When you think of California wine country, Napa and Sonoma probably come to mind. It might surprise you to learn that the state's largest wine region is actually not the North, but the Central Coast, which extends from the south of San Francisco Bay all the way down to Santa Barbara County. There, tucked in the Santa Ynez Valley, you'll find a tiny town (population 1,138 in 2010) that feels more cowboy country than California cool. That's because it's known for three things: olives, wine, and horse ranches.
Claim to Fame
Despite its proximity to Los Angeles, when you're breathing in the fresh breeze blowing off the mountains (or the fruity bouquet of a glass of Pinot Noir), fame and fortune are just about the furthest things from your mind. Still, the small city holds plenty of Hollywood history. Los Olivos served as the setting for the Academy Award-winning film Sideways and the made-for-TV movie Return to Mayberry, based on The Andy Griffith Show. It also boasts Michael Jackson's 3,000-acre Neverland Ranch and Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo, only nine miles away, along with a host of other celebrity homes.
But the big name you'll see everywhere in town — or at least, on the sign outside a major local and — is late actor Fess Parker's. You probably know him better by the names of the characters he portrayed in the 1950s: Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
In the '70s, Parker left the industry and began pursuing his passion for . "It was time to leave Hollywood," Parker said to the in 2001 . "I came along at a time when I'm starting out with Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Sterling Hayden, and Gregory Peck. Who needed a guy running around in a coonskin cap?"
In 1988, he purchased a ranch in Los Olivos, California, for the purpose of planting some grapes and starting a small family business. But "Fess is from Texas, so he can't do anything small," as his daughter, Ashley, said.
Within a year, the Parkers had five acres of Riesling. Parker's son, Eli, studied winemaking under Jed Steele and together with his sister, Ashley, and brother-in-law, Tim Snider, helped build the business into what it is today: about 700 acres of grapes on four different vineyards in Santa Barbara county, and a charming inn, spa, and restaurant to boot.
Before his death in 2010, Parker's earned him a new nickname: King of the Wine Frontier.
Exploring Los Olivos
On a recent road trip with my sister, we decided to see what all the Fess was about. Beginning at LAX, we took the scenic route, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. Never ones for subtlety, we queued up a playlist of The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, and Joni Mitchell — essentially, any song containing a reference to the Golden State. Cruising the coastline in the pretty, cherry-red we called ours for the weekend, we gaped at the green Santa Monica mountains on our right and azure ocean on our left. Then, we gasped as we drove through Santa Barbara, strawberry fields, and over the San Marcos Pass—all in all, an impressive range of landscape for two Midwestern girls to behold.
Suddenly, we were winding our way through the Santa Ynez Mountains and into Los Olivos, aptly named for the olive trees planted on a nearby ranch.
At the onset of town, old wagons parked on the side of the road recall the town's roots as a stop on the Wells Fargo stagecoach and Pacific Coast Railway line.
With its quaint, quiet stretch of shops and tasting rooms housed in Victorian-era buildings and a general store punctuated with a vintage gas pump out front and an art gallery inside, Los Olivos looks a bit like it's frozen in time. We could see what Davy Crockett saw in this place.
Even the iconic event space Mattei's Tavern still stands on Railway Avenue, hosting rail and stage passengers during the town's heyday, and eventually notable guests including John D. Rockefeller and Clark Gable throughout its century of operation.
It's that very historic charm, as well as the scenic environment, that attracts visitors to Los Olivos to this day, whether attendees of the annual , or sisters in search of some satisfying sipping and swirling on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, as in our case.
Where to Drink
We found just what we were looking for at , which hosts special events outside as well as between the barrels.
Of course, we had to make a pit stop at Parker family winery, too. Outside the stone building, modeled after an Australian sheep station, we clinked glasses etched with Fess Parker's symbol (a coonskin cap, of course) before an amphitheater-style lawn and rows and rows of grapes—mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling, and Viognier.
What to Do
A trip to Los Olivos would not be complete without a horseback-riding lesson. At , our guide, Chris, who incidentally looked a whole lot like Willie Nelson, led us up into the rolling hills.
"Welcome to my piece of Heaven," Chris said of the spectacular view and the wild sage-scented air. He plucked some from the side of the path and handed it to us. "Cowboy's cologne," he called it.
Where to Stay
After a long day in the saddle, you'll sleep soundly in the comfy beds at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, the lobby of which boasts wood floors made from repurposed wine barrels.
But first, cool off in the outdoor pool, set before stunning living succulent wall.
In the morning, refuel with the best complimentary breakfast of your life at , named for the two states that Fess Parker called home: California and his native Texas.
If there's time, spring for a treatment at the on-site spa and do some shopping before you ride out of town.