5 Reasons to visit California’s Santa Maria Valley

by Beth Graham

Wineries of California’s Santa Maria Valley

The Santa Maria Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is known for two things – beef and wine – such a delicious combination. And I recently spent a few days there to find the best of the best of each.

What is Santa Maria style barbecue

Tri-tip steaks are the cornerstone of Santa Maria style barbecue. The tri-tip is bottom sirloin, cut into a triangular shape. Not surprisingly, it was cowboys of the mid 1800s who actually came up with this culinary creation. They’d sit around the campfire and hang their cuts of beef over the open flame. The meat is unseasoned and the native red oak is what flavors the beef. Today, many restaurants feature open pit grills – or Santa Maria grills, where guests can watch the process. And just as the cowboys did, the dish is served with pinquito beans and salsa.  Rumor has it that President Ronald Reagan, who owned land in the area, would bring seasoned Santa Maria style barbecue chefs to the White House. You can read more about the history of Santa Maria style barbecue here: https://santamariavalley.com/a-brief-history-of-santa-maria-style-barbecue/.

Where to eat Santa Maria style barbecue

Far Western Tavern

The Far Western Tavern has strong roots in the Santa Maria valley serving contemporary California ranch cuisine. The restaurant was established in 1958 and has passed through three generations of the Minetti family. The restaurant recently made the move from its origin in Guadalupe to Orcutt. Recognizing that the restaurant was famously recognized for its interior furnishings, the owners took great pains to preserve many of the establishment’s iconic features and incorporate them into the new space.

The signature antique mahogany bar, antique gas ceiling lamps, stained glass panels and mounted animals all made their way to the new restaurant. A large hand-painted mural painted by legendary Western artist Ernie Morris was also preserved to hang in the new dining room. The menu at Far Western Tavern is divine. You can make an entire meal on the appetizers with hearty selections like Mac N’ Cheese Relleno, Filet Mignon Carpaccio and Prosciutto Wrapped Jalapeños. The 8 oz. Oak Grilled Tri-Tip is the menu’s featured selection, served with corn & pinquito bean salsa, garlic mashed potatoes, shishito peppers, avocado verde sauce. I opted for the Stout Braised Short Ribs with creamy herbed polenta, baby romanesco, and crispy onions.

Santa Maria Valley Wine

Explore the local wineries along Foxen Canyon Wine Trail,The Santa Maria Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the second oldest AVA in California with Napa Valley being the oldest. What makes this region, and its wines, so unique is that its mountain ranges run East to West, one of only two transverse mountain ranges on the entire West Coast of North and South America.  And the cooler climate of this coastal region produces some really flavorful wines with personality. Riverbench Vineyard

Riverbench is one of those places where you’ll want to take the family, the dog and a picnic lunch and just while away the afternoon sipping wine, looking out at the amazing views, and listening to some live music. The winery hosts BYOB Sundays, Bring-Your-Own-Blanket, where guests can also play bocce and horseshoes. The tasting room is a renovated 1920s craftsman home on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

Riverbench is named for its location on the banks of the Sisquoc River known as the Santa Maria Bench. The first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were planted here in 1973. The vineyard was growing high quality grapes and selling the fruit to other wineries, but in 2004, they  began producing their own label’s wines. Today, this boutique winery produces wines that take advantage of the cool ocean breezes to bring out the grapes’ tropical fruit flavors under the watchful eye of Winemaker Clarissa Nagy (see below as she also produces her own label). Today, the vineyard grows 107 acres of Pinot Noir and 77 acres of Chardonnay and recently added Pinot Meunier to its portfolio. The winery also produces a number of sparkling Champagne-inspired wines. The Blanc de Blancs is a classic sparkling wine while the Blanc de Noirs is highly complex and the perfect glass for enjoying the beautiful landscape.


Nagy Wines

Clarissa Nagy of Nagy Wines is my type of winemaker. Although she’s the chief winemaker at Riverbench, she also produces small lots under her own name, sourcing grapes from only the best, personally-selected vineyards. She got her start in wine when she and her husband bottled their own wine, a 2002 Viognier, for wedding favors. The response from her family and friends was overwhelming and before long, she had purchased a ton of Pinot Noir grapes and in 2005, she launched her namesake brand. She made her mark at many of the region’s top wineries where she continued to hone her craft. Her namesake label produces Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Viognier.


Ca’ Del Grevino

As you ascend the hill to the winery, one of the most beautiful European villas quickly comes into view. But only certain members of their high-end wine club have access to the property although they do host outdoor summer concerts and corporate events for the public on the surrounding grounds. My advice: attend one of the concerts just to get a glimpse of this magnificent chateau. Ca’ Del Grevino is currently building what promises to be one of the country’s most incredible winery destinations – a $25 million dollar, 35,000 square-foot banquet and tasting facility where visitors can watch the production underground through glass.

The winery produces small lots of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Grenache, Dolcetto, Riesling and Syrah and the region’s temperate climate and cool ocean breezes add a depth of flavor thanks to longer hang-time. The winery produces three levels of wine – Element, Grevino and Ca’Del Grevino – with memberships for each level. But don’t plan to become a member of the acclaimed Ca’Del Grevino level as that is by invitation only and word has it that only 12 celebrities are currently part of the membership. 



Presqu’ile is one of those destination wineries where there’s much more to do than just taste wines. Sitting high upon a hill overlooking the Santa Maria Valley, the tasting room features floor to ceiling windows with views of the vast vineyards and a glimpse of the Pacific ocean.  The expansive terrace includes a fireplace and bocce pit, while a rooftop terrace is all about the vistas. A private outdoor lounge, for members only, serves light bites.

This small, family-run winery produces exceptional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines, as well as Syrah, Rosé of Pinot Noir and sparkling wines. A large grass outdoor amphitheater hosts outdoor concerts in the summer. 

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