Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The "Sideways" Route, My Way: Tasting, Dining, Exploring in the Santa Ynez Valley

With Solvang as our home base, we were never more than a 20-minute drive from the wineries and restaurants that we visited. Some of the tasting rooms were in right in Solvang.

Our hotel, Hadsten House provided us (and all guests who ask for it) with a list of close to 40 wineries that offered either a complimentary tasting for two or a 2 for 1 tasting. All we needed to do was to present the list. When we tasted at the Casa Cassara tasting room in downtown Solvang, the owner gave us a "Pour it Forward" card which entitled us to a complimentary tasting at over a dozen tasting rooms of members of the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association.  Most of the wineries that we visited were included on one or both of these offers.

My observation in the tasting rooms and wineries we visited is that the Santa Ynez Valley has the feel that the Napa and Sonoma Valleys had 30 or so years ago, when they had a relatively small number of wineries. This region is friendly, folksy, and has beautiful open space. Also, tasting wine during the week, even in busier California wine regions, is always more relaxing than tasting on the weekend. 

Even though it has been 10 years since "Sideways" was released, at the tasting rooms and restaurants we were treated to stories about the making of the movie at each location and about how "Sideways" put the Santa Ynez Valley and Pinot Noir "on the map," so to speak.  Visitors flocked to the Valley and Pinot Noir became the elite grape of wine drinkers.  Even now, we met several people, from as far as New York City, who were doing the "Sideways" route. 

At Kalyra, in Solvang, our pourer regaled us with tales of the movie. It was at Kalyra that Miles and Jack meet the flirtatious wine pourer, Stephanie.

Before "Sideways," Kalyra did not even have a tasting bar at the winery. The film makers built the bar that has become Kalyra's main tasting bar. The film brought so many visitors to the winery that they built at second Tiki bar which they open for tastings during busy periods, like weekends.  

Kalyra hosts their outdoor Movie Night at least one evening a month between May and November. They show a film in their outdoor amphitheater on a 20' big screen. There is no charge to attend Movie Night and food and wine by the glass or bottle are for sale or you can bring a picnic (no outside alcohol though). Doors open at 5 p.m. and the movie starts at dusk.  Once a year, this year on Friday, October 10, 2014, they show "Sideways"…I'm tempted to make another trip down here just for this evening under the stars with other "Sideways" fans.  All movies and other Kalyra events are listed on their web site. 

It was at Fess Parker in Los Olivos, called Frass Canyon in the movie, where Miles steps out to call his agent to see if she had heard from Conundrum Press, a publisher who was his last chance at getting his book published. I'd always thought the Conundrum name was inspired by a California winery of that name, but, Googling Conundrum Press, I've discovered it exists and focuses on publishing works of Rocky Mountain region authors.

Our pourer told us that it took four days to film the two short movie scenes at this winery. Fess Parker is the only winery in the movie that does not use its real name. Fess Parker himself, the actor who is best known for his rôles as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, agreed to allow the scenes to be filmed here but did not want any mention of the winery's name. Fess Parker passed away in 2010. His family now runs the winery.  If you are in the market for a coonskin cap, they are for sale at the winery (not real coonskin).   

At any rate, Miles walks to edge of the long patio to the right of the Fess Parker entrance and makes his phone call.  Sadly, his agent gives him the bad news: Conundrum turned down his book.

Dismayed, Miles comes back into the tasting room and asks the pourer to pour him a full glass of wine. When the pourer denies his request, Miles grabs the spit bucket and drinks out of it and then pours the remainder over his head.

Jim has beautifully recreated these scenes in the two photos above, but drew the line at pouring the contents of the bucket over his head.

It is a beautiful drive up to Fess Parker. And, the grounds of the winery, as seen in the above two photos are extensive and beautiful. It's a great place to have a picnic.


The Hitching Post is the restaurant in Buellton where Miles and Jack have their first night's dinner.  It is known for its steaks. In the film, Miles knows Maya, one of the servers in the restaurant; it is his favorite restaurant in the area. Maya and Miles share their interest in wine and become an "item" in the film, thanks to Jack.

We did not dine at the Hitching Post, but heard from others we met on the "Sideways" route that their steaks, for which they are known,  are excellent.

What I was interested in was the Hitching Post wines, particularly the Highliner Pinot Noir, which is mentioned in the movie. Hitching Post wines are made by Hitching Post chef Frank Ostini and his friend, Gray Hartley under the name, Hartley Ostini Hitching Post. Initially, they made their wines at home and exclusively for the restaurant. They are currently making their wines at Terravant Winery, a state-of-the-art facility in Buellton, a few miles away from the restaurant.  

My friend Hallie suggested Terravant's restaurant, Avant, as a place for dinner and an opportunity to taste the wines from small local wineries who make their wines at Terravant. Of course, Hitching Post wines can be tasted at the Hitching Post restaurant, but we did our Hitching Post tasting over a small plate dinner at Avant.

"Sideways" gave Hitching Post's Highliner, and Pinot Noirs in general, the boost they never expected.  While I did taste a the Highliner at Avant, I purchased a bottle of Hitching Post Dry Rosé, Pinks, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which is still priced within my wine budget; the Highliner's fame has made it a bit pricey.

The fun of dining at Avant is the menu's variety of shareable dishes and how the wine is "served." Once seated, your server gives you a card that looks like a credit card. Then, you go up to the wall of metered wine servers, insert your card by the wine of your choice, indicate whether you want a taste, a half glass, or a full glass, put your glass under the appropriate spout and, Voila!, out comes your wine.  At the end of your meal, your card has the record of your purchases and you are charged accordingly. Of course, you can purchase a bottle of any of the wines you taste. Avant even gives a discount on bottles your buy to take with you.  

Dining and tasting at Avant makes for a relaxing fun meal.  Each dish we ordered was creative and outstanding.

What did we eat?
Roasted Beet salad, with avocado, pistachios, goat cheese, mixed greens and citrus vinaigrette.

Pomegranate Lamb Skewers.

Mushrooms stuffed with spicy sausage.

Steamed Lobster Rolls.

And, for dessert, Candied Peaches with Vanilla Semifreddo.

We did order one other dish, a "House Specialty," Yuppie Crack: Dates and goat cheese wrapped in Applewood smoked bacon. It was an afterthought to order this and I totally forgot to take a picture of it, but didn't like it as much as a version of the same dish that I've repeatedly enjoyed at a favorite restaurant in La Quinta, California, Cork & Fork


We had planned our last night's dinner at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café.  This is where Miles, Jack, Maya, and Stephanie went on their first double date…lots of wine, good food, and some angst on Miles' part, of course.

We also planned to spend some day time in the town of Los Olivos, which is a tiny town, with a flagpole round about in its center and lots of wine tasting rooms. When we mentioned to the pourer at Fess Parker that this was our next destination and that we were having dinner at the Café that evening, he told us that the Café serves the best Reuben sandwich in the West and that he has lunch there every Saturday.  As a major lover of Reuben sandwiches, what choice did I have but to have lunch at the Los Olivos Café & Wine Merchant?

The Reuben sandwich lived up to my expectations 
and Jim's Brisket sandwich was equally delicious.

After lunch we wandered around Los Olivos, stopping at Coquelicot tasting room for a taste and, then, browsing in some of the shops.

Then, we had to decide whether to return here later for dinner or to go elsewhere. The dinner menu was sufficiently different from the lunch menu that we kept our reservation.  It was a wonderful decision because Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, offers a "Sideways" three-course fixed-price ($35) Tasting Dinner Menu that includes a glass of their house Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. 

Jim ordered the Tasting Menu which includes a choice of soup or a seasonal salad, a choice of Grilled Salmon, Pot Roast, or House Made Ravioli, and, for dessert, Chocolate Scream, a flourless chocolate cake with home-made ice cream and caramel sauce.  The Tasting Menu states that salmon was served in the movie and that's what Jim chose for his main course.

My dinner was more modest: The evening's featured fresh fish, Shark, a glass of wine, and tastes from Jim's plates. 


We visited a few other wineries that I'd heard about. One was Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard in Solvang, a family-owned winery and farm. Buttonwood's founder, Betty Williams passed away in 2011 at age 92. She established Buttonwood as an equestrian facility, was the founder of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, and built the winery and organic farm. Our pourer in the tasting room encouraged us to take our wines out in the garden and farm. I tried some "creative" photography, viewing the gardens through my wine glass. Jim did his tasting with the goats. 

I bought a bottle of Buttonwood Grenache, being intrigued by this light dry red wine. 

On our way back to Solvang from Los Olivos, I tried to make a stop at Brander Vineyard, a winery known for its Sauvignon Blancs.  I had Brander's Los Olivos address but my car's navigation system refused to recognize this address. Since I'd been on this road several times in our travels, I decided to try to find it myself, which didn't work.  After a few tries, I decided just to head back into Solvang and started to make a U-turn into a driveway.

As I drove into this driveway, I saw a field of lavender plants and a sign saying "Lavender Boutique."  With memories of my time in Provence a few years ago, I could not resist investigating the boutique, a tiny shed with a friendly dog outside.

What I had happened upon was Clairmont Lavender Farms, an organic 5-acre family-owned lavender farm that makes a variety of lavender products and even has its own still to distill lavender oil.  I came away with a jar of Culinary-quality dried lavender and a few tubes of lavender lip balm. What a delightful discovery which only can happen when you take "the road less traveled" and stop to smell the lavender. 

The people working in the Boutique gave me driving directions to the elusive Brander.

Once at Brander, we learned that, despite the Los Olivos address that is published in most tourist publications, they are really located in Santa Ynez.  It was worth the trouble to visit this French-style winery and to experience their excellent Sauvignon Blancs.

My next post will be about the day we took off from "Sideways" and drove to Santa Barbara for the day. 

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