“It’s just like in the movie.”
You can’t escape the movie (Sideways) anywhere in Santa Barbara County’s wine country. It’s everywhere and on every visitor’s mind. The steady stream of tourists from California and far beyond to newly renovated tasting rooms and boutique hotels built over the past decade is in large part from the film.
Tourists swirl, sip, and talk about Pinot Noir’s virtues and Merlot’s disappointment as if they are Miles and Jack. The two principal characters (and wine tasters) had plenty of compliments for fruity Pinot Noir. They could not find a positive thing to say about Merlot. Ask around at tasting rooms and you will often get a similar consensus. With the major film studios two hours south, it’s here in Santa Barbara County where the entertainment power of Hollywood meets the historical power of Burgundy, ancestral home of Pinot Noir.
Santa Barbara’s version of a New World Burgundy is a world away from the ancient and typically overcast estates across the Atlantic. Here, everything is California Cool and California Beautiful. The sunsets are incomparable. The morning fog you can rely on like an alarm clock. 70 degrees at noon is expected and will happen. The gorgeous rolling golden hills, the good life of non-stop sunshine and the hearty steaks at The Hitching Post are not a lie.
They are an integral part of the movie. And they are a daily part of reality. Santa Barbara County wines and Sideways are still inextricably linked, some 11 years after the film lost to “Million Dollar Baby” for the Best Picture Oscar.
It’s not like Santa Barbara County is some hidden, burgeoning region that only connected members of the wine industry would know about. The roads are most definitely paved. Richard Sanford, Rick Longoria and Bob Lindquist have been wine-making icons in California since just after The Judgement of Paris deemed California wines more than drinkable. Labels like Au Bon Climat and Qupé are recognized on premier wine lists far beyond California’s borders.
It’s just that prior to the film, Santa Barbara County wasn’t a major stop on the wine tourism trail. The wines themselves were also still finding their way, competing with Napa and Sonoma for in-state business and with Oregon’s claim as the place for New World Burgundy. Those days of always feeling like a member of the supporting cast are over, and applause should be given for a film’s influence on bringing Santa Barbara wine to more excited drinkers, at the expense of poor, lonely Merlot.
By no means is Santa Barbara County just a two grape region. Over 50 varieties can be found on vines with Syrah a runaway third behind Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When sampling A Tribute to Grace’s Grenache in an Arctic cold barrel room or Cold Heaven Cellars’ Viognier in a warehouse space, you’re not experiencing Burgundy inspired wines.
Thanks to Riesling, Mourvèdre, Melon, and countless others, why not just call Santa Barbara County’s winemaking philosophy: globally inspired? Open up the Golden Gate. Santa Barbara County is in its prime for creativity and wine-making quality.
Highway 101 is the main north-south corridor. Wine is rarely grown in a close proximity to the highway but almost all wineries and vineyards are within close striking distance from it. Highway 1 merges into 101 just north of the county, then juts out again on its own in Lompoc, before again merging into 101 until Santa Barbara the city. Route 154 cuts east to west past Los Olivos and Route 246 is the east to west connector between Lompoc and Santa Ynez. Those are the two numbers to memorize for any visit.
To the north of the county is Santa Maria, best known for its tri-tip steaks (and on a lesser note 7,500 acres of wine grapes) but it’s not generally on the wine tourism circuit. To the south is the spectacular “California Riveria” city of Santa Barbara. The wine tasting and wine making is emerging in the city proper, yet the focus of the county’s wine industry is really between Santa Maria and Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, roughly 30 miles and 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara.
Tiny Los Alamos represents the northern part of this triangular area. Towards the west and southwest by the coast are Lompoc (famous for its wonderful flower festival) and the Vandenberg Air Force Base. The towns of Buellton, Los Olivos, Solvang, Ballard, and Santa Ynez are where the majority of the action is, located south and southeast of Los Alamos.
Santa Barbara County is a New World Burgundy and in theory tiny Solvang is a New World Denmark, except it is nothing at all like the real Copenhagen. Instead Solvang is an Epcot Center-style representation; more touristy kitsch than a true replica. The Little Mermaid would immediately swim away.
Buellton is industrial with lots of winemaking done in town and non-estate tasting rooms pouring to crowds right off 101. The rustic, pastoral charm of a wine country can be found best in Los Olivos. That is why it is constantly jammed on weekends by cyclists, tasters, and many tasting cyclists.
The wine country is over 50 miles long with over 125 wineries—and just five officially designated appellations: Ballard Canyon AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, Santa Maria Valley AVA, Santa Rita Hills AVA, and Santa Ynez Valley AVA. A few others like Los Alamos and Los Olivos will be added to the mix soon we’re told.
The county is definitely not like the real Burgundy when it comes to specific, microscopic sized appellations named for villages. Do note that on labels the Santa Rita Hills AVA bottlings read “Sta Rita Hills AVA,” courtesy of a lawsuit settlement with Chile’s large Santa Rita Winery. It’s not a typo. Ah, bureaucracy.
Typical weather patterns each day commence with a thin marine layer, cool winds and some dew moisture in the mornings towards the coast, with clearing starting much earlier inland. Everywhere in the county is temperate year round with not a lot of rainfall outside of the winter months (especially in this terrible drought year).
Inland regions like Happy Canyon AVA has more heat and higher elevation mountains that see more intense weather extremes of storms, heat and chilly overnight temperatures. They are definitely not Chardonnay and Pinot Noir territory.
The history of Santa Barbara County wine goes way back to before California was a state in 1782 when Father Junipero Serra, founder of California missions, planted grapes in Santa Barbara. Some wine was made in the late 1800’s, but didn’t really take off until well after Prohibition was repealed.
The coming of age of wineries and the region arrived perhaps in 1981 with Santa Maria Valley receiving the first AVA status. That was five years after The Judgement of Paris where Napa and Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay faced Bordeaux and Burgundy. No Santa Barbara County wines competed. In a serious competition today, they certainly would.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the runaway primary grapes but as you’ll read, several other varieties are making a significant impact. Soil is varied from limestone to diatomaceous earth to being ancient beaches with equally old fossilized sea shells.
You’ll hear the names Bien Nacido Vineyard (in the northern Santa Maria AVA) and Sanford & Benedict Vineyard (Sanford Winery’s estate vineyard outside Lompoc in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, on a windy, cool inlet west of 101) frequently when discussing regional wines. Many of the leading winemakers source prime Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from these two locations.
Not all responsibility for the region’s growth should be attributed to these vineyards but a good chunk of credit deserves to be given. In the modern world of the 21st century, Kick-On Ranch outside Lompoc is changing the concept of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner in the United States.
With the excellent wine, the dining around Santa Barbara County won’t let visitors down. Tiny Los Alamos happens to have two marquee spots, both with excellent wine lists and wonky schedules. A line starts by opening time at 4 pm for the pizzas at Full of Life Flatbread four nights a week.
I wish I could have lunch at Bell Street Farms at least once a week like many winemakers are able to. An order of the rotisserie chicken and the goat cheese-peppers-fennel tartine on olive bread is the perfect way to prepare for an afternoon of tasting. The ingredients are immaculate and as they like to say, they’re open for the long weekend (Friday to Monday lunch).
My pick for the most impressive dining experience would be Santa Ynez’s SY Kitchen. Take a break from wine briefly with the excellent cocktails (you’re getting the negroni followed by some excellent wine from nearby or Italy) then it’s a feast of California with a flair of Italy in housemade pastas, fresh salads and excellent main courses. One recent dinner yielded an incredible pasta congole with clams, zucchini and shaved tuna bottarga followed by a supremely tender cushion steak (from the pork shoulder) and superb housemade chocolate mascarpone gelato for our table.
The Ballard Inn is the formal, romantic destination to know in the countryside between Solvang and Santa Ynez, and in Los Olivos, consider Sides Hardware and Petros at the Fess Parker Inn. Los Olivos Wine Merchant and Café is the unofficial dining spot for the wine community on the main strip and, you’re correct, it was in Sideways.
Just outside Los Olivos, Hitching Post II in Buellton is an important stop, though the steaks are a bit over-hyped. They also have a location near Santa Maria in the Wild West looking town of Casmalia, a must-visit for carnivores and anyone intrigued by a venue dating back to 1920.
In Solvang, Root 246 is pretty much the only address to write down. The Solvang Brewing Company is a fine stop if more for the beer than the cuisine. I can’t recommend any of the “Danish” spots everywhere around Solvang or the “world famous” Anderson’s Split Pea Soup (a classic case of “it is what it is”). They’re not comparable to the restaurants mentioned in Los Olivos and SY Kitchen, but if mediocre soup and smørrebrød slathered in mayonnaise are important, well, then by all means go ahead.
Buellton has a great 1-2 punch of neighbors Industrial Eats right next to Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company. Enjoy the brewery’s Big Cone Black Ale and Hurricane Deck Double IPA and then head a few steps to Industrial Eats’ cavernous room. Small plates feature fava bean and ricotta bruschetta and smoked steelhead with horseradish and dill before moving to the main event pizzas and sandwiches (beef tongue pastrami reuben!).
On the other side of 101 all by its self, Firestone Walker Barrelworks is the creative branch of the Paso Robles brewery, focusing on experimental sour brews. Avid beer fans flock here much like wine drinkers would to a Qupé or Au Bon Climat.
To wake up in the morning before wine (or beer) tasting, The Coffee Cabin in a random parking lot in Buellton won’t win any national barista awards, but being a tiny drive-thru or walk-up cabin plunked in this happenstance spot, you can’t help but smile.
Santa Barbara itself is a worthwhile town to visit for food alone—even without the ocean or the wine. Tourists smartly line up for La Super Rica’s excellent tacos de rajas (sautéed strips of chiles and melted cheese) and tacos de adobado (marinated pork), known as former resident Julia Child’s favorite Mexican restaurant.
Julienne could be a James Beard award nominated establishment for its contemporary Californian cooking. Olio e Limone and little sister Olio Crudo Bar are always packed to capacity for fresh, lively Italian on the California Riviera. For seafood and oysters, LA import The Hungry Cat is the important address. The lobster roll is mandatory and since you’re “in the know,” the seafood-free Pug Burger is essential as well.
Santa Barbara Public Market with Belcampo Meat, Crazy Good Bread, and Rori’s Artisanal Creamery for ice cream is a great lunch spot. If we’re talking ice cream, there is the nationally recognized local legend McConnell’s scooping around town with flavors from Turkish coffee to churros con leche for anxious kids and kids at heart. The wine crowd frequents Wine Cask and Bouchon, two venerable dining rooms with strong wine lists.
For coffee to fuel the wine tasting day, Bicycle Coffee and The French Press could compete with the leading baristas on either coast. And the destination of the moment for eating, drinking and people-watching is the “Funk Zone.” Lucky Penny is the spot there for salads and pizza at lunch, then the more upscale and ambitious Lark for dinner. Then catch some funky art and a concert before a nightcap glass at Les Marchands Wine Bar.