At first glance, movie fame doesn't appear to have affected The Hitching Post restaurant.
The steak house is still something of a throwback, with its relish trays and assortment of crackers on every table. Owner Frank Ostini, who's also a winemaker, greets me in his usual friendly fashion. The steaks are still the best around.
But there are some subtle signs of change. The place is packed on a Monday night during a usually slow time of year. The wallpaper is different. And there's that movie poster in the bar, the one advertising the critically acclaimed independent movie that has left its mark throughout Santa Barbara wine country: "Sideways," which was nominated this week for a Best Picture Academy Award.
"We really feel blessed by the whole experience," says Ostini, whose restaurant and Hitching Post pinot noir figure prominently in the movie.
Despite the dark issues in the movie depression, alcoholism, infidelity "Sideways" is a valentine to Santa Barbara's wine country. The tawny hills and undulating vineyards; the charming tasting rooms; and, above all, the wines (especially pinot noir) are given loving attention by the cinematography and the story. The film reminded me why Santa Barbara County is one of my favorite California wine-country destinations.
And it prompted me to pay a visit and retrace some of the steps (sans bowling, golf and, er, extracurricular activities) of "Sideways" protagonists Miles, the wine snob and frustrated writer, and Jack, the faded TV star who never met a wine he didn't like. Many others appear to be doing the same: Shannon Brooks of the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission says the wineries and restaurants featured in the film report that business is up 5 percent to 25 percent. At the visitors bureau, "our phone has been ringing off the hook," she says.
The movie is a little geographically challenged in the way it hopscotches around the county, so I'll suggest a slightly more logical route. But there's no better place to start than where Miles and Jack do: Sanford Winery on Santa Rosa Road, west of Buellton in the Santa Rita Hills appellation.
The journey begins
Step into Sanford's small New Mexico-style tasting room and the surroundings will look familiar. Chris Burroughs is likely to be behind the bar the same long-haired, bearded, laid-back guy pouring Sanford wines in the movie. Burroughs, who has worked at Sanford for 10 years, says he's seen a lot more traffic through the tasting room since the movie came out. "It's a ton of people excited about the movie and excited about the connection to the winery," he says.
Winery owner Richard Sanford adds, "It wasn't bad being first on the list" of places where the characters stop. "That was very cool."
Sanford, who was considered by many to be crazy when he planted a vineyard in such a chilly location back in 1971, is especially pleased at how the film praises so many of the region's wines. "It really helps the credibility of the quality here," he says.
Later that day, Miles and Jack check into the "Windmill Inn," a Days Inn in Buellton, complete with faux windmill. Unless you drink as much as they do, bring your earplugs if you decide to stay here. The traffic from Highway 101 and noise from other guests make this a not-so-restful place to stay. On the plus side, you can walk to The Hitching Post, as the characters do.
Miles considers The Hitching Post to be "practically my office." I'm not that much of a regular, but it's the one restaurant I always make sure to visit when I'm in the area. The steaks are outstanding; the fresh fish is a good option if steak isn't your thing. And don't miss The Hitching Post wines. Ostini and his winemaking partner, Gray Hartley (he's the balding guy with glasses and a dark shirt sitting at the head of the first table you see when Miles and Jack enter the restaurant), specialize in pinot noir, although they also make syrah and cabernet franc.
A distinct environment
The Hitching Post and the Sanford tasting room help set the tone for your visit, too. It's clear you're not in the Napa Valley. The Napa Valley has the French Laundry; Santa Barbara wine country has The Hitching Post. Napa has big, glitzy tasting rooms that attract tour buses; Santa Barbara has lots of small, friendly, rustic spots like Sanford.
The next morning, take a cue from Miles and Jack and head north so you can work your way back toward the hotel. Foxen Winery, in the Santa Maria Valley, is where they sneak extra wine when the pourer leaves them alone. The no-frills Foxen tasting room is a bit of a drive from the rest of the "Sideways" wineries, which are mostly clustered in the Santa Ynez Valley, but it's worth the trip for the excellent pinot noir and syrah, not to mention the pretty scenery along Foxen Canyon Road.
From Foxen, head south to the Fess Parker tasting room, known in the movie as "Frass Canyon," the place where Miles tries to drink from the dump bucket. This is one of the area's most touristy tasting rooms it even sells little coonskin caps that fit the top of a wine bottle, recalling owner Parker's days as an actor portraying Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Although Miles disses the "Frass Canyon" wines as "rancid tar and turpentine mouthwash," the Fess Parker pinot noir and syrah are very well-made.
Keep driving south, and at the fork take Zaca Station Road. The next stop is Firestone Vineyard, perched on a beautiful hilltop setting. Firestone established in 1972 by tire company magnate Leonard Firestone and his son Brooks was one of the county's earliest wineries. The tasting room isn't identified in the movie, but this is where the foursome slips through a door and wanders among the wine barrels. The winery makes a range of very good wines, from riesling and gew�rztraminer to merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
Cuisine and scenery
When it's time for lunch, take a drive into the town of Los Olivos. The Los Olivos Caf� is where Miles and Jack meet up with Maya and Stephanie, the love interests they rather erratically woo, for dinner and consume copious amounts of pinot noir. The cafe has a moderately priced lunch menu, some outdoor seating in nice weather and a good wine list.
The caf� also has an attached wine shop, so take some time to browse the shelves.
In Los Olivos, take a break from the movie itinerary and stroll to some of the in-town tasting rooms, including Daniel Gehrs Wines, Longoria Wines, Andrew Murray Vineyards and the Los Olivos Tasting Room, which represents wineries like Au Bon Climat, Lane Tanner and Jaffurs.
From Highway 246 between Santa Ynez and Solvang, turn south on Refugio Road to visit Kalyra Winery, easily recognizable as Stephanie's place of employment. The motif is Australian surf outback not surprising, considering that winemaker Mike Brown and his brother Martin, who own the winery, are Australians and the wines range from sauvignon blanc to shiraz to delicious dessert wines. The brothers even produce some wines from Australian-grown grapes.
Martin Brown thinks it's a little too early to predict whether the tasting room's appearance in the film will help business. But the Browns have already seen one benefit: They were using a smaller space for the tasting room, and director Alexander Payne wanted to use a bigger room at the other end of the building. The film's artists and set builders completed work on the current tasting room in about four days, Brown says.
A few extra stops We conclude our "Sideways" tour at Kalyra. Of course, you could visit some of the other spots the characters do. Even non-wine tasters flock to Solvang, which calls itself the Danish capital of America. On the drive back to Buellton on Highway 246, watch for the ostriches at Ostrich Land. Miles and Jack also play golf at the River Course at the Alisal, at Alisal Guest Ranch outside Solvang, and they visit Ocean Lanes, a bowling alley in Lompoc. Or you could branch out and stop at some of the other wineries in the area.
Los Olivos Wine & Spirits Emporium, on the outskirts of Los Olivos, pours and sells wines from numerous small vintners. Beckmen Vineyards in Los Olivos is a good stop for Rhone-style wines; Brander Vineyard nearby specializes in sauvignon blanc. Not far from Fess Parker is the tasting room and winery for Rhone specialist Zaca Mesa.
A final piece of advice for wine tasters: Pace yourself. Better yet, do something that Miles and Jack don't: Learn to spit when tasting wine. Or at least don't pour yourself more when the server's back is turned!
1. Head to The Hitching Post II in Buellton for the best steaks around. The grilled fish is good, too, and the bar is lively. Be sure to try The Hitching Post wines. (Dinner nightly. 406 E. Highway 246, Buellton; 688-0676.)
2. It wasn't good in the movie, but another good choice for dinner is the Brothers Restaurant at Mattei's Tavern. Seasonal menu served in a restored stagecoach shop. (Dinner daily. 2350 Railway Ave., Los Olivos; 688-4820.)
3. Miles and Jack ate breakfast in Solvang, but a better choice is Ellen's Danish Pancake House in Buellton, practically around the corner from the Days Inn. Popular with locals; great omelets and pancakes. (Open 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. 272 Avenue of Flags, Buellton; 688-5312.)
1. The Days Inn at the Windmill in Buellton is a noisy and very basic motel off Highway 101 (though the rooms are big). Rooms are $70 to $160, including continental breakfast. (114 E. Highway 246, Buellton; 688-8448; www.daysinn-solvang.com.)
2. The Santa Ynez Inn looks like a Victorian mansion but is just a few years old. Fourteen luxurious rooms with fireplaces, evening wine and hors d'oeuvres, full breakfast. Rooms are suites, $315-$425. (3627 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez; 800-643-5774; www.santaynezinn.com.)
3. Another very comfortable option is Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa. Fireplaces, evening wine and cheese, continental breakfast. Rooms and suites, $260-$450. (2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos; 800-446-2455; www.fessparker.com.)
1. Sanford Winery is where Miles teaches Jack how to taste wine. The vin gris featured in this scene is sold out, but there's plenty of pinot to enjoy. Tasting, $5. (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. 7250 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton; 800-426-9463, www.sanfordwinery.com.)
2. Foxen Vineyard, not identified in the film, is the rustic tasting room where Miles and Jack pour themselves more wine when the pourer isn't looking. Specialties include pinot noir and syrah. Choice of $5 or $7 tastings. (Noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 7200 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria; 937-4251.)
3. Fess Parker Winery became Frass Canyon in the movie; it's where breaks down and tries to drink from the dump bucket. Stick to the pinot noir and syrah instead. Tasting, $7, includes glass etched with a coonskin cap design. (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 6200 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos; 800-841-1104; www.fessparker.com.)
4. Firestone Vineyard, also not identified, is where Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie slip out of the tasting room and wander among the barrels. The reds are good; so is the riesling. Tasting, $7, includes souvenir glass. (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 5000 Zaca Station Road, Los Olivos; 688-3940, www.firestonewine.com.)
5. Kalyra Winery, where Miles and Jack meet Stephanie, gained a reputation for fortified wines but also offers a range of table wines from both Santa Barbara County and Australia. (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, until 4 p.m. on winter weekdays. 343 N. Refugio Road, Santa Ynez; 693-8864, www.kalyrawinery.com.)
©2005 The Tribune