A Visit to California’s Most Unlikely Wine Town

Our guide to the Central Coast’s wine country

As the Sta. Rita Hills AVA’s reputation for world-class pinot noirs and chardonnays grows, Lompoc has emerged as California’s most unlikely wine country town. Best known for its proximity to Vandenberg Air Force Base and a federal penitentiary (where the likes of rock-and-roll god Chuck Berry and fallen Watergate figure H.R. Haldeman did their time), Lompoc had only scattered vineyards on its outskirts back in the 1980s. Nobody paid them much mind, even though the Lompoc Valley’s longtime identity as the self-proclaimed “flower seed capital of the world” was slipping away as growers moved to cheaper locations in places like Chile and Zimbabwe.

Local farmers never thought that grapes would thrive in the cool, windswept valleys near town, but in 2001, a 30,720-acre area from Lompoc east to Buellton earned designation as what is now the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (the odd spelling is a compromise to avoid confusion with a region in Chile). Now Lompoc’s endlessly mispronounced name (Lom-POKE, for the record) appears on the labels of coveted bottles produced in the surprising wine region on the edge of town.

A roughly 34-mile loop from Buellton to Lompoc and back again easily covers the Santa Rita Hills region. Outside Lompoc along Highway 246, Tuscan-style Melville Vineyards & Winery wouldn’t be out of place in Napa or Sonoma, while Babcock Winery & Vineyards’ vintages include not only wines but also classic vinyl in its Soulstruck Lounge. Mostly unstriped as it parallels the Santa Ynez River southeast of Lompoc, Santa Rosa Road leads to several wineries in a classic California farming valley. If the curves don’t slow you down, a tractor probably will.

Where to Stop

Lompoc Wine Ghetto

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Taste of Sta. Rita Hills: Your first stop should be this tasting room, which features top boutique wineries in the appellation as well as selections from owners Jeni and Antonio Moretti’s operation—just 400 cases annually.

LaMontagne Winery: Producing fewer than 1,000 cases a year, owner Kimberly Smith, who became a winemaker after a health crisis, has won acclaim for her single-clone, single-vineyard pinot noirs from the Santa Rita Hills.

Fiddlehead Cellars: Known for pinot noir made from grapes grown at her estate vineyard off Santa Rosa Road (where she also happens to live), Kathy Joseph is among the most celebrated winemakers in the region.

Palmina: Specializing in Italian varietals, Palmina hit the big time when some guy named Barack Obama served the winery’s 2015 vermentino at a 2016 White House state dinner for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

What to Eat

Pick up provisions either at Industrial Eats in Buellton or at Lompoc’s Central Coast Specialty Foods, where tri-tip and Cubano sandwiches—as well as a big selection of California and imported cheeses—are available. Along Santa Rosa Road on the Buellton side, you can picnic with views of the hills and rows of grapes outside the mission-meets-modern Lafond Winery and Vineyards. Closer to Lompoc, Sanford Winery combines a picnic lunch with a tasting at its impressive La Rinconada Vineyard facility.

Tips From a Vintner

Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards

Working his alchemy in Santa Barbara County since the early 1970s, vintner Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards shares some tasting notes:

“Don’t be intimidated by wine. Speak about wine through your experiences in taste and flavor and smell. That’s all you can do. In time you will come to recognize different elements that are familiar to you and be able to describe them. The task of wine tasting is a re- ally great exercise for your brain. Because you’re using all of these di erent sensory parts and trying to put it together in some kind of explanation of taste and fla- vor. Sometimes people become too pedantic about wine. There’s a certain snobbery that some people have more or better knowledge. But you never learn it all. And wine is such a beautiful beverage. If you can keep it at that, wine is a great, great experience, this re- markable elixir from a natural product.”

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