Recently, road trips have exploded in popularity, and for good reason. There’s no need to rush to the airport to catch a flight or try to limit the size or weight of your luggage. Instead, you can set the schedule, hit the open road, and stop whenever you please. And in Central California, some of the best and most scenic road-trip stops are wineries.
My husband, Jason, and I have taken many road trips through Central California and the Central Coast over the years. We love this part of the state and just can’t get enough of it. More recently, we’ve begun exploring its wineries. So I’ve put together this winery road trip that combines some of California’s best wineries with its most charming towns.
To fully appreciate each destination, I’d recommend allowing three to four days and two to three overnight stays for this trip. Each town offers lovely accommodations as well as excellent dining options. Driving under the influence carries heavy penalties in this area, so if you don’t have a designated driver, you’ll want to visit only one or two wineries per day. If you’d prefer not to drive at all, consider an organized tour with Central Coast Jeep Tour Adventures or San Luis Obispo Wine Tours.
1. Paso Robles
Paso Robles is an ideal place to start your winery road trip. With more than 200 wineries and more than 40 grape varieties, this is the heart of Central California’s wine country.
Jason and I began our day at Justin Vineyards with lunch and a wine tasting. The drive to Justin was an adventure of its own, as we rolled up and down the hills and around the many bends. A few times I questioned the accuracy of our GPS, but eventually we arrived at the lovely restaurant overlooking the vineyards. Two tastings are available: a basic flight and a premium flight. We opted for the basic, which included a rosé and three reds. We especially enjoyed the 2017 Isosceles, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, and merlot. This is definitely the place to go for a relaxed and leisurely lunch accompanied by delicious food and friendly service.
Our next stop was Booker Vineyard and its brand-new tasting room perched on a hillside with lovely views of the surrounding wineries and vineyards. I’ve been to many tasting rooms, but this one definitely wins the award for most stylish. The indoor and outdoor spaces blend seamlessly, while the decor features large, comfortable seating areas in muted colors. Booker is all about the reds, with an emphasis on Rhone varietals including grenache, syrah, and Mourvèdre. My favorite here was the 2018 Fracture, a 100 percent syrah that’s described as Booker’s flagship wine.
If you need a break from wine tasting, head to the historic downtown area for some shopping, strolling, and dining. I strongly encourage everyone to stop at the Brown Butter Cookie Company before heading to the next road-trip stop.
Pro Tip: If you’re planning to spend the night in Paso, I recommend the Allegretto Vineyard Resort. Built around a scenic courtyard, this luxury resort is home to an abbey, a labyrinth, outdoor games, and its own tasting room.
2. San Luis Obispo
Just 30 minutes south of Paso Robles is San Luis Obispo, a town I’ve long loved and have visited many times. Commonly referred to as SLO, this region offers a couple dozen wineries throughout the scenic Edna Valley. Here you’ll find award-winning chardonnay and pinot noir.
Just 10 minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo is Chamisal Vineyards, featuring sustainably grown chardonnay and pinot noir. Enjoy the lovely patio with a glass of wine or a flight. As a chardonnay lover myself, I was especially drawn to the fact that Chamisal offers six different chardonnays for sale.
Just 5 minutes away is Biddle Ranch Vineyard, with an excellent selection of red wines including pinot noir, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. Relax at one of the outdoor tables while sipping a glass of wine. Feel free to bring your own food and make it a winery picnic.
No trip to SLO would be complete without a stop in the downtown area. I’ve always loved this part of town that is both charming and bustling. If you’re visiting on a weekend, it may take some patience to find a parking spot, but it will be worth it. If you didn’t enjoy a winery picnic, then plan to grab lunch or dinner here. And if possible, choose a place that offers creekside dining, like Novo Restaurant & Lounge.
3. Los Alamos
Continue southeast for about 45 minutes, and you’ll arrive in the tiny hamlet of Los Alamos. With a main street that’s just seven blocks long, Los Alamos draws visitors back to the Old West while demanding that they slow down. This is the perfect place to linger over a delicious meal and an excellent glass of wine.
Los Alamos is located in the north end of the Santa Ynez Valley, a region known for producing pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah. Start at Bedford Winery, which specializes in barrel-fermented chardonnays and signature syrahs. The owner, Stephen Bedford, has been making wines in California for more than 30 years, and he is eager to share them with visitors. Next, head to Lo-Fi Wines, which specializes in natural gamay, rosé, chardonnay, and cabernet Franc. The founders believe that wine is like music, which is made apparent by the vinyl records that regularly play on a turntable in the tasting room.
Don’t leave Los Alamos without trying one of its excellent restaurants. For a splurge, head to Bell’s for a five-course prix-fixe dinner. For something more casual, try Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, where you’ll find some seriously good bread, pastries, and sandwiches.
4. Los Olivos
Located in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos is another tiny town that packs a punch when it comes to wine and food. If this one sounds familiar, it’s probably due to the very popular 2004 movie Sideways. Despite its small size, Los Olivos has more than 30 tasting rooms and breweries tucked along its main street, Grand Avenue, and several side streets.
If you enjoy sparkling wines, you’re in the right place, since there are more than 50 sparkling wine producers in Santa Barbara County. Personally, I love The Bubble Shack, a rustic little shop featuring the sparkling wines of Fess Parker. Artiste is a tasting experience in a working art studio modeled on the Hotel Baudy, the tiny inn in Giverny where the Impressionist movement began.
If you’re a movie geek like me, then save time for lunch at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe, one of the filming locations for Sideways. If you’re short on time but still want really good food, head to Los Olivos Grocery and grab a sandwich to go. This is also a good spot to gather the makings of a picnic.
Solvang is just a 15-minute drive from Los Olivos, making it ideal to combine both stops in one day on this road trip. Started in 1911 by a community of Danish Americans, this small town is home to a variety of museums, bakeries, restaurants, shops, and tasting rooms.
Solvang has made wine tasting exceptionally easy by offering more than 20 tasting rooms. And there’s no need to designate a driver when you can simply walk from shop to shop sampling the wide range of wines grown in this region. Toccata is the tasting room for Lucas & Lewellen, which produces traditional Italian wines on the Central Coast. Named after the family pet, Lucky Dogg Winery is one of the newer options in town. Its signature wines are syrahs and syrah blends. The Casa Cassara Winery has been producing wine for more than two decades in the valley and offers a selection of whites, reds, and rosés in its tasting room.
But don’t leave Solvang without sampling the Danish pastries — that would be a shame. Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery will likely have a long line, but that’s because it is well known for its classic Danish pastries. Birkholm’s Bakery & Cafe is another popular spot selling kringles filled with almond paste, cardamom bread, and fruit-filled pastries.
6. Santa Barbara
The scenic drive from Solvang to Santa Barbara takes about 45 minutes. If you’re hungry, stop along the way at Cold Spring Tavern, a rustic restaurant that began life as a stagecoach stop in 1868. Be sure to use your GPS to find this place, since it isn’t visible from the road.
Once in Santa Barbara, head to the Presidio District, a historic open-air complex perfect for enjoying both the lovely weather and a good glass of wine. Here you’ll find four tasting rooms, including Au Bon Climat and Grassini Family Vineyards. If you prefer something quirkier, head to The Funk Zone, a former manufacturing and industrial area that’s attracted artists, surf shops, and urban winemakers. Pop in to Pali Wine Co., offering Burgundy-inspired wines, or Santa Barbara Winery, the first winemaker to open after Prohibition.
Allow time to soak up the sun along one of Santa Barbara’s beaches. I’ve always loved a stroll along Stearns Wharf, located at the end of State Street. From the end of the wharf, you’ll enjoy gorgeous views of the water, sand, and the iconic red-tiled roofs of the city.