An April visit to the Santa Maria Valley was a real eye-opener. After a hearty and tasty lunch at Moxie Café, we drove past mile after mile of sprawling vineyards and assorted lush crops along Foxen Canyon Road. We came to a stop at Riverbench Vineyard and Winery. Nestled just far enough off the road for seclusion and tranquility, this gem beckons with promises of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Our tasting began, though, with bubbles, Riverbench Cork Jumper Rosé Blanc de Noirs. Done Methode Champenoise, this is an elegant sparkler and a great way to start or end a tasting. As a musical duo performed quietly on the front lawn, we tasted their 2015 Bedrock Chardonnay. Fermented 100% in stainless steel, this is a crisp and refreshing Chardonnay. We tasted the 2014 estate grown Pinot Noir. This is a true expression of the Santa Maria Valley and a refined wine. In the heart of Santa Maria Valley wine country, Riverbench is a wonderful spot to spend a few hours enjoying superior wines.That evening we took the short ride from Holiday Inn & Suites Santa Maria to the small town of Orcutt. Susan Righetti was on hand to welcome us into Far Western Tavern. Susan and her husband Paul run the Far Western which is far more than simply a tavern. Susan comes from a cattle ranching background, and when her parents bought the restaurant, their aim was to entertain people the same way they did at the ranch. Family history and historic photos of the valley adorn the walls here. Her dad spent time in the restaurant office daily until he retired in the mid ’90s. She and her brother and sister and their families decided to get involved in the day-to-day operations.
At the heart of it all is Santa Maria-style barbecue. Susan explained the tradition of what Sunset magazine has called “the West’s best barbecue town.” Traditional Santa Maria-style started with a three rib roast in the old days, slow-cooked on a rod over an open-pit of red oak. Seasoned with garlic, salt, black pepper and nothing else, it’s served with pinquito beans, commercially grown only in the Santa Maria Valley. The food at the Far Western is exceptional. Our group enjoyed an assortment of appetizers including bay shrimp cocktail, prosciutto-wrapped jalapeños, grilled artichoke and filet mignon carpaccio. For an entrée I opted for the Bulls Eye, a 14 ounce boneless rib eye, cooked to medium-rare perfection and served with pinquito beans. Other dishes were artfully plated and everyone at the table oohed and aahed over their meals.
Susan describes the menu as a blend of Santa Maria-style with Swiss-Italian. She has her own “Susie Q’s” mail order company, offering pinquito beans, Santa Maria seasoning and other items. Her sister Marie owns Riverbench Winery. Their goal with the Far Western was to elevate the tradition while keeping it alive. “It deserved a little more than it was getting.” They donated the old building in Guadalupe to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and it will be converted into a museum. The area is rich with history. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments was filmed there and they are still unearthing artifacts.
If you find a better dinner option in the Santa Maria Valley, I’d like to hear about it. The Far Western Tavern offers superior food, great atmosphere and outstanding service (thanks Misty!).
Tom Plant launched WINEormous in 2009 and is a member of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. Based in Temecula, California, he offers intimate winery tours for no more than seven people. Tour details and pricing are available at www.temecula-tours.com. Call now to book your Temecula Winery Tour at (951) 907-9701. Ask about special discounts. WINEormous is the recipient of the Wine Tour Operator of the Year award for 2017 for the UK’s Luxury Travel Guide.