Richard Foss

Greek meets Texan in So Cal wine country

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Manhattan Beach’s Petros opens a new restaurant at Fess Parker Inn

The Fess Parker Inn and Petros Hellenic Cuisine in Los Olivos. Photos by Richard Foss

The Fess Parker Inn and Petros Hellenic Cuisine in Los Olivos. Photos by Richard Foss

A faded Texas flag flies over the Fess Parker Inn in Los Olivos, a wine lovers destination east of Santa Barbara. Parker was born in Texas and considered this place to be a Texas embassy.

But they might also consider flying a Greek flag because the hotel’s restaurant is the very Hellenic Petros, sister restaurant to the Manhattan Beach Petros in Metlox Plaza.

Petros Benekos fell in love with this area years ago while looking for California wines for his Manhattan restaurant. He bought a second home in Los Olivos and was considering opening a second Petros here when he learned the Fess Parker Inn was looking for someone to run their food operation.

He recently upped his commitment to Los Olivos by purchasing land for his own winery.

There are places in Texas that resemble the Santa Ynez Valley, but a Californian looking at this landscape isn’t going to think of the Lone Star State. Greece is more likely, or Italy or Spain. Olive trees line the country roads next to neat vineyards with rugged, tree-dotted hills in the background.

It is similar enough to Mediterranean landscapes that many acres here are planted with Sangiovese, Albariño, and other Southern European varietals, and a few wineries have been built that resemble Tuscan villas or haciendas.

The drive from the South Bay to the center of the valley takes about two and a half hours. The zip up 101 to Santa Barbara is all freeway with some coastal views, but after you get on Highway 154 the fun starts. The road winds through dramatic mountain scenery with frequent views of Lake Cachuma. There are numerous turnouts where you can admire the landscape and envy the boaters paddling and sailing the placid waters. An unusual sport practiced here is shooting carp with a bow and arrow. Carp are an invasive species and no license is needed.

There are no towns of any consequence on the highway, and you have to watch carefully for the turnoff to Los Olivos. It is about half a mile off the highway on a two-lane road. It’s easy to drive all the way through town while looking for it, since it is about three blocks long, with one stop sign next to a tall flagpole at the town center.

The town looks like a slice of Early California, but most of the Victorian homes and workshops along the main street have been converted to cafes, galleries, boutiques, and tasting rooms. A few artists ply their trade here. We were impressed by a huge, steel trout in a lifelike pose, mounted on top of an old trailer. The tourists who amble from business to business can’t all be staying in town –- the Fess Parker Inn & Spa, the sole hotel in town, only has 19 rooms.

We arrived on an evening in April when there was still a chill in the air, and stores were getting ready to close. By 6 p.m. the restaurants were doing a brisk business, but the streets were nearly deserted and the place looked like the ranching and farming town that it had been a century ago.

Our room was a peaceful suite, decorated in old-fashioned but not fussy style. On a stroll we watched someone lower the Texas flag in the twilight.

Petros north

Petros at the Fess Parker Inn serves the cuisine of Petros’ home region of Epirus in a rustic surroundings that mirror that Adriatic province.

We devoured soup, octopus salad, pan roasted, fresh local sea bass, and rack of lamb and then went for a moonlight walk before retiring. The lights of the town were quickly left behind and we stopped to admire stars that are never seen in Los Angeles. We were in the center of the road, but in no danger –- we could see for a mile. No car broke our reverie for over half an hour.

Demetria estate winemaker Alexi Zahoudanis is another Beach Cities transplant working in Los Olivos.

Demetria estate winemaker Alexi Zahoudanis is another Beach Cities transplant working in Los Olivos.

After a good night’s sleep and a refreshing breakfast (Greek yoghurt with fruit and granola for me, traditional American for my wife), it was off to explore. Solvang is a short drive. The utopian community of the 1870s is now famous for Danish tourist novelties and good bakeries. We decided to drive over to pick up a brand of mead that I can’t find locally. It took a long time to get there, not because we got lost, but because we kept finding interesting places to stop along the way.

We hadn’t even made it out of town when we saw a field of vivid, purple flowers and smelled of lavender and when we saw that the farm’s shop was open we had to stop in. Clairmont Farms sells the herb and makes soaps, oils, teas, and bath products using an old copper still that is visible from the road. They invite passers-by to stop in and even bring picnic lunches.

We continued through the Victorian village of Ballard, a place so tiny that Los Olivos looked like a metropolis by comparison, and stopped at Seein’ Spots farm. They are noted for breeding miniature donkeys and rescuing a wide variety of animals.

The little donkeys are the textbook definition of cute. The owner strolled carefully through her flock, feeding a huge tortoise, several contented pigs, goats, chickens, and strutting turkeys that have no fear of Thanksgiving. We left a donation and continued onward, where I found my mead and also an ostrich farm that sells eggs. I once made an omelet for 10 from one ostrich egg and considered buying one, but I had no way to keep it cool on the drive home.

We dropped our purchases off at the hotel and headed for Demetria on Foxen Canyon Road, a winery Petros highly recommended. Foxen Canyon is technically in Los Olivos but a ways north down a winding road, and once you enter the driveway at Demetria you are still a long way from the front door.

The road becomes a single lane that winds through fields and along a creek. At one point, we were certain we had taken a wrong turn. Then suddenly, after rounding a bend, we saw an imposing yellow building with 10-foot-high doors.

It resembled a medieval fort more than a California winery. We were the only visitors, so we had the full attention of the winemaker, Alexi Zahoudanis, an intense young man with a moustache and beard worthy of Cardinal Richelieu or Serj Tankian.

Zahoudanis served snacks and extolled the virtues of their Rhone style wines while pouring samples, impressing us so much with their Syrah and a Grenache blend that we bought several bottles. The visit was something that wouldn’t happen in many other wine regions of this caliber. We felt like guests rather than customers.

Like Petros, Zahousanis has a South Bay Connection. He grew up here and his father was formerly a partner in the Manhattan Country Club.

We returned to the Fess Parker Inn for another fine dinner at Petros and peaceful sleep. In the morning after picking up pastries from a nearby café we were on our way home. We had been away just two nights and driven only about five hours total, but it felt like a long vacation.

The Fess Parker Inn is at 2860 Grand Avenue in Los Olivos – website with information and prices is at fessparkerinn.com, phone 805-688-7788.