What to do when December temps reach the high 60s and the sun shines relentlessly (not sure when we’ll be seeing that again)? Impromptu road trip, of course! We packed our bags and headed south to Santa Barbara, with brilliant stops in Carmel Valley, Big Sur, and Paso Robles.
Carmel Valley Ranch. Recently acquired by Joie de Vivre, the property underwent a $35 million renovation and blends upscale comfort, modern accommodations, and outdoor adventure. Note: take advantage of the mid-week “Play Hooky” package.
Lunch in Big Sur. Ventana means window and the Ventana Inn & Spa (also recently acquired by Joie de Vivre) offers a bird’s eye view of the rugged Big Sur coastline and the vast Pacific Ocean beyond. Lunch here countered the notion that a restaurant with smashing outlooks can’t serve scrumptious food. The fried Monterey Bay calamari with fennel and lemon aioli, fresh catch-of-the-day fish tacos, and Croque Madame complete with sunny side up egg were just outstanding.
Paso Robles (The Pass of the Oaks). We headed inland via Route 46, a breathtaking pass that climbs up and over the Santa Lucia Mountains and descends into the charming town of Paso Robles (aka “pass-oh”). It is also home to many of area’s renowned wineries, including Tablas Creek Vineyard, producers of Rhône varietals in the tradition of the famed Châteauneuf du Pape region and our first stop.
We continued to explore Paso from our home base at the Hotel Cheval, a 16-room boutique property adjacent to the historic town square. Among its many attributes, is its Pet Program (and wine bar)!
Two other exceptional venues:
- McPrice Myers (yes, it’s the name of one individual) or “Mac” is the charming winemaker and polished palate behind the Syrah- and Grenache-based wines of the McPrice Myers label. While the tasting room is in an industrial park removed from Paso’s picturesque, oak-studded wine roads, it is well worth a visit. A favorite was the Beautiful Earth, a blend of 72% Syrah, 21% Grenache, and 7% Mourvedre.
- Mac is also the owner/winemaker at the Barrel 27 Wine Company, whose Mission Statement reads, in part, “Our goal is to make wine that works hard at helping hard working America relax for a minute…”
- Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro & Wine Bar – While the terms organic, seasonal, farm-to-table, and the like, may have morphed into clichés, Thomas Hill’s food is anything but. Sit on the sunny patio and enjoy a salad of roasted beets and cauliflower, with fresh burrata and a bagna cauda vinaigrette, the Vietnamese BBQ pork belly sandwich, with carrot sambal, cilantro, avocado, and roasted garlic aioli, and/or the Cypress Grove truffle tremor cheese, with chanterelles, arugula, and walnut pesto on fresh-baked bread. Local ingredients with an international flair!
Santa Barbara via Los Olivos. We made a point of stopping by Alta Maria’s new Los Olivos tasting room enroute to Santa Barbara. This small production winery, focusing on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, was one of our favorite finds of 2011.
In addition to Alta Maria, partners and vinters James Ontiveros and Paul Wilkins produce the Rhone-style Autonom (we served a magnum of this at our New Year’s dinner) and the luxurious Native 9 Pinot Noir.
We arrived in Santa Barbara just in time to enjoy a spectacular sunset.
While the light was beautiful, the true highlight of our visit was the opportunity to spend time with our dear friends Pat and Steph. And, they must have been just as happy to see us as they delved deep into their wine cellar and brought forth some incredibly special bottles to share (a 2001 Opus One, anyone?).
However, our most enjoyable and delectable dining experience was at Julienne, an intimate neighborhood bistro with world-class fare. One of the most impressive offerings was the selection of house-made charcuterie with piquant accompaniments. We also indulged in the foie gras, persimmon, and arugula appetizer; stuffed quail with wild rice and chorizo; and the oven roasted pork belly with caramelized brussel sprouts, toasted mustard, and applesauce, among other treats (outrageous, huh?).
And complementing it all were two extraordinary bottles from the Devaney cellar: a 1997 La Grande Anneé Bollinger and a 2001, the very first vintage, Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir.
Here’s to more impromptu adventures in 2012!