Taste the Flavors of Santa Maria Valley

View of Santa Maria
When traveling to Santa Barbara County, especially wine country, most people visit Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez, Lompoc, Los Olivos, and Los Alamos. They usually forget about the town of Santa Maria, the region’s best-kept secret.

Santa Maria Valley is the most northern Appellation of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs. The area comprises three towns, Santa Maria, Orcutt, and Old Town Orcutt, because they are all intertwined. A visit to Santa Maria must include visiting Old Town Orcutt.

Santa Maria Style Barbecue

Santa Maria is most known for its Santa Maria Style Barbecue. This barbecue style is a long tradition and dates back to the 1800s when local rancheros would host barbecues for cowboys. The secret is the native ingredients and special seasonings, including salt, pepper, and garlic salt.

Most popular is the Tri-Tip, considered the signature cut of meat for any Santa Maria Style Barbecue. Meat is cooked over coals of local red oak, giving a sweet yet smoky flavor. Another component of the barbecue is the accompanying Pinquito Beans. Santa Maria has a host of restaurants that serve this flavorful barbecue, including Shaw’s Steak House and Tavern. One will also find portable barbecues set up throughout the region serving this local cuisine.

Shaw's Steakhouse Santa Maria Style © Cori Solomon
Shaw’s Steakhouse Santa Maria Style

Pinot Noir

Of course, the perfect wine pairing with this barbecue is Pinot Noir. It, therefore, goes without saying that because Santa Maria’s climate and terroir are best suited for Pinot Noir, it is the area’s most popular red wine.

The Nagy’s

One will find a plethora of wineries to visit in Santa Maria and Old Orcutt, but our visit was to be a Nagy day. We were experiencing the differences between husband and wife, winemakers. It was an opportunity to see the yin and the yang at work. Clarissa Nagy is the winemaker at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery and also owns C.Nagy in Old Town Orcutt, while her husband, Jonathan Nagy, is the winemaker at Byron. Since this article originally published, Jonathan is now the winemaker at J. Wilkes.

The two met when Clarissa was working at Byron. Both are exceptionally talented winemakers in their own right but together have a great love for Pinot Noir.

Riverbench Vineyards and Winery

Our first stop was Riverbench Vineyards and Winery, established in 1973 when Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were first planted on the property. In the beginning, Riverbench just grew grapes to sell, but in 2004 they began to produce their own wines. Their first vintage occurred in 2006. For six years, renowned winemaker Charles Ortman created the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that gave Riverbench its reputation in the region.

In 2008 Riverbench started producing sparkling wine known as Cork Jumper (the name represents the cork jumping from the bottle when one opens sparkling wine). In 2012, the exuberant winemaker Clarissa Nagy took over the helm. Clarissa has placed her mark on Riverbench wines by way of adding a soft feminine elegance, especially the Pinot Noir. The wines have a nice depth of structure.

Clarissa’s favorite varietal is Pinot Noir because it is challenging yet the most satisfying to produce. In addition to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wine, one can find a subtly elegant Rosé of Pinot Noir and a marvelous dry Riesling.

Riverbench Vineyard and Winery © Cori Solomon
Riverbench Vineyard and Winery

C. Nagy Wines

Clarrisa Nagy established the Nagy brand in 2005 when she started sourcing grapes from three distinct vineyards, Gary’s Ranch Vineyard in Santa Maria, White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos, and Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria. The tasting room was simply designed with a friendly, engaging atmosphere to showcase the wines.

C. Nagy wines include Pinot Blanc, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Viognier White Hawk Vineyard, Rosé of Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. These wines describe Clarissa’s demeanor. They are elegant and strong with a feminine balance. Today you can taste Clarrisa’s wines by appointment only.

Byron Winery

Byron Winery sits atop a hill with a magnificent view of the entire Santa Maria Valley. Uriel Nielson planted the vineyards in 1964. Byron Kent Brown purchased the Nielson vineyards in 1989 to become the estate vineyard of his Byron Winery. He later sold the controlling interest to Mondavi.

Jonathan Nagy became Byron’s winemaker in 2004 when Ken Brown retired. From the beginning as Santa Barbara County’s first commercial vineyard, through Mondavi’s ownership, to its current owner, Jackson Family Wines, the winery has made its imprint on the wines of Santa Maria Valley, especially with Chardonnay.

Exploring site-specific Pinot Noir is Byron’s focus today and is accomplished through vineyard-designated terroir-driven wines that tell Jonathan’s story in wine speak of each location. These include Sierra Madre, Julias, Nielson, La Encantata and John Sebastian. In the future, Byron hopes to produce ten site-specific Pinot Noirs that define two appellations, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills.

The Pinot Noir of Byron Winery © Cori Solomon
The Pinot Noir of Byron Winery

Santa Maria Accommodations

If you are looking to stay in Santa Maria, The Radisson Hotel, Santa Maria, is ideal. Adjacent to the Santa Maria Airport, the hotel offers comfortable upscale accommodations. With its contemporary flair, the hotel has the comfiest beds. You will definitely sleep like a baby. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, a refrigerator, and complimentary breakfast. The staff is friendly wanting to serve all your needs. The Radisson has pet-friendly rooms for those with a pet in tow. It is a perfect location to get anywhere in Santa Maria or Orcutt.

Sushi, Saki, and Ice Cream

Besides the Santa Maria Style Barbecue, if you have a hankering for Sushi and Saki, a visit to Niya Restaurant in Old Town Orcutt will fill the bill. Find modern fine Asian cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. If you yearn for ice cream, stop by Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor serving hand-crafted ice cream. Wine lovers might want to try Merlot Raspberry Truffle, which uses a hint of wine to add flavor.

Santa Maria is also known for their strawberries, coastal dunes, and Pacific Conservatory Theatre. Enjoy the outdoors, and take a hike at Los Flores Ranch Park, Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve, or Oso Flaco Lake. If you are artistically inclined, Wine and Design is a fun way to spend an afternoon sipping wine while letting your creative juices shine through.

If you love the Central Coast and are looking for something a bit off the beaten path, think about enjoying a relaxing weekend in Santa Maria Valley.

Note: Common to the wine industry, this writer was hosted on a visit to this region. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure.