It has long been one of California's best-kept secrets. Just a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara's wine country lies amid cow pastures, mountains awash in greenery, spectacular ocean vistas, and sunlight that plays upon the landscape like an Impressionist painting. The hit film Sideways, nominated for the best picture Oscar, has sparked a boom in tourism to the region. Despite all the attention, a trip to Santa Barbara's vineyards remains an easy-to-manage getaway.
Fans of the film, which chronicles a week-long roadtrip for two former college roommates, a struggling actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and a struggling writer Miles (Paul Giamatti), can download a free map of the real-life movie locations at santabarbaraca.com. The Hitching Post Restaurant, where oenophile Miles meets his love interest Maya, lives up to its cameo with excellent steaks and the house label Highliner pinot noir featured in the movie. So does the Kalyra Winery, where Jack, who's celebrating his last week of bachelorhood, picks up wine pourer Stephanie. On a recent Saturday afternoon the bar was hopping, with rock music playing and a youthful staff cracking jokes. T-shirts for sale read "Get Sideways at Kalyra Winery." The best bets are the dessert wines, such as the fruity but not too sweet 2003 Orange Muscat.
Unlike Napa and Sonoma, its larger and better-known neighbors to the north, Santa Barbara's wine country doesn't take itself too seriously. Most of the more than 70 wineries are small, family affairs. Blessed with a cool climate that allows its grapes to stay on the vine longer than in other regions, Santa Barbara is noted for its difficult-to-grow pinot noirs, a rich and versatile varietal enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to the movie.
"JUST A FLUTTER"
Two local establishments with good reputations for pinots are Foxen Winery and Sanford Winery. Both operate tasting rooms in old wooden barns. Wine Spectator magazine described Foxen's facility as "rustic at best." But that hasn't stopped either from scoring well in national surveys. Sanford's 2002 Pinot Noir-Vin Gris earned 90 points out of 100 from the PinotReport newsletter (pinotreport.com). It's the wine in which Miles smells citrus, strawberry, passionfruit, "the faintest soupçon of asparagus, and just a flutter of like a nutty Edam cheese" in one of the funnier scenes. Foxen co-founder Dick Doré notes the challenges of making good pinot noir, including a thin-skinned grape conducive to moisture and oxygen that can destroy the wine's structure. Says Doré: "You tiptoe by the barrels."
Other standout local pinot noirs are produced by Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard. Called "Frass Canyon" in the movie, it's where a despondent Miles drinks from the spit bucket. Parker's no stranger to show business: He played Davy Crockett in the hit 1950s television show. These days, he sells coonskin caps in his winery and owns the elegant Wine Country Inn & Spa in the charming and centrally located village of Los Olivos. "I was fascinated by the ocean and the mountains," the native Texan says of his first tour of the area six decades ago. "I haven't been able to get away." Take your own Sideways tour and you'll see what he means.
By Christopher Palmeri