In California, the term “wine country” is often used interchangeably with Napa and Sonoma. It’s an understandable association; these two counties north of San Francisco boast a robust viticultural legacy. In fact, about a third of all wineries in the state are based in Napa alone. But anyone seeking a fuller understanding of California wine knows that the map is much, much broader. The Central Coast for example, is a region containing some 40 viticultural areas (AVAs), including world-class producers in places like Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, and Monterey. It would take years to explore it all, so today we’re going to set our sights on one small town that’s making a disproportionately big splash in the West Coast wine scene.
Welcome to Los Alamos.
Just 140 miles north of Los Angeles on the 101 freeway, this quaint village with a population of 1,200 acts as gateway to the grape-rich Santa Ynez Valley. Blink and you could miss the “downtown” strip. And yet it’s home to a dozen tasting rooms, bakeries, bars and restaurants—including Michelin-starred Bell’s.
“Los Alamos is an approachable, hospitable introduction to the unique flavors of Santa Ynez and Sant Barbara wines,” says Jason Berkowitz, founder of online hospitality training group, Arrow Up. “My husband and I enjoy it so much that we’ve joined two wine clubs, including Casa DuMetz—where I’ve sat at the corner of the bar and declared multiple times, ‘Rhone varietals taste better here than in France!’”
The Los Angeles based entrepreneur actually proposed to his partner in that same corner of the bar. And the couple was so enamored by the town’s ineffable Old West charm that they opted to host their wedding here earlier this year.
One block over from Casa DuMetz, Bedford Winery maintains an unassuming tasting room showcasing barrel fermented Chardonnays and its signature Old Man Red—a blend of Grenache, Carignane, Syrah and Petite Syrah. The founder and namesake of the operation, Stephan Bedford, counts more than 30 years of winemaking experience and produced his first vintage here in 1994 using grapes grown exclusively in the surrounding valley. Although he has a penchant for working with under-explored varietals including Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, it’s his Burgundian-styled Pinot Noir that best demonstrates the precision of his craft and the beauty of this terroir.
Berkowitz recommends taking lunch at Plenty On Bell, where you can enjoy all these local libations by the glass, paired alongside comforting cuisine composed by chef Jesper Johansson. The Maker’s Son offers more of the same in a former filling station, only with craft beer and cocktails joining the wine on an expansive food and drinks menu.
It’s a feast for all of the senses around here, according to Kathy Delgado, a restaurant stylist and antique specialist who owns VintageWeave Interiors. “All the wine tasting rooms provide ample outdoor seating,” she says. “There’s nothing like enjoying the soothing smell of eucalyptus and lavender while imbibing alfresco. Bell’s offers a to-go lunch menu that’s ideal for a picnic at the park across the street, and they make one of the best salads I’ve ever had. All in all this remote town is the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of city living. Plus it’s incredibly dog-friendly— which is why it’s my go-to wine tasting haven.”
Hidden from the highway, Los Alamos has been slow to gain the eye of big city sorts. The ones that make it here are wont to talk about local winemakers as “up and coming.” But to do so discounts everything these talented craftsmen and women have been achieving for decades. This is California wine country. Drive past it at your own peril.