A ride on Pedego electric bikes offered up great views of Los Olivos’ rolling vineyards. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A ride on Pedego electric bikes offered up great views of Los Olivos’ rolling vineyards. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Leaving urban sprawl behind in Santa Ynez Valley’s Los Olivos

Small-town charm, great food and wine marry for match made in heaven

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Pandemic weary and facing a milestone, double-digit anniversary, an even bigger numbered birthday and the predictions of an unprecedented election cycle, a change of scenery was necessary to continuing marital bliss. Honestly, having withstood more togetherness during the COVID-19 era than all of the last decade combined, I would have been satisfied with continuing marital accord. At least my husband and I were on the same side politically — no mind-bogglingly bizarre Mary Matalin, James Carville match here.

Four hours south of San Francisco in the Santa Ynez Valley, little Los Olivos packs a huge punch. Together with five nearby small towns that comprise the valley — Ballard, Solvang, Santa Ynez, Buellton and Los Alamos — each one is distinct and delightful.

We decided to stay in Los Olivos, the heart of the valley’s wine industry. Over 30 tasting rooms grace the two main streets, Grand and Alamo Pintado avenues, so what could possibly go wrong?

The bed

Making our home at Los Olivos’ Fess Parker Wine Country Inn was perfect. Located in the center of town, it’s walking distance to everything. Here the inn’s 19 comfortably appointed rooms are situated in two buildings, nine in the main building and 10 rooms across the street by its sparkling pool, outdoor lounge and small fitness center.

Guest rooms are spacious with divine bedding bearing Venus tone-on-tone sheets. A no-fuss flip-switch electric fireplace provided warm ambience beside comfortable wing chairs. Generous sized bathrooms had Molton Brown amenities and thick cotton towels. Out of an abundance of COVID-era caution, I declined housekeeping so extra towels were left in the room for our use. The room’s granite bar housed a Keurig coffee machine and a small refrigerator that kept our bubbles bubbly.

The rooms at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos are spacious and well-appointed. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The rooms at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos are spacious and well-appointed. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Parking could not have been easier. There are two dedicated complimentary lots, one behind each of the Inn’s two buildings, just steps from the room. There was also plenty of free street parking. Coming from the city and seeing a plethora of free street parking made me absolutely giddy.

Fess Parker Wine Country Inn’s central location meant we could stroll to any one of the many wine tasting rooms and never need an Uber. And when it was time to rest our palates, strolling the well curated shops and art galleries of Grand Avenue was pleasant. fessparkerinn.com

God’s Country doughnut shop in Los Olivos may cause visitors to become religious. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

God’s Country doughnut shop in Los Olivos may cause visitors to become religious. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The meals

Great for people watching and reliving memories of the Academy Award-winning 2004 movie “Sideways,” the Los Olivos Café & Wine Merchant has a wonderful outdoor patio and a California Mediterranean-inspired menu of salads, sandwiches, pizzas and, of course, an extensive wine list. winemerchantcafe.com

Without doubt, two of the best recent dinners were savored in this neck of the woods.

Do not walk or run, but simply sprint to your phone and reserve a table at The Gathering Table at Ballard Inn. Indonesian-born executive chef Budi Kazali has been showcasing his enormous talent here for 16 years.

Seared Spanish octopus with spicy yuzu aioli was as tender as a filet mignon and outstanding. Diver scallops with shimeji mushrooms and choron sauce were a silky-smooth, flavor explosion. Local white fish with chorizo fried rice was a savory coupling. Charming and affable, Kazali stopped and chatted with guests at several outdoor tables after dinner. This restaurant and Kazali has made The Gathering Table a true California gem. ballardinn.com/restaurant

Seared Spanish octopus with squid ink vinaigrette at The Gathering Table was outstanding. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Seared Spanish octopus with squid ink vinaigrette at The Gathering Table was outstanding. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Ten miles north is Los Alamos, dubbed “Little L.A.,” for both its initials and the many L.A. émigrés who have established marvelous eateries in this tiny hamlet. One of these is Pico restaurant at the Los Alamos General Store. In a bucolic garden setting under heaters, the culinary magic of executive chef John Wayne Formica — yes that’s his real name — had me completely forget the magnitude of that big birthday number.

My husband declared his undying, everlasting love. Not for me, but for chef Formica’s crispy Viet Brussels sprouts laced with chili lime agrodolce. A significant marital moment as hubby’s been a lifetime detester of these crunchy, cabbage-like miniatures. I was more than willing to also reaffirm my vows to Formica’s miso-encrusted black cod with parsnip purée and truffle fries. The deconstructed plum pie guaranteed more anniversaries would ensue. losalamosgeneralstore.com

Chef John Wayne Formica’s delectable miso-encrusted black cod over parsnip purée had the author falling in love. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Chef John Wayne Formica’s delectable miso-encrusted black cod over parsnip purée had the author falling in love. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The finds

We had such great sandwiches the day before at Panino, we ordered a picnic lunch for our next day’s excursion. paninorestaurants.com. Twenty steps away, we picked up our rented electric bicycles at Pedego Los Olivos. In perfect weather we rode 30 miles along picturesque vineyards, ranches, wineries and farms. We stopped at Clairmont Lavender Farm vending all manner of aromatic lavender products (ClairmontFarms.com) and Global Garden Olive Oil Farm selling locally produced oils and vinegars. globalgardensonline.com

A picnic at Roblar Winery ended a perfect day. Returning these enjoyable Pedego bikes with the extra oomph that the electricity provided on some of the bigger hills added to the fun. I firmly believe owning one may be in my future. www.PedegoLO.com

A display called “Words Matter” explodes out of a vintage typewriter at Global Eye Art Collective. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A display called “Words Matter” explodes out of a vintage typewriter at Global Eye Art Collective. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Naturally it’s all about wine tasting in Los Olivos. Hard to select favorites, but we loved Epiphany Cellars both for its mellow wines and its gorgeous, large patio that made social distancing easy. Comfortable furnishings made us want to never leave. epiphanyeineco.com

Wine tasting is blissful at Epiphany Cellars. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Wine tasting is blissful at Epiphany Cellars. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The atmosphere at Fess Parker Winery was equally idyllic amid tall trees and a verdant backdrop. Make certain to taste the 2018 Big Easy. With 57% syrah, 24% petit syrah and 19% grenache, Big Easy’s interesting finish is captivating. fessparker.com

The lessons learned

Unlike the lovelorn chaos of “Sideways,” our weekend in Los Olivos reminded us of our great fortune meeting back when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Inspired food, great wines and pleasurable activities were icing on the proverbial, reconstructed cake.

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at www.vagabondlawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer, but content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.

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