You might not be used to thinking of Isla Vista as the ideal starting point for a Santa Ynez Valley winery tour, but it is. I met someone who runs a personal tour service based in I.V., and decided to book a day trip. A driver met us in a town car with room for my friends and I, and we headed out from I.V. to wine country.
We drove along Highway 154 as David Echols, our tour guide and owner of Personal Tours Ltd., told us a little about the history of the area. The tales of the stage coach route are always fascinating. When we arrived at our first stop, Artiste Winery and Studio, I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. But Artiste was something memorable, melding art and wine into a seamless whole. While you roll the unusual wine blends around on your palate, you can gaze upon the artwork displayed throughout the rooms of the winery. You can paint your own picture while sipping your wine. Even the labels are fine works of art, making the bottles into display pieces. “Their niche is artistic blends,” Echols said. “They are not just about wine. Going there is an experience.” I’ll say.
Our next stop was the Rideau Winery. Echols told us about its history. It was situated along the stage coach route, was once owned by the King of Spain, and the two-story adobe ranch house is an historic site. What I remember most about the Rideau Winery is its antique furniture and the terrific cheese and olive tapas platter I had sitting outside in the picnic area. It’s a beautiful place to spend your afternoon.
We visited a few other wineries before ending up at the Firestone Brewery, where we did some beer tasting. It was a beer-lover’s dream: A server brings a wooden tray filled with rows of shot glasses filled with different types of beer. By this time, however, I was only up for sampling a few, and will have to go back to have the full experience.
Echols, who started Personal Tours Ltd. in 1993, said wine tours are 80 percent of his business. When people call to inquire about a tour, he said, it only takes him a short time to determine whether his service meets their needs. In a few cases he might have to refer them to someone else. Like the customer who was looking to get really, really drunk.
There are no prescribed routes for drivers, each tour being tailored to the client’s interests. “Some customers don’t know about wine,” he said. “They just want to have fun. For us this is easy.” In such a case he, or one of the other six tour guides and drivers, shows clients a cross-section of what the Santa Ynez Valley has to offer. “Part of the fun of it is discovering wines,” he noted. Others want something in particular, like a tour of pinot noir tasting rooms.
Santa Ynez Valley’s variety of microclimates are ideal for growing a variety of grapes, and different areas specialize in different kinds of wine. For example, the Santa Rita Hills is known for pinot noir, chardonnay, lighter syrahs, and pinot gris. If a client wants to try chardonnays, the tour might be focused in that area. And there are always new things to try. There’s even a newly-designated AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Happy Canyon area, he said. While he explained that the Happy Canyon area has only vineyards, and no tasting rooms at this time, wine connoisseurs would get a chance to try wines from this area.
With his focus on personalized service, Echols lets customers guide him as to whether they want to have a tour guide or just a driver. “Sometimes what they want is a driver, a personal assistant, and a know it all,” he said. Other times they want quiet. Clients also can choose what kind of vehicle they’d like to take—a coach, a touring van, a town car, or even their own vehicles. If they want to tour the wineries in a convertible, that can be arranged.
With Echols having been in business for 17 years, and having conducted wine tours for, in some cases, busloads of people, I had to ask how many times someone had gotten sick in his vehicles. My guess would have been hundreds. The answer is, surprisingly, only one: a five-year-old girl who had been driven relentlessly through the Santa Ynez Hills, and never mentioned she was feeling queasy. By the time she and her family were cruising back through Hope Ranch, she’d had enough. Luckily, the car remained unscathed.
Personal Tours Ltd. also offers walking tours, cultural tours, downtown tours, and garden tours. Couples have taken romantic tours to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Echols has played host to the Crown Prince of Kuwait, and celebrities including Phil Collins. But Echols, a former high school history teacher, said he enjoys working with each of his clients, famous or not, and prides himself on being able to figure out what they are looking for even if they themselves don’t know. “It’s all about reading people,” he said. And, he added, the Santa Ynez Valley is an easy way to please. “The area sells itself in a big way,” Echols said. “You get the gestalt . . . you experience something that offers a totality.”