Why California’s Santa Maria Valley Has the Best Wines

by Beth Graham

This is Part 2 of  Santa Maria Valley: Where Wine and BBQ Reign Supreme

While the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Lucia Mountains offer some of the most breathtaking scenic drives, the region also offers the most beautiful vistas for wine tasting – and produces some really stellar Santa Maria Valley wines.

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.


Where to stay: And since you won’t be able to hit all of these wineries in one day, book a room at the Holiday Inn Santa Maria ValleyIt’s centrally locally and amenities include large rooms with kitchenettes, a fitness center, outdoor pool and bar and restaurant.
Getting around: The best way to enjoy your wine tasting experience is by letting someone else do the driving. Gold Coast Limousines will take good care of you.

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