Napa Valley is the most famous wine region in America, probably deservedly so, but I have always preferred the Santa Ynez Valley. I have been going there since long before I drank wine and I have watched the region grow from a few small towns to a tourist destination. My cousins moved to Santa Maria 15 years ago, and the first time I visited them there was basically a gas station and a couple fruit stands off the highway. Now there are big shopping centers and tract houses.
Los Olivos, though, a few miles off 101, has not changed very much. (Although the owner of a winery in town told me that a dozen years ago there were only four wineries and now there are 16.) There is still a flag pole in the center of town, antique stores, and a general pace of life that does not seem to have accelerated in the same way that the larger towns on the coast have.
Recently some friends and I went up to the area to do some wine tasting. My friend Dave and his wife left before we did, and I suggested meeting in Los Olivos so they could walk around and wait for us. He had no idea where that was and I gave him directions. He was astonished by how cute the town is, and the fact that he never would have found it or thought something like that was there without my directions. (He also recognized several locations in town from the movie Sideways.)
Before going to our first winery we stopped by the Los Olivos Grocery. It's a classic country market with a nice collection of local wines, friendly people and a deli counter. The prices are all high but it obviously caters to people going wine tasting. We all got sandwiches and drove a few miles down the highway to Sunstone Winery.
Sunstone is simply one of the most beautiful places in California. The winery is a Provencal-style building and courtyard, with views overlooking the Santa Ynez River and mountains. I first visited Sunstone about two years ago with a group of friends on a wine tasting tour. It was to be our second-to-last stop of the day but we all fell in love with the place and decided to buy a couple extra bottles and drink there until it closed.
The sandwich I had purchased at the store was the "Tuscan Treasure": prosciutto, salami, provolone, lettuce, red onion, tomato, mayo and Italian dressing on a French roll. It was average in every possible way. Of course, eating it in the courtyard with my friends and a glass of red wine, it tasted like the best sandwich I had ever eaten. I was being completely manipulated by the situation. I did not care.