4 Things You Must Experience in CA Wine Country

4 Things You Must Experience in CA Wine Country

Santa Rita Hills | Pismo Beach | SLO | Avila Beach | Napa Valley Wine Train

All photos by Dawn Garcia©


[dropcap letter=”I”]f you’re starting the weekend in Los Angeles and you want to hop in the car and find some of the most incredible wineries and adventures, I’ve got a few landmarks along the way that you have to see. While Napa and Sonoma tend to get the bulk of the attention, for me, there are so many stops from Santa Barbara on north that epitomize the vast array of just what beautiful blends and varietals exist in California.


1. 1st Stop | Hilliard Bruce WINERY in Santa Rita Hills (Just past Santa Barbara)


2075 Vineyard View Lane | Lompoc, CA 93436

Hilliard Bruce is a private estate and the 1st sustainable winery in Santa Barbara County with acres of glorious vineyards and two of the most incredible winemakers around: John Hilliard and Christine Bruce. Recently, John and Christine built a completely green and sustainable winery and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful vineyard in the area. Nothing is neglected. Christine has her own produce farm as well as raising, on site, some of the most exquisite Arabian Horses you’ll find. John is one of the most fun and entertaining hosts around with a genuinely impressive knowledge of science and the sheer fun of playing with the wines to get the perfect blend. The wines have been rated 91 points plus. They make some of the more sophisticated Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs in the region. They also happen to be a pretty great love story and phenomenal human beings. Oh, and Harvest is happening now so get up there soon!

FUN FACT: I helped do punch downs in 2012 and it was strenuous work but a whole lot of fun!

Hilliard Bruce Winery has been awarded LEED Silver Certification by the U.S. Green Building Council on January 31, 2015 – the very first in Santa Barbara County.

ABOUT | John and Christine left their home in Texas in 2002, after purchasing the 101-acre Hilliard Bruce ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills. Christine wanted a ranch where she could expand her business of breeding Arabian horses, and John was open to new adventures after surviving two life-threatening illnesses. With a love of wine and an eye for precision and design, they planted 21-acres to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, using their own background as gardeners, along with key advice from some of the industry’s best viticulturalists. To further their winemaking experience, they took courses at UC Davis Extension Program, Allan Hancock Viticulture and Enology Program, and the Grayson County College Viticulture and Enology Program.

Today John and Christine are intimately involved with every step of running Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, from viticulture and winemaking to sales. Christine heads Hilliard Bruce’s Chardonnay production, while John focuses on several Pinot Noir bottlings.

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2. Pismo Beach | SLO | It’s a worthy stop on your journey North


Pismo Beach is one of the most charming little beach towns north of Santa Barbara! It has gorgeous beaches and by far some of the friendliest coffee shops and eateries I’ve been to. Locals frequent them and when you’re a traveler, like me, you’re treated with kindness. It has that ole feel of a connected neighborhood community, and everyone knows everyone else. (So when you walk in and they know you’re a stranger? You are treated to real hospitality.) I’m a fan of The Central Roast for a latte and for a yummy American breakfast with bacon and eggs, try Penny’s All American Cafe. Both are simple and nothing fancy but they feel downright homey.

Where to stay? I actually stayed at a chain hotel (which I traditionally steer away from) and while there are quite a few things that need improving, the view was pretty enough to make up for the shortcomings. The

Best Western Plus Shore Cliff Lodge is ok. It’s nothing fancy and my chief complaint was the communal kitchen area where the continental breakfast was served. It had a smell that was impossible to ignore. That said, there is a fitness room, a pool, and like I said, the views are impossible to ignore. It is a hotel for those looking for a clean room and a good location and it seems families stay there in droves. If you’re looking for absolute luxury nearby, try the 4-Star Dolphin Resort & Spa.
Some Wineries to Stop at:
Trenza – 5828 Orcutt Road | San Luis Obispo, CA  {High Scale – They have a beautiful tasting room, bocci ball, and events regularly}
Filipponi Ranch1850 Calle Joaquin | San Luis Obispo, CA 93405
{Old School – This is a truly rustic, simple winery with a modest selection of local wines but some friendly fun hospitality.} 
FUN FACT: You can often spot whales migrating, a sea otter playing and dolphins at the overlook at Shore Cliffs.
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3. SLO Harvest On The Coast | A Worthy Wine Festival

Avila Beach


This was the reason for my trip out to San Luis Obispo and it is by far one of my favorite Wine Festivals yet. With a gorgeous backdrop at the Avila Beach Golf Course, the Marina at your toes and the beach, a stone-throw away, the lush greenscapes amidst the white tents filled with local wines, surprising bites of local fare, really great craft brews, terrific live music, a live auction, and the happy onslaught of food + wine lovers, this is one uniquely fun wine festival. This is one of the more well curated wine events in California in my opinion.

Prior to the event itself, I was invited to enjoy a Collaborative Winemakers Dinner with Chef Greg Wangard. The crowd was endearing and the genuine engagement from everyone there was uncommon. With the winemakers there to share their love of what they do, it taught me a lot about the wines, the multitude of soils that account for the tremendous range of varietals that flourish on the Central Coast, and allowed me to taste some of the food from the husband one of my favorite chefs in the area (Kelly Wangard’s hubby, Greg Wangard). Thank you to Malei and Christopher Weir who made sure I was there to experience the truly magnificent event the SLO Harvest on the Coast is.

2015 Festival This year, the Vintners Festival takes place November 6-8th, 2015

A weekend on the coast with winemakers!  That’s what you will experience at the Harvest on the Coast Weekend, November 6-8th, 2015.  Your 2-for-1 Grand Tasting ticket for Saturday gets you into the main event and wine auction, PLUS: enjoy free tasting at SLO Wine Country tasting rooms all day Sunday.


FUN FACT: The Live Auction is highly entertaining.
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4. The Napa Valley Wine Train

1275 McKinstry Street | Napa, CA 94559

There are moments in life where luxury becomes more than mere “fanciful things”. It takes on a far deeper meaning. Luxury, to me, has become an experience like no other. Attention to detail, beautiful restoration, authentic craftsmanship, and a richer story to tell. Finding any place or experience like that is much harder than you’d imagine but once in a great while, you get to do something completely different that epitomizes the luxury of a past I only dream of experiencing. That, for me, was the Napa Valley Wine Train. There was something tragically romantic about getting on an old locomotive still working and completely restored to it’s original state. The rail cars date as far back as 1915 and have been restored to a time in history when ladies and gentleman dressed to travel and had a rather sophisticated way about how they enjoyed doing so. Thankfully, the Rice A’Roni family purchased these old rail cars and brought to life a rather lovely rendition and ode to times passed.

The train itself has two engines, three kitchens on board and a collection of early 20th century Pullman rail cars faithfully restored with Honduran mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions and plush armchairs that evoke the spirit of luxury rail travel in the early 1900s. Take a trip into the luxurious American past and experience an unparalleled memory-­making journey.

We arrived at the station and patiently awaited our Ambassador Winery Tour which would include traveling on a 25-mile track where a glass of wine would await, a table would be set, and a 3-course gourmet meal would be prepared. Once our meal arrives, every dish is not only tasty but decadent with service that exemplifies what I believe all service should strive to be. The experience was well curated and once we arrived at our two destinations: Charles Krug Winery and Raymond Vineyards, well, the afternoon only continued to delight. Matthew and I have, without a moment of hesitance, decided this was the most perfect way to enjoy Napa. The Ambassador Wine Tour is worth every dollar and I encourage anyone looking to enjoy Napa to give the Wine Train precedence.

Charles Krug Winery: One of the oldest wineries in Napa with a history worth exploring.

Raymond: One of the more eclectic vineyards in Napa and definitely something to enjoy.

Thank you Kim Powers for arranging everything. 


FUN FACTS: The Train Conductor will, if requested, let you get up in the main cabin! At Charles Krug, you can find one of the Mondavi’s still living on the vineyard (he’s in his 80’s and he’s got great stories to share). At Raymond, if you go through the back, you may spot a few dominatrix by way of manequins AND a wine blending class in a secret classroom.

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