Hidden Santa Maria Valley: Wine Country Without Crowds

by | May 14, 2024 | Day Trips From Los Angeles, Destinations, Romantic Retreats, USA, Weekend Trips, West Coast

(This article may or may not contain affiliate links. What does that mean?)

 

It’s not often that a wine region feels like it’s a secret, especially in California. Santa Maria Valley, in Central California, is tucked into the northern edge of Santa Barbara County. Somehow, this romantic oasis has managed to keep itself out of screaming headlines, allowing visitors to quietly enjoy Santa Maria wineries, the world’s best barbecue, and quiet beaches. 

Santa Maria Valley is lush, green hills with rows of winding branches covered in juicy grapes. As lifelong California residents and newbie wine appreciators, my husband and I were excited to learn these little vineyards existed in Central California. So, to celebrate our anniversary, my mom offered to watch the boys so we could explore this discovery after an invitation to visit from the Santa Maria Visitor’s Bureau. Here’s where we found the best Santa Maria wineries, restaurants, and places to enjoy the outdoors.

 

NO TIME TO ENJOY THIS ARTICLE NOW? PIN IT! OR BOOKMARK FOR LATER!

santa maria wineries pin

 

A Little Bit About Santa Maria History

People who live in the region know how special this area is, but those sprawled across the state may not think of Santa Maria Valley when picturing a wine trip. Paso Robles and Napa Valley seem to be the default locations for a wine weekend. Our readers will now know better.

With a traverse wind blowing east to west from the Pacific Ocean, a Mediterranean climate, and the California sunshine, Santa Maria Valley brings ideal conditions for growing food and supporting abundant wildlife. Originally settled by the Chumash Tribe, the Native Americans made great use of the rich soil and never lacked resources for food, water, clothing, or shelter.

In 1782, the Spanish took over the land when they built a mission in the Santa Maria Valley, the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. When Mexico declared its independence from the Spanish in 1821, the government of Mexico granted large parcels of land in California, including the Santa Maria Valley, to Mexican soldiers and their descendants. The Mexican government secularized the missions and granted half the land the priests had managed to the Chumash, but instead, the land went to government officials, their wealthy friends, and those who were born in the area.

The land parcels became known as rancheros, and many of those are still known this way today. The new landowners grew food, such as strawberries, raised cattle, and hired former soldiers and Native Americans to work the land. This is how Santa Maria Style barbecue was born. To thank their hard workers, the ranchers would hold annual open-air barbecues over native red oak tree wood chips and serve them with the pinquito beans also local to the area.

After building its economy on farming, the wine-loving farmers of Santa Maria Valley started playing with grapes. 

 

Oso Flaco Beach

After passing billowing trees, cattle grazing on lush hills and quiet lakes, we stopped by Oso Flaco Beach. To get there, we had to walk over a mile-long boardwalk that takes visitors over the 75-acre Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area. 

Wooden boards, lined by rails on each side, took us over a lake. Gulls and a wide variety of birds flocked and sang to each other. As we strolled along the beams, we enjoyed watching as the birds perched between trees, scrub and even planks jutting out of the protected lagoon. 

 

birds perched over lake in santa maria valley

Bird on a stick © Rina Nehdar

 

Santa Maria Valley is inside the Pacific Flyaway, the migration path birds take annually as they cruise between Mexico and the Pacific coastline of the United States. Devoted birders can see between 100-200 different types of bird species in one afternoon. 

 

bird on boardwalk in santa maria valley

You never know who you’ll run into. © Rina Nehdar

 

After a leisurely half-hour stroll, the boardwalk spilled onto an isolated beach. I could hear distant sounds of motorized vehicles, so knew we mustn’t be far from Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, where we had ridden ATVs when we stayed in Pismo Beach. 

The air felt cool against our skin. There are 15 beaches in Santa Maria Valley. Central California beaches may be less crowded than those in Southern California, but the weather can be nippy. 

After sitting in the car for three hours, it felt good to take our shoes off in the cool sand and walk toward the foamy fingers of the reaching water. The seabreeze carried currents of salty air. I took in greedy lungfuls, felt my muscles loosen and my mind relax. Holding hands, we walked back to the car along the boardwalk. 

 

It was nice to remember that we weren’t just parents but a couple, too.

 

The Wine Stone Inn 

About a half hour later, we arrived at our weekend home, the Wine Stone Inn, in the town of Orcutt. The Wine Stone Inn is the perfect headquarters for a weekend centered around wine tasting and Santa Maria barbecue. 

 

woman waking to wine stone inn

I think we’re going to like it here. © Howard Nehdar

 

The boutique wine hotel lobby doubles as a wine bar. The bartender, standing behind a rectangular, white marble-topped bar, greeted us when we arrived and offered us our choice of a full bottle of local wine to kick off our romantic getaway. We smiled at the handful of joyful wine consumers, and a manager came over to check us in at a small kiosk area and then led us up to our third-floor room. 

 

DON’T MISS! Room Reveal of the Wine Stone Inn! Come inside and check out our room!

 

Old Town Orcutt

The hub of Santa Maria Valley, Orcutt is about 15 miles from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Lined with artisan boutiques and hometown restaurants, the storefronts are filled with people who grew up here and came back to create something new with their young families. It’s easy to spend an afternoon perusing the unique offerings and sampling the locally crafted food and beers. 

 

author by town mural in santa maria valley

Picture this! © Howard Nehdar

 

There are five wine tasting rooms, two breweries, and eight eateries, mostly spread out on the very walkable Clark Rd. and Broadway St.

The warmer months bring a Farmer’s Market to Marcum St. on some Wednesday nights. The website has the exact schedule.

The Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley has two stops along Clark Rd. that take wine tasters on a whimsical ride along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

 

Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley

The Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley runs along the  Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, which is 16 wineries along a 30-mile road, between Los Olivos and Santa Maria. Although the Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley doesn’t stop at each one, it stopped at four when we rode. The most surprising thing was that we were the only passengers who boarded the trolley. It felt decadent and more than a little romantic. 

 

couple all smiles in empty wine trolley

Now that’s a ride! © Rina Nehdar

 

Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the trolley but that doesn’t include the price of the tastings at the wineries.

NOTICE: The SMWT will not operate during the 2024 season. Please check the site for updates on future tours and to plan your visit.

 

Costa de Oro Winery

A jolly driver in a newsboy cap helmed a bright red trolley with a vintage vibe. He picked us up in Santa Maria at the Costa de Oro Winery, about an 8-mile drive from the Wine Stone Inn. Before boarding, we enjoyed tasting Costa de Oro’s world-famous Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. James Beard Award Winner Roy Yamaguchi serves these wines as private labels in his Roy’s Restaurants, as does the Halekulani Hotel on Waikiki Beach, and Master Sommelier Chuck Furuya, of the Sansei Restaurant Group. 

Set conveniently off the 101 freeway with ample space for parking, Gary Burk and Teresa Gasca-Burk, a husband-and-wife team, opened the CDO tasting room in 2006. Weekends bring live, local music, and sometimes, the couple is known to join the band onstage! When our happy little trolley dropped us back off after our wine country exploration, we stayed to enjoy the wonderful vibe.

 

charcuterie box in santa maria valley

This might just be my favorite dish. © Rina Nehdar

 

Tasting room hours are 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The mood is more festive on Friday nights, with louder bands and tastings suspended at 4:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays bring a more relaxed mood with food available from Cool Hand Luke’s. Live bands play from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. with tastings still poured. 

Standard Tasting – $15, Tasting Flight – $20, Wine & Cheese Flight – $30

Call (805) 922-1865 to check for updates

 

Amplify Wines

This was the surprise hit of the wine trolley trip. The tasting room of this boutique winery is set in an industrial section of Santa Maria and didn’t look like it was going to be anything special. But, when winemaker Cameron Porter poured us a glass of orange natural wine that tickled our tongue with citrus aroma, we were hooked! 

 

DON’T MISS! The Most Fun Things To Do in Napa With Kids and Dogs 

 

natural wines in santa maria valley

It’s all natural © Rina Nehdar

 

We sat on a little red velvet couch while Cameron poured us the most unique wine we’ve ever enjoyed, even since then. He told us the story of the musically-inspired labels that stemmed from the love of music he shared with his wife and fellow winemaker, Marlen. Then he took us to the back of their storefront tasting room into a warehouse they converted into a wine cellar and described their process. 

Many of their wines are biodynamic and organic, so must be enjoyed quickly after opening since they lack preservatives. I assured him that wouldn’t be a problem.

Tastings are by appointment only and scheduled between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. They must be made 48 hours in advance and are $15 each.

 

Cottonwood Canyon

Set on 78 acres, Cottonwood Canyon Winery is the image of what a winery should be, with vines holding Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir grapes sprawling across green, rolling hills.  Vineyard views are visible from the floor-to-ceiling windows in its tasting room. Guests can also enjoy the varietals from the outdoor patio, with more than 900 cottonwood, plum, and cherry trees dotting the landscape. It’s not hard to imagine why they have such a thriving wedding scene.

Hand-harvested by the Beko family since 1988, the wines are aged in barrels resting in cool wine caves. 

Tastings are $29 – they open at 11 a.m. and the last pour is at 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you buy two bottles, one of the tastings is free.

Call  805-937-8463 for a private tour or to book weddings or events. 

 

cottonwood winery in santa maria valley

Walking with purpose. © Howard Nehdar

 

Other Wineries In Santa Maria Valley

There are 35 tasting rooms in Santa Maria Valley, which has one of the longest growing seasons for a variety of grapes. The warmth and extended sunshine gives the Santa Maria Valley the type of weather where seven distinct American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, that produce grapes on 7,500 vineyard acres to please any wine lover. In fact, the first officially designated AVA site in central California was in the Santa Maria Valley.

 

The Gatehouse At Bien Nacido Estate

After 50 years of growing grapes in the Santa Maria Valley, in 2023 the Miller family finally opened a tasting room inside the 650-acre Bien Nacido Estate in the city of Santa Maria. The newest of the tasting rooms, the Gatehouse features bottles produced by grapes grown at Bien Nacido and its sister property, Solomon Hills Estate. Originally planted on the hills of Santa Maria in 1973 by the current operator’s father and uncle, the family’s collection of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah wines are produced from Burgundian and Rhone grapes.

The Gatehouse at Bien Nacido offers tastings Thursdays to Mondays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with last pour at 4 p.m. They can be reached at 805) 318-6503

 

Riverbench Vineyard & Winery

Set along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the Riverbench Vineyard & Winery uses sustainable practices to produce small lot wines along the Sisquoc River, also called the Santa Maria Bench. Winemaker Clarissa Nagy brought her love of all things organic to produce elegant Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines.

Tasting rooms are in both Santa Maria and in the Santa Barbara Funk Zone. The Santa Maria location is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the Santa Barbara one is open from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.

 

 

Cambria Estate Winery

Set along the Foxen Wine Trail, with the Sisquoc River right below,  Cambria Estate Winery produces wines exclusively from its estate grapes. Grown in 14 different types of soil, the estate holds four disctince vineyards set in 1,600 acres of greens and grapes. The winery is a family affair with two daughters taking ownership of sections of the land and working alongside with their parents.

Their newly remodeled tasting room is open Thursday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 5475 Chardonnay Lane, Santa Maria, CA (805) 937-8091

 

Foxen Vineyard

Started on the 2,000 acre Rancho Tinaquaic in 1837 by Captain William Benjamin Foxen, today’s rancho is home to the Foxen Winery & Vineyard. Four generations later, Dick Doré, Foxen’s great, great grandson, and Bill Wathen, a friend Doré met while working for another winery, Tepusquet Mesa Vineyard, have converted the land from a cattle farm to a robust winery. Foxen wines are heavily influenced by French wine making techniques Wathen learned during his journey to Foxen. Foxen Vineyard has two tasting rooms, FOXEN and foxen 7200. The Foxen boys are so committed to sustainable practices, one tasting room is powered by solar!

Space is limited so although FOXEN is open everyday from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and foxen 7200 is open during the same hours Thursday to Sunday, call or email to make reservations for groups larger than six.

 

Rancho Sisquoc Winery

One of the wineries featured along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the Rancho Sisquoc Winery also started as a rancho during the Mexican land grant days. Managed by different families over the ensuing generations, it is the abundantly rich soil that allows the winery to harvest such a diversity of grapes exclusively from its estate. The variety of microclimates allow the label to produce Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Johannesburg Riesling, Malbec, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petit Syrah, Petite Verdot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner and Syrah wines. Taste them all in a wooden shack-like tasting room at the end of a windy road.

Tasting room hours are Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday – Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Due to limited space, reservations are required for weekend visits and for picnic tables and large groups at (805) 934-4332. Food must be ordered 24 hours in advance through 805 Charcuterie. The tasting room is closed on major holidays.

 

Best Places To Eat In Santa Maria Valley

Visitors can’t really know a place until they’ve tasted the flavors that have culminated over generations to represent the people that live there. In Santa Maria it’s the barbecue. The spices and techniques used to cook the steak in Santa Maria Valley will haunt foodies in their dreams and drive them to come back for more. When we visited, we brought back the spice mix unique to Santa Maria and developed by the cowboys who lived on the rancheros over 150 years ago and my teen son, who is yet to visit, will now only eat his steak if it’s seasoned with this spice. He even puts it on his eggs.

 

The Hitching Post

No place does it better than the Hitching Post in Casmalia. Movie buffs may recognize the name of this restaurant from the movie Sideways. The Ostini brothers each own a location but they do it just a bit different. We know because we’ve visited both. The one in the movie is located in Buelton and is officially known as The Hitching Post 2. The one is Buelton is a bit fancier than the original Casmalia location which is underwhelmingly casual. 

 

steak in santa maria valley

A window into the magic. © Rina Nehdar

 

But the Santa Maria Style Barbecue in the Hitching Post 1 location can easily be described as the best steak we’ve ever eaten. Yes. We’ve eaten many steaks but the spice blend, the red oak wood chip blend used on the open fire with the grill manually lowered and raised to achieve the perfect temperature was like nothing we’d ever experienced. OK, I admit it. It’s me. I’m haunted by dreams of going back for this steak and this time we might bring the kids. 

Restaurant hours are Monday through Saturday: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. Call (805) 937-6151 for reservations.

 

steak in santa maria valley

 

Far Western Tavern

Another restaurant that enjoys Santa Maria Style BBQ is the Far Western Tavern which is perfect for a date night as it’s more elegant than the authentically western Hitching Post. It’s also in Orcutt so if visitors don’t want to drive far, this is a great option.

This restaurant is closed Monday-Wednesday and open 5 p.m to 8 p.m. Thursday and Sunday and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

 

couple

Playing fancy © Rina Nehdar

 

Pizzeria Bello Fornio

We had lunch at Pizzeria Bello Fornio and we had to call over the chef to proclaim our gratitude over the fresh ingredients used to prepare the exquisite pizza and salad we enjoyed.

 

pizza in santa maria valley

Worth every carb. © Rina Nehdar

 

Seriously, it tasted like the vegetables had been picked moments before in a garden growing behind the restaurant. A gourmet Italian restaurant to rival the best in Italy was not what we expected in Old Town Orcutt but there it was. Started by owner Bob Spallino, it was his son Stefan to whom we were exuding gratitude. Stefan moved with his young family to Orcutt and helped run the restaurant with his siblings and we think they are killing it.

Restaurant hours are all over the place so check the website.

 

restaurant in santa maria valley

Italy in Orcutt © Rina Nehdar

 

Santa Maria Barbecue Festival

There are annual events on the Old Town Orcutt website. One worth making the visit to Santa Maria is the Santa Maria Barbecue Festival. Every May a celebrity panel of judges picks the best Santa Maria Style tri-tip, cooked over an open flame of local red oak chips and served with a side of pinquito beans, fresh salsa, a green salad and garlic bread. Guests enjoy sampling all the contestant’s entries and tasting the locally brewed craft beer. Music, sunshine, and California’s best barbecue rule the day.

 

Las Flores Ranch Park

We ended our weekend just like we began it, with a great hike through an open air environment. Santa Maria Valley has 24 hiking trails accessible for walkers, cyclists and equestrians. We decided to walk off some of the calories we had collected from our Santa Maria visit through a trail that took us past shady oak trees, grassy meadows and brilliant wildflowers in the Solomon Hills. 

Las Flores Ranch Park has 15 miles of trails and we took the popular 2.2 mile East La Cuesta Loop trail. The trail went into a playground that is made to resemble the giant fossilized remains of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. 

 

park in santa maria valley

Some remains. © Rina Nehdar

 

Our romantic weekend had been great and let us reconnect in a way that is essential to couples. But seeing parents playing with their kids in the park made me miss our kids and even though we were sad to be leaving Santa Maria Valley, we were happy to be going home to be with our kids. Yes, maybe we’ll bring them next time we come back.

 

When You Go

 

 

Where To Stay In Santa Maria Valley

Wine Stone Inn

The 12-room cozy boutique hotel, Wine Stone Inn, is industrial hip meets luxury cozy. Premium bedding ensures great rest between explorations and tastings. The Vintage Room on the lobby level is a casual, clean bar where new friends are easily procured and light bites can be shared over local and foreign vintages. There’s a nice patio where visitors can enjoy the outside with their libations. This is where we stayed and when we go back, it’ll be where we stay again. King and double queen sized rooms come with balconies that overlook the mountainous valley. It’s fancy without the fancy pricetag.

 

Hampton Inn & Suites Santa Maria

With an indoor pool and spacious clean rooms, the Hampton Inn & Suites ensures everyone in the family gets to stretch out and enjoy their Santa Maria home. Request a room with a bathtub to make bedtime routines easy. Cribs and infant beds are available for a fee.

 

Historic Santa Maria Inn

With an outdoor pool and a garden to enjoy, the Historic Santa Maria Inn is a great choice for young families. Kids even stay free here. An onsite restaurant and bar make refueling easy. The hotel provides free infant beds and cribs upon request so no need to shlep or rent baby gear. And the mid-range price point will satisfy many family budgets.

 

Getting To Santa Maria Valley

We drove approximately three hours from our home in Los Angeles on the CA-126 W to the US-101 N because it was Friday traffic and we chose the longer, prettier route to avoid it. This was about 165 miles depending on where you start. Santa Maria Valley is also 270 miles (four hours) from San Francisco. 

The country road to Santa Maria Valley from LA passes mirrored lakes, hills draped in greens, and canopied trees providing cover for puffy white sheep grazing in manicured ranches. We passed neat white signs with fancy letters displaying their name.

Those flying in can get to regional Santa Maria Airport through Allegiant Airlines. Allegiant flies directly from Las Vegas. Flight times are just over an hour.

An excellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia! This is where we start our research for the best deals!

To get discounts on tours in the area, we recommend Get Your Guide or Viator (which offers 51% off last-minute tours!).

To save time (and because we travel so much), we got an annual travel insurance policy for the whole family from this site. They have affordable policies for individual trips too and tools to make picking one easy. 

 

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE CONSIDER SHARING OR PINNING IT!

SANTA MARIA VALLEY PIN