It can easily be argued that Sideways changed the wine industry. I can tell you for a fact it’s changed visiting the Santa Ynez Valley. We began our road trip heading North through Santa Barbara. Our ultimate destination was the Napa Valley. We almost didn’t make it as far as Santa Barbara. Laura and I decided to visit Stafford Premium Wines in Camarillo. A road closure forced us to take a detour and “Lee”, our Australian Garmin guide, took us on a frontage road where we got stuck in the mud. Cool heads prevailed and I managed to rock our way out only to find there was no tasting room at the address we had been given.
Laura had heard about The Winehound, so we decided a visit was in order when we reached Santa Barbara. The Winehound is an amazing store with shelf after shelf stocked with every conceivable varietal of wine from all parts of the globe. They represent the Santa Ynez Valley magnificently. After a leisurely time browsing, we hopped back in the winemobile to our destination, Buellton. Our choice for dinner on the first night was a no-brainer. We were less than a mile from the Hitching Post, featured so prominently in Sideways. We were delighted that fame has not gone to the Hitching Post’s head. We had a delicious dinner, wonderful wine and a memorable experience. If you go, the grilled artichoke with magic dust is a must.
Our first appointment the following morning was at Foxen Winery. We found out soon enough that Foxen has two tasting rooms and we had arrived at the wrong one. The original Foxen tasting room, used in the movie, is still in operation, but our get together was at the newly completed tasting room just down the road. The new tasting room is drop dead gorgeous. At 7600 Foxen Canyon Road, they pour Rhônes and Burgundies. The new Foxen 7200 label pays homage to the original tasting room at 7200 Foxen Canyon Road and features Bordeaux and Cal-Ital varietals.
Co-owner Dick Dorée and I sat down in back of 7200 for a visit. He and his partner Bill Wathen met about a quarter of a century ago. Dick was a self-described “frustrated banker”. Bill was freshly graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and he and Dick met at a party. Bill went to work at a winery near Paso Robles and when he returned told Dick they ought to check out the wine business, telling him it didn’t look that hard. Dick eventually went to work for Bill, training vines and driving tractor. Their first year together they produced four barrels of wine, punching it down by hand in old French Oak on Dick’s basketball court. They put the barrels in the back of a pickup truck and borrowed a press from Rancho Sisquoc Winery. The only problem was they had no way of getting the barrels out of the truck, so they wound up crushing the first harvest in the back of a pickup truck.
The first three years are always hard because you have no product. They did it all on a shoestring. They’ve been well rewarded though, with good press from folks like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. They’ve never taken on a partner or gone beyond what the bank would loan them, so they answer to no one but themselves. Dorée says it affords them indepence and full control over their wine quality. “We don’t always make our wine in the most economical fashions. A lot of them don’t make sense to make for what we get for them, but they’re such good wines we continue to make them.” As to where the winery got its name? Benjamin Foxen was Dick’s great great grandfather.
We had passed the entrance to Rancho Sisquoc Winery on the way to Foxen and thought it looked intriguing. We had some time to spare, so we headed north and found that the winery is a bit off the beaten track. Just our kind of place! The building is charming and the wines and hospitality did not disappoint. I love their philosophy.
We enjoyed nearly everything we tasted quite a bit and wound up sticking an assorted case in the back of the van. Chalk up another winner!
One of the neat things about the Santa Ynez Valley is that everything is relatively close together. From Santa Maria we drove South to Los Olivos. I spent my freshman year of high school at what was then the Dunn School For Boys. The campus is now coed and I hadn’t been back to the area in nearly 40 years. We had a delicious sandwich on the patio of the Los Olivos Grocery. The weather was idyllic and the food scrumptious. With full bellies we were back on the road and headed to our next stop: Fess Parker Winery.
Fess is still around and we hear he is a frequent visitor to the winery that bears his name. The tasting room is spacious, light and open and you see his signature coon skin cap everywhere. I do mean everywhere! The wine list is dominated by Pinot Noir and Syrah and we tasted several wines we found much to our liking.
From there we made a stop at Sunstone Winery for a visit with winemaker Brittany Rice. Laura will share that visit on Women On Wine. Sunstone is in a lovely setting and has a charming and intimate tasting room. Brittany’s parents Fred & Linda started the winery in 1989 and their son Bion is the President. There grapes meet all California Certifed Organic Farmer standards.
Our last stop of the day was a visit to Teri Love, the owner and winemaker for Gioia Wines. I met Teri earlier this year at the Stars of Santa Barbara event. I shared the story of how she lost her son in a motorcycle accident. She devotes her life to his memory and makes wine in his memory. Her newly released Zinfandel is delicate and delicious. A portion of the sales from each bottle goes to the Tyler Love Foundation. She went to her garden, picked some fresh mint, put it in a glass with ice and added Zinfandel and voila! A Zinjito! The afternoon sun was very warm and this was very refreshing. Laura and Teri had a good visit and she’ll write about soon on Women On Wine.
We had a fabulous dinner at Grappolo in Santa Ynez and called it a night. We had a few stops to make before we continued our journey Northward. We drove to Lompoc for a stop at Palmina Winery. Lompoc is a lovely coastal town and Palmina is a delightful place to visit. Jeanna welcomed us in, sat us down and served us wine, cheese, bread and olive oil. Steve Clifton founded the winery in 1995, naming it as a tribute to his grandmother and dear friend Paula who succumbed to breast cancer. After her death he learned her name at birth was Palmina. He met his wife Chrystal in 2000 when he was looking for someone who was fluent in Italian for a group of visitors from Italy. His focus is on Italian varietals and his wines are magnificent. Among his whites we loved his Malvasia Bianca, Traminer and Tocai Friulano. His also produces stunning reds, including his Undici Sangiovese, his Barbera and his Nebbiolo. Undici is Italian for 11, and is a tip of the hat to the movie This Is Spinal Tap. He played in a band called Secret Service that once opened for Oingo Boingo. Who knew? He has respect for Italian wines, and the methods the winemakers use, but he wants to make them his way. He says he wants his wines to make you hungry. His dream is to become a Nebbiolo house.
We had lunch in Solvang at Panino, enjoying an incredibly delicious sandwich al fresco. We stopped in Los Olivos again after several people told us we couldn’t miss Carhartt. I’m glad we didn’t. Carhartt Winery has without a doubt the smallest tasting room I have ever seen. We had a great visit with Rhea and visited with folks at the tasting bar while enjoying their wines. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you check it out.
We had wanted to visit Blackjack, but read it was closed on Tuesday. When we drove past it, however, the sign read “OPEN”. We pulled in and found it was indeed open. When we entered were were told they just felt like opening. Blackjack is getting maximum mileage from their 15 minutes of fame from Sideways. The wines were excellent, especially the Maximus Syrah, but we were put off by little things like selling their corks and labels. Most wineries are happy to give them to folks who ask. There are momentos from the movie all around the tasting room. I found it just a bit too much.
Our last stop was at Kenneth Volk Vineyards in Santa Maria. The scenery as we drove through the countryside was spectacular. It was near the close of business and we were the only visitors. Ken founded Wild Horse Winery and gained a great reputation there. His Chardonnay is stellar and his Cab and Merlot are also worthy of tasting. Our first visit to Santa Barbara’s wine country had come to an end. We were off to our favorite wine destination, Paso Robles, with Napa in our sights at the end of the journey.