Credit: VisitSYV

When Shelby Sim was hired to run Visit the Santa Ynez Valley in 2014, the travel bureau was just four years old and still struggling to assert its relevance.

Credit: VisitSYV

“When I got here, the valley was all very separate: Solvang did its thing, Los Olivos was the wine town, Buellton was the gateway, and Los Alamos just had Flatbread,” recalled Sim, a former project manager whose only previous hospitality experience was working at the Bacara. “I realized our job was to fill hotels and not worry about the organization, and that’s been my goal: to connect it all and sell the valley concept to everybody.” While people who loved Solvang might plan a quick overnight visit, he explained, “If you come knowing about the entire Santa Ynez Valley, then it’s a three- to four-day trip.”

A few years into the job, Sim wanted to further bolster that message. “What could we do to cement the Santa Ynez Valley worldwide?” he wondered. “Why not turn a progressive dinner into a progressive festival, so that every day would focus on one of our unique communities?”

In 2019, that concept was launched as Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the inaugural four-day affair was an instant hit. Then, of course, came COVID, which put the event on hold. But despite initial doomsday fears, the coronavirus wasn’t so horrible for hospitality.

“The pandemic was good for us. We’re wide-open spaces. We can’t do a 2,000-room convention. All of our stuff is small. Who wants to be in a room with 5,000 people right now?” said Sim, whose hotel partners chalked up record numbers despite lockdowns. And while certain sectors, like wine tasting rooms, are showing some stagnation today, there’s no sign of that trend slowing for hotels. “Our occupancy is over the unicorn year of 2021,” said Sim, who believes the valley is attracting brand-new visitors now, including many families. “It’s going like gangbusters.” 

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Prepare for more, because Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley is back from November 3-6, and it’s only bigger, with 18 events spread across four days and five towns. “It’s really a reinvention of the whole thing,” said Sim, who, as of last week, had already sold 50 percent more tickets than in 2019. He’s proud to have Sunset Magazine as a media partner and to donate 5 percent of every ticket sold to Feed the Valley, a nonprofit that provides meals to those in need. 

Among other highlights, there are long-table dinners in the middle of Bell Street in Los Alamos, amid the quaint cottages of Los Olivos, and surrounded by neon signs and gas station paraphernalia at the Mendenhall Museum in Buellton. There’s a wine pairing afternoon at the Ballard Inn, a charcuterie class at Brick Barn Estate where participants make their own ceramic plate, and, as Sunday’s closing act, a concert by the country music band LANCO under the stars at Solvang’s Festival Theater. 

Credit: VisitSYV

Along the way are photography lessons, vineyard hikes and yoga sessions, and horseback and hay wagon rides. Oh, and there will be wine, with each event highlighting Santa Barbara County’s various grape-growing appellations, from the Sta. Rita Hills and Ballard Canyon to the Los Olivos District and Happy Canyon. 

Ticket prices range widely, from a $10 hike through Midland School to $40 for wine tastings to $150 for the big dinners. The LANCO concert, which is preceded by a mini-festival of wine, beer, and food, costs $75 to $110 depending on seats. The money move is opting for one of the all-access passes, which come in a day rate ($250-$350), multi-day rates ($550-$850), or just do the whole four-day shebang for $1,000.

Sim is excited to see growth in Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley’s second incarnation and will be tweaking and expanding the format in the years to come. But he already feels justified in his leadership of Visit Santa Ynez Valley over the past eight years. 

“We don’t feel like we’re a secret anymore. We really feel like we’ve arrived,” he said. “It’s up to us to keep the momentum going.”

See for a full schedule and ticket options.

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