19 DEC 2016:  Santa Barbara’s just under 150 kilometres from Los Angeles, with the latter part of the drive along roads which hug the scenic Pacific Ocean coastline. A great escape from the frenzy of Hollywood, it also boasts a world class wine country, made famous by the 2004 film Sideways. The title could refer to the direction the film’s stars take or the direction the terrain takes in that part of California.

A surprise hit, the independent movie is about two middle-aged men whose lives were going nowhere, drinking and misbehaving their way through Santa Barbara wine country. Here the transverse valleys run east to west (sideways) instead of the more typical north-south direction. Because of this alignment, the sun seemed to rise in the south for example in the view from my windows at the Four Seasons Biltmore.

This odd orientation funnels ocean breezes eastward allowing for warm temperatures during the day and much cooler climes at night. This means that the five American Viticulture areas within the County can produce varietals such as delicate and refined pinot noirs (as well as for example powerful syrahs). In the movie, the Miles character played by Paul Giamatti, loves pinot noir and hates merlot. After the movie, sales of pinot went up all over western United States.

The biggest star of Sideways however might well be the scenery of the Santa Ynez Valley and its wineries. The then fledgling wine region flourished after the release of Sideways as tourists flocked to its vineyards to replicate the adventures of Miles and Jack. Santa Barbara's Visitor's Bureau crafted an itinerary including iconic film locations from the movie for those fans.

With the boost to tourism and the wine business in the Central Coast since the movie, there are now more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms from the urban wineries of Santa Barbara, Solvang, Buellton, Los Olivos, and Lompoc to the vineyard surrounded rural wineries of the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys.

The wine country spans a distance of more than 80 kilometres from the northern to southern tasting rooms so planning a route is important. I prefer to let others do that and do the driving and so signed up with Cloud Climbers for a jeep tour along the back-country roads. Michelle Krajeski, our driver and winery guide, picked my husband and I up at the hotel (and a family group of three from another hotel) for a wine filled day of fun.

We took Old Stage Coach Road, past Lake Cachuma into wine country about 45 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara. Michelle had free reign to choose which wineries we visited and after she learned I was a wine columnist, she picked four special ones for our group.

Equipped with our own tasting glasses (which we got to keep), we first drove through the vineyards of Gainey Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and then stopped for a tasting of six wines in their Spanish style tasting room. Among those were a beautifully fruity Limited Selection Pinot Noir 2013 and a rich, complex Patrick’s Vineyard Cabernet 2013. The winery also had gourmet food items such as chocolate covered nuts and fruits, tapenades, salsas and savoury spreads to sample and buy.

Our next stop at the town of Solvang, with its windmill and Danish influences (featured in Sideways), was at Casa Cassara Winery. This family owned and run winery produces less than 1,000 cases of wine annually and sell all through their cozy tasting room and wine club. Their wines had lots of character, a good match with Dan Cassara’s personality. I particularly liked the WT White, a blend of roussanne and viognier. Dan told me that WT stands for White Trash, Whiskey Tango…or whatever comes to mind.

At Lincourt, Michelle set up a picnic lunch on their patio among the trees and vineyards for us. She had picked up our choices of sandwiches or salads from Panino in the town of Santa Ynez on the way. Then we went into the tasting room to sample more great chardonnays, pinot noirs and syrahs.

Our final stop was at the tiny but amazing Imagine Wine in Santa Ynez (just 1,000 to 1,500 cases a year). Ross Rankin, winemaker and owner, led us through a fine selection of wines including a barbera, a viognier, a syrah and one he called Panty Dropper (a rich, dense, blackberry flavoured syrah). http://www.ccjeeps.com

For those who don’t want to venture outside of Santa Barbara, there is a convenient Urban Wine Trail. People can buy a pass for $150 and enjoy a one-time free tasting at the 29 wineries on the trail or just use the map as a guide and pay as they go. While there aren’t any vineyards in this downtown scene, there is plenty of good wine.

I chose to concentrate my tastings around the wineries near Anacapa and De la Guerre streets – there were five all next to each other – including my favourite Santa Barbara winery Au Bon Climat and two I hadn’t known about before, namely Margerum (started in 2001) and Jaimie Slone (opened in 2015 by Jamie Slone, a professional race car driver, and his wife Kym). http://urbanwinetrailsb.com

It was a perfect way to end my wine tasting tour of Santa Barbara County.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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