"Sideways” Country….and Beyond!
The movie “Sideways,” the surprise sleeper hit movie of 2004, chronicles the misadventures of two old college buddies who spend a week playing golf and drinking wine in the vineyard country west of Santa Barbara. (I’ve watched it about eleven times. It’s the ultimate wine geek movie). Since I had never been there, everything I knew about the area (or thought I knew) was gleaned from what I saw in the film.
Bad idea. Our trip there in mid-October was something of a revelation—good and not-so-good. First, I believed, because of the movie, that everybody who made wine out there spent all their time growing, crushing, and bottling Pinot Noir. Not so. They grow an amazing variety of wine grapes, including Spanish, Italian, and French types, that I never expected. That’s the good news.
Punching down the cap at the Margerum winery.
Second, I thought the area was set up pretty much like Napa Valley, with tasting rooms at the wineries, which would be located in the midst of scenic, rolling acres of grapevines. Again, I supposed erroneously. The major part of the tasting scene isn’t like that at all. But all in all, there are still great wines to drink, and stimulating experiences to be had.
With Pali winemaker Aaron Walker.
Start in Solvang, originally a Danish settlement, that looks a bit like the back lot at Disney. All the buildings on the main and side streets have that northern European, half-timbered look. Very atmospheric. The Mirabelle Inn, two blocks off the main street, is a picturesque B&B that reeks of old world charm and history. However, it was built in 1997. Nice place.
Beautiful downtown Solvang
As far as wine adventures go, the tasting rooms, rather than being out in the vineyards, are clustered in the closely-spaced villages of Solvang, Lompoc, Buellton, Los Olivos, and some others. In fact, Los Olivos alone has 21 tasting rooms, all within two blocks of one another. Charm, sad to say, is a bit lacking.
The area itself is quite picturesque: rolling hills, rows of grapevines undulating in every direction outside of the towns, pygmy donkey ranches, angora goats, even an ostrich farm or two. But if you’re there for the wine life, it’s a different story.
Lompoc (which, I discovered, is pronounced “Lahm-poke) is part of that different story. To enjoy the local wine production there, one goes to what is called the “wine ghetto.” (Yes, they really call it that). It is a sad collection of strip-center type buildings behind the Home Depot as you first come into town. There will be two or three tasting rooms, a gun shop, another tasting room, a plumber’s workshop, a few more wine places, you get the idea. The wines themselves are, on the whole, quite good, and some of the tasting salons beautifully decorated. But it wasn’t what we expected.
The other thing about the wines is that many of them don’t have national distribution, though some, like Brian Loring’s excellent Pinot Noirs, can be found locally. Most are either sold exclusively in the tasting rooms or in restaurants in a limited area. So there are discoveries.
Cousin David tries a very very young barrel sample.
As I mentioned, most of the wines we enjoyed are not available through local stores. But you can order them directly from the winemakers. Here are some of my favorites.
Flying Goat Cellars – Norman Yost and his wife make excellent Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in a winery located in (you guessed it ) an industrial park. Top of my list is the 2007 Rio Vista Vineyard Clone 2A Pinot Noir, with rich red currant and raspberry flavors right up front, complemented by cedar, spice and smoke. About $40 from www.flyinggoatcellars.com.
Loring – Brian and Kimberly Loring’s tasting room is also set into an unassuming corner of the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, but there’s nothing unassuming about his Pinot Noirs. He makes about 15 of them, mostly from single vineyards, and they’re very much available locally. His best come from the most famous of the Santa Barbara/Sta. Rita soils, including Rosella’s vinelard,Durrell, Gary’s and Keefer Ranch. Many of the finest winemakers source grapes from these same areas. If you find any Loring 2010 Pinot Noirs on the shelf in any wine store, buy them.
Pali Wine Company – As it happens, these wines are available locally, and they’re a bargain. Great Pinot Noirs at bargain prices are very hard to find, but the Pali Pinot Noir Riviera fits the bill nicely, with aromas and flavors of cherry, blackberry and cranberry, and a very smooth mouthfeel. We first met Pali winemaker Aaron Walker at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival last year, and during our visit he was nice enough to taste us through everything he makes. Also worth looking for are the Pali Pinot Noir Shea and their Highlands Red Wine, which is a blend of Bordeaux-style grapes. Delicious. Visit www.paliwineco.com.
Miles gets his barrel sample the hard way.
But, as I said earlier, they grow a wild variety of grapes out there. More next month.