Driving north out of Los Angeles on Highway 101 is especially lovely once the sea comes into view near Ventura. Whether the view outside my windshield is misty or sun-drenched, I don’t mind. California’s coast is a muse, inspiring me to drive miles and miles and miles.
Recently, I cut through the San Fernando Valley on the 101, then curved into Santa Barbara before rolling onto the 154, a highway that swiftly climbs the San Marcos Pass and past Lake Cachuma before gently setting you in Santa Ynez Valley. Drive through this wine region and you’re in yet another: Edna Valley, where the landscape is full of golden-grassed and green hills, many striated with meticulously cared for grape vines.
The region claims more than two dozen beautiful wineries, all with easy access to the Pacific Ocean and beloved shores like Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay. The cool sea air is invaluable for the grapes here, keeping temperatures in check year-round. My husband and I wanted to see — or rather, taste — the region during a mini vacation, so we convinced the grandparents to fill a weekend with board games and park visits with our daughters so that we could fill our own weekend with wine and lobster, thanks to Chamisal Vineyards in San Luis Obispo.
Now in its 50th year, Chamisal Vineyards is an 82-acre oasis for oenophiles, but also for wine novices like me. I love a glass of wine on a California vineyard, and I don’t really need any other details. The original winery structure and crush pad at Chamisal has been outfitted as a fantastic tasting patio, where you can reserve a tasting of five estate wines every day but Tuesdays. There are charcuterie boxes for purchase here, but you’re also free to bring your own snacks if you prefer your wine with diverse or abundant options. To procure them locally, check out all the delicious food stalls at the newer and nearby SLO Public Market.
Chamisal does pinot very well (shoutout to head winemaker Brianne Engles and those who came before her), but I found myself asking for extra sips of the rosés, grenaches and cinsaults under the Malene label, which is soon to be known as Malene by Chamisal. Malene also has a separate tasting area a short walk down the hill. The wide lawn is perfect for games and running around (should you choose to bring your littles along). If you’re heading this way as a family on a weekend, this is the place to stop.
Chamisal builds community with different festivities on winery grounds, and these events are yet more reasons I’d drive miles and miles. Now in its 13th year, Chamisal’s lobster festival is a sight to see and experience — a utensil-less and delicious feast of garlic, shrimp, corn, potatoes, artichokes and, of course, lobster. I attended the mid-May event (it also takes place in July, thanks to demand), and there’s nothing quite like dredging bites of seafood through drawn butter and enjoying every morsel alongside strangers at a 50-foot-long table, the vineyard surrounding you. Morro Bay Oyster Company kicks these dinners off in a delightful way, shucking local oysters right in front of guests as their mouths water. A pinot and pizza series is planned for the summer. Become a wine club member, and you’re privy to even more fun at the site.
We all know that wine and driving do not mix, so I highly recommend staying put in San Luis Obispo for a few nights, so that you can imbibe safely and explore this thriving college and agricultural town. Hotel SLO, set right in the heart of the city’s charming downtown area, is the place to hang your hat. Opened in 2019, the property feels practically brand new, with a modern industrial vibe throughout the lobby and exterior, plus chic coastal-style rooms. My husband and I grabbed coffee from the lobby cafe both mornings we were there, and we had drinks with newfound friends at S.low Bar, also on the first floor. On a Friday night, the entire lobby restaurant and bar was full of revelers. Guests spilled out onto the back patio, too, where live music often plays.
Staying at Hotel SLO means you’re just steps from downtown retailers and restaurants, plus the incredible Thursday night farmers market. It opens at 6 p.m., and we arrived hungry, snacking on pie and a to-die-for raclette and mushroom sandwich from SLO Meltdown as we walked the length of the market. This is truly a community market, with families feeding their kids casual dinners on the sidewalk and Cal Poly students wandering in small, slightly awkward crews. And that’s the best way to explore a new-to-you place — right alongside the locals.
For thrills, book a Sun Buggy ride in Pismo.
For incredible Italian food, reserve a table at Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana.
For another winery stop, try Baileyana.