California’s Santa Ynez Valley is a Slice of Heaven with a Side of Texas Soul
With a number of established wineries and innovative new eateries, Los Alamos offers a cozy, small-town destination for travelers
Katie Parker McDonald and I are horseback and admiring the view from her late grandfather’s favorite vantage point. Before us are rolling hills of sun-bleached grass and valleys populated by massive live oaks, interspersed with meticulously cultivated vineyards. It’s a hot morning for California’s Central Coast, but compared to summer in Texas, the Mediterranean climate is a welcome relief.
“Grandad grew up on a farm in San Angelo, so he loved it out here, but my grandmother was a city girl, and she didn’t want to leave Los Angeles,” she tells me. “He finally convinced her to move by saying he was going to start a winery.”
Parker McDonald’s grandfather was actor Fess Parker, a native Texan best known for his portrayals of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Before he hung up his infamous coonskin cap in the 1970s, however, Parker got into hotel development and real estate, and in 1988, he purchased a 714-acre ranch in Los Olivos, a former stagecoach stop 33 miles northeast of Santa Barbara in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Fess wasn’t the first person to establish a winery (Fess Parker Winery & Vineyards) in this sleepy pocket of Santa Barbara County, but he was a visionary, hellbent on making the best possible wine, as well as ensuring a legacy for his family. Today, four generations of Parkers work the land, including Fess’s son, winemaker Eli Parker, his daughter Ashley Parker Snider, and his son-in-law Tim Snider. Together with their adult children, they run the winery, a brewery and a luxury hotel.
Parker McDonald has remained true to her Texas roots despite growing up in Los Olivos. Along with her husband, former PBR bull rider Rocky McDonald, she established KAP Land & Cattle, a sustainable Wagyu beef operation that also offers customized horseback riding tours; the couple has cattle ranches in New Mexico and Texas, as well.
The fecund Santa Ynez Valley has been providing sustenance to its inhabitants for centuries. The Chumash Indians were foragers and fishermen, and the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 18th century led to the establishment of the region’s ranching and agricultural heritage. Even now, as California experiences something of a mass exodus due the exorbitant cost of living and housing, Santa Ynez has largely retained its slow pace, dreamy bucolic landscapes and agrarian way of life. What’s changed, however, is the region’s surprisingly cosmopolitan food and drink scene, which is centered in the hamlet of Los Alamos.
Doing things differently
Like Parker McDonald, I grew up on a ranch, but ours is a minuscule-by-Texas-standards horse and mule property 90 minutes south of the Santa Ynez Valley. My nonagenarian parents still reside there, but they’ve always had a profound love of the valley. When I was a kid, we’d drive along the back roads, which feature Spanish moss dripping from towering oaks and verdant hillsides splashed with California poppies. Before heading home, we’d stop for aebleskivers in Solvang, a Danish settlement-turned-tourist-town — think Fredericksburg with windmills and timber framing.
While I can recall passing through Los Alamos (“Lost Almost” is a tongue-in-cheek nickname bestowed by locals), it wasn’t until my early 30s that the town captured my attention. I was residing in Santa Barbara in 2006 and writing for the local alternative weekly when I heard about a wood-fired flatbread restaurant, American Flatbread, that had opened on Los Alamos’s seven-block main drag. This was remarkable because, at the time, the only eateries in town were a hamburger stand and a daytime cafe. I immediately wrangled an assignment and paid a visit.
Self-taught chef/baker Clark Staub first visited the region in 1988 when he was a music executive. He experienced something of an epiphany after spending two weeks volunteering at friends’ wineries and helping them with the grape harvest. Staub eventually opened a bakery in Claremont, California, using a levain starter he’d sourced from their pinot noir grapes (it’s still in use at his restaurant), but in 2004, he was presented with an opportunity to open a West Coast franchise of Waitsfield, Vermont’s American Flatbread.
“That’s how I landed in Los Alamos,” he says. “I was visiting my winemaker friends, got off the highway to get gas and saw a building for rent.” Nineteen years later, Staub is still at it, but now the restaurant is his own venture, rebranded in 2006 as Full of Life Flatbread.
The homey restaurant is still a favorite gathering place for winemakers, but now there’s also an outdoor dining area set amongst the garden beds. Nearly all ingredients are sourced from farmers’ markets or directly from growers, ranchers and fishermen. Neighbors also drop off surplus produce from their own gardens and farms, says Staub, describing a recent delivery of dent corn that he ground for polenta.
“Clark was a pioneer,” says 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef Daisy Ryan, who grew up in Solvang and currently co-owns Bell’s, a Michelin-starred French bistro in Los Alamos, along with her husband, Greg. “He was doing things differently, from sourcing to changing his menu weekly. He helped pave the way for many chefs and restaurants in the valley to engage with guests who enjoy .”
More than pinot noir
Los Alamos was established in 1876 as another stagecoach stop, but sheep and cattle ranching soon became its main economy. The town of under 2,000 has changed little, but, says Ryan, it’s “recently experienced a wave of modernized hospitality” in the form of several design-savvy destination restaurants and a number of unpretentious tasting rooms. Yet, Los Alamos has also retained its Old West vibe and original structures, some of which now house those very businesses.
The Ryans relocated to Los Alamos in 2017, following the birth of their son. Prior to that, they were in Austin — as was nearly their entire management team — working for McGuire Moorman Hospitality.
“I think of Austin as Santa Ynez meets Brooklyn,” says Ryan. “And Los Alamos has a small-town Texas feel, crossed with a California rancho vibe. It’s not like other California wine regions, which are more sophisticated and established. It’s a little more authentic here.”
Wine grapes have been cultivated in the Santa Ynez Valley since the late 18th century, when Father Junipero Serra brought cuttings to the missions he established along what is today El Camino Real. Prohibition led to the collapse of the region’s fledgling wine industry, but in 1962, Canadian entrepreneur Pierre Lafond established the first post-Prohibition winery in Santa Barbara, paving the way for an industry that attracts visitors from all over the world. In Nov. 2021, Wine Enthusiast even named Santa Barbara County the Wine Region of the Year.
“The valley has changed, and Los Alamos has encountered the most radical transformation. Still, you have to be exceptional in your own way to survive in our one-horse town.” – Sonja Magdevski, winemaker/founder, Casa Dumetz Wines
While pinot noir built the Santa Ynez Valley’s reputation for winemaking, its cool climate is also well-suited for chardonnay, gamay, chenin blanc and over 40 other varietals.
“We’re a geographic anomaly,” says Sonja Magdevski, founder and winemaker at Casa Dumetz Wines, which operates a tasting room and craft beer shop in Los Alamos. “All of our valley’s run sideways — east to west — which means they’re cooled by the ocean air and coastal fog every morning and evening. We’re unlike any other wine region in California.”
Magdevski’s intentional use of the term ‘sideways’ is a nod to the 2004 hit film starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, which was about the valley. In fact, the penultimate scene where Giamatti’s character Miles has a meltdown involving a spit bucket of pinot noir was filmed in Fess Parker Winery’s tasting room.
While wine tourism has eclipsed the region’s traditional economies of cattle and sheep ranching, dairy farming and other fruit and vegetable crops, the Santa Ynez Valley is still a state leader in diversified and regenerative agriculture. At Elder Flat Farm in Los Alamos, grower Carla Malloy supplies local eateries like Pico, an enchanting garden restaurant located in the former general store.
When I meet Malloy, she’s behind the counter of her small farm shop, accompanied by her seven-year-old son, Cooper, a local mutton busting and roping champion (“I’m not a roping champion, just a good roper,” he demurs.). I tell Malloy that I’ll be dining at Pico that evening, and she leads me to the porch where the restaurant’s new chef, Cameron Ingle, is chatting with Malloy’s husband.
Ingle moved to Los Alamos this past April after leaving his position at New York state’s venerable Blue Hill at Stone Farms. Under chef/food activist/farmer Dan Barber, he developed a passion for vegetable cookery and sustainability. Despite having lived in the valley for just two months at the time of our meeting, he has already forged relationships with local growers and familiarized himself with the region’s history.
“It seems like everybody out here is a farmer, and it’s just so easy to source good food,” he says. “As a chef, you really have to lean into that fact. We’re fortunate to have the best of the best, and I do what I can to honor those ingredients.”
Ingle sources line-caught halibut and sea urchin from the waters off the nearby Channel Islands from fisherman Stephanie Mutz, one of the nation’s only female uni divers. Even Pico’s cocktail program showcases regional spirits and botanicals harvested from the restaurant’s gardens.
A block from Pico, Bell’s also serves thoughtful, unfussy fare sourced from the foodshed (think crudo of Santa Barbara bluefin tuna with plums, buttermilk vinaigrette and dill pollen and a phenomenal egg salad sandwich with tomato jam.)
“Sometimes, I just chuckle to myself, because we’re living such an Alice Waters-inspired experience here,” says Ryan. “I shop the farmers’ markets, and our eggs, lamb, goat, duck, rabbits and pork come from our friends at Motley Crew Ranch. Stephanie lives a block away so we’re her last stop; she just carries our sea urchin delivery through the dining room. It’s kind of incredible.”
“Incredible” is also one of many adjectives I used back in 2006 when I dined at American Flatbread. The food is as good as I remembered, like the perfectly blistered flatbread, this time topped with Motley Crew pork sausage, smoke-dried Tutti Frutti Farms tomatoes and housemade mozzarella. Next to me at the bar, a woman swoons over her lemon cake with fresh cream and Chavez Farm blueberries.
Before I depart, I wander through the garden. It’s dusk, and the fairy lights strung above the communal tables have come on. Kids are racing between the vegetable beds, and there’s a jubilant wedding party occupying the far corner. This garden is the manifestation of one man’s vision, but it’s symbolic of something Daisy Ryan said to me earlier that day. “Los Alamos is evolving in a really lovely, positive way.” It is, indeed.
Plan Your Visit
The Santa Ynez Valley is 40 minutes from Santa Barbara Airport. In addition to wine tourism, the region offers secluded beaches, sea kayaking, surfing, sportfishing, hiking, mountain biking and road cycling. Note that many businesses are closed Monday to Wednesday. Plan your visit at visitsyv.com. The Santa Ynez Historical Museum in Santa Ynez features exhibits and collections that detail the region’s multi-cultural and colorful history.
Eat & drink
Get your breakfast and picnic fare at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery & Café in Los Alamos and Ballard. The extensive menu includes excellent sweet and savory pastries, sandwiches, coffee beverages and more. Pico serves dinner and weekend brunch. Chef Cameron Ingle’s regional cuisine includes housemade pastas, a prix fixe vegetable tasting menu and a well-curated cocktail and wine list; the latter emphasizes selections from small, low intervention makers.
Bell’s is open for lunch and dinner (reservations recommended). Daisy Ryan’s hyper-local French bistro fare was recently awarded a Michelin star. Sister restaurant Bar Le Côte is a seafood tavern in Los Olivos. Full of Life Flatbread is open Thursday through Sunday — it’s worth planning a visit around the ever-changing weekend menu.
While Los Alamos closes up early, you’ll find much to love in its clutch of intimate tasting rooms. Bodega is an adorable organic wine shop and tasting room with a wine and beer garden. Lo-Fi Wines specializes in low intervention bottles made for “everyday drinking.”
KAP Land & Cattle in Los Olivos offers customized riding tours on Fess Parker Ranch, including wine tastings. Visit wineries by bike with SB Wine Country Cycling Tours. For scenic coastal vistas, hike the 5.2 mile out-and-back Grass Mountain Trail.
There’s excellent camping at nearby beaches, including Gaviota State Park, Jalama Beach and El Capitán State Beach. Lumen Wines offers educational visits of their sustainable and biodynamic vineyards through Dirt Shepherd Tours; you can also drop by their tasting room in Los Alamos. Casa Dumetz Wines offers tours, but don’t miss their delightful Los Alamos tasting room and adjacent sister business, Babi’s Beer Emporium. Cider Factory, a hand-bottled and conditioned vinous cider, is a standout from Casa Dumetz winemakers Sonja Magdevski and her husband, Greg Brewer.
The 76th annual Los Alamos Old Days is Sept. 23 to 25. This celebration of the town’s western heritage includes a car show, dinner dance, parade and artisan market.
The desert-chic Alamo Motel from Shelter Social Club hospitality group pays homage to the valley’s ranch heritage. Located in a thoughtfully renovated mid-century motel, the vintage vibe and Western décor will resonate with fans of Marfa.
A helping hand
At the start of the pandemic, Daisy and Greg Ryan of Bell’s/Bar Le Côte created Feed the Valley, a fundraising initiative (in partnership with other local restaurants and the Santa Barbara Foundation) that enabled them to prepare meals for those in need, employ staff and “feed our community,” says Daisy Ryan. As the region grows, rising costs and housing shortages have had a dire impact upon agricultural and service industry workers. Adds Ryan, “It’s so easy to think of this area as nothing more than weekend getaway, but it’s a real place with real issues.”