When I told a friend that we took our kids wine tasting with us in the Santa Ynez Valley, she said that sounded like punishment for our poor boys. But mixed in with the bucolic vineyards that make the Santa Ynez Valley an adult attraction are an array of outdoor surprises that any city kid will love. Visits to a miniature horse farm, a lavender farm, a pumpkin patch and an apple farm kept our kids entertained. Even the wineries gave them an opportunity for imaginative outdoor play and room for tossing the football. Use this guide to plan a weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley with something for everyone to bring home: perhaps a case of wine for the adults and plenty of memories of outdoor adventure for the kids.
With the Santa Ynez Valley encompassing the five towns of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Ballard, Buellton and Solvang, lodging is plentiful. The area is home to charming small hotels and bed and breakfasts designed with adult travellers in mind, along with family-friendly hotels and motels. Check with the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors Association for a complete list of lodging. The Santa Ynez Valley Marriott (www.syvmarriott.com) is a good choice for families with spacious rooms, a pool and a Starbucks. Los Olivos offers vintner and old-time TV star Fess Parker’s Fess Parker Inn (www.fessparkerinn.com), with cozy rooms and fireplaces in the middle of downtown shops and restaurants. If your budget allows, indulge in a long weekend at Solvang’s Alisal Guest Ranch (www.alisal.com), where the kids can ride horses and live the life of a pampered cowpoke.
We tried to make our trip fair and fun for everyone, with time divided between visits to wineries and family attractions. Amid the vineyards and rolling hills are a variety of horse and fruit farms, some open for visitors. The kids will beg you to pull over as soon as they see Quicksilver Ranch (www.qsminis.com) and its beautiful miniature horses. Open daily from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., the ranch does not offer petting for the children but does allow them to get up close to the pretty ponies. Great Oaks Ranch (www.greatoaksranch.com) is one of several lavender farms in the area (it is also a vineyard) with lavender-based souvenirs for sale and information on how lavender is grown and its uses. In the fall, you’ll see many pumpkin patches in the area including Quacken Farms (www.quackenfarms.com) in Santa Ynez, which offers pumpkin picking for the kids along with rides and games. Santa Ynez Valley Farms (www.santaynezvalleyfarms.com) is open year round for seasonal fruit picking. Even kitschy Solvang provides entertainment for the kids, include Danish bakeries with butter cookies and restaurants servicing abelskiver, the Danish waffle or pancake that is shaped like a tennis ball and sprinkled with powdered sugar and raspberry jam.
A day of responsible wine tasting involves appointing a designated driver and sampling your wine with some food. Bringing along a picnic lunch to enjoy at your favorite winery grounds will probably be one of the highlights of your trip. And tasting doesn’t have to involve swallowing the wine, thanks to spittoons on the counters at tasting rooms.
Just as attractive as the wines themselves are the buildings and grounds that house each of the wineries in the Valley. Even if you’re not sampling, it’s a treat to visit the wineries for their architecture and landscape. Our kids even got excited about what we would find at the end of the long and winding roads that led to each winery. And once they got there, the could roam and play a game of make-believe based on whatever the winery’s architecture reminded them of, including one castle-like fortress. But the simple, rural charm of Lincourt Vineyards (www.lincourt.com) makes it one of my favorite wineries, with great pinot noir from vintner Bill Foley and a tasting room housed in a little, yellow 1926 Sears Craftsman kit home. Sunstone Vineyards and Winery (www.sunstonewinery.com) is our favorite stop for lunch, with its Provencal French design and peaceful courtyard with umbrella-covered tables. We pick up lunch from Subway or the delis at Los Olivos Grocery or Nielsen’s Market. Gainey Vineyards (www.gaineyvineyard.com) offers picturesque views of the surrounding countryside and mountains, along with charming fields of tall sunflowers.
The Santa Ynez Valley offers many other activities including shopping, hiking, and bicycling, to name a few. Plan your next trip here over dinner at Mattei’s Tavern (www.matteistavern.com) in Los Olivos. In this charming white building, originally a stagecoach stop, you’ll dream about your return trip and a whole new group of undiscovered wineries and farms that will await you.