Joanna Kettmann overlooks the pond at Thompson Vineyard with a glass of Dovecote Red Tail Red in hand. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

Fifteen years, four addresses, and two kids ago, my now-wife, Joanna, and I decamped to the tiny town of Los Alamos for our first overnight date. Compared to today, when every storefront of Bell Street houses a restaurant, tasting room, or tenant that otherwise appeals to wine-country-chic clientele, the Los Alamos of 2003 was a much sparser affair. Yet the Skyview Motel still loomed over it all, and that’s where we checked in for the night to sleep in that slightly rundown highway-side inn, where the ceilings were painted as sky and crumbling wagon wheels decorated the grounds.

Last fall, we decided to re-create that two-day escapade, this time staying in the recently refurbished Hotel Skyview. The prominent hilltop location is the same, but everything else is revolutionarily improved. Unlike millennial-targeting hoteliers throwing cosmetic updates on outdated motels — a process I call “putting hipstick on a pig,” and, to be clear, I like those spots, too — the team behind the Granada Hotel in downtown San Luis Obispo wrangled the Skyview by its circa 1950s horns. The rebranded Hotel Skyview’s 33 guestrooms, which opened last summer, are comfortable and stylishly rustic, surrounded by landscaping that mashes high desert and grapevines with a Laurel Canyon vibe, all totally Instagram-tastic.

The inn’s hilltop location is the same, but everything else is revolutionarily improved, especially the individual rooms.

But the hotel was just part of our mission. On that first trip, we sipped Bedford Thompson wine aside a shack on Alisos Canyon Road, ate breakfast at Café Quakenbush, perused paintings at the Art Brut Gallery, and haggled over beer mugs and Harry Belafonte albums at the antique store. Only the latter exists as it did then.

We began at Thompson Vineyard, where Noah and Tamara Rowles steward the historic property’s coveted syrah, grenache, and other grapes, but also make their own Dovecote Wine. As “Take Me Home, Country Roads” played over the pond house’s speakers, we sipped the couple’s Red Tail blend while watching birds zip across the water, an experience anyone can set up with advance reservations.

Then we continued the five-minute drive into town for lunch, stopping at Bell’s, where Greg and Daisy Ryan are serving Central Coast bistro fare in an ever-exquisite and authentic manner. Between sips of loureiro by D’Alfonso-Curran and carbonic listan negro from the Canary Islands, we munched arugula-kabocha-crunchy farro salad and slurped spoonfuls of clams in a savory broth. 

Less than a block away is Bedford Winery, whose proprietor Stephan Bedford ditched the “Thompson” part of his brand when that family got out of winemaking more than a decade ago. We served their pinot gris at our wedding back in 2007, and a chat with Stephan is always an intellectually enriching affair — everything from mushroom hunting to severed thumbs to the state of the Los Alamos Library are on the table, as are his exploratory wines that include rare varieties, hidden regions, and often older vintages. 

Also heady is a stop in Lo-Fi Winery, where Mike Roth and Craig Winchester push the natty-wine, vinyl-loving, long-beard, dare-we-say-hipster vibe. Their low-intervention, fresh-forward versions of gamay noir, cabernet franc, malbec, and more slip down the gullet with glou-glou glee and sell out like coveted concert tickets.  

Hopping off the tasting-room circuit, we ventured to Bodega Los Alamos, where wine but also cider and beer are enjoyed at picnic tables beneath oak trees toward the north end of town. There’s a garden shack of sorts where seasonal produce and flowers are for sale, a welcome diversion when just sunny relaxing grows monotonous.

The Skyview Motel in Los Alamos

Back at the Skyview, we settled into the room, full of trendy nourishments like gummy bears, animal crackers, Scar of the Sea pinot noir, and Basil Hayden’s bourbon. We dined on lamb sausages, seasonal salads, and craft cocktails at the hotel’s restaurant Norman, a nod to Anthony Perkins’s Psycho character, since so many are reminded of the Bates Motel when looking at the hilltop Skyview.

We stepped out from beneath the Norman’s star-shaped chandeliers to join the crowd of winemakers, urchin divers, and other locals outside, who were assembling for a different celestial show: SpaceX was lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, this time with its booster returning to land nearby after sending its payload into orbit. The launch was psychedelic beyond belief, halos of space dust and science-fiction-perfect flashes of the future flickering before our eyes.

“Is it always like this?!?” screamed one visitor. “No way,” many replied, as I thought to myself, “This one is special.”


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