Sensory Pleasures: Wine Tasting in California, published in

Two empty, white Adirondack chairs sitting next to a lazy weeping willow tree beckoned to me, inviting me to relax on their lap. I was wine tasting at Foley Estates Winery near the small town of Los Olivos, 34 miles (55 km) northwest of Santa Barbara, in central California. The winery’s old yellow-and-white farmhouse has been painstakingly refurbished. White wooden filigree accented the veranda, which wrapped around the front and sides of the farmhouse. A windmill and a pond with a spouting fountain graced the front yard, offering gentle background sounds. I sat, opened a bottle of Foley chardonnay, and enjoyed the murmur of the fountain.In winter, I have roamed for miles through the green hillsides of central California, dotted with ancient oak trees, their gnarled limbs resembling the arthritic fingers of an octogenarian.I have visited these same hillsides in the summer and the scene is opposite; the once-green grass is golden brown, with dusty-green oak trees dotting the landscape.The grape vines are alive with varying shades of green leaves guarding their hidden fruit clusters from birds. Weeping willow trees intersperse the oak trees, offering shade to delicate wildflowers. These pastoral back road scenes, to me, are a big part what wine tasting is all about.

Foley Estates Winery, formerly a working dairy farm, is located on the outskirts of the tiny town of Los Olivos, made famous by the 2004 movie Sideways. Foley’s is renowned for its pinot noir and chardonnay; Winemaker Alan Phillips won top honors for the winery’s 2003 pinot noir at the 2005 San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Another favorite winery and winemaker in this area is Andrew Murray. His tasting room is in Los Olivos, next to the park and across the street from Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa. Murray was making wine before he was legally old enough to drink it, and it is my opinion that he is a prodigy. His Roasted Slope Syrah, an intense, rich red with equally intense flavor, is not to be missed.

Sixteen miles north, the Rancho Sisquoc Winery, on the edge of the Sisquoc River, is situated on a ranch with a long history. The Chumash Indians recognized the agricultural fertility of the area, and farmed the land that today grows and produces some of the finest estate wines in the Santa Barbara County appellation.To the Chumash Indians of the area, sisquoc meant “gathering place.” Today Rancho Sisquoc is again a gathering place, this time for wine lovers. Wine tasting to me is also about meeting interesting people; new acquaintances at winery #1 are old friends by winery #5. By 4:30 p.m., you’re on a first-name basis with 15 new friends.

Brother’s Restaurant at Mattei’s Tavern, in Los Olivos, was the perfect end to a perfect weekend in the vineyards. Once the stopping point on the Santa Barbara stagecoach route, it is now an inn and a gourmet restaurant with a creatively inspired menu.

This fall the region had a very late rainy period, and all of the wineries had late harvests. The grapes, which usually are picked in August or September, were still on the vines in November. I was fortunate to experience the vineyards like I have never seen them, full of their autumn colors. The grape leaves were a rich amber color segueing into red, salmon and gold. I can’t wait to see the fruits of the 2005 wine harvest, due to this uncommon weather.

For me, wine tasting is about exploring the quiet and lesser-traveled back roads of California. Sure I enjoy the wine, but the scenery is equally enjoyable.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Foley Estates Winery
1711 Alamo Pintado Rd.
Solvang, CA
(805) 688-8554
Tasting:  10-5 daily
Fee: US$ 3.50–$5
Prices: US$ 8–$32

Andrew Murray Vineyards
2901-A Grand Ave,
Los Olivos, CA
(805) 686-9604
Tasting:  11-6 daily; April-October
Closed Tuesdays
Fee: US$ 4
US$ 12–$32 per bottle

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