This article is focused on what see and do in Santa Maria Valley. For a detailed look at the Santa Maria Valley AVA, including all of its wineries and vineyards, see What Everyone Should Know about the Santa Maria Valley AVA.
Best Tastings within the Santa Maria Valley AVA (in alphabetical order)
Foxen actually operates two tasting rooms in Santa Maria Valley, located just a few hundred feet from each other. Foxen 7200, also known as “The Shack,” is Foxen’s original tasting room, established in 1987. However, the building has a much longer history. Built in the 1860’s, it was originally the blacksmith’s shop for Rancho Tinaquaic. Today, the Foxen 7200 tasting room focuses on the winery’s Italian and Bordeaux-variety wines.
7200 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 937-4251 ext. 201
The second Foxen tasting room is a very new building, finished in 2009. With solar energy and an understated, rustic design, it fits well with the surrounding environment and adjacent, dry-farmed vineyard. Wines based on Burgundian and Rhone varieties are available for tasting here.
7600 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 937-4251
Both tasting rooms are open daily from 11am to 4pm. Reservations are not required, except for groups of eight and larger.
Nagy Wines is the personal label of Clarissa Nagy, winemaker for Riverbench. She has also worked at Byron, Longoria and Bonaccorsi, among others. For her own project, she makes a Garey Ranch Pinot Noir and a Bien Nacido Pinot Blanc as well as Syrah and Viognier from the White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos Valley. Her wines are lovely and I definitely recommend stopping at the tasting room to give them a try.
Her storefront-style tasting room is in “downtown” Orcutt, a tiny little town. Tasting is available 1pm-5pm Wednesday & Thursday, 1pm to 7pm on Friday and 1pm to 6pm on Saturday. Mondays and Tuesdays they will open by appointment. Given the location, I recommend stopping in early, after a BBQ lunch at the nearby Far Western Tavern, or late on the way to dinner at Hitching Post in Casmalia.
145 S. Gray Street Suite 103
Orcutt, CA 93455
The winery, tasting room and views at Presqu’ile are stunning. It would be worth a visit just to see the place even if the wine weren’t good. But the wines are superb too.
Presqu’ile is the only Santa Maria Valley winery to offer and tour. You should not pass up the opportunity. They run 90 minutes, starting at 11am and 2pm (by appointment). Wines are tasting throughout the tour. It finishes with a side-by-side tasting of three Pinot Noir, paired with small bites prepared by their staff chef. The experience is just $45. You also opt to simply taste flights for $15 or $20.
Presqu’ile is open daily from 11am to 5pm, until 6pm on Fridays.
5391 Presqu’ile Drive
Santa Maria, CA 93455
Tesla charging is available in the parking lot.
The Riverbench vineyard was established in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2006 that they began producing their own wines. They offer elegant, terroir-driven Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, very fine sparkling wines and more.
The tasting room is in a 1920’s craftsman-style building in the middle of the vineyard. There’s room for picnicking in the garden. There’s also a bocce court and horseshoe pit. Riverbench is open daily from 10am to 4pm.
6020 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Zaca Mesa is not within the Santa Maria Valley AVA, but it’s very close, just a couple of miles south on Foxen Canyon Road. And, since the wines are good and the property is historic, it’s well worth a visit. Continuing down Foxen will take you to the town of Los Olivos which is full of tasting rooms, including those of three from Santa Maria Valley.
Zaca Mesa Vineyard was founded in 1973. Over the years, it has produced not just great wines, but great winemakers. Among them are Ken Brown, Adam Tolmach, Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist, who founded Byron, Ojai Vineyard, Au Bon Climat and Qupé wineries respectively. The vineyards are situated in an area to warm for Pinot and too cool for Cabernet, but just right for Rhone varieties.
6905 Foxen Canyon Road
Los Olivos, CA 93441
(805) 688-9339 ext. 308
For a complete list of tasting rooms focused on Santa Maria Valley wines, including those rooms outside of the AVA, see What Everyone Should Know about the Santa Maria Valley AVA.
What & Where to Eat near Santa Maria Valley
Santa Maria Barbecue
The signature food of the Santa Maria Valley is “Santa Maria Barbecue.” It is not all similar to the smoky, low-temperature BBQ so well-known from the American south. That style, originated in places with permanent kitchens and stationary diners, such as plantations, which allowed for very long cooking times. And the method was designed to create flavor and tenderness in otherwise tough meats, such as feral pigs, beef brisket, etc.
Santa Maria Barbecue originated with cattlemen who were itinerant, roving with the cows. They had access to very good beef, but needed mobile kitchens and shorter cooking times. This BBQ is essentially grilling, cooking high-quality beef steaks on hot, oak-fired grills. The beef gets a thorough dry-rub coating of salt, pepper and garlic salt before hitting the heat.
Traditional accompaniments show both Mexican and steakhouse influences. The steaks are served with fresh salsa, rather than sauce. Instead of potatoes, the primary starch is Pinquito beans—vaguely similar to Pinot beans but smaller with more flavor and texture. Meals usually start with a relish tray: carrot and celery sticks, green onions, whole radishes, pepperoncini, cherry tomatoes and black California olives.
My favorite BBQ place in the area is Hitching Post in Casmalia. Their rib-eye is one of the best I’ve ever had and, sitting with only a window separating me from the grill, I got to watch it cook. There are a lot of side dishes to be had, but my favorite is a classic of the area, grilled artichoke.
Another good choice is The Far Western Tavern. It’s a much larger restaurant, good if you have large group. Otherwise, I recommend going there for lunch and eating at the bar. The lunch menu is good and it’s fun to mix with the locals, most of who will be in the ag or oil businesses.
The town of Santa Maria offers all the usual choices of restaurants, including chains and various ethnic foods. But some of the best food is in smaller towns such as Los Alamos. A winemakers’ favorite there is Full of Life Flatbread, a casual eatery focused on flatbread pizza, cooked in a large wood-fired oven imported from Italy. The food is good across the board. They also have a small, but amusing, bar up front. They are open for supper Thursday – Sunday and for brunch on Sunday.
Another good choice is Bell Street Farm. Basically a lunchtime deli, it’s open 11am to 5pm Friday-Sun and 11am to 4pm on Mondays and Thursdays. You can eat inside, on the patio or take food away for picnics at a winery. The menu includes sandwiches, soup, salads, rotisserie chicken and pork, and charcuterie. The quality is great and most of the local wineries use Bell Street as their caterer for events.
For breakfast, and the best coffees and breads, you need to go to Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. In addition to excellent house-baked breads, biscuits, etc., they a lot of breakfast items (plus sandwiches and more for lunch. And they use Stumptown coffee!
Finally, there are farmers’ markets in Orcutt on Tuesdays from 11am to 1pm and downtown Santa Maria on Fridays from 5pm to 8pm.
Other Attractions in Santa Maria Valley
If you ask a Santa Maria resident what the main tourist attractions of the area are—and I have—their answers will be wine, wine and wine. However, while not reasons to go there on their own, there are some other things worth checking out if you have spare time during your wine-focused stay.
There’s a lot of wildlife and natural beauty in the area. One of the most significant spots is Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, the second largest expanse of sand dunes in California. If the ocean is your thing, try Point Sal State Beach. Note though that swimming isn’t a good idea, because the current is extremely strong and that water is crazy cold.
There are also a lot of events that take place throughout the year, including live music, car shows, theatre, wine festivals and more. Check these Santa Maria Valley event listings for details.
Accommodations near Santa Maria Valley
There aren’t really any accommodations within the Santa Maria AVA itself. However, there are plenty in the nearby towns of Santa Maria, Los Alamos, Orcutt and Los Olivos.
For a luxurious experience, consider the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn and Spa in Los Olivos. It’s top-notch and puts you in downtown Los Olivos which is replete with great tasting rooms. Just a block away and equally excellent, but without the hotel feel, are the Wine Country Cabins, also operated by Fess Parker.
For an extremely affordable, yet clean and comfortable, taste of old-time Santa Maria, there’s the historic (and pet-friendly) Santa Maria Inn, established in 1917. It’s located within the city of Santa Maria, about 15 minutes from the wineries. Other options include both typical chain motels and smaller accomdations.
Copyright Fred Swan 2017. Photos of Foxen, Riverbench, Fess Parker and Zaca Mesa are courtesy of those companies. All rights reserved.