It's Oscar time -- and I just received a press release about a cool "Sideways Tour" through the Santa Ynez Valley. That's the area where the movie "Sideways" was filmed. It's about two buddies taking a wine-fueled odyssey before one of them gets married. I loved that movie, and so did most of America. With the Oscars coming up, I thought it would be a great trip to write about.
Many people don't realize the Santa Ynez Valley wine country is located in Santa Barbara County, just 45 minutes north of the beaches of Santa Barbara, This Southern California wine country has long been overshadowed by the vineyards of Northern California's Napa Valley in Sonoma County, an hour drive north of San Francisco. Yet from Southern California, the Santa Ynez Valley is much easier to get to than Sonoma--just a beautiful 2 1/2 hour drive up the coast from Los Angeles. Think of all that extra time you'll have for wine-tasting.
Although the trip would last only a couple of days, I didn't want to go alone. My girlfriend, Paris, was busy recovering her phone book, so I took the last best thing: my Cousin Dennis. Poor Dennis -- I give him such a hard time. To be honest, though, he makes a perfect Miles (the main character in "Sideways"). However, that doesn't mean I'm like Miles' sidekick, Jack -- except when it comes to wine (we're both clueless). Both Miles and Dennis drive red cars, too. Luckily, Dennis' Porsche is a little nicer than Miles' Saab, which made the trip on the windy roads of Santa Barbara County all the more fun.
We left Thursday morning at 8:30 from a town near LAX. Our first destination was a special lunch at the Los Olivos Café. Our directions were to take the 405 north to 101/Ventura Freeway to the CA 154. Yahoo's directions said it was 129 miles away, and would take 2 hours and 17 minutes. Yahoo would've been right on the money, except we had a few delays on the 154 due to mudslides (it's been raining like crazy out here, but road reports up there are looking pretty good --for the latest info, visit Dot.ca.gov/hq/roadinfo or dial 1-800-GAS-ROAD).
Driving with Cousin Dennis is always an adventure. First of all, he thinks he's Jeff Gordon. Second, the man's love for cars, especially Porsches (he followed one the whole trip) is just like my love for airplanes. When the two of us drove by LAX it was like a scene straight out of "Rain Main." I pointed out all the planes, while Cousin Dennis described each nice car. The dude had a five-minute spiel about each one - its make, model number, horsepower, how much it cost, even the type of rims. Like I cared? In all fairness, he countered with, "Like I care that that Boeing 757, United flight number 6, is headed to JFK, 15 minutes late." I admit it: We're both freaks.
The drive north went by quickly, especially because about 10 yards after he picked me up he said, "Nevada." I looked at him like, "What?" A minute later he pointed to another car and said, "Arizona — I'm up 2-nil." I thought, The license plate game? I haven't played that since I was a kid, and I'm not starting now. When Dennis got to 5-0, I broke down and had to bust out a can of whoop-ass. I had no idea how addicting the license plate game can get, especially in as transient a state as California. My head was spinning. Seriously, even today I can't stop staring at plates. Just an hour ago while walking, I saw one of the toughest plates to spot. So I took a pic of it on my camera phone and emailed it to Dennis with the message: "Hawaii — sucker!"
We were only 20 minutes from Los Olivos when we drove by Lake Cachuma. It looked so amazing that we had to stop and check it out. After snapping a few pictures we jumped back in the car and drove the single windy roads. We arrived in Los Olivos at 11:15 a.m. It was my first time in this beautiful, quaint, historic town, home to only 1,000 residents. It's known for its amazing views, wineries, horse ranches, eclectic art galleries, antiques and unique shopping, including a store called Jedlicka's that has every possible Western wear for you or your horse. Most of downtown and the residential buildings date back 100 years, when Los Olivos was served by a stage line and the Pacific Coast Railway. Its' towns like this that make California such an amazing place to explore. Jedlicka's, 2883 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA; tel.: 805-688-2626.
We were just in time to have lunch with Laura Kath, the woman behind the press release. We were joined by the owner of the Los Olivos Café, Sam Marmorstein. In the movie, the Café is where Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie enjoyed a romantic dinner and several exquisite bottles of wine. Laura pointed out that their table was below this wine rack (which is in the Wine Shop, not the dining room). The director liked this shot better, but due to strict zoning laws food can't legally be served on that side of the building. Although the inside is elegant and casual, the four of us sat outside on a rustic wooden patio that has a real western feel. We were just a few feet away from where my favorite line of the movie was delivered (Miles tells Jack, "No way! I'm not drinking no BLEEPING Merlot"). The Los Olivos Café serves California cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. I had roasted vegetable antipasto and a meatball grinder. It's great that they serve simple food, as well as gourmet stuff. Our meal was delicious; Cousin Dennis said Sam's wines were too (In fact he bought a case of it). I don't drink but I wanted to try something different, so I ordered rosemary lemonade. I don't usually like rosemary, but this concoction was quite tasty.
If you are interested in dining just like the characters in the movie, the Los Olivos Café offers a special "Sideways" menu. It comes with wine, soup or butternut squash salad, salmon, pot roast or florentine ravioli, and chocolate scream (home-made flourless chocolate cake, home-made ice cream and caramel sauce). It cost $29 per person (plus tax and gratuity), and is available through December 31, 2005. FYI: Salmon was served in the movie. Los Olivos Café, 2879 Grand Avenue, Box 205, Los Olivos, CA; tel.: (805) 688-7265.
After lunch, Laura told us all about the filming of the movie. It was shot over 10 weeks, mostly in October and November 2003. She also showed us (on the official "Sideways" map) which places we should definitely see, because we did not have time to visit them all. The savvy marketers from the tourism boards, and many of the locations themselves, are doing a great job of taking advantage of this sudden and surprising high interest. The Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau originally published 10,000 "Sideways" maps. They are free; just call 805-966-9222. You can also download a PDF version online. The map features 18 locations from the film for tourists wanting to retrace the adventures of Miles and Jack. It took only a month after the film's release before they had to reprint more.
What wasn't on the map -- but might have been fun to stop by anyway -- was Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, just five miles up the road from downtown Los Olivos. I threatened Cousin Dennis that if he got any more wasted at lunch I would drop him off in front of Michael's gate, with only his boxers and white socks on. He behaved.
Our next stop was a 10-minute scenic drive away: the Firestone Vineyards & Winery. The Firestone estate is so surreal, it looks like a movie set. Firestone produces the second largest number of bottles in the area. (First is Cambria). We took one of the free tours that depart quarter past each hour, from 10:15 to 3:15 every day. Firestone wines hail from eight estate vineyards near the Santa Barbara coast. What makes this region so perfect for grape-growing is the unparalleled marine climate and fertile soils. Our guide was informative and enthusiastic. He loves his job, which is great no matter what field you're in. We learned all about wine-making, and took the same stroll as Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie through the barrel room (ours was less romantic, unfortunately). Our tour was small (10 people), because it was a weekday. After the tour, tastings are available. They start at $7 (including a free souvenir glass), and are held in a cozy tasting room with breathtaking views. I learned many of the wine labels use Santa Barbara County if the grapes are grown there because it's a well known region--but the wines labeled from Santa Ynez Valley have grapes from that very specific area in Santa Barbara County (known as an AVA--American Viticultural Area). Who knew? Wine labels really do mean something! If I had been with Paris, I would have taken advantage of the picnic facilities. Firestone Vineyard, Zaca Station Rd., Los Olivos, CA; tel.: 805-688-3940.
From there we drove 15 minutes down to Buellton to check out the Days Inn Solvang/Buellton. This is the motel where Miles and Jack stayed (room 234, to be exact). It's right off the exit, and rooms currently go for $60 a night. Days Inn Solvang/Buellton, 114 E. Hwy. 246, Buellton, CA; tel.: 805-688-8448.
A short drive down the road is Ostrich Land. In the movie, this is where Jack gets acquainted with some amazing creatures on his "run" from Buellton to Solvang. Ostrich Land's little viewing area enables visitors to take close-up photos. Inside they sell ostrich jerky and meat. It's low-fat, and looks and tastes like beef. They also have emu and sell fresh fruit, and souvenir ostrich eggs and t-shirts. Ostrich Land, 610 E. Hwy. 246, P.O. Box 490, Buellton, CA; tel.: (805) 686-9696.
For dinner we went to the Hitching Post Restaurant & Bar. This is where Miles and Jack share a bottle of the Hitching Post Highliner. During dinner they talk to Maya, who waits tables there. Business is up 30 percent since the movie's release, so reservations are recommended. We had one, but still had to wait because the hostess is aloof. The place is filled with casually dressed locals, but other than the barbeque steaks grilled over an oakwood fire, the food is just okay. Dennis had a $13 glass of the Highliner, and said it was disappointing. The Hitching Post II, 406 E. Highway 246, Buellton, CA; tel.: 805-688-0676.
Our hotel was in Solvang, the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang is a very charming Danish town. In fact, if a friend ever drugged you and you woke up there, you would swear you were in Denmark. (I guess he wouldn't really be your friend, would he? But you get my point.) We stayed at the Wine Valley Inn, a very cozy European-style inn with 51 guestrooms and six charming individual cottages. This is where some of the actors stayed during filming and each room is decorated with its own charm and ambiance. Outside, there are well-landscaped courtyards with Koi ponds, and private gardens. We were upgraded to a roomy yet very comfortable cottage, with a fireplace. If I were with Paris I would've fired that bad boy up. Instead I had to pull out the couch, because Cousin Dennis was already passed out on the bed.
There was a gift bag waiting for us (but we're not special -- all guests who reserve the Sideways Movie Package get one. The package includes a choice of accommodations: either a chateau loft suite with king bed upstairs and living room downstairs, or a fireplace deluxe room with king or queen beds). Inside the bag was an official Sideways movie location map, a bottle of wine from Firestone Vineyards, two Wine Valley Inn signature wine glasses and a corkscrew, a $25 gift certificate for the nearby Solvang Restaurant (to get some authentic Danish fare like aebleskiver), and two AMC movie tickets valid any time, anywhere. The price varies. Sunday through Thursday costs $145 per night (through December 31, 2005). Staying both Friday and Saturday nights sets you back $325 (through June 10, 2005). Rates include all hotel taxes, but advance reservations are required. Oh, yeah: a continental breakfast buffet is included. They serve (of course) scrumptious Danishes. Wine Valley Inn, 1564 Copenhagen Dr., Solvang, CA; tel.: 805-688-0559.
Unfortunately, the next morning it was pouring. We didn't feel like touring in the rain, so we headed back to L.A. early. It was just as well for Cousin Dennis, who claimed to have the worst hangover in history from all the wine I made him drink. The good news is he didn't point out any Porsches or license plates on the drive back. That's because he had the passenger seat fully reclined and he was lying "Sideways."