The sprawling ranch-style house has 18-foot ceilings, sumptuous furnishings, and a kitchen that any cook would covet. Yet for Debbie and Steve Lenzi, the favorite feature of their vacation home is the sweeping view of the Santa Ynez Valley that is visible from every room. "I told Steve I had to be able to see vineyards," Debbie says, pointing through a bedroom window at the vista beyond. "Look at that hill there, and there. Vineyards!"
The view is about the only thing that has not changed since the Lenzis bought the four-bedroom house two years ago. They're nearing the end of a remodeling project that transformed what was simply an attractive house in the hills above Solvang into a stunning replica of a Tuscan villa. Warm hues and Italian tile have replaced vanilla walls and nondescript flooring, while custom lighting and rich wood accents unify the spaces throughout the 5,400-square-foot house built a decade ago. "This was the first time we'd done anything like this," Steve says. "We didn't realize the scope of what we were going to be doing."
The Lenzis began a search for a wine-country house about six years ago, looking ahead to Steve's retirement as an executive for the Automobile Club of Southern California. They were living in Orange County at the time and spending their holidays in a three-bedroom Lake Tahoe house that became their primary residence after Steve retired in June 2008. By that time, they'd scoured the Napa and Sonoma valleys before shifting their search to the Central Coast area where Debbie grew up. They bought the Solvang house a year later and launched the top-to-bottom remodel (donating the discarded cabinets, doors and hardware to Habitat for Humanity).
They started with a vision Debbie had for the house, one enhanced with ideas culled from magazines, brochures and advertisements. She collected a folder of clippings of rooms she loved and details she admired. She even taped the photo from a magazine on the library wall as a reminder of how the room would someday look. Steve was deeply involved in the planning, offering suggestions that Debbie admits led to some lively discussions.
Still, they ultimately agreed on every element of the renovation-from the hidden rope lighting that softly illuminates the coffered dining room ceiling, to the walk-in shower in the master bath, to the warming oven built into one of two granite-topped kitchen islands. "Everything we do," Debbie says, "we do together."
Because the couple was relatively new to the Solvang area, they turned to neighbors whose homes they admired for references and recommendations-the key to the success of their remodeling project. "Of all the lessons learned, that's the most important," says Steve. "We didn't have any of the nightmare We found people who were honest and dependable. They weren't just contractors, they were craftsmen."
With Steve teaching a leadership class at the private Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe, most of the oversight of the renovation fell to Debbie. She met with local contractor Matt Loudon, managed the budget and tracked every detail. A former Realtor, she also decorated the home, finding treasures in the home-décor stores that pepper her newly adopted valley.
Debbie and Steve still have a couple of projects ahead of them, including their master bedroom and the office where Debbie works as a consultant to the insurance industry. They want to build an outdoor kitchen and fireplace in the backyard and replace much of the lawn with hardscaping to reduce water use. They plan to leave most of their eight acres as open space for the deer, birds and other "critters" that make their home on the oak-dotted hillsides, although Steve is eyeing one slope for a mini-vineyard.
Because the renovation was so extensive, the Lenzis are just now beginning to appreciate their Central Coast home. They're able to spend time exploring the countryside, often with relatives and friends who love to visit the region for its wine-tasting rooms and laid-back lifestyle. "We've grown to love this house," Debbie says. "It feels like home."
Wine Valley Sojourn
During weekend trips and holidays, Debbie and Steve Lenzi love exploring the area around their vacation retreat in Solvang. They've discovered a favored winery or two-the Santa Ynez Valley was the setting for the 2004 hit movie "Sideways"-along with fanciful boutiques, tasty restaurants, and breathtaking scenery. During a recent interview, the couple offered their favorite places for relaxation and fun. And since the Lenzis are relatively new to the area, we've added a few suggestions of our own.
This quaint Danish-themed city provides a good home base for visitors spending a long weekend. Wine-tasting rooms, fragrant bakeries, and well-stocked cheese stores are tucked among the motels and souvenir shops in the city square. Debbie likes to stop at Nodding Place, which features exquisite hand-stitched quilts, and Pearls of Provence, Wine valley sojourn crammed with colorful textiles and ceramics.
Just down the street is Enchanté Nail Spa, where relaxing massages and manicures take pampering to a new level. And next to the post office, celebrity chef Bradley Ogden recently opened Root 246, a popular restaurant drawing raves for its New American cuisine.
Three miles east of Solvang is Santa Ynez, a charming town with stores that are magnets for local residents. Dennees of Santa Ynez (there's also a store in Redondo Beach) is chock-full of ornate furnishings and accessories, while Sage stocks contemporary linens, dishware, and gifts. Debbie also has unearthed treasures at Home Design and Consign, tucked into the corner of an industrial park. And the walls of the Lenzi home are adorned with the work of nature photographer Philip Gerlach, who has an eponymous gallery on Sagunto Street.
Two of the town's restaurants, Mattie's Tavern and Red Barn Steak House, are local landmarks, while the Vineyard House offers a good alternative for Sunday brunch. (The Hitching Post restaurant featured in "Sideways" is in Buellton, a town just west of Solvang.) And while the region boasts wineries galore, Debbie and Steve's favorite is Roblar, an upscale venue along Highway 154 that features a tasting room, café and even a cooking school where the couple hopes to someday hone their culinary skills.
Driving between Solvang and Santa Ynez, you'll notice a massive building alongside the road. It's the Chumash Casino Resort, which is packed day and night with gamblers trying their luck at the 2,000 slots and video machines, along with blackjack, poker and other games of chance.
The five-mile drive between Solvang and Los Olivos offers views of rolling hills, lush equestrian ranches, and sprawling vineyards. The town's main streets are lined with wine-tasting rooms for aficionados who are short on time or don't want to get behind the wheel after sampling their favorite merlot. While you miss the experience of visiting the vineyard, you'll still get the same expert advice and recommendations about color, smell, and taste.
Take time to detour into the small galleries that pepper the storefronts. Sansone Studio Gallery features brilliantly colored enamel-on-copper artwork and sculptures, each one original and unique. The works of dozens of the region's artists are showcased at Gallery Los Olivos, which rotates the exhibits three times a year, providing a new experience during each visit.
The drive between the San Fernando and Santa Ynez valleys takes about two hours, depending on traffic. Take the 101 Freeway north to Santa Barbara, where you have two options for the second leg of your journey. You can continue on the 101 for about 40 miles to Buellton, then head east for six miles on Highway 246. The alternative is to take Highway 154, a two-lane road that winds through San Marcos Pass and past Lake Cachuma, a reservoir with picnic sites and campgrounds. Either route offers beautiful scenery and the opportunity for new experiences in the Golden State.