We walked from there down to the Los Olivos Cafe (which was apparently seen in the movie Sideways) for an excellent, and rather reasonably priced, dinner.

Sunday morning, Heather and I started off the day with a hearty Danish breakfast at the bakery with which our hotel had contracted to feed its guests, before our morning bike ride west on Hwy 246 to see some of the wineries out there. I had originally been planning for us to do the Foxen Wine Trail, but when we drove it the day before, we saw that there was one massive hill in the middle, and 246 seemed easier. Little did I know… There were, in fact, two major hills on the way out, both of which nearly did me in. I thought I’d been getting in shape on the exercise bike at UCLA, but nothing prepared me for an actual ride in hill country. That said, once we reached the Babcock and Melville wineries, which were in a beautiful part of the country, and had about 20 minutes to rest (since we got there before either winery opened to the public!), I got my second wind, and the trip was totally worth it.

Melville in particular impressed me: Not only is the winery building is beautiful, but their Pinot Noirs were the only ones that I tasted this past weekend that I actually enjoyed, especially their 2005 “Terraces” Pinot. It was a lot less oakey and bitter than the other Pinots that I tried, and I only wish that I hadn’t needed to pour out most of the glass in order to stay sober! This is another tasting room where we enjoyed chatting with our server, and I highly recommend it for a visit if you’re ever in the area. We also stopped by Foley‘s on the way back, which has a spacious tasting room with good cookbook shopping, if you’re into that.

That afternoon was spent wandering through Solvang on foot. There were a lot of kitschy tourist stores, including a number of places specializing in cuckoo clocks. Every time I walked into one of the clock stores, I kept hoping I’d find a cool grandfather clock (a fascination of mine) in the corner, without luck. Until we wandered into the Solvang Antique Center, that is! I’ll confess, I was expecting another cheap antique store, like you often see in little country tourist towns, but the Solvang Antique Center is, in fact, a very high end antique store specializing in mechanical devices, especially (you guessed it) grandfather clocks! Of course, these are grandfather clocks in the $2000 to $60,000 range, so Heather and I could just stare and drool, but the artistry on some of these devices was truly amazing. They also had a couple of beautiful old telescopes, some fabulous furniture, and not one, but two violanos, which are old coin-operated musical boxes, a la a nickelodian or a player piano, but with violins inside in addition to the piano! Now, if I can only dig up $159,000… At least I can still make pilgrimages…

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by a small tasting room/gift shop, which accidentally turned out to be the tasting room for the Huber Cellars, a vintner I’d planned on hunting down the next morning. I’d looked at the webpages for a number of the wineries before we left, and had discovered that Huber, founded and run by a pair of German immigrants, was one of only two vineyards in the US to grow a particular type of red grape called Dornfelder. Normally used to darken up Pinot Noir, the Hubers had decided to bottle it on its own (just for kicks, I imagine) and I wanted to try it. Unfortunately, the tasting room had just poured out the very last bottle, but the woman running it finally managed to “squeeze” a few drops from the bottom of the bottle, the dregs, if you will, so that I could sip. It’s an inky black/red color, the darkest wine I’ve ever seen, and I’ll confess that I didn’t get much of a sense of the taste from that sip. But we bought a bottle, and I’ll maybe open it the next time we have guests over and BBQ something up on the grill, and I’ll let you know how it tastes then.

Dinner that night was at the Hitching Post, another location from Sideways. I’d made the reservation online two nights before, but I’d come with a printout of my reservation, expecting trouble, for some reason. Well, no sooner had we squeezed through the crowd of diners at the front door to announce ourselves, than the hostess called out my last name and led us straight to our table. Now, that’s what I call an online reservation system! Once we sat down, we decided that I would drive home, so Heather ordered a glass of Riesling, which (according to the menu) was from the (local) Gainey winery. She liked it so much that we asked our server what it was again, and our server confessed that it wasn’t actually the Gainey wine, but that, for some reason, they were pouring a South African Riesling that night. Well and good; Heather liked it so much that we asked to see the bottle, so that I could look for it, and when the waitress brought it out, it was actually a German Riesling! By this point, you understand, we were starting to become a little bothered, since this restaurant is famous for its wine selection, and our server was having trouble figuring out just what she was pouring us. So I’m sure you can imagine our surprise when, after deciding to buy a bottle on the spot, the server brought out yet a fourth bottle, with a different label, but that she swore was the same bottle! Well, by the time we were done, we’d involved the head sommelier, as well, and we’d figured out that the wine that we ought to have been drinking was the last of the four bottles, the 2005 Freiherr Langwerth von Simmern Eltville Riesling Kabinett, but that Heather had actually been drinking the Qualitätswein version of the same wine, technically a step down, but both her and my favorite. If you like sweet Rieslings, then I can highly recommend it. We bought a bottle of the Kabinett anyway, but I’ll have to keep my eyes open for the Qualitaetswein now.

Monday morning, we started off the day with a trip to Paula’s Pancake House, where I tried their Danish pancakes. There were only two pancakes, which I was afraid wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be just the right amount, and I felt sated without being full. Incidentally, they were also excellent pancakes, at an excellent price, and I highly recommend said restaurant for breakfast if you like pancakes. We then headed back to our hotel, backed up, and arrived at the Gainey Winery just in time for their 11AM winery tour. The building is beautiful, and the tour is fun, free and relatively short. We got to see one of the vineyards, learn about the winemaking process, and walk through some of their barrel and storage rooms, which have a wonderfully old-world, romantic ambiance. I wished I’d snapped a picture or two. The wines themselves weren’t as interesting to me, except perhaps their Merlot. The whites, including the Riesling that we’d missed the night before, were too citrusy and dry, giving them a rather sour taste, in my opinion. But they keep winning awards, which shows how much I know.

After that, I’d planned on us visiting the Kalyra Winery, having been intrigued by their dessert wines advertised on their website. We were tired, however, and had a long drive ahead of us, and seriously considered just skipping it. At the last minute, I decided to give it a chance, and I’m glad I did! It turned out to be my favorite of all of the wineries that we visited; we even liked it so much that we decided to join its wine club. The reds were okay, including two that they actually bottled in Australia, ranging from a blah Cab to a nice Syrah. Where they really shine are in the whites and dessert wines. Both Heather and I enjoyed their Semillon, which was smooth and fruity, and the Orange and Black Muscats were superb. The thing about the Muscats was that, on their own, they tasted just like any other ultra-sweet, slightly syrupy wine might taste. When combined with 60% dark chocolate wafers, however, their flavor changed fundamentally in a way that I don’t know how to describe. Suffice it to say that it was an excellent combination, and we bought bottles of all three, in addition to joining their club (which netted us a 35% discount and made our tasting free). And to think, I was going to skip it…

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  1. Irvina said,

    Wow you know your wine…you should write a blog just on wine …you would be great at it! Ciao!

  2. Agent Flying Mouse said,

    Wow is right. But Solvang – didn’t you have at least one pastry from the 8 or 9,000 bakeries? We’ve never met a pastry we didn’t like. That’s my substitute for wine tasting.

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