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Santa Maria: your Next Wine & Food Vacation Destination
July, 2010 - Issue #69
The editors of Wine Enthusiast magazine picked one of Cambria Estate Winery
The editors of Wine Enthusiast magazine picked one of Cambria Estate Winery's Pinot Noirs as their number-one wine of 2009.
From the 101 freeway, Santa Maria certainly resembles our own hometown of Santa Clarita. Tile roofs, big-box shopping centers and neatly-manicured neighborhoods.

But get off the freeway and start exploring northern Santa Barbara County like we did on a recent weekend and you'll find a unique Central Coast destination with a vibrant wine country, hidden foodie gems and a glimpse of California's past.

The Historic Santa Maria Inn served as our base of operations and we settled into a spacious top-floor suite, equipped with a full-size kitchen, fireplace, living room and bedroom.

When it opened in 1917, the inn was a welcome stop for travelers headed to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Celebrities on their way to visit William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon checked in, as did movie crews from films such as Cecil B DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," which was shot on location in the area.

The inn expanded over the years, then closed when the freeway diverted traffic from downtown. It reopened under new ownership within the last decade and it is a homey destination where guests are made to feel relaxed and welcome.

We spent our first morning there in the fitness center working off the previous evening's dinner - a five-course food and wine pairing at the renowned Chef Rick's Ultimately Fine Foods. We had stumbled upon their annual Winemaker Dinner and managed to snag two of the last remaining seats.

The menu would take half a page to detail, but it was a tasting tour de force - from the fried oyster tostada appetizers, to the barbecued beef short ribs entree, to the chocolate pecan cake dessert, and everything in between. Accompanied by locally grown Costa De Oro wines, and a live band, it was an evening like none other.

Saturday afternoon found us sampling more wine, this time at the source. We started at the family-owned Cambria Estate Winery. The long L-shaped bar in the lively tasting room overlooks the vineyards on one side. The umbrella-dotted patio beckons you to sit, sip and enjoy a picnic lunch while drinking in expansive views of the Santa Maria Valley.

The wine is as impressive as the setting. The editors of Wine Enthusiast magazine picked Cambria's 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir as their number-one wine of 2009. Under the care of Tasting Room Manager Tracey Rios, we sampled six pinot noirs. The 2006 Clone 667 grabbed our attention and staked its claim as our favorite with its deep, complex flavors and a long finish.

Our next stop was Riverbench, which just opened its tasting room two years ago in a renovated Craftsman-style farm house. And although the vineyard has been productive for more than 30 years, Riverbench only began making its own wine in 2006. They're off to a great start, with their chardonnays and pinot noirs winning medals in competition and racking up points in wine publications.

Santa Maria is also famous for barbecue. And there's no better place to partake than the Far Western Tavern, one of Sunset magazine's Top 10 barbecue restaurants in the West.

Opened in 1912, it could have earned that title just from its decor. The tavern side of the establishment boasts a handsome zebrawood bar that was shipped from Africa around the Cape of Good Hope. Cowhide curtains adorn the dining room windows, and a herd of gameheads stare down from the walls, along with a pair of yoked oxen that were a gift from Ronald Reagan's ranch.

The signature steak is the 14-ounce Bull's Eye rib eye, which the menu says it's "very tender and flavorful." That's like saying Yosemite is very scenic. Mine was cooked to perfection, and every bite was red-meat nirvana. Hands down, it was one of the best steaks I've eaten. Ever.

As you might expect, the Far Western Tavern is nowhere near the freeway. In fact, their slogan says, "Where the pavement ends and the west begins."

You could say the same thing about Santa Maria: Where the freeway ends, the fun begins.
Eric Harnish lives in Newhall.

Discover Santa Maria
Santa Maria Inn

www.santamariainn.com

Chef Rick's
www.chefricks.com

Cambria Estate Winery
www.cambriawine.com

Riverbench
www.riverbench.com

Far Western Tavern
www.farwesterntavern.com
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