Santa Maria: A Splendid Destination for Wine and Cuisine
by Susan Montgomery
A recent trip to the Santa Maria Valley introduced us to an entirely new area for enticing explorations. Although Santa Maria is conveniently located in California’s Central Valley just north of Santa Barbara, we had never traveled there before. The drive into the area was serene and gorgeous with vibrant green hills highlighted by yellow and pink wildflowers.
Our trip with a group of writers from the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association appropriately focused on wine and cuisine. Santa Maria is one of the oldest grape growing regions in California and dates back to the Mexican Colonial period during the 1830s. The area’s cool climate and generally nurturing terroir make it ideal for producing some of the most outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the state, as we would soon happily discover.
The area is also well known for its evolving culinary scene, and particularly for its famous Santa Maria BBQ, which is characterized by meats grilled very slowly over red oak, and accented with a special seasoning that includes a mix of black pepper, garlic, salt and parsley. The seasoning is most popular on tri-tip but is also used on other cuts of beef. Santa Maria BBQ dishes are typically served with salsa and pinquito beans, small red beans grown only in the Santa Maria region. (And they are delicious.)
Our itinerary offered us mouth-watering samplings of some of the best wineries and restaurants the area has to offer.
We stayed at the newly renovated Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites, which is nicely located for travelers who want to explore the area. We loved the superbly comfortable beds with soothing linens. The stylishly decorated lobby, restaurant, and bar add to the hotel’s welcoming vibe. And the staff is especially cheerful and helpful. Breakfast in the lobby dining area was delicious, especially the made-to-order omelets. We were transported in style to wineries and restaurants via a luxurious Gold Coast Limousine bus. We had knowledgeable drivers both days of our trip who provided friendly guidance to the area and were glad to answer all our questions.
During our two-day Santa Maria adventure, we visited four outstanding wineries, although there are many other wonderful wineries in the region. On Sunday afternoon we stopped at Riverbench Winery where live music on the lawn was a pleasant accompaniment to wine tasting on the beautifully landscaped grounds. We learned that Riverbench’s winemaker, Clarissa Nagy, is well known for producing outstanding wines. Later we were fortunate to meet Clarissa in the charming tasting room of Nagy Wines in nearby Orcutt where we enjoyed sampling some of her stellar wines. We loved her popular 2012 Pinot Noir (from Garey Ranch Vineyard), which is full of zesty, cherry tastes. And we also enjoyed her 2013 Viognier (from White Hawk Vineyard) with rich stone fruit flavors and hints of citrus and vanilla. We liked the Pinot Noir and the Viognier so much that we brought several bottles home. This inviting tasting room is definitely a place for wine lovers to stop when visiting the Santa Maria area and hopefully visitors will have a chance to meet the personable winemaker who talks passionately about her wines.
Ca’ Del Grevino Estate Winery was a special treat for our group. Jon Karlo Macias, the estate’s well-informed, personable tasting room manager, welcomed us to the stunning Tuscan-inspired mansion set majestically among rolling hills of vineyards. From the Italian fountain in the front courtyard (see photo at beginning of article) to the modern country kitchen, every part of this estate exuded elegant ambiance, as did the wines we tasted. We learned that the estate’s vineyards are all sustainably farmed and the grapes are hand harvested and sorted. We loved the rich, sweetish Dolcetto with chocolate tastes and a fruity Syrah with hints of cherries and blackberries highlighted by a peppery tang. Ca’ Del Grevino already has three tasting rooms (in Los Olivos, Santa Barbara and Orcutt) and has plans for a major winery expansion. Eventually there will be ten guest rooms on the estate so guests can sip and stay. What a delightful experience that will be.
Presqu'ile Winery is located near Ca’ Del Grevino in a similar mountainous area with breathtaking views, but its modern, stylish design with floor-to-ceiling glass walls is very different than its Tuscan neighbor. While the wines we tasted were varied and all excellent, my favorite was the clear deep pink Rosé of Pinot Noir which tasted like berries and rose petals, but visitors should also try the wonderful Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, all made from grapes grown on the property. We also enjoyed taking a tour of the impressive cave at this winery.
We also visited four outstanding restaurants:
We enjoyed a delicious, healthy lunch at the Moxie Cafe, a pleasant, spacious restaurant. We were welcomed by Caleb Granski, Moxie’s friendly events and catering manager, who told us a bit about the restaurant’s interesting history. Moxie was founded by Jay Hardy, the owner of nearby Hardy Diagnostics, a medical supply company. He was concerned that his 250 employees did not have any nutritious food options for lunch in the area so he created one for them. Soon the restaurant became so popular that it expanded its hours to include breakfast and dinner seven days a week. All dishes are minimally processed with no hormones or antibiotics and local, fresh ingredients are used as much as possible. The only oils used are olive and coconut along with butter, and nothing is fried. Local wines and beers are also featured on the menu.
We savored several dishes including a variety of sandwiches—such as Tuscan chicken with basil aioli, fresh roasted vegetables on multi-grain bread, a turkey croissant topped with bacon and avocado, and a tri-tip sandwich prepared Santa Maria style of course. We also enjoyed Moxie’s signature zesty tri-tip chili. For dessert, we loved the restaurant’s refreshing house-made gelatos in a wide variety of flavors. (I loved the grapefruit.)
A unique aspect of Moxie is that after working 1000 hours, employees begin receiving stock in the restaurant and after six years they are fully vested partial owners. This benefit has obviously had an effect on the dedication and longevity of the employees. All staff members we met were helpful, friendly, and obviously eager to keep customers happy.
We had another great lunch at Rooney’s Irish Pub where we were welcomed by the affable owner, Timothy Patrick Rooney. While this hopping spot serves authentic Irish dishes such as Corned Beef & Cabbage, Bangers & Mash, and Shepherd’s Pie (uniquely topped with short ribs), the restaurant also has an eclectic menu with traditional pub items such as big flavorful burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, fresh fish tacos, and a “Green Bay” bratwurst. Shanty’s Irish Brewing Company produces micro-brews right on site and offers a variety of special beers like English Oatmeal Porter, Pale Ale, Blond Ale and Amber Ale. Several of us savored an ample and tasty beer flight. Just like pubs in Ireland, Rooney’s is full of Irish ambiance and charm. It’s a surprising find in Santa Maria that is well worth a visit.
Shaw’s Steakhouse in the heart of downtown Santa Maria reminds me of an upper Midwest supper club with its casual, cozy atmosphere and emphasis on grilling steaks to perfection. (See photo below.) Some in our group raved about the tri-tip and baby back ribs, while others praised the ribeyes, and I loved my tender, juicy filet mignon. Everything was liberally seasoned Santa Maria style and served with traditional pinquito beans and salsa—both essential to an authentic Santa Maria style BBQ meal. We also sampled a variety of scrumptious appetizers such as sautéed mushrooms, fried bay shrimp, poppers oozing with cheese, and flavorful linguica (Portuguese sausage). Portions are hearty and the staff is enthusastic.
The Far Western Tavern is also an outstanding option for Santa Maria BBQ. It is an upscale restaurant with what its owners describe as “contemporary California cuisine.” An in-depth article about this impressive restaurant can be found by clicking HERE.
Photos with this article taken by Todd Montgomery.