A long time favorite of regulars to the area, Foxen remains a “must taste” destination along the Foxen Canyon wine trail. The famous roadside shack, which served as the tasting room for many years, is still preserved, but has been renamed as “Foxen 7200”, and is reserved for featuring Bordeaux and Cal-Ital style wines, with the new winery and tasting room a few hundred yards down the road dedicated to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Rhone style wines. There’s a lot going on at this winery, but founding partner and winemaker Bill Wathen has maintained a simple but meticulous approach to viticulture and winemaking that brings vivacity and elegance to his wines. While they’re not all home runs, there’s plenty here to be very, very happy about.

Luckily, Foxen knew better than to mess with it’s shack, and 7200 retains every ounce of character and charm that we remember from our first trips to SBC many years ago. Walking in, you instantly absorb the history of this former blacksmith shop, and the decades of casual revelry in wine goodness that’s taken place within this tiny room. The kitschy wine shrine only adds to the funkiness of the place. This is not a glossy tour bus stop for the brazilian blow-out crowd (although we did see an overtly car proud Aston Martin owner during our last visit who wasn’t even tasting – oh boy!), but a no-foolin’, no frills stop for soaking in the quiet beauty of this back country road.

The wines here don’t disappoint, either. One surprising standout from our recent trip was the ’08 Rock Hollow Vineyard Cabernet Franc. I can’t remember the last time I was excited about a California Cab Franc, but this wine was packed with spicy ripe blackberry and blueberry flavors atop a backbone of dusty earth and leather with muted tannins and a nice long finish. While it sounds powerful, this wine carries its weight very well, and offers up a richly balanced package of punch and grace.

Another great offering at 7200 was the ’08 Range 30 West, a nicely complex Bordeaux blend from the Vogelzang vineyard in Happy Canyon that features a beautiful round raspberry fruit tone that’s expertly balanced with pepper, cedar and fine-grained tannins.

What the new Foxen tasting room down the road lacks in charm, it makes up for in the bottle. This is definitely a winery where it pays to be in the wine club, since many of their best Pinot Noir wines are sold out through the club. But there was still plenty to get excited about without the Pinots. The ’09 Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay we tried was outstanding, which, while maintaining an understated classic California Chardonnay character due to the oak barrel fermentation, was nonetheless crisp and almost lean. The Tinaquaic vineyard is the classic Foxen estate vineyard, and receives no irrigation, which accounts for the stony backbone that was layered with delightful pineapple and ripe apricot fruit.

The 2010 Rosé of Mouvedre was a dry and crisp wine with beautiful strawberry and watermelon fruit and an ultra lean and clean finish. A great summer wine that will complement just about any food, with just enough body and character to keep things interesting.

Foxen really has everything we love in a SBC winery – history, character, great people, beautiful setting, and outstanding wines. Are we happy yet?


7600 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454



Open daily 11 to 4


Coquelicot Tasting Room - Los Olivos

Coquelicot Tasting Room - Los Olivos


Los Olivos is littered with tasting rooms. This is a good thing. But how do you choose? Well as usual, we’ll judge by what’s in the bottle rather than how many people are piling into the room.

Coquelicot is a winery that’s putting out excellent wines in a nice range of styles, and they’re not afraid to be a bit different from the rest. With several of their wines coming from their organically farmed estate vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, and what feels like a light hand in the winemaking process from winemaker Louis Van Tonder, this is one place where you’ll be sure to find some balanced, pretty wines.

Our recent tasting included their 2007 Estate Riesling ($22), which is one of the few Rieslings we’ve found that actually exhibits the famed petroleum nose that’s reminiscent of some fine German Rieslings. Thankfully, that nose doesn’t carry into the flavor of the wine, as it exhibited a slightly sweet, robust mouth feel, but was balanced with enough acidity and clean fruit flavors of peach and melon to avoid any heaviness. A nice clean finish made this a very enjoyable wine.

While Coquelicot certainly isn’t the only winery making a stainless steel fermented Chardonnay, it’s nice to see more wine makers embracing this lean style of what is typically a buttery, oaky wine. This approach provides a purity of taste that really brings out the flavor of the Chardonnay grape, and might make you wonder why it’s so often masked behind heavy treatments of oak and malolactic fermentation. While the 2006 Stainless Chardonnay ($14) from Coquelicot bore that nice clean fruit that we love about this style, this wine seemed to lack the acidity that really makes this style sing. This isn’t the best stainless Chard we’ve tried, but at $14, it’s definitely a great selection for everyday drinking.

Other wines we enjoyed include the 2007 Estate Syrah ($45), which takes dead center aim at what we would call the classic Santa Barbara County Syrah – big plum and ripe cherry fruit, bold but balanced earth and leather tannin, big structure and long finish. This is not a finely tuned Côte Rôtie, but we love this style of bold and beautiful Syrah nonetheless. The flagship Coquelicot wine, their 2007 Mon Amour Bordeaux Blend ($45) was another very nicely balanced wine that brought rich fruit of blackberry and fig together with tight tannins and a woody, minty note and a beautiful dry finish.

While not every wine here is a home run, these guys do an honest job of tackling some challenging wines and manage to pull it off with grace and style. Coquelicot is one of the standouts in the crowded Los Olivos tasting room scene, and definitely worth a stop.


2884 Grand Ave., Los Olivos CA 93441


Open Sun-Fri 11 to 5, Sat 10 to 6



One of the criticisms levied against Santa Barbara County wines is that they seem to lack a clear focus and identity. Unlike the classic wine producing regions of Europe, where each has particular varietals identified with it (e.g. Burgundy = Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), SBC seems to be all over the place. Sure, there’s great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay coming out of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, and equally excellent Rhone varietals from the Santa Ynez Valley. But then there’s just about every other kind of wine you can imagine popping up, executed with varying degrees of success: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Zinfandel, and on and on. Can one region really produce great wines from all of these varietals? Without a clear focus, can SBC be vaulted into the highest echelons of international wine reputations?

And then there’s these crazy people focusing on Italian varietals. If there’s ever been a wine that consistently fails to meet expectations, it’s a U.S. grown Nebbiolo. We’ve had our fair share of “Cal-Ital” wines – let’s just say we’ve generally been underwhelmed.

But then we came across Palmina. Headed by the husband and wife team of Steve and Chrystal Clifton (Steve is also a partner in the Brewer Clifton winery), they’ve managed to pull off what we thought was previously impossible – making Italian varietal wines that astound the palate and leave you begging for more. There’s something different under foot here than just trying to copy the Italian wines that have become so famous. Palmina wines have a freshness and acidity that says “old world”, while also expressing great depth and volume of fruit character that’s more typical of a California wine. In short, they’ve tailored the viticulture to the SBC region, and the wine making to more modern sensibilities. The end result is some really fantastic wines.

The 2009 Honea Vineyard Arneis ($18) we sampled recently was a great example, with a floral, citrusy nose;  initial tastes of crisp green pear and lime that quickly give way to a very balanced, honeyed texture and full mouth feel that has a nice rounded finish without a hint of heaviness. This multi-faceted wine is a clear exception to our aforementioned experiences with California Italian varietal wines which have often been one dimensional, and frankly quite sad representations of some of our favorite Italian wines.

The 2009 Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio was another surprisingly vibrant and pleasant wine. Crisp and refreshing citrus and pear, but again with a depth and volume that balances the wine very nicely. This is a slam dunk wine for pairing with a wide variety of lunch foods, and could easily accompany a pork or fish dinner as well.

The red wines are no slouches either. While the 2009 Dolcetto ($20) was basically an enjoyable, easy drinking wine (just as Dolcetto should be), the 2006 Santa Barabara County Nebbiolo ($30) showed dark fruit and robust plum and raisin flavor that was complemented by distinct acidity and nicely fine-grained spice tannins that once again provided real depth of character and complexity to the wine. This is a Nebbiolo from America we could finally look forward to drinking. Is it comparable to the great Barolos of Italy? Probably not. But at $30, it’s not trying to be. What it’s trying to be, and what it succeeds at, is being a great wine that is enjoyable and affordable. Well done!

Many wine experts are skeptical about American producers of Italian varietal wines. And for good reason. Why bother with a substandard copy when you can have the real thing? Palmina is a clear example of why skeptics might need to take a second look.


1520 East Chestnut Court, Lompoc CA 93436


Open Thurs – Sat 11 to 5, Sunday and Monday 11 to 4




Okay, we’re particularly biased about this one. My wife and I exchanged our wedding vows on the grounds of this Santa Ynez Valley winery on a perfect August evening many moons ago, and drank in the splendor (and wine) all night long as we celebrated with our friends and family. We wanted a relaxed and intimate affair, and Lincourt’s setting was absolutely perfect for it.

The old farm house tasting room and estate Alamo Pintado vineyard stretching out in front of your view provides a casual setting which almost requires that you leave any wine pretentiousness at the door, come on in, and just relax. We’ve always found Lincourt to be producing some of the best “straight down the middle” wines – very classic characteristics of whichever varietal they make, without trying too hard or inferring some odd flavor to the wine that might not suit it.

If you’re familiarizing yourself with the traits of wine varietals, Lincourt is a great place to easily taste what makes a Sauvignon Blanc so different from a Chardonnay; why Merlot is so different from Pinot Noir. You might say that this could be accomplished just about anywhere, but Lincourt, more than any other winery in SBC, has a real sense of classic styling to their wines.

All of this might be changing, however, as Leslie Mead Renaud was recently announced as the new winemaker for Lincourt. Only time will tell. But for our money, Lincourt has not only produced some very pleasing wines, but it’s also one of our favorite places to visit. But of course, we’re biased.


1711 Alamo Pintado Road

Solvang, CA 93463



Open daily 10-5

Alma Rosa


Forty years ago, armed with little more than a pickup truck, a notebook, maps and thermometers, Richard Sanford commenced his search for a California region that would be suitable for growing Pinot Noir grapes that could rival the best French Burgundys. The West coast of North America is dominated by mountain ranges that run North-South in direction. Even at the coastline, the abrupt rise of hills and mountains (think PCH from San Luis Obispo to Monterey) from the Pacific inhibit any cool maritime influences from reaching inland. But just East of Lompoc, Richard found a different topography.

Flanked by pronounced east-west running Purisima Hills to the north and the Santa Rosa Hills to the south, the Santa Ynez river valley’s orientation to the Pacific allows cool ocean breezes to flow into the valley, shrouding much of it in fog in the mornings. A mild afternoon heat gives way to an onshore breeze just before dusk. Et voila – perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir!

And so it started. The very first Pinot Noir vines in SBC were planted at the now famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1970. In addition to being a true pioneer in Santa Barbara County wine making, Sanford has also been at the forefront of organic and sustainable farming practices, including being the first vineyard in SBC to be certified organic. After starting the Sanford winery in 1981, he and his wife Thekla continued to plant vineyards in what is now known as the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, and produced exciting wines that were some of the first to garner world-wide attention and put SBC wines on the map.

After entering into an ill-fated partnership with the Terlato Wine Group based out of Chicago, Richard was faced with the tough decision of compromising his wine making methods, or leaving his namesake behind. Unwilling to compromise, Richard chose the latter and broke away from Sanford winery.

Reemerging in 2005, Richard and Thekla founded the Alma Rosa winery. Free again to pursue their own winemaking techniques from vineyard to bottle, the Sanfords have been producing some of the most beautiful wines in all of Sta. Rita Hills. Their understated wines typically embrace a refreshing acidity and bright fruit as the backbone of the wine, and feel otherwise as if they are treated with a very light hand. The overall impression is one of gorgeously flavored fruit, unimpeded by anything extraneous. While Pinot Noir was Richard’s first love and remains the frontline of this winery, don’t overlook the whites. Refreshing and crisp Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc wines pair well with almost any lunch fare and have graced our table for many afternoon gatherings with highly satisfactory results.

We always look forward to visiting this winery. The tasting room is set back a bit from Santa Rosa Road in a beautiful little gully that reminds me of the adventures I’d take as a young boy in the hills of my home town in Minnesota. It’s strikingly beautiful, rustic, and down to earth – a perfect reflection of the people behind the wine and their approach to their craft. And with such beautiful and elegant wines to taste, how can you lose?  Alma Rosa is solidly in our category of “guaranteed to please” wineries.

Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

7250 Santa Rosa Road

Buellton CA 93427



Open daily 11-4:30



California Chardonnay produces some of the most polarizing reactions from the world of wine drinkers. The buttery, oaky, ripe pear and tropical fruit flavors made popular in the late 80’s and 90’s propelled sales of American Chardonnay into the stratosphere, and kept it there. And while Americans were happily sipping away at these powerful and rich fruit bombs, their mere presence represented everything that was wrong with American wine for old world wine fans. In contrast to the floral, apple and mineral notes found in many racy Chardonnays from France, California’s version was seen as just plain overdone. Over-oaked, over-ripened fruit, and malolactic fermentation (the “second fermentation” that gives Chardonnay that buttery mouth feel) all combined into something that fans of classic Burgundian Chardonnay considered an abomination of the varietal.

Cast aside any preconceptions about what wine should be, however, and for pure enjoyment there’s something sinfully pleasant about American Chardonnays. The round mouth feel, richness and intensity makes for a versatile wine that can happily accompany a light afternoon snack, or be a great companion with hearty dishes of fowl or fish.

Of course there are plenty of examples of overdone wines that just feel flabby and lack character. And there’s been a recent move by several California winemakers to embrace a lean and pure style of Chardonnay that attempts to capture the essence of the Chardonnay fruit with no further distractions. But given the right combination of great grapes and just the right amount of restraint in the winemaking process, we’ve still got a soft spot in our hearts for these wines, and Lafond is a great example of what the classic California Chardonnay is all about.

These are not faint wines – with 100% barrel fermentation, about half in new oak, there is plenty of oakiness transferred into the wine. But while the richness and intensity is certainly present, there’s complexity on the palate and a sense of restraint that shines through, making what could easily be an overly powerful wine into something that is inviting and, dare I say it, sophisticated.

Long time Lafond winemaker Bruce McGuire oversees the winemaking operations, and also produces some very respectable Pinot Noirs, as well as a couple of Rhone varietal wines. In our latest tasting, however, we felt that the Chardonnays were the clear standouts. If you’re a history buff, it’s notable that Pierre Lafond founded the first post-prohibition commercial winery in Santa Barbara County back in 1962, and purchased the beginnings of the current Lafond estate and vineyards in 1972.

The drive along Santa Rosa Road that leads to the tasting room is so picturesque that it’s reason enough to take the trip to visit. But the luscious wines and knowledgeable tasting room staff at the impeccably maintained estate with a big grassy area for picnics makes it a regular stop for us when heading through the Sta. Rita Hills loop.


6855 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton, CA 93427


Open daily 10 – 5



Focus. It’s what the Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett says sets him apart from other less successful investors. It’s the quality that often separates the very best athletes from the average.

Kathy Joseph, winemaker for Fiddlehead, can attribute much of her own success to her unrelenting focus on two wine varietals – Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. We had the good fortune a couple of years back of stopping by the Fiddlehead tasting room in the wine ghetto of Lompoc just as Kathy was greeting some purchasers for an East Coast wine distributor and walking them through her latest selection of wines. With the energy of a child, Kathy took us through the flight with equal parts education and laughter in a burst of frenetic energy. Kathy radiates focus, passion and enthusiasm for wine, and it’s hard for that kind of enthusiasm not to be contagious.

The wines apparently feed off of Kathy’s energy as well, since Fiddlehead delivers some of the best wines we’ve tasted in SBC. Two striking qualities consistently emerge from tasting Fiddlehead wines – elegance and range.

First, elegance. The Pinot Noir wines from Fiddlehead stand in stark contrast to many of the bold and spicy Pinots that have become so commonplace in the American wine scene. And while those robust Pinots can indeed be fantastic in their own right, there’s a special place in the heart of Pinot Noir lovers like us for  beautifully balanced and, yes, elegant Pinot Noirs from wineries like Fiddlehead. This is not a punch you in the nose wine. No hint of being over worked, over oaked, over ripened, over anythinged. Just a beautifully complex and subtle wine that combines refreshingly bold fruit with a sincere sense of terroir more reminiscent of Burgundy than Russian River. Fiddlehead is a standout in the Pinot Noirs of SBC, plain and simple.

Second, range. This really is more apt to describe the Sauvignon Blancs, for as you work through a flight of these gorgeous wines, you find yourself transported from one outstanding expression of this wonderful grape to another, each with their own distinct character. An astonishing accomplishment to pull off each of these styles so successfully.

Our latest tastings included the 2007 Happy Canyon, which is a straight up Sauv Blanc that really reminds you why these wines can be so great. With just the perfect balance of citrus and melon fruit combined with a flinty minerality, this wine has the perfect “zing” you love to find while again having this incredible balance and elegance. The 2009 Goosebury is an all-stainless steel fermented wine that brings out a pure and crisp tropical fruit flavor while still maintaining a delicacy and restraint that is refreshing and open. And lastly, the 2004 Honeysuckle. This is a rich and complex Sauvignon Blanc that as the name implies has a honeyed melon and citrus fruit, tight and delicate oak tannins from the extended barrel aging in french oak, and some delicate spices. Forget all your preconceptions about Sauvignon Blanc and prepare to be surprised and drawn in by this wine.

The Seven Twenty Eight is Fiddlehead’s standard estate Pinot Noir, so named from the 7.28 mile marker at the Fiddlestix vineyard on Santa Rosa Road. We’ve found this wine on more than a few wine lists on Southern California (Houston’s even – eeh gads!), and find it almost irresistable when we do. At $42 retail, this is not a cheap bottle of Pinot, but considering the quality of this wine, we actually consider it a bargain. The Lollapalooza ($75) is a best-of selection of six to ten barrels hand picked by Kathy to represent Fiddlestix Vineyard at it’s best. And if you’re really wanting the ultra-premium wine, look for the Doyle, a hand-selected single barrel wine that’s only produced for exceptional vintages. But get ready to pay. The 2006 version will set you back $166.

The estate Fiddlestix Vineyard is in the heart of the most revered Pinot Noir AVA of Santa Barbara County, the Sta. Rita Hills. Positioned near two legendary vineyards of Sanford & Benedict and Sea Smoke, this vineyard benefits from the consistently cool and foggy climate of the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley that Pinot Noir absolutely thrives in.

The Fiddlehead tasting room is located in the heart of the wine ghetto of Lompoc. No great views, just outstanding wine. Don’t miss it!

Fiddlehead Cellars

1597 E. Chestnut Ave., Lompoc, CA



Open Thursday – Sunday, 11 – 4


Andrew Murray

By all accounts, Syrah is the most overplanted grape varietal in SBC, and California for that matter. While many wine industry “experts” have been predicting a surge in the popularity of Syrah, as of yet it just hasn’t materialized. Part of the reason could very well be the abundance of some pretty lackluster Syrah based wines, some from California, but many more flooding the market in the form of Australian Shiraz. But as with any varietal, if you seek out and find the winemakers who are providing high caliber wines, even a skeptic’s faith in a once discounted wine can be born anew. We think Andrew Murray is producing some of the best Syrah in all of SBC. Whether you’re a big Syrah fan, or haven’t had great experiences with the varietal in the past, this is a great place to get exposed to the range and beauty that Syrah and Rhone style wines can possess.

Andrew Murray was touted as one of the top American winemakers of Rhone varietal wines at the age of 25 – pretty heady stuff for such a young winemaker. Over the last dozen or so years since that early burst onto the wine scene, Murray has seen many changes, most notably the sale of the family vineyard with which he got his start, but his focus has remained on producing top quality Rhone style wines, and he continues to deliver excellent results.

Murray produces blended Rhone style reds and whites, single varietal wines from multiple vineyards within Santa Barbara County, and  single vineyard wines from a variety of growers. These are beautifully composed wines that seem to bring out the best in the vineyard site, in a surprisingly wide range of styles and flavors.

At our last visit to the tasting room located in downtown Los Olivos, we were particularly enamored with some wines that no longer appear on the list of current releases, but which we’re confident have been replaced with equally compelling selections.

The one constant has been the issuance of the Tous les Jours Syrah, which, as the name suggests, is meant to be an everyday drinking wine. Priced at just $16, it’s easy to see why. But don’t write this wine off as a wimpy Syrah lacking in character, as we found the 2006 version to be a beautifully balanced wine that brought out the full-bodied fruit that you’d expect in Syrah, but in a light and playful manner that was more reminiscent of a French wine than many of the brasher American styles Syrahs.

If bold Syrahs are what you’re after, however, Murray has you covered as well, as we found out in our tastings of the single vineyard ’05 South Slope and Roasted Slope wines. Both were big and dark wines, with the South Slope offering dark berry fruit with an earthy undertone and a nice balance of spice and tight tannins – a great sampling of some classic SBC Syrah as we’ve come to know it. The Roasted Slope wine was even bolder, with very dark color, rich black cherry and blackberry fruit with pronounced pepper and spice and a big helping of oaky tannin. While it may sound overwhelming, the balance of the elements strikes a nice tone that draws you in to explore the complexities of this wine. This one could definitely use some age, however, so we’re planning on opening our bottle of Roasted Slope a few years from now.

Bottom line – Andrew Murray’s reputation as a top winemaker has not faded since his early burst onto the wine making scene, and for good reason. This is clearly a top destination for an outstanding cast of Rhone style varietal wines, with Syrah playing the starring role.

Andrew Murray Vineyards

2901-A Grand Avenue, Los Olivos CA 93441


(805) 693-9644

Open daily from 11 to 5


Having been awed by our first experience at Beckmen a few years back, we’ve continued to visit the winery several times, and have never been disappointed. Focusing on Rhone varietals, Beckmen produces some absolutely sumptuous Syrah and Grenache wines. They are also one of the few wineries in SBC (and California for that matter) offering traditional Northern Rhone varietal white wines of Marsanne and Roussane, the latter currently offered as part of their Le Bec Blanc cuvee of both varietals, plus some Grenache Blanc. Beckmen rounds out their selection with some very respectable offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhone style blends.

One of the things you’ve gotta love about this place is their commitment to organic and biodynamic farming at their prized Purisima Mountain vineyard in Ballard Canyon. While the viticultural program is led by Steve Beckmen, son of founder Tom,  much of the winemaking is now done by Mikael Sigouin, who took the journeyman’s path to winemaking success with Beckmen.

We find Beckmen wines to contain that rare combination of power and restraint; wines of intensity, but also complexity. The ’07 Purisima Mountain Grenache is a great example of this, with intense raspberry and pomegranate on the nose and in the glass that was nicely balanced by licorice and allspice. Incidentally, the ’07 Estate Grenache, which we did not taste,  was recently requested by the Obama White House for a state dinner. Not bad company to be keeping!

Bottom line – Beckmen is a great choice for exceptional Rhone varietal wines in SBC, and it’s location just outside of Los Olivos means you don’t have to travel far from the center of the action to get there.

Beckmen Vineyards

2670 Ontiveros Road

Los Olivos, CA 93441


Open daily 11 to 5



Offering what is quite possibly the most beautiful setting for a winery in all of SBC, Rusack not only delivers a fantastic spot with which to relax and enjoy lunch while overlooking picturesque Ballard Canyon, but also a beautiful selection of classic SBC wines to boot. While best known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with wines consistently scoring in the 90+ points range, their estate Syrah has also been getting excellent reviews. In addition to those popular SBC varietals, Rusack offers a wide range of wines including additional Rhone and Bordeaux styled wines, even a Sangiovese and a dessert wine!

Led by the winemaker and enologist team of John (formerly of Atlas Peak) and Helen Falcone, we’ve consistently found Rusack to produce fresh, vibrant and flavorful wines, without being heavy handed in the least. The tasting room staff is consistently knowledgeable and inviting, and they’ve got a large outdoor patio overlooking the canyon that can handle small groups as well. Bottom line – Rusack is on our short list of favorites in the area immediately surrounding Solvang. If there ever was a sure thing in terms of a great winery visiting experience, we think this is it!


1819 Ballard Canyon Road,
Solvang, California 93463


(805) 688-1278

Open daily 11 to 5