Driving along the quaint country lane from Solvang to Buellton on California’s central coast, my wife pointed from the passenger seat and asked: ‘Why are those morons walking along the side of the road toward The Hitching Post?’. It was obvious to me as I was well-acquainted with the 2004 film, Sideways. They were re-creating the scene in which Miles and Jack, drunkenly shuffle toward the now-famous purveyor of vino and gristle from their room at the Windmill Motel.
By his own reckoning, Sideways author Rex Pickett estimates that his creation gave a tenfold cash infusion and populist appeal to wine appreciation, which was previously considered an elitist pursuit in American culture.
Although California is world-renowned for its winemaking region to the north, the Napa Valley, there are now more than a 100 wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, located some 130 miles north of Los Angeles.
It has become a welcome retreat for Angelenos yearning for open space and picturesque country charm. The valley is set in rugged relief by the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south and the San Rafael Mountains to the north. It wasn’t until the 1960s that wine began its resurgence in this part of the state. Now its upstart take on Rhone varietals is demanding attention from even the supercilious French.
The Valley is comprised of five small towns, each with their own distinct charms: Los Olivos, Ballard, Solvang, Buellton and Lompoc. The most immersive vino villages of these is Los Olivos, which has grown in recent years from a sleepy town to a village bustling with several wineries that line its main thoroughfare. One wonders how they all remain economically viable, self-cannibalising like two Starbucks cafes located across the street from each other.
For a unique pinot noir, one must venture to the nearby Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. It’s a pastoral lane with neighbouring vineyards and true finds for any wine connoisseur. I recommend Foxen Winery toward the end of the loop where you can sample the enchanting Bien Nacido Block 8. It is aged in French Oak wine barrels and combines a seamless alchemy of fruit and acidity.
Lompoc is the lesser heralded and decidedly less trendy of the Valley’s wine destinations but has, in my opinion, the most refined offerings at Sanford Winery and Sea Smoke winemakers. Sanford offers an extraordinary pinot, La Rinconada Sta Rita Hills, and Sea Smoke – the prized nectar of the Valley – simply called Southing – which restaurants routinely charge more than a $100 for in the Valley.
The eminent Santa Barbara County winemaker Sashi Moorman (Sandhi, Stolpman, Piedrasassi etc) also bears mentioning. In 2014, he went to London with wine writer Jon Bonne to present ‘the new California wines’. He was pleased to find that many serious wine critics greatly appreciated his offerings.
You can find some of his excellent Santa Barbara County bottles at Roberson Wine in London or online:
Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 2013, Piedrasassi (£50)
A northern Rhone-style red with a medium to full-bodied style on the palate.
Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir 2011, Sandhi Wines (£20)
An intense pinot with floral and savoury notes.
Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2013, Sandhi Wines (£33)
A blend from vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills.