This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera, a playground for the financial elite to while away the hours on a shelf of land sandwiched between the mountains and the Pacific. Santa Barbara wine country, just over the Los Padres mountains in the Santa Ynez Valley, offers what Santa Barbara cannot: languid country roads, equine properties and near-limitless space. The 2004 Oscar-nominated film Sideways was a picture-perfect postcard of the low-key, still largely rural area.
Through the years, the likes of Noah Wyle, Bo Derek, Matt LeBlanc, singer and lyricist Bernie Taupin, veteran producer Jon Peters and former tennis star Jimmy Connors have migrated there seeking two things the Valley -- as it's known locally -- offers aplenty: peace and anonymity. In 2005, 20th Century Fox Television chairman Gary Newman and his entertainment attorney wife, Jeanne, opened Jorian Hill Vineyards, nestled on 20 acres in the hills of Ballard Canyon, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland's wife, Nan, is the proprietor of Martian Ranch & Vineyard a bit to the north.
Two years ago, Walt Disney Studios president of marketing Ricky Strauss and his partner, architect Tom Newman, purchased and restored a 1920s cottage in the no-stoplight town of Los Alamos. "We fell in love with the community," says Strauss. "You have what's available to you in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions but within driving distance of L.A. I spend my week at the studio, and on the weekends I'm harvesting olives."
The Valley comprises a loose aggregation of the small towns of Solvang, Buellton, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Ballard and Los Alamos, with a total population of about 18,000. Even so, a surprising number of Bel-Air-style houses lurk beyond the dusty roads. The properties are hidden within canyons or atop ridgelines or are set back on large parcels. Only 135 miles from Los Angeles, the area is reachable by car in a little more than two hours; some residents zip in and out of Santa Ynez Airport on private planes.
Actress Cheryl Ladd (best known for TV's Charlie's Angels) moved to the Valley in 1999 and recently listed for $4 million her 22.5-acre estate in Santa Ynez, an Italian-style villa with 6,557 square feet of living space, four bedrooms and five baths. Ladd, like others before her, has found respite from Hollywood there. "We wanted a different lifestyle for our children," says Ladd. "Our girls were teenagers at the time, and we wanted something quieter. This has served our family well. It's absolute paradise."
One of the region's key draws has been an upswing in the food and wine scene. "It was a little grim at first," admits Ladd. "But the area has grown." Must-visit wineries include Beckmen Vineyards, which has cracked Wine & Spirits magazine's Top 100, and Wine Spectator favorite Brewer-Clifton. The pinot noirs of Sea Smoke now border on cult status. Favorite local restaurants include the new Sides Hardware and Shoes (2375 Alamo Pintado Ave.) in Los Olivos, Bell Street Farm (406 Bell St.) and Full of Life Flatbread (225 Bell St.) in Los Alamos and Trattoria Grappolo (3687 Sagunto St.) in Santa Ynez.
Although the residential real estate market bottomed out two years ago, prices are rebounding. The average sales price of a single-family house in the region was $687,000 in 2012, up 15 percent from the previous year, while the number of sales increased from 211 to 249.
Agents in the area say no one tends to bother celebrities. Says Ladd's broker, Suzanne Perkins of Sotheby's International Realty: "The stars that come here are not here to be seen. They do their own shopping. They're not the kind of people who have someone follow them with an umbrella." That's a clear reference to former resident Michael Jackson, whose Neverland Valley Ranch, now owned by investor Thomas Barrack's Colony Capital, is in the northern part of the Valley.
But the allure is not mere anonymity; it's value. "In relative terms, you can get a lot compared to Montecito or Beverly Hills. You'll get 20 acres, not merely a lot," says local real estate agent William Etling, who has been covering the Valley for three decades. "It used to be a lot of beautiful green fields. Now it's a lot of beautiful green fields with a house here and there."
The housing stock can surprise outsiders who assume a majority of properties are horse ranches. There is, in fact, significant diversity, with residences both on the flatlands and tucked on mountain ridges. The latter include Deer Lodge, once owned by Whoopi Goldberg. Now for sale at $10.9 million, it originally was a hunting lodge owned by the John Deere family. The current owners bought the property after seeing it in Architectural Digest and upgraded its 14 structures, adding an infinity pool, a wine cellar, a bocce court, a treehouse, a zip line and syrah and grenache vines throughout 180 acres.
At $7.6 million, also sitting atop a spectacular ridge with endless views of the Santa Ynez Valley, is a contemporary house on 20 acres, clad in corrugated Cor-Ten steel and designed by renowned architect Frederick Fisher.
Charles Roven, who produced Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, has listed for $25 million a 250-acre Los Olivos estate with a 10,000-square-foot plantation-style house that includes a massive chef's kitchen, eight bedrooms, large swimming pool and guest cottage with its own gym and spa.
Still, some people seek the gentleman farmer route, wanting what the area originally was known for: horses. The 1960s saw an influx of equine ranches spring up, and that, coupled with the planting of commercial vineyards during the 1970s, has created enviably large tracts of land. (The 108-acre Vogelzang Vineyard, which has had wines highly rated by Wine Spectator, is on the market for $7.25 million.) "If you have your cutting horse, your vineyard and your house on a hill, it's quite a package," says Etling, who is offering just such a turnkey property, sitting on 20 acres, for $5.1 million. And it's not only Hollywood that's interested. "In January, I had clients from Beijing and Hong Kong who were blown away," says Perkins. "It's very unusual for them to see this kind of expanse and old-style living."
One measure of how low-key the area remains? Ladd says with a laugh, "You see billionaires driving old beat-up trucks."