Less pretentious and far more affordable than their pinkies-up cousin Napa to the north, the Santa Ynez Valley's vineyards have the same laid-back cowboy charm as central California's coastal ranches. Come the fall harvest, the best vineyards to visit are in the Santa Rita Hills, where dusty roads lead to family operations and the Belmont Brewery gives drinkers a different sort of taste.
It takes about an hour to drive from Santa Barbara's stucco downtown to Buellton, a working-class outpost farther inland as famous for the local split pea soup as it is for the pinot noirs, chardonnays, and syrahs produced at the dozens of local wineries. A short drive away from main street, a nondescript turn leads travelers down a tree-lined driveway, through open gates and into the Melville Vineyard, where picnic tables are scattered across a small lawn surrounded by vines. Samplers can take a short walk down the neat rows and pluck a few grapes off the vines before tasting the fruit of the Melville family's labor: full-bodied pinot noirs.
From Melville, head towards the military town of Lompoc, where an old industrial park with a series of refurbished trailers has been transformed by a number of local vintners into a group of elegant and exceptionally fun wine-tasting rooms. Affectionately called the "wine ghetto," the complex is full of rooms distinctly decorated in a wide variety of styles. A few miles south on the famed Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Rosa Road branches off into the country. A single-lane country road with no centerline, Santa Rosa is more popular with bikers than cars and serves as the driveway to the oldest vineyard in the area, Sanford-Bennedict. Horseshoe pits, shady oak trees, and an old truck piled high with wine barrels all add to Sanford's undeniable charm.
Back in Buellton, stop in at the Hitching Post for dinner. Made famous by the film 'Sideways,' The Hitching Post II hasn't lost track of its steak house roots – though the wine list has expanded to include a house label. As for accommodation, there's plenty of choice. Travelers can camp on the coast at Jalama County Beach (about 30 minutes from Lompoc) or stay in a master suite at the luxurious Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, a well-appointed break from California casual.
If you have more time, be sure to meander up the rural Zaca Station Road, a shady lane hemmed in by dozens of vineyards and wineries. Some must-stops are at Zaca Mesa, Foxen, and the gorgeous Rancho Sisquoc, host of this season's annual Celebration of Harvest Festival.
More information: Travelers can fly into LAX and enjoy a two-hour drive (depending on traffic) up the coast, or make the hop on one of the small United Airlines planes that operate between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara Airport.