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Jeep Thrills in Santa Barbara Wine Country

Cloud Climbers and Gainey Vineyard Pair Off-Road Terror with Terroir

Photo: Courtesy

Five of us settle into the bed of a Cloud Climber jeep and, with glasses of rosé in hand, smile at one another in cheerful anticipation. We’ve all booked Gainey Vineyard’s Jeep Tour & Tasting excursion, a 1.5-mile roam through the winery’s beautiful vineyard acreage, concluding with a tasting at the property’s historic barn.

The drive starts auspiciously enough, with a slow-moving ride through rows of tall vines, each adorned with emerald leaves and sun-soaked grapes. Ahead of us, another jeep meanders through a picturesque network of precisely pruned canopies.

Then, as if making a wager with an invisible devil, our driver points to the distant Jeep and says: “I bet I can beat him to the barn.”

And with that, he kicks open the throttle and pulls the steering wheel hard to the right, wildly careening down a rocky service road, inertia sending me and the other passengers flailing into the rear of the vehicle.

“Wait, I hate this,” I hear someone say.

As our transport rockets down a road suited only for surefooted goats, the g-forces accumulate, and we begin to experience the unique confusion of people who signed up for a wine tour and got involuntary astronaut training instead.

Photo: Courtesy

The driver floors it, continuing to test the limits of the Jeep’s suspension as well as man’s capacity for horror. Outside, the grapevines have turned into a blur of green and yellow. Inside, we are living a macabre mashup of Sideways and Deathproof.

“It was similar to the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios, minus the big splash at the end,” fellow passenger Stephanie Collinge would later say. “Actually, more like the Jeep ride that happened in the movie. It felt like something was chasing us and we were trying to get away from it.”

Moments like these have a tendency to concentrate the mind and order priorities. In an instant, keeping our wine from spilling becomes an obvious fool’s errand and a paltry matter beneath our notice. The only action of importance now is to hold on — to both the Jeep’s railing and to our hopes for survival.

“In October, this road is crawling with tarantulas!” our driver yells over the rumbling din of engine noise. Given the collective panic of everyone on board, this creepy bit of information strikes me as lily-gilding, something akin to playing haunted house music over the PA system of an actively crashing airplane.

“They only have sex once a year,” he continues. “They must be married!”

But this is no time for feeble comedy. This is a time to reflect on one’s life, to account for misdeeds and years misspent, and to resign one’s self to what certainly appears to be a rapidly approaching encounter with the great beyond.

Yet, to our collective surprise, after a mile and a half of staggering anxiety and dust-induced asphyxiation, our party arrives at the barn without casualty. As we pull into the oak-lined clearing, our driver provides us with a parting salutation: “This barn was in the movie Seabiscuit!”

Never has trivia felt so trivial.

Pale-faced, white-knuckled, and weak-kneed, we emerge from the Jeep and onto terra firma, looking upon one another with the kind of knowing empathy typically shared only by combat veterans. For the remainder of the afternoon, we will refer to ourselves as “survivors.”

“Just a fun day of delicious wines, beautiful views, and terrifying Jeeps,” says Kitty Wren, a visitor from Chicago. 

In the barn, we are poured a lovely Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot that features a delicious mixture of savory fruit flavors and earthy-tasting notes. We find it a pleasing contrast to our Jeep tour, which was a blend of Alfred Hitchcock’s and Jordan Peele’s night terrors featuring a heady mixture of unnecessary speed and self-soiling panic. 

Another tasting highlight is the exquisite syrah, a full-bodied wine offering aromas of dark cherry and black licorice. This too stands in distinction to the Jeep tour, which delivered a full-bodied freak-out and offered aromas of flop sweat and tarantula-trodden dirt. 

With the tasting complete and our nerves sufficiently dulled, a Jeep arrives to take us back. “I feel triggered,” says Wren as the vehicle approaches.

The return journey is blissfully uneventful. Our new driver, Anton, takes his time traversing through the stunning landscape and offers up a series of interesting facts regarding Gainey’s history and operations.

As I look in the distance and spot other Jeeps peacefully rolling over the gentle hills of the Santa Ynez countryside, I begin to wonder if our experience was something of an anomaly.


4•1•1 | Gainey Vineyard, which is located at 3950 East Highway 246, offers its Jeep Tour & Tasting Excursion on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (Ask for Anton!) Call (805) 688-0558 or see gaineyvineyard.com

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