Visiting Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley
By Ann Nelson



The lure of sleepy little towns just outside of Santa Barbara are filled with endless rows of grapevines, fields of strawberries, cozy tasting rooms, and a good mix of shops and restaurants. The Santa Ynez Valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, consists of six unique and historic communities: Ballard, Buellton, Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Solvang. My husband and I visited three of them.

Solvang, the largest of the communities, is located just 36 miles north of Santa Barbara on highway 246. A Danish word meaning “sunny field”, Solvang was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish settlers who were actually refugees from the Midwest wanting to escape the harsh winters. If you want to learn about the pioneering spirit that is truly at the heart and soul of this town, go to The Elverhoj Museum. Visiting this museum on the first day is a perfect way to learn about the Danish culture and the founding of Solvang.

If you are interested in old missions, make sure Old Mission Santa Ines is on your list of places to visit. Mass is still being held here everyday at 8 a.m. in this historical mission founded in the 18th and early 19th century.

 Touring wineries and tasting rooms of the Santa Ynez Valley is an essential part of experiencing the valley. The area has enjoyed lots of extra notoriety since Miles and Jack forged their wine tasting road trip through here in the movie Sideways. There is even a Sideways Tour Tips and Road Map published by the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau so you can map out your own similar adventure. My husband and I decided to do just that.

I would have to describe my initial steps into the world of wine tasting with happy naiveté. While embarking on this new adventure, I was unaware and unfamiliar with the proper protocol. My first major lesson: never hold the body of the wine glass; hold the wine glass by the stem. The warmth of your hand on the actual glass warms the wine and disturbs the actual tasting process. Swirling, sniffing and delicately sipping is proper protocol.

Larry Chandler, a kind and knowledgeable wine server at The Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos, patiently explained the step-by-step process of wine tasting etiquette. His theory on the art of successful wine making is simple and consists of four parts: “art, luck, science and magic”.

My next wine tasting experience was spent with Louis Lucas at The Lucas & Lewellen Wine Tasting Room in Solvang. Spending time with this winemaker/farmer was like sitting down with an artist as he describes the essence of creating a painting or a piece of art.

Louis loves growing grapes and has been doing it for 40 years. He learned important lessons from his father and grandfather who were farmers before him. They imparted the philosophy that the best fertilizer for your land is “your shadow”. Louis lives by this philosophy, and has chosen to hand pick his grapes. He feels this is critical because according to him, only a hands-on farmer knows when sugars, acid levels and flavors in the grape are right for picking.

We felt that touring a winery needed to be a critical ingredient of our trip, and the Firestone Winery and Vineyard was the solution. We learned about harvesting, aging, and different types of storage barrels. Our teacher and guide, Clint Scruggs, filled our afternoon with his laughter and knowledge. Clint was part wine maker, part actor.

After spending the better part of an afternoon at the wineries, we headed over to The Wildling Art Museum. If you are a lover of wildlife and animal art, this museum in Los Olivos is a must. The museum features animal portraits that are so moving and real they take your breath away. Bob Kuhn, the featured artist, is recognized as one of the most influential wildlife artists of the 20th Century.

While in Solvang, my husband and I stayed in town in a cozy two-story cottage at The Wine Valley Inn & Cottages. Once we checked in and explored the place, there was only one problem; we didn’t want to leave!  Rustic wood plank floors, high beam ceilings, a wood burning fireplace and private outdoor Jacuzzi was more than we ever expected. The upstairs bedroom was surrounded with walls of windows, framing in the treetops and shadows from outside. We were both brimming with excitement and felt like kids living in a tree house. Rates at the inn include a continental breakfast and range from $89.00-$299 a night.

There are some exceptional restaurants in the Santa Ynez Valley. We had heard that Miles and Jack (from the movie Sideways) actually spent quite a bit of time soaking up the ambience at the Los Olivos Café & Wine Merchant.

My husband and I wanted to check out the impressive wine list with over 300 wines, as well as the Mediterranean cuisine. Making a dinner selection was not easy. We finally decided to share the Petite Ravioli stuffed with spinach, ricotta and thyme and sautéed Wild King Salmon fillet served on warm spinach, fennel and red onion. Both were excellent.

The Red Viking Restaurant in Solvang was recommended as the place to go for authentic Danish faire. Every dish here was truly a delicious surprise, especially the  Brune Kartofler. This dish consists of tiny potatoes that are fried with butter and glazed with sugar. They are absolutely irresistible. We also recommend a sample hors d’oeuvres plate, which gives you great variety and could actually be a meal in itself.

After leaving Solvang, we headed 20 miles southeast to The Rancho Oso Guest Ranch and Stables, located in the middle of the Los Padres National Forest. Spending time there felt like a breath of fresh air. The ranch is the place to go for anyone craving nature, animals and quiet. We stayed in a simple wooden cabin that the woodpeckers seemed to enjoy as much as we did. Their little beaks were loud enough to wake us from our lazy afternoon naps.

We had the option of staying in a covered wagon; maybe on our next visit we’ll be a bit more adventurous. Staying at the ranch doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. The covered wagons are $59.00 a night: the cabins are $84.00. We spent our days at the ranch walking along the Santa Ynez River trails, and visiting with horses, goats, cows and pigs. The ranch is the perfect place to go ride a horse, play tennis, swim, Jacuzzi, or relax.

If you are looking for a quiet vacation without the crowds, head to Santa Ynez Valley. We have already scheduled our next trip.


The Red Viking Restaurant, Solvang – (805) 688-6610
Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchant, Los Olivos – (888) 946-3748
Lucas & Lewellen Wine Tasting Room, Solvang – (805) 686-9336
Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard, Los Olivos  - (800) 841-1104
Firestone Winery & Vineyards, Los Olivos – (800) 910-3940
The Wine Valley Inn & Cottages, Solvang – (800) 824-6444 or visit
Rancho Oso Guest Ranch & Stables – (805) 683-5110 or visit
The Elverhoj Museum of History and Art, Solvang – (805) 686-1211
Old Mission Santa Ines, Sol-vang – (805) 688-4815
Wildling Art Museum, Los Olivos – (805) 688-1082
Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau – (800) 468-6765
Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association – (800) 742-2843
Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau – (800) 676-1266


Ann Nelson is a freelance writer, presently residing in San Diego, CA.


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