This will begin in Santa Barbara, where it has to, where it only could. Santa Barbara can be found in the Central Coast of California. It’s located about 95 miles north of Los Angeles, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It’s been called, “The American Riviera”; an idyllic beach town complete with harbor, pier, quaint shops, beaches, and restaurants galore. And the town is just part of the attraction, it’s also the gateway to the Central Coast wine country.
The night before it’s a sleepless night on a twin bed in Mom’s guest bedroom, halfway between my apartment and Santa Barbara. All sorts of quirks have started to manifest in the little princess the past year or so as she shifts into senior dog. Last night Harlow was stress–heavy panting for hours. Couldn’t say why. I soothed her with pets and coos. Eventually she did fall asleep with me pinned awkwardly against the metal day bed frame… kinda spooning her. Then it was my turn. Awake, dry-mouthed, racing brain, I fought back hard hoping to trick myself into relaxation. There I lay, waiting for the night to carry me off. It never really does. But in the morning, after a walk and some kibble, we two are now most content on the terrace. I sip coffee, read my book and enjoy the cool fresh morning air. Harlow lounges, nose pointed up, delicately robbing the breeze of smells. Through the slats of the railing I spy a bunny hopping along the path under Mom’s terrace. It stops and poses for me. Hi, bunny. Always liked seeing bunnies.
A blanket of white covers the sky overhead. Cool ocean air and quiet music from the radio circulate through the car. Harlow alternates between head out the window inhaling and gently lying down in the back seat, wind washing over her. Santa Barbara is my happy place. It has been since that first weekend trip with Nic and our newly-acquired puppy. That weekend was for my birthday some 10 years ago. It’s the place where my passion for wine sprung to life. It’s where I discovered staring out over rolling hills of grapevines brings me joy and serenity. After the divorce, I wasn’t sure if I could ever go back. Then someone asked with all my running, what marathon was I training for? I wasn’t. Then by chance I had a look and discovered my obsessive running regime had me on pace to run a marathon, and Santa Barbara Marathon was perfectly timed. Fate, waving back at me. That was the first time I returned. I took back my favorite getaway, inch by inch, (26.2 miles to be exact) with pain, sweat and tears. And the visits resumed.
The Pacific Coast Highway slips between ocean on the left and mountains on the right. The California coast. Today the tops of those mountains obscured by clouds of white that roll down and across the road and into the sea. The Avett Brothers live recording of, I And Love And You, aptly plays through my iPhone.
This time we’re only stopping in town. Dog beach. Harlow lives out her best self chasing a ball in the surf and rolling around in the sand. Gas up and point the car at those hills. Route 154 takes me through the San Marcos pass which serves as gatekeeper from Santa Barbara beach town proper and into wine country. Red dirt, rocks, exploding yellow flowers, shrubs and trees. Winding and wandering roads through a mountain pass. The remains of last year’s fires. Black and burnt trees fit for Halloween. The branches burnt and bare look like long broken extending fingers. A witch twisting her hand and beckoning you to follow. Spectacular vistas, fields of hay, horses, cows, bridges, hills and miles of countryside. Wind in my hair, I feel alive.
Adrienne tells me the tasting room was built 2014. I’m at Andrew Murray Winery off Foxen Canyon road in Los Olivos. She showcases a broad customer service smile. The tasting room itself is a welcoming visitor center. As you approach you’re greeted by generous and inviting picnic areas, manicured lawns, wooden tables with umbrellas, lawn games, and plenty of seats to enjoy the beauty of your surroundings. The inside is open and bright. High ceilings, windows across from wood. Like their wines: bright, approachable and subtly masculine. Adrienne is taking me through the tasting menu, sure to add items not on the list, making me feel special. The Mourvèdre, (dark berry and plum flavors with mild tannin finish) is heavenly and built for a barbecue.
I’m far too hungry, so I wander outside cause I hear there’s empanadas to be had. I order two; one beef and one mushroom/onion. My credit card is run with an iPhone and I sign with my finger. “Brave New World” I mutter to myself and the lady serving me laughs. “How long ago did that book come out?” she replies. An older Hispanic fellow and his daughter that served me the empanadas sit behind her. He gives me the warmest smile. I park myself at the high top wooden tables, stare off at fields of vines. I devour two world class empanadas and swirl and swig my sublime Tous Les Jours Syrah taste.
Before I am off, I ask Adrienne that very important question when in wine country, “Who’s pouring great right now?” She’s polite at first but with just a little press her expression turns serious,“Go to Foxen.” As the tide takes me, I go.
I recognize Foxen when I pull up. I’ve been before but what feels a lifetime ago. This time, I bring the pup inside with me. Harlow is an immediate hit in the tasting room. Guests circle, employees come out from around the counter, children mystically appear to say hello. One little girl puts a flower on Harlow’s head. An employee offers her a biscuit which Harlow snatches with startling speed. “Sorry, she was born starving,” I say. The plump blonde employee replies with a sigh, “I know the feeling.” We take a breather and sit outside as I study Foxen Chardonnay (bright crisp acidic apple and kiwi). Harlow smells like salt water and sand. I press my face into hers.
In addition to their main tasting room, Foxen has “The Shack.” It is just that. A shack approximately 100 yards down the road that pours the rest of their portfolio. Foxen 7200 wines focus on Bordeaux and California-Italian style blends and are exclusively poured at the shack. There is a large shrine inside the shack where travelers have placed offerings, trinkets, photos and more. I pick through them with my eyes. Harlow is a hit again. Out back is a long wooden bench with barrels and wood countertops. I lounge, lifting my face to greet the sun as it breaks through the clouds. Harlow has laid down and pants content. This is what I was looking for. The Foxen tasting room ladies spoil me by coming out to pour my next few tastes. At one point in answer to a question, one lady says, “Hey, I don’t make the wine, I just drink a lot of it.” The Range 30 West Merlot/Cab Franc blend, (dark red fruits, raspberry, cassis, pepper, celery) is a truly grand wine.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I end my day here. Just a day trip after all, and I’ve got a healthy drive ahead of me. But the next night, after a walk with Harlow, I make potato crusted halibut with a shallot butter and white wine sauce and a side of mushroom medley with prosciutto. I’m trying a recipe out of a cook book. I’m hoping it pairs well with the Foxen Chardonnay I brought home. The Midwest showdown, Cubs and Cardinals, is on Sunday Night Baseball. Satisfaction delayed, but we still get there.