This post is part of a series on the search for the Cotswolds of California, i.e., an idyllic weekend escape within easy reach of Los Angeles. Earlier I profiled the Ojai Valley here.
|Vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley|
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Sideways, Alexander Payne’s 2004 road trip film about the misadventures of Miles, a struggling writer and wine snob, and his friend Jack, a marginally successful actor and interminable philanderer. The action takes place in the towns and wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, where the two have headed for a last hurrah before Jack gets married. Aside from being an almost perfect comedy, Sideways brought the wine culture of this slice of central California into a mainstream consciousness previously dominated by Napa and Sonoma. To celebrate one of my favorite films turning ten, I ventured to the Santa Ynez Valley with my husband for a road trip of our own.
|Hamlet Square, Solvang|
Our base for the weekend was the Danish-settled town of Solvang, a place which I affectionately describe as twee. Its architectural style is twentieth-century timbered buildings and reproduction windmills, and the retail includes both Robert Kinkade—purveyor of sickly sweet, chocolate-box landscapes—and a year-round Christmas shop. (There must be a highly compensated MBA at Robert Kinkade who has figured out that the presence of a year-round Christmas shop is a strong indicator that a Kinkade shop will also do well in a location.) Fresh from a six-year stint living in Europe, I was primed to be snarky about mock-medieval architecture in a California town. Instead I found it charming—colorful, tidy and pedestrian-friendly. But we didn’t linger long at the King Frederik Inn following our early Friday evening arrival. A dinner reservation at the Hitching Post in nearby Buellton beckoned.
Just off the 101 Freeway, Buellton is the least village-y of the Santa Ynez Valley towns, studded with chain hotels, fast food outlets, and car dealerships. It is, however, home to two steak restaurants that play prominent roles in Sideways. The Hitching Post is where Miles first meets Maya, his romantic interest, while AJ Spurs is where Jack initiates a tryst that ends both badly and memorably, with the trystee’s rather fleshy, nude husband chasing him down the street after an attempt to retrieve the wallet he left behind in his first rush to escape. Perhaps because of these plot associations, ten years later reservations at the Hitching Post remain a must, while, according to one Solvang local, you can walk into the equally as good AJ Spurs and be assured a table most nights of the week.
|The Hitching Post II in Buellton|
We arrived at the Hitching Post in time for a pre-dinner drink at the bar—a glass of the Highline Pinot Noir, of course. The bar doesn’t look like it’s changed much since Miles downed a bottle of Highline Pinot on his own and stumbled alone down the highway back to his motel. Even the bartender looked suspiciously familiar when compared to several framed shots of the cast that line the bar walls. Dinner began with a 1970s-style basket of assorted crackers and a silver tray of crudités, both dated and charming given I’m old enough to remember when this kind of start to a meal was the norm. The time warp continued with shrimp cocktail and iceberg lettuce dressed with blue cheese, mostly, I suspect, because the owners of the restaurant don’t see any need to update the appetizers when this restaurant is all about the steak. Thick, juicy slabs of it, grilled to perfection on a barbeque that we happened to have a perfect view of from our table.
Satiated and back in Solvang, we decided to try and walk off dinner with a short stroll to the Wandering Dog Wine Bar. Here the young bartender, a graduate of viticulture from Humboldt University, helped us select a nightcap of Syrah, the specialty of the area, and an accompanying homemade chocolate truffle. He also provided a winery map and tips for a circular winery route the next day, which we planned to tackle on bikes.
On Saturday morning we strolled around Solvang in search of breakfast, settling on the Belgian Café for its sunny outdoor tables. We went savory instead of sweet, choosing eggs studded with a peppery Danish sausage over an extensive selection of waffles. By the time we finished the heat was already beginning to feel daunting for a day out on bikes. Despite being mid-morning, we made a start for our first winery.
|Rusack Vineyards on Ballard Canyon Road|
Our path took us out of Solvang to the north, past the Hans Christian Andersen Park to Chalk Hill Road. We ventured down one dead end before we finally found our way to Ballard Canyon Road, but what’s a road trip away without a fight over directions? The hills rose with the dusty heat, and we were ready to stop when we caught sight of Rusack Vineyards on our left, an inviting white house at the top of a sloped drive. After refilling our water bottles we settled down on the leather couch to share a flight of tastings. There was also a patio with tables, which would have been inviting if our first priority wasn’t to escape the sun for a few minutes. We left warned of more hills between us and Los Olivos and emboldened by the wine.
Despite being the most challenging leg of the journey, the road between Rusack and Los Olivos was the most scenic, with hardly any traffic. The parched hills and sharp blue skies reminded me more of Oklahoma than California until the final rise before our descent into Los Olivos, where a lush vineyard covered the hillside. Once in the center of Los Olivos, my feeling of geographic displacement resurfaced. The village is laid out around two intersections and, asphalt roads aside, looked like it could have been the set for an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
|Ballard Canyon, home of the region’s newest American Viticulture Area (AVA)|
Scouting for our lunch spot, we found Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café, location of a memorable dinner in Sideways in preparation for which Miles makes his famous declaration, “I’m not drinking any fucking merlot!” While tempting, we opted instead for two seats at the bar at Sides Hardware & Shoes. The name certainly doesn’t give it away, but this converted former storefront turned out to be the culinary high point of our weekend. On the pork-heavy menu I was intrigued by something called a hammered pig salad but couldn’t resist a special of duck and cherry grilled cheese. In a world where restaurants have run amok with gourmet grilled cheese nights, Sides delivered with this knockout combination of flavors. And after our previous evening of red wine, it was a relief to see a wine list full of Santa Barbara County whites, several of which were served on tap. Following our splendid air-conditioned hour or so at Sides, we reluctantly ventured back on our bikes, this time to Alamo Pintado Road, which promised to take us back to Solvang in a straight, almost-flat shot. But not, of course, without a couple of wine-tasting stops along the way.
|The Enjoy Cupcakes Trailer, whose wares are on offer at the Saarloos & Sons Tasting House in Los Olivos.|
Next up was the Ballard Inn, a dove-gray house with a gracious wraparound patio that’s almost halfway back to Solvang. (Blink and you’ll miss the turnoff, as we did.) Inside there’s a lauded restaurant, as well as a tasting room hosting winemakers who are too small to have their own. One such winemaker is the duo of Kenneth Gummere and Mark Crawford, whose cheekily named Kenneth-Crawford “Four Play” Syrah was so good we had to take a bottle home. The tasting was my favorite of the trip, largely because of the local gentleman who walked us through each wine with a winning combination of geniality and knowledge. When asked his advice on a final tasting stop between Ballard and Solvang, he directed us to Rideau to experience the laid-back vibe imbued by its New Orleans-born owner, Iris Rideau.
The tasting room at Rideau was packed with people and a makeshift collection of tablecloth-covered card tables where our young host offered generous pours, all of which added to the laissez les bons temps rouler feel. After choosing a bottle of the 2012 dry Riesling from Curtis Vineyard to take home, we wandered away from the throng into the main house. Here the feel was entirely different, Victorian-ramshackle with polished wood, velvet curtains,and decorative touches. It was a welcome antidote to the Craftsman and deliberately tasteful styles favored by other area tasting rooms.
|Twentieth-century medieval in Solvang|
Back in Solvang, showered, refreshed, and relieved of our iron steeds, we had time for another tasting at Cali Love. Run by fellow escapees from Los Angeles with a love for music, the tasting room is covered in music memorabilia, including a collection of concert tickets underneath the glass bar top. I was pretty sure I was going to like the wine made by someone who had seen Lucinda Williams live, and I was right. They turned out to be another purveyor of local whites, and I’m a fan of their unfiltered Sun Down Riesling.
Tasting wines you enjoy but having to spit them out to maintain a semblance of sobriety is a bit like an unconsummated marriage; by seven o’clock we were ready to sit down somewhere with an entire glass of the stuff. We settled on Santé Wine Bar & Lounge on the east edge of town. Its white leather and chrome interior is the antithesis of the Solvang design ethic, which makes it a perfect spot if you’re feeling a little suffocated by all the cuteness. The French proprietor adds to the charm, and when we heard him recommend a dinner spot to some other customers we took note.
After a glass of Flying Goat fizz at Santé, we headed for Succulent Café, where we were lucky to nab the last two seats at the bar (all the tables inside and out were booked). Like Sides, Succulent Café has a thing for pork, showcased with their selection of homemade charcuterie. In a futile attempt to inject the appearance of health into the proceedings of the last 24 hours, we opted instead for their excellent daily vegetarian pizza special. A nightcap back at the Wandering Dog Wine Bar brought our last evening in Solvang to a close.
|Dessert for breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant|
Before leaving the next day, we had to try breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant. It’s a kitschy spot where the scallop-edged wood booths once hosted Miles and Jack as they tried to sate their hangovers. The specialty of the house is the Danish ebleskiver,a powder-sugar dusted pancake sphere smothered with raspberry jam, and a suitably sweet send-off to our weekend. The last two days had been more of a Sideways homage than a recreation, missing out key spots from the film like the esteemed Foxen winery. But like Sideways, which has a sequel in novel-form called Vertical, we knew our weekend in the Santa Ynez Valley was only the first of more to come.