Tuesday, October 04, 2011

MOVIES MADE ME #34: A Weekend in SIDEWAYS Country

“The sun felt warm as we climbed out of the car and stretched our limbs and drank in the unspoiled view. We were at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains, imposing hills carpeted in native grasses and dotted with gnarled oaks. After L.A., with its incessant automotive noise, putrid air, and constant congestion, the vista was positively invigorating… The soothing quiet of our surroundings was broken only by the intermittent melodies of unseen birds, the faroff rise and fall of a dog’s barking, and the wind rustling the leaves of the giant oaks. It all seemed to transport me to another realm, if only for a fleeting moment.” – Rex Pickett, SIDEWAYS


Coming up the 101 from Los Angeles, Santa Rosa Road is an ideal first stop. Take exit 139, just south of Buellton, and turn left. This little country country lane hugs the Santa Ynez Mountains for a few miles, offering a beautiful view of the fall colors and a selection of several different wineries. Miles and Jack opted for Sanford Winery, which has a quaint and charming tasting room full of pinots and chardonnays. Miles, you might recall, has a thing for pinot. He calls it “the one varietal that truly enchants me, both stills and steals my heart with its elusive loveliness and false promises of transcendence.” Taking his passion one step further, he adds, “I can’t date a woman who doesn’t like Pinot. That’s like getting involved with someone who’s disgusted by oral sex.”

In the book, Miles and Jack kick things off with the La Rinconada Pinot Noir. In the film, they start with Vin Gris (produced from the same grape). More words of wisdom from the not-so-famous author: “The reason this region’s good for Pinot is that the cold maritime air off the Pacific flows in at night through these transverse valleys and cools down the berries. Pinot doesn’t like to be hot all the time. It needs temperature variances and a slow growing season to develop its acids. And it despises humidity because it’s thin-skinned and susceptible to disease and rot. A finicky, elusive, but rewarding varietal.”

You have a few different housing options on this journey, as Miles explains in the book. There’s The Windmill Inn (“your basic no-frills square crib”), the Marriott (“Higher end. Nicer rooms, better pool.”) and the Ballard B&B (“Quaint Victorian. Probably not the best place to be stumbling into from an all-day wine-tasting spree.”). The Ballard Inn is not actually in Buellton. It's about halfway between Solvang and Los Olivos, so maybe save that one for another trip. If you need a third housing option in Buellton, I can vouch for Andersen’s Inn, across the street from The Windmill (so you can still walk to karaoke night at The Clubhouse, if you so desire) and next door to the Marriott.

If you stay in any of these hotels, you’ll be less than a mile away from the recommended dining options. Miles gives top marks The Hitching Post: “At first glance, the Hitching Post resembles any other chophouse with its cheerless décor and typical fare. But on closer inspection one realizes that they’ve incorporated the local wine milieu into their operation, marrying all those slabs of beef with a variety of artisanal Pinot Noirs. The wines are overpriced for what they are – thin, lacking in strength – but where else can you get a decent glass of wine and a hamburger in a small town?” If hamburgers aren’t your thing, the Hitching Post also serves a mean ostrich burger. (... grown on the ostrich farm next door. No kidding.) If you’re feeling even more daring, and your taste in wine is not as refined as Miles’s, you can go down the street to A.J. Spurs, “a tacky tourist barbecue joint that serves huge portions to mostly huge diners.” This is where Jack picked up a mostly married waitress. Finally, if you'd prefer your wine with greasy fast food, there’s also a McDonald’s. (For the record, Miles never stooped quite that low. He drank his ’61 Cheval blanc at Orcutt Burger in Santa Maria.)


Start your day at Ellen’s Danish Pancake House, where Miles and Jack fueled up for their first marathon tasting tour (in the book). Or, if you want a little more cultural immersion with your meal, you can drive over to the Danish village of Solvang, where Miles and Jack ate breakfast in the film (at Solvang Restaurant). In the off-season, Solvang is genuinely charming. In spring and summer, it gets a little claustrophobic. Either way, you could probably spend an entire day here indulging yourself on a mindboggling variety of savory foods. Best to head north as early as possible.

The backbone of Santa Barbara Wine Country is Foxen Canyon Road, a scenic stretch of road that boasts a dozen high-profile wineries. If you take the 101 and exit at Alisos Canyon Road, you'll land right in the middle of the action. In the book, Miles and Jack turned left to hit Byron (where Miles raves about the Sierra Madre Pinot Noir), Rancho Sisquoc (“Their wines were so uniformly wretched that we left without finishing the lineup.”) and Foxen (“a quality producer of Pinots, Cab, Cab Francs, Chards, Syrahs, an even Mourvedre and Grenache… a small operation but wildly ambitious”). Miles waxes poetic about the Foxen tasting room, noting that the ramshackle roadside barn (featured as the first stop in the film’s Foxen Canyon montage, where our guides sneak an extra pour while their server is away) is “a refreshing change from the sterility of most tasting rooms.” This is where the guys met Tessa (Stephanie).

To the right, there's Fess Parker and Firestone, among others. Firestone gets a breezy dismissal from our patron saint of pinot, who calls it “a mediocre local winery that values quantity over quality.” Fess Parker warrants a visit, though you may hate yourself in the morning. Miles sets the scene as follows: “Fess Parker Winery is a monument to kitsch: a large, wood building nestled amidst manicured lawns and manicured vineyards and gravel paths bounded by blooming flowers. My idea of a winery tasting room is a small, clapboard toolshed with open windows, buzzing flies, stinky cheeses, and serious wines. Fess Parker’s was designed to look like the lobby of a resort golf club, complete with wine pourers wearing identical monogrammed Izod golf shirts and flashing trained smiles.” For obvious reasons, the owners of Fess Parker didn’t want their establishment presented as an unholy mecca in a big Hollywood movie. They were happy to let the filmmakers stage Miles’s breakdown on their lobby floor as long as the filmmakers used a different name. Director Alexander Payne renamed Fess Parker “Frass Canyon”... “frass” being a cute word for bug shit.

By now you’ve probably had enough booze for one morning, so it's time to continue south on Foxen Canyon Road and turn left on 154 toward the charming town of Los Olivos. This is where Miles and Jack had their first double date in the film, at the Los Olivos Café… where Miles emphatically refused to drink any fucking Merlot (“almost always a bland, characterless wine”). In the book, the guys also visit a few other local eateries: a sandwich shop called Pannini’s, Skorpios ("a quaint Greek cafe") and Brothers Restaurant (“an unpretentious gourmet restaurant”). Not ones to neglect their primal bacchanalian urges, they also hit up the Andrew Murray and Richard Longoria tasting rooms (“Both are excellent local vintners – Murray specializing in Rhone varietals and Longoria in Burgundian.”).

In the book, Miles and Jack take their dates to an unnamed “trendy restaurant” in Santa Ynez - probably The Vineyard House, Dos Carlitos or Trattoria Grappolo. In the film, this is also where they meet Stephanie – at the Kalyra Winery. Miles is mostly unimpressed with their product, especially with the “flabby, overripe” Cab Franc. As an alternative, I heartily recommend Blackjack Winery on Alamo Pintado Road between Los Olivos and Mission Drive, not far from the Ballard B&B. The tasting room is featured briefly in the film’s Foxen Canyon montage: Miles gets a whiff of their Maximus Syrah and chirps: “That’s a big one.”


In the book, Miles and Jack eventually decide to clear their heads and explore California's Central Coast. They take the 101 all the way up to Morro Bay, which Miles dismisses as “a coastal retirement town pockmarked with cheap motels and bric-a-brac shops.” I have to disagree with this bit of snark, as Morro Bay is a beautiful place to unwind. Miles is just as dismissive of Hearst Castle, saying, “As we paraded from one high-ceilinged room to another, walking over priceless Italian terra-cotta, floating past decadent Baroque artworks, our group finally ending up encircling the fabled, mosaic-inlaid indoor pool, I reached the prosaic conclusion that one could be unhappy anywhere... Or was I just projecting?” By the time he and Jack turn back toward wine country and find themselves at Jalama Beach (Gaviota in the movie), Miles is so depressed that he privately regards himself as “a thumbprint on the first-floor window of a skyscraper, a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea along with millions of tons of raw sewage, a squirrel eating a nut as a car bore down on him.” So, yes… he was just projecting. Take the day trip to Morro Bay and Hearst Castle.

From there, you have two options. Option A: You can go back the way you came, passing through Buellton for one more tasting. In the book, Miles and Jack finish their tour at Babcock Winery & Vineyard on highway 246. Here, Miles forsakes his beloved pinot for the Black Label Cuvee, “an inky, almost biblical, 100 percent Syrah with truckloads of ripe fruit and brambly tannins." Somewhat guiltily, he admits, "We had abandoned the subtlety of Pinot for the pure unadulterated lust of Syrah.”

Option B: Head north to Paso Robles, where that lovable hedonist Jack finally succumbed to married life. There, you'll find 141 more wineries to explore.

In vino veritas.

1 comment:

  1. It's a fantastic drive. You hit a lot of great spots along the way, Joe. Thanks.