At first glance, movie fame doesn't appear to have affected the Hitching Post restaurant.
The steakhouse 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 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 green movie poster in the bar, the one advertising the critically acclaimed independent movie that has left its mark throughout Santa Barbara wine country: "Sideways."
"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 the stellar pinot noirs) 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, shall we say, 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 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.
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 (although he admits he was wearing his newer, cleaner "dinner hat" in the film). 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, who calls Burroughs "a celebrity," adds, "It wasn't bad being first on the list" of places where the characters stop. "That was very cool."
Sanford, who was considered crazy by many 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, provided you don't mind the onslaught of cars along busy Highway 246. (I'd recommend making the short drive instead.)
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. Sales of the Highliner, the pinot featured in "Sideways," have quadrupled at the restaurant since the movie came out.
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, somewhat rustic spots like Sanford.
Santa Maria Valley
The next morning, take a cue from Miles and Jack and head north so you can work your way back toward the hotel. Foxen Vineyard, 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, disguised in the movie as "Frass Canyon," the place where Miles drinks 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. But the grounds are beautiful, and you might catch a glimpse of Parker, who's occasionally in his office upstairs. Although Miles disses the "Frass Canyon" wines as "rancid tar and turpentine mouthwash," the Fess Parker pinot noir and syrah are 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. (More recently, the winery gained attention after one of Brooks' sons, Andrew, the winery's sales manager, became TV's "The Bachelor.") 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.
When it's time for lunch, take a drive into the town of Los Olivos. The Los Olivos Caf�, where Miles and Jack meet up with Maya and Stephanie for dinner and consume copious amounts of pinot noir, has a moderately priced lunch menu, some outdoor seating in nice weather and a good wine list. (It's open for dinner, too, if you prefer to picnic at lunch.) The cafe 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.
Winery near Solvang
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.
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 and is full of places selling Danish food and Danish souvenirs. 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. Miles and Maya peruse the produce at the Lompoc Farmers Market, held from 2 to 6 p.m. Fridays.
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 Rh�ne-style wines; Brander Vineyard nearby specializes in sauvignon blanc. Not far from Fess Parker is the tasting room and winery for Rh�ne specialist Zaca Mesa.
Non-wine attractions include the Mission Santa In�s, outside of Solvang. Built in 1804, much of it has been nicely restored. The gardens are a lovely spot on a warm day.
A final piece of advice for wine tasters: Pace yourself. Better yet, do something that Miles and Jack don't: Learn to spit when you're tasting wine. Or at least don't pour yourself more when the server's back is turned!
The Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau and Film Commission has a map that lists the "Sideways" sites and their locations. There are a few errors, but it's a good place to start. The Web site also has information about "Sideways" packages. (805) 966-9222, www.santabarbaraca.com.
The Santa Barbara Vintners Association has a good map of tasting rooms that also includes information on where to eat, sleep and shop for wine. (800) 218-0881, www.sbcountywines.com.
©2005 San Jose Mercury News