Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Sideways Source

A bit of a departure from recent entries…

I’ve not read a wine writer yet who’s completely avoided referencing "Sideways.” Since this film became part of the popular culture, pinot noirs got expensive, people stopped drinking merlot, and tour buses by the hundreds descended on Santa Barbara County to follow the path blazed by Miles and Jack. There are readily available maps with which which you can hit every stop in the movie -- from the Hitching Post to "Frass Canyon Winery" (which is actually Fess Parker) where Miles dumped the spit bucket on his head to the Best Western where they stayed

I had the good fortune last week to travel LA to meet up with my sweet partner in crime as she was finishing a conference -- and we decided that we'd head north on the 101. (For those of you who have never been to Southern California, folks out there refer to freeways as something you find around the house -- the kitchen table, the family dog, the dishwasher, "the 5," "the 10," "the 405," "the 101," and so on…)

We did not wish to follow the Sideways trail. We did a little research beforehand and asked a few friends for recommendations. We ended up floating from winery to winery, sampling and learning as we went. My lessons from the trip?

* The best tasting rooms are at the wineries themselves.
* Tasting rooms specializing in local wineries without their own tasting rooms often yield gems.
* The pinot noirs out there are incredible wines. Corollary: The pinot noirs out there are also expensive wines in relation to what I usually write about.
* When I went to Sonoma last year, I barely drank zinfandel -- then I fell in love with the stuff. The same thing happened to me in Santa Barbara with syrah.
* There were actually some wines out there that fall into Vine price ranges -- and it would be unfair of me to simply keep them to myself. So, a few highlights in no particular order…

Cellar 205 -- One of our first stops, Cellar 205 is a wine co-op tucked away on a back street in Santa Barbara. Three different winemakers produce their wines here. Carr Winery specializes in pinot noir -- their pinot is very complex and range from delicate to chewy. They also make a very tasty sauvignon blanc. (We bought a bottle of the pinot for a special occasion.) Bargiel focuses more on syrah -- big, hearty wines. Our favorite was Oreana. Oreana makes a range of wines -- the most memorable, for me, was simply called "?" -- as it's made from a different blend of grapes every year. This wine was one of the more inexpensive we ran into out there -- $10 a bottle. For the price, it was unbeatable. This wine would be perfect to bring to a party, open in the evening with some chocolate, or just kick back and drink. Lots of berries and fruit, soft tannins, and hearty without being overpowering. We ended up with a case of the stuff.

Giessinger -- A funky little place on State Street in Santa Barbara, Giessinger made wines that, in the words of one of our tastresses (both of whom had the same birthday) are "not your average wines." I would echo that sentiment. We got a bottle of their syrah -- which actually had a fairly strong flavor of mint to it. I'm waiting to get some lamb chops for this wine, since we wouldn't need the mint jelly to go with it. At $10 a pop, it seemed like a pretty good investment to me. They made a few other very nice whites, as well Giessinger's specialty is dessert wines, which aren't usually my speed. But with wines named "Forgiveness" and "Surrender" -- trying them became a must.

Zaca Mesa -- Zaca Mesa, north of Los Olivos on Foxen Canyon Road, focuses on what are considered "Rhone varietals." The climate in that area is very much like the south of France -- blazing hot in the day, cool and breezy by night.They grow the same grapes there -- syrah, mourvedre, Grenache, rousanne, viognier, etc. Our new friend Brian led us through the tasting soon after an extended conversation with us about the Bengals being underdogs against the Ravens. They made a viognier that started with a wonderful floral and fruit nose, which then became wonderfully crisp and refreshing. Their blends, Z Cuvée and Z Three, were extraordinarily tasty and full wines. But their syrah stood alone on top. Syrah is normally a powerful, fruity, earthy wine. When you taste a syrah, you're going to get a very strong flavor of…well…something, generally – these are not meek wines. Zaca Mesa…these folks made a syrah that's very different. Their syrahs weren't overpowering in the slightest -- in fact, these wines had some of the best combinations and balances of flavors I've ever had. Almost all of their syrahs could be termed "elegant." Most of their wines are out of the Vine range -- but when we were there, they were selling off the last of the 2001 vintage -- which was an incredibly good wine, but needs to be drunk soon. We got it on sale -- so it came out to about $10 a bottle. If I need to take a bottle of wine somewhere in the next few months -- this is coming with me. It's astoundingly good.

Curtis -- Half a mile up the road from Zaca Mesa, Curtis Winery also focuses on Rhone varietals -- and our taster, Jason, showed us a very pleasant time while we were there. They also produce an exceptional syrah and small batches of various other Rhone wines. We were most struck by their cuvées. Cuvée is WineSpeak for "blend" and, as mentioned above -- these are usually very tasty, very up-front, easy drinking wines. Curtis makes three of them: the "Heritage Cuvée," a red with a smoky cherry and vanilla taste; the "Heritage Blanc," a white, somewhat like a viognier on the nose, but with a crisper taste and a longer finish; and their "Heritage rose," made from the same grapes as the red and striking you with tasty berries and grapefruit. All these wines were relatively inexpensive ($12-16) and make for a wonderful introduction to some of their other wines, which are a little pricier but, again, quite worth it.

And while the following wineries aren't in this column's price range, they certainly bear a mention: Sunstone -- the most attractive winery that we visited. Sunstone is just north of Solvang – best known as California's Dutch version of Gatlinburg. We tasted the best rose we'd ever had at Sunstone and a wine called "Eros" that was…well...exactly that.
Shoestring is a new winery located smack dab on the road between Buellton and Solvang. They were tasting their first releases when we visited. If the early returns are any indication, this winery is certainly one to keep an eye on. Their syrah paired with dark chocolate was particularly divine. The winery also starred Scooter the Aussie, who kept an eye on the place from his perch atop one of the barrels in the warehouse. Finally, Foley, in the somewhat less radical climate west of Buellton on the way to Lompoc, produces absolutely marvelous pinot noir. We bought ourselves our favorite pinot on the trip at Foley.

If you'd like a taste of some of these wines, you can purchase most of them online. Be forewarned, we had a lot of trouble finding a winery that would ship directly to us in Kentucky. In Northern California wine country, they have visitors from all over and they've got "authorized third-party shippers" to deal with the weird blue laws in the Bluegrass and other states. In Southern California, most of their wine tasting traffic is local, so getting the permits isn't worth it. We had to find some hypothetically creative ways to get our booty home. (Best bet -- find a trustworthy friend in Ohio and ship there…you can ship unlimited quantities to places across the river.)

Pay the homepages of these wineries a visit and read their stories -- you'll like them. Each winery had a tale to tell -- and the thrill of firsthand discovery made for a very memorable mini-vacation.

Back to the reviews next time. Until then, don't drink and dial…


JettieSatellite, The_Wizard of Covington said...

The only time I was in wine country, we got run off the road by a Humvee.

Probably because I was a beer drinker back then.

Anonymous said...

The highway thing mystified us when we first moved to Chicago. All of the main highways there are proper names: the Kennedy, Eisenhower, Edens, Dan Ryan, etc. And many of the major landmarks are places rather than exits: e.g., the rush hour traffic report would take traffic from the Post Office to the Junction. Wha?

Anonymous said...

First of all, your blog has been one of my favorite reads of the month ( and that includes some serious art theory and books on global economics, so that's saying something). Thank you, Mike.

Secondly, my partner and i are just about to take off for a two-day trip in the general direction of Santa Barbara (or to be truthful, away from LA) , and we too wanted to stay away from the venues dictated by Sideways. Would you be kind enough to share whatever other tips you might have for folks like us. Are there "recommendable" places to eat other then the Hitching Post, places to stay other then the Windmill Inn? Would you advice a particular trajectory while attending wineries? I would appreciate any bit of information you could spare in addition to the already informative bit on the wineries worth attending. Thank you once again, from all of us!