A ‘Sideways’ Moment: One Winerist’s tour of Santa Barbara

12 Jan, 2018

As the first episode of The Wine Show sees Joe and Gina driving down California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway, visiting locations from the film ‘Sideways’ along the way, we’re dreaming of road trips, balmy nights and of course, fantastic Pinot Noir. We talked to our new Fine Winerist, Atilla Budda from Fine Wine Experts, about his very own ‘Sideways’ moment, soon after the iconic film came out. 

A “Sideways” Moment

In June 2005, I had a “Sideways” moment. For the few that might not immediately get the meaning, “Sideways” is the title of Rex Pickett’s 2004 “hommage” to the Santa Barbara wine country and Pinot Noir induced mayhem, tinged with a hearty dollop of bittersweet, self-deprecating tragicomedy. Pickett had written the book years before suffering a torturous roller-coaster ride before finally gaining acceptance from the publishing world. It wasn’t until the righteous Alexander Payne movie version of the book was released in the latter part of 2004 (early 2005 in Europe) that all hell broke loose. Santa Barbara wine country and especially, the Santa Ynez Valley where the movie was shot witnessed a tsunami of oeno-tourism (still apparently unabated), Merlot sales virtually dropped-off a cliff and Pinot Noir became the darling of the wine world.

The Mission

I had planned to visit a number of leading producers in the Sonoma Valley to bag some fabulous Pinots along with a handful of top Chardonnays. Right off the bat, I have to confess that I am most definitely guilty as charged of being an unconscionable “Pinotphile”. Long before Pickett gave birth to “Sideways” I was (still am) a complete and somewhat dangerously obsessive Burgundy nut.

Santa Barbara, Winerist

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

I planned to drive from Los Angeles through to San Francisco and then to Napa and Sonoma on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) as I had done previously on numerous occasions.  The PCH or California State Route 1 runs along the USA’s western border with the Pacific Ocean and is one of the most iconic and truly exhilarating road experiences. Breathtakingly beautiful and winding between mesmerising sandy beaches and rugged bluffs, it corrals all the senses. Think Mustang V8, rag-top down, the Eagles blasting out of the audio system with cool wind blowing through your hair and you have it.

Hitting the Santa Ynez Valley

After a long flight from London Heathrow to LAX (even longer in steerage: trust me) and two hours on the PCH, passing Santa Barbara, I decided it was time for a serious pit stop. My knowledge of the wines of Napa and Sonoma was pretty encyclopaedic, not so in the case of Santa Barbara County where I was on considerably less “terroir” firma. Vines had first been planted in the region towards the end of the 18th Century though, none survived 20th Century prohibition. In the early 1960’s winemaking was reintroduced to the Santa Ynez Valley which gained AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1983. On the Pacific side of the appellation Chardonnay and Pinot are “de rigueur” and in the east Rhone and Bordeaux varietals do best.

Arriving in Buellton

Coming off the PCH on highway 101 driving through Santa Ynez Valley the first town of any size is Buellton (population around 4,500). The Santa Ynez Valley is picturesque and charming combining a backdrop of rugged mountains and undulating vineyards which prevents Buellton from being hum-drum.

The Hitching Post II Immortalised

Hitching Post, Winerist

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From the 101 Highway driving down East Highway 246 for about half a mile you come to the Hitching Post II with its large parking lot, somewhat garishly oversized and impossible to miss yellow neon sign immortalised in the film “Sideways”. It was the watering hole par excellence for the two protagonists Miles (played by Paul Giamatti) and Jack (played by Thomas Haden Church) and where Miles meets his short-lived petite-amie Maya (played by Virginia Madsen) who is working at the Hitching Post as a waitress.

Long before “Sideways” Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post II was already a local legend having opened the Hitching Post II in Buellton in 1986 and along with Gary Hartley (a commercial fisherman at the time) created Hitching Post Wines in 1984, now producing around 15,000 cases per year.

The original Hitching Post was established in 1952 by Frank’s father, Frank Sr. and his brother Victor in the tiny hamlet of Casmalia about 35 miles north-west of Buellton. The Ostini brothers set out to refine the style of the traditional Santa Maria BBQ which utilised indigenous red oak to create an indoor BBQ with the meat cooked on top of the open fire. The culinary tradition dates back to the days when the land belonged to Mexico and the need to create a feast for ranchers and their hungry vaqueros.  Unlike many grilling techniques the Santa Maria style eschews the idea of using sauce instead, relying on top quality prime meat, a dry rub of salt, pepper and garlic powder.

The Hitching Post Experience

Frank Jr. has taken his culinary roots continuing with the red oak BBQ pit, cooking perfectly aged Angus whilst embracing more contemporary cuisine styles. Forbes magazine featured both Hitching Post I and II as one of the 10 great BBQ joints in the USA.

My recollection of the Hitching Post II was the unprepossessing dark wood, homey and unfussy interior and staff busily bringing out platters of grilled vegetables and enormous slabs of thick, juicy rib eye steaks literally draped over the plates.

Santa Barbara, Winerist

I went for the 12oz rib-eye medium-rare, fries and a green salad. I don’t remember hitting starters and desserts, but what is incontrovertible is that I would have as per usual, chosen the wine first then determined the food around my liquid indulgencies. Pinot would have been the only thing on my mind and I would have opted for something local like Bien Nacido from Foxen, Ojai or Au Bon Climat. If the fabulous Pinots from Sea Smoke Cellars in the nearby Santa Rita Hills such as their Southing or Ten bottling were on offer, resistance would have been futile. Whatever the selection a good time was certainly had.

The Hitching Post II Today

On a slightly sour note looking at the current wine list, I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Perhaps, this is a result of the growth of Hitching Post’s own wines that not unnaturally, those are the wines they want to push. Today, I would plump for the 2013 Highliner Pinot Noir from Hitching Post which is a blend of mostly Bien Nacido and Fiddlestix fruit and will have the richness and lift to perfectly accommodate the steaks.

All this brings back memories of the region and a huge desire to revisit Santa Barbara wine country though inevitably it will never be the same.

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