Insider’s Guide to Central Coast California Wine Country
Wine Tasting in Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara & the SLO
Central California’s Wine Country is often overlooked for the intrigue and fame of Napa and Sonoma in northern California, but if you’re a wine lover you’re doing yourself a disservice not to become intimately familiar with the wines and scenery of Central California.
Wine tasting in Central California encompasses a large region that lets you also discover vibrant cities, world-class restaurants, sandy beaches, and gorgeous mountain scenery…plus, acres upon acres of beautiful vineyards.
Central California has two main wine regions. The first is Santa Ynez Valley and the second region is Paso Robles. The wine tasting doesn’t just stop there, though. Beyond those regions you’ll find even more vineyards and tasting rooms in and around the cities of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
I’m here today to break down the differences between each part of Central California’s wine country and help you to plan an unforgettable wine tasting trip in California Central.
Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tasting in Central California
Let’s start in Central California’s most well-known wine region: Santa Ynez Valley. This part of Central California’s wine country has become the most commercialized, feeling a bit like a mini Napa Valley in parts, but while retaining a small-town feel.
Santa Ynez Valley has two main wine trail routes you’ll want to do if wine tasting amongst the vineyards of the valley. One is Foxen Canyon and the other is Santa Rita. Each of these will take you to some of Central California’s best wineries and views, including some made famous by Hollywood in the movie Sideways.
A notable winery in Santa Ynez Valley that are nestled among the vineyards include Fess Parker Winery, which is featured in one of the most memorable scenes from the Central California Wine Country based movie Sideways. It’s where the main character, Miles, gets bad news about his book and has an epic meltdown featuring a spit bucket.
Firestone Winery, which has gorgeous views from an expensive-looking tasting room and patio, is another great stop in Santa Ynez Valley.
Demetria Winery located right off of Foxen Canyon Road is another spot with great wine in a cool tasting room and the drive there has gorgeous views.
Another favorite winery of mine is Rancho Sisquoc, which has a tasting room located in a barn-style building with personable service and memorable wine.
Central Coast Wine Tasting in Solving and Los Olivos
Solving is a delightful little city to use as a base point for exploring the Santa Ynez Valley. However, it also serves as a wine tasting destination in its own right.
First thing to know about Solvang though is that it is a Danish-inspired town and the architecture and many of the eateries in the downtown area of Solvang reflect this. Within those charming wood beam framed buildings you’ll find a number of tasting rooms. I especially like the wines poured at Lucas & Llewellen Vineyards.
Solvang is also close to Los Olivos, a tiny little town with a street going through its center that’s pretty much only lined by wineries, housed in charming little craftsman-style buildings.
If you want to taste a ton of local wines without having to drive or walk far between, Los Olivos is the place to do it. Just make sure you have an Uber or taxi lined up for when it’s time to head back to your hotel!
The Urban Wine Trail in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone
Santa Barbara is a Spanish-colonial jewel of a city right beside the ocean, and located just south of Santa Ynez Valley (in fact, Santa Ynez Valley is located in Santa Barbara County.)
Santa Barbara County has a number of fun ways to wine taste, with differing ambiances, but the best way is to hit up the Urban Wine Trail.
Nestled within an area branching out from the crossroads of State Street and Carrillo’s Boulevard is Santa Barbara’s artsy neighborhood called the Funk Zone. Within the Funk Zone lies the Urban Wine Trail, a moniker given to a cluster of wine tasting rooms all located within a few blocks of each other. These tasting rooms are also just a few blocks from Santa Barbara’s gorgeous sandy beaches.
One thing that makes the Urban Wine Trail so fun is that the tasting rooms are a little more modern and industrial than you might be used to. Some tasting rooms have counters backed by industrial-chic file cabinets and metal beams along the ceiling while others have a hipster-vibe with board games and live music. This being sunny Santa Barbara, many of the tasting rooms also have outdoor seating.
The Urban Wine Trail is home to over 20 tasting rooms, many of which are extensions of wineries located out in the countryside of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Central Coast Wine Tasting Around San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is located a little bit further north of Santa Barbara and Avila Beach and is also a fun place to do some wine tasting. San Luis Obispo has been nicknamed “the SLO” by locals and you will indeed find that life feels a little bit slower here.
San Luis Obispo is a college town, home to Cal Poly and as a result there’s quite a bit of nightlife to be found in the city center along with some decent shopping opportunities and delicious farm to table restaurants.
What I love above San Luis Obispo is the way you have this vibrant, fun atmosphere in the city, but then once you leave the city center you’re immediately surrounded by miles of farmland and vineyards that make up the Edna Valley.
One of my favorite places to go wine tasting in Edna Valley while visiting San Luis Obispo is Laetitia Winery, which is known for its exquisite Pinot Noir. Wolff Vineyards also has some good vintages; I especially like their Syrah.
If you don’t have time to do too much wine tasting around the outskirts of the city, nearly all of the restaurants and bars downtown have local wine lists featuring glasses and bottles of wine from around the region.
One of my favorite places to try some local wine alongside yummy appetizers is Novo Restaurant and Lounge, which is located right by the creek that runs through San Luis Obispo. Inside you’ll find chic decor but outside is where the charm is, thanks to a secluded patio that overlooks the creek and the trees.
California Central Coast Wine Tasting in Paso Robles
Keep going north from San Luis Obispo and you’ll come to the Central California Wine Country region known as Paso Robles, known for its thousands acres of vineyards that local wineries turn into high quality wines, especially known for Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Paso Robles is your best chance for experiencing a California wine region that feels like its from a bygone era — more like what Napa was 40 years ago before the tourism dollars came in.
Paso Robles harkens back to the days gone by of California wine country, when going wine tasting consisted of driving through miles of fields brimming with grapevines before arriving at the tasting room, often located in a shed type of building or warehouse.
That’s not to say Paso Robles doesn’t have its share of ritzy tasting rooms in the high-end wineries, but you’ll find elements of old-time charm mixed in with those new modern tasting rooms.
In addition to wineries sprawled all across the Paso Robles region, you’ll find a quaint downtown area that has restaurants, shops, a pretty park space, and more tasting rooms.
If you want a beach place to stay while wine tasting in Paso Robles, a good base is Avila Beach, from which you can arrange wine tours. In addition, Avila Beach is home to an assortment of tasting rooms located in the city’s downtown area.
Where to Sleep on Your Central California Wine Country Getaway
Here are some of the places where I’ve slept while exploring Central Coast California’s Wine Country, and at which I’ve enjoyed staying.
Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
This famous hotel is located a couple miles south of downtown SLO and is quit the experience. Each room is decorated in a different theme, some more gaudy than others, ranging from horse & cowboy themed to rose themed to jungle themed to rooms with rock waterfall showers.
The property is also eccentrically decorated with a dining room that is awash in pink, a mens room that is worth sneaking into to see the waterfall urinal (just wait until the coast is clear), and a bar area that is adorned with a variety of trinkets.
If you’re staying on the property you’ll also be able to use its serene pool area, which has a walk-in edge on one side, a hot tub, and a view of vineyards.
The Hyatt in Santa Barbara
This hotel is located right across from the beach and is in walking distance to the Funk Zone. It has an onsite bar and well-appointed rooms, plus a pool area overlooking the beach.
Motel 6 Santa Barbara
I’ve also stayed at the Motel 6 off of State Street in Santa Barbara one year when looking for a budget-friendly option in the city and it was surprisingly updated with fresh paint colors and sleek bedding.
Wine Country Splurges
I haven’t stayed in these two resorts…but I want to someday!
Fess Parker Wine Country Inn
Located on the grounds of Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos, this lovely inn has sumptuous rooms with fireplaces, an onsite spa, and easy access to wine tasting.
San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara
This resort is located in the foothills of Santa Barbara and is a common stop for the rich and the famous. You can pretend you’re someone famous as you walk around the gorgeous grounds and enjoy views of the Santa Ynez countryside or enjoy luxurious treatments at the spa.
Where to Eat in Central Coast California Wine Country
Bouchon in Santa Barbara
This is one of my favorite restaurants, especially for a romantic night out. Bouchon has a cozy atmosphere in a charming old house that has been converted into a restaurant. You’ll dine on exquisitely prepared dishes that mostly features ingredients that have been locally sourced. The restaurant also has an extensive wine list featuring local wineries.
Hitching Post II in Buellton
The Hitching Post II plays a big part in the movie Sideways and since that’s one of my favorite movies, my husband surprised me on a birthday getaway to the Central Coast with dinner reservations at the Hitching Post. We feasted on excellent steaks accompanied by glasses of red from the Hitching Post’s own wine label and had a great evening in the rustic atmosphere of the restaurant.
Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo
For a budget-friendly meal that also may just be one of the best you eat on your trip, you can’t miss trying the tri-tip sandwich at Firestone Grill. Order it with the fries and a side of ranch and you’re in for an unforgettable meal at this popular sports bar in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Picnic from El Rancho Market in Solvang
Another fun way to stay on budget and eat well while wine tasting in Central California is by getting a picnic lunch from El Rancho Market. They have a wonderful food counter with gourmet sandwiches and sides that they’ll wrap up for you so you can take them to go and enjoy at one of the nearby winery’s picnic tables. El Rancho Market also has a great local wine section.
Enjoy your time wine tasting in the beautiful Central Coast Wine Country of California!