Founded in the 1880s as a temperance colony, Lompoc was originally conceived as a booze-free utopia. (Note: this is not to be confused with a free-booze utopia, which, I’m sorry to say, is not a real thing). William Hollister, a wealthy rancher who was once considered the state’s largest producer of wool was interested in cheap labor and clean sobriety.
Today, wages are still low — although a migrant workforce is able to stick around all year due to good climatic conditions — but the whole teetotaling business has gone the way of the dodo bird and the American wool industry. Twenty-first century Lompoc, a city in Santa Barbara County, has had a taste of wine.
Although 16 miles from the coast, Lompoc takes its name from a Chumash word translating as “stagnant waters.” The valley in which it resides was once home to abundant mustard fields involved in proliferating germ warfare during The Great War.
Waves of mustard have since been replaced by fields of flowers, as peace has proved victorious over war in the nearly 100 years after that conflict (Note to self: double-check that). Now, the landscape is painted in more than just yellow, as a rainbow of colors is reminiscent of the flower fields of Carlsbad. In fact, Lompoc is known as the flower seed capital of the world — oh, not by everyone, of course, or even many people, for that matter. But that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this.
What it is known for, and unfairly so, might I add, is as either the place where that prison is or as the place where that military base is. Lompoc is actually neither of those. It is, instead, a town on the edge of both the wine country of the Santa Rita Hills and a thriving tourism industry.
So with that in mind, join me, won’t you, as we explore Lompoc! (In other words, just keep reading.)
Located 18 miles west of Highway 1 along the 246, the “City of Art and Flowers” is off the beaten path. And because Santa Barbara County apparently cares about its natural beauty, new billboards aren’t allowed to be constructed willy-nilly, a la Sunset Boulevard. So congratulate yourself once you’ve correctly followed the instructions of the nice lady on the GPS and now find yourself westbound through terra incognita.
The first thing you’ll notice as you arrive in town are giant warehouses and an also-giant Home Depot. You know what the Home Depot is. The warehouses, on the other hand, you have no idea about. That, friends, is the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Did you mean the “wine grotto?” No, I have a spellchecker and a fantastic team of editors. Nothing silps by me.
OK, so what is this Wine Ghetto? Simply put, it’s 20 lovely tasting rooms nestled into a two-block industrial complex. Among my favorites are the La Montagne Winery, Flying Goat Cellars and, of course, Longoria Wines.
I hope you like Pinot Noir, as the varietal accounts for some 70% of the grapes grown in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Chardonnay comprises another 25% in this area, as I learned at Clos Pepe Estate, which produces some of the most beloved wines in the state and is open for tours. The sheepshead on the label is a tribute to the mowers of this family farm, where sustainability is a way of life. This region, by the way, was featured in the movie Sideways, and film buffs may recognize some locations. (The bowling alley scene, incidentally, was filmed in Lompoc.)
Visitors will also notice white mineral deposits in the surrounding hills. This is diatomaceous earth, which, among many uses is essential in certain forms of filtration (in beer-making and swimming pools, for instance); it’s also used in cat litter, toothpaste and dynamite. The Johns-Manville corporation, infamous for its asbestos, mined these hills for diatomaceous earth since the turn of the last century. It’s not really a tourist destination, however, so let’s just stop there.
Old Town Lompoc, now there’s a destination. Truth be told, the historic theater is a shell of a building, but some committed citizens are intent on restoring it to its former glory. A couple of historic buildings are preserved — one is now a local coffee shop; the other, a former bank building, houses a few local businesses. But the real beauty of this town is written on the walls, which is to say, murals.
Old Town is decked out in more than two dozen commissioned and community-painted murals representing the city’s agricultural origins, its Chumash heritage and Mission La Purisima (see below), weaving them together. A walking tour includes a one-time Carnegie Library from 1911 that now serves as a museum. In front is a grove of Italian Stone Pines, worth more than probably anything else in town, but which the folks who planted it didn’t realize at the time (this $3 million row of trees is reportedly the only strand of Italian Stone Pines outside the Mediterranean region.)
Mission La Purisima, as I intimated, represents an interim period that separates the native Chumash civilization from the modern inhabitants. The Spanish mission, number 11 in the state if you’re counting, is the most fully restored of the missions, housing 10 original buildings that were preserved by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the FDR Administration. Open seven days a week (excluding holidays), year-round, the site is home to good hiking and memorable weddings, as well as fourth-grade field trips. Oh, and it’s dog- and horse-friendly (the hiking, anyway; might want to check first on the weddings).
If you like golf, there are a couple of beautiful courses in the area. And if you don’t like, sorry, it’s not going anywhere, get used to it. La Purisima, located appropriately enough, near the mission of the same name, was hosting a PGA Tour event when I went to visit, so we’ll just never know how many strokes under par I would’ve played it.
Another course, on the outskirts of town, is the Village Country Club, featuring a striking golf course and some challenging winds that make club selection an especially important skill. Overlooking the course is Sage restaurant, where the “haves” in town go for a nice supper.
Executive Chef Christopher Jones, who worked his way up from bus boy in the many restaurants that have come and gone in this location until now, creates modern American favorites, including a duck breast with fig compote and scalloped potatoes that left me short on words, but full on, well, duck. His ceviche is a highlight of the menu and don’t miss out on the minestrone soup.
The most famous chef in town, however, is simply known as Mama. La Botte is centrally located along the main drag, H Street, and it is here that Caterina (aka Mama) and her husband Nick and daughter Francesca — the Agate family — feed the good people of Lompoc Italiano-style. This is authentic Southern Italian cuisine as you might recall from your fondest memories and/or dreams.
Two more restaurants in town also deserve special billing. The first is Sissy’s Uptown Café, located in a former Post Office building and dripping with charm. Renowned for their pie (the coconut cream is itself worth the trip), the friendly joint also does great salads and sandwiches. I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend the grilled turkey, bacon and Cotswold cheddar.
The other restaurant you should be aware of is a deli/market in a strip mall that is so darn good that you’ll ask yourself what I am — what’s this place doing in a strip mall in Lompoc? I want this in my neighborhood. Central Coast Specialty Foods offers wild game — wild boar, pheasant, kangaroo, alligator and more — as well as hard-to-find Italian pantry products, including pastas and sauces. The cheese selection is fantastic, as well.
So, this was epic, huh?
I haven’t even told you where to stay. There’s, I believe 11 hotels in town — nothing boutique, sorry — and about 1,000 rooms. I stayed luxuriously enough at the Embassy Suites, centrally located on H Street, with a pool and free breakfasts at the omelet bar in Sonny’s Kitchen. Another perk is that it is right next to the bike path, which is ideal for a morning run.
And speaking of bikes — last thing, I promise — the city just built the Mecca of bike parks (in that it is attracting visitors, and really, only in that sense) on a six-acre dirt lot that connects with the path. Riverbend Bike Park is designed for riders of all ages and skill levels, and is quickly becoming a must-do for Southern California mountain bikers.
Cycling is big in Lompoc, as the city is part of the 805 Criterium Weekend route (June 19-21), the almost-as-epic-as-this-article bicycle tour of Santa Barbara County.
Scott Bridges is an L.A.-based journalist who has worked as a police-beat reporter, a community newspaper editor, and a food and travel writer. He currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to The Huffington Post and Bizjournals.com, among other sites. He is a native Californian who lives on the Westside.
All photos courtesy of Scott Bridges.