I didn't get a chance to thank you all before when I posted my original query about Central California wineries earlier, but after returning from a trip through Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, and the Santa Cruz mountains, I'm glad I got some good feedback. We didn't get a chance to visit as many wineries as we had hoped, but the ones that made it to the top of our lists provided some great experiences.
In Santa Ynez/Los Olivos area, we visited Blackjack, Foley/Lin Court, Los Olivos tasting room (variety), in Santa Barbara, we also visited the Wine Cask/Margerum tasting room. In Paso Robles area, we visited Eberle, L'Aventure, Justin, and Tablas Creek. And in the Santa Cruz mountains, we visited David Bruce, and Bonny Doon.
I should say first, that I'm not a wine drinker, but my two companions are wine aficionados and one is studying to become a sommelier (in Japan). I have an active interest in wine, mainly as a cook, to understand the way wine will match with food. The favorites proclaimed by my two companions were (in no particular order): L'Aventure, Eberle, Foley, David Bruce, and Margerum.
Since I can't really speak about the wines directly, I'll say a few things about the experience. One thing that was noticeably different between the Santa Barbara county wineries and the others is that the movie Sideways seems to have changed the perception of the winery toursts in the area. Maybe I'm overreacting a bit, but it really seemed like many of the tasting rooms around Los Olivos are milking the visitors for as much as they can get, charging up to $10 (mostly $5, and some $7) for a tasting. Whereas, the tasting rooms we visited in Paso Robles and Santa Cruz were free.
The best place to visit, I thought, was Eberle in Paso Robles. Not only is their tasting free, but they also provide a tour of their facility every half hour or hour. They let you see the wine processing facillty from grape to fermentation tank to barrels to filtering/settling tank. It's a great way to get to understand the process. The tour through the caves are cool too. Eberle also provided what we thought was the best value.
Through some chowhound connections, we were able to get a private tour into L'Aventure. That was the best treat for us. Unlike Eberle, which makes a wide variety of wines, L'Aventure is scaling back on their variety to concentrate on producing only a handful of wines, mostly featuring their blends of Syrah and Zinfandel. The real treat of this tour was going in the barrel room and tasting straight from the barrel.
Foley and Lin Court share the same tasting room, and also provide good value in that the $5 tasting fee includes a nice glass to keep. The unanimous verdict was that Foley's wines were much better than Lin Court's. They make the same types of wines, but head-to-head, Foley's wines were preferred all around. Luckily Foley and Lin Court are separating, so any Lin Court flaws might be harder to detect in such a "Pepsi challenge" way.
David Bruce also provided a good variety of solid wines, and made probably the best rose wine that were tasted.
Passing through Santa Barbara, we decided to check out one place, and since Margerum was right off the main State Street area, it was a nice stop. The tasting room is actually in the cafe/restaurant Wine Cask, which seemed a bit odd. Margerum seems like a small producer, and make decent pinot gris, pinot noir (good value) and syrah (their limited, but seeming flagship wine).
Our worst experience was at Tablas Creek. Everyone was a little too business-like there, and they refused to serve my sommelier-to-be companion. They were the only place that asked for ID, granted she looks young for a late-20s Japanese woman, but they wouldn't accept a Japanese passport as a valid ID, nor a Japanese driver's license (since they couldn't read it). I was a little shocked by this practice. I was waiting to see if there would be a French or German visitor to kindly ask their employees to check their ID, which I assume they would also have to refuse. Not sure if this experience left a sour taste in the mouth of my other companion, but the verdict was that Tablas wines seem a little out of step with the prices they charge.
While I'm sure my companions learned a lot on this trip, I learned quite a bit myself, having asked a lot of questions. I'm already looking forward to visiting the many wineries that we didn't hit. And I'm the designated driver.