In Santa Ynez Valley, A Toast to 'Sideways'

By Kimberly Edds
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005

Buellton, Calif., is not a fancy town. It doesn't pretend to be. It's hard to be pretentious when you're known for the motel shaped like a windmill that hovers over the freeway.

The Days Inn here used to be little more than a cheap room for work crews to dust off and grab a beer or a stopping point for tourists on their way to bigger and better things.

And then came the hit movie "Sideways."

Nestled between rich green hills swathed in yellow and purple wildflowers, the wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley has long played the forgotten stepsister to Northern California's Napa Valley and Sonoma. A 45-minute drive north of Santa Barbara, it was a spot locals prided themselves on but few others were aware of.

But the Oscar-nominated film about the meandering road trip of a has-been actor and a struggling writer through Santa Barbara wineries has let the world in on their closely guarded secret. California wine doesn't have to come from Napa Valley. And "Sideways" fans from around the world are rushing to see for themselves.

What it lacks in prestige, the valley makes up in approachability. It's quirky. It's comfortable. The rooms are cheap, the steaks are big and the wine is pretty darn good. And tracing the adventures of Miles and Jack, the road buddies in "Sideways," has been made even easier with a map produced by the Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau. The maps, which outline 19 locations used in the movie, along with addresses and phone numbers, are disappearing as quickly as they can be printed.

A room at the Days Inn will set you back just $49.99 during the week. If you can get in, that is. Fifteen Jack-and-Miles fans have reserved rooms for a complete "Sideways" experience in April.

That experience includes a trip to the Fess Parker Winery to see the "spit bucket."

"No one has ever really consumed anything out of this thing," said Tim Snider, the vineyard's vice president of marketing, waving the green pail a distraught Miles guzzles after getting the bad news about his novel. "But people still want to see it."

And so they come to this 714-acre vineyard owned by Fess Parker, who hung up his coonskin cap after playing Walt Disney's frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett to make some pretty fine reds. They snap pictures. They stare off at the veranda and comment on how it looks so much like it did in the movie. And they taste some wine--pinot noir, of course.

"A lot of people are trying it because of the movie. And hopefully if they try it, they'll stick with it," Snider said.

At the rural Sanford Winery, a converted dairy barn at the end of a long gravel road, tastings run $5. Weekend crowds have more than doubled since "Sideways" was released nationally--and the five Academy Award nominations the picture received have only intensified the buzz. You don't have to be a wine connoisseur to fit in. You just have to be willing to learn.

Just don't expect to bring home a bottle of the Sanford Vin Gris used in Jack's first wine-tasting lesson. It sold out before Christmas. But people are clamoring to get their hands on some.

"It does have strawberries, but Miles gets carried away," tasting room manager Mel Lewis said with a grin. "They added that part about the cheese."

The tasting room at Firestone Vineyard, one of the region's oldest wineries, is where the couples sneak out of a rambling lecture on pinot noir. But don't be disappointed when there isn't any pinot noir in sight; the winery doesn't produce it.

But it does make some pretty incredible chardonnays, syrahs and yes, even merlots. Despite all of Miles's badmouthing about merlot, it's still selling. That's Hollywood. Things aren't always what they seem. "Sideways" isn't a documentary, but for the most part, the beauty and quirks of Santa Ynez Valley are laid out with brutal honesty.

Miles and Jack engage in bad behavior. They cuss. They drink and drive. They're zealous participants in adultery and pornography. Not exactly the image Santa Barbara winemakers and business owners wanted to present to the world. But after being reassured by filmmaker Alexander Payne, winery after winery agreed to be part of the phenomenon. As long as their names weren't featured.

Down the road from Firestone, Foxen Vineyards, where Miles and Jack pour themselves more wine when their server steps away, is a bit of a trek from the other wineries--but it's worth seeking out. Rustic wood fences line the wandering road that takes you past endless vineyards. Cows and horses graze unaware.

There is much more to the valley than the wine.

For $3, you can feed the ostriches that chase Jack as he runs naked back to the Windmill motel after being caught in the act with Cammi by her tow-truck-driving husband.

"You pay for the feeding experience; I give you the food," said Ostrich Land manager David McNay.

If you're spending the weekend, head over to the town of Lompoc on Friday afternoon for the Farmers' Market. Grab a bag of popcorn and enjoy the sunshine and the flowers. Then make your way to Ocean Lanes to bowl a few games. The place is a little more crowded than it was before it made its big-screen debut--but for $50, you can rent a lane for two hours for as many as six bowlers. Pizza included.

Or carve out an afternoon of golf at the River Course at the Alisal, where Miles and Jack confronted an angry foursome on the fairway.

Nearby Solvang, the self-proclaimed "Danish capital of America" with its thatch-roof shops and restaurants, is also home to a host of wine-tasting rooms. If you want to stay true to the script, stop by the Solvang Restaurant for aebleskiver (round pancake balls) and omelets. Locals swear by Paula's Pancake House for thin Danish pancakes and rich waffles. Save room for fresh-baked bread and danish from Mortensen's or Olsen's bakeries.

Although you can't reserve the exact table at the Los Olivos Cafe in Los Olivos where the foursome shared their first date--the restaurant was expanded into the gift shop for the scene--the dinner the couples enjoyed (right down to the "chocolate scream" dessert they begged off) is available. For $29, indulge in butternut squash and cranberry salad, salmon and a glass of pinot noir. And don't miss the wine wall, with more than 300 bottles. It's been in high demand.

"They don't ask. They just touch it. They come here to look at it, to touch it and to experience it," said cafe owner Sam Marmorstein .

It's guaranteed that Maya won't be waiting tables at the Hitching Post II, whatever night you decide to wander in for grilled steaks or fish. But you could be in for a wait. Regulars who used to stroll in during prime dinnertime hours are now finding they have to make reservations. You can grab a seat at the bar, which has become a true watering hole. Hitching Post owner Frank Ostini is bottling his Highliner pinot noir as fast as he can. Although he welcomes the attention, he admits that it's dizzying. But he tries to keep a sense of humor when customers ask for Maya.

"I tell them Maya's not working," he said. "She has the weekend off and she's down visiting Miles in rehab."

Frank Ostini and his Hitching Post II are popular with "Sideways" fans, who are invading Santa Ynez Valley, Calif. Firestone's merlot (left) tastes great, really.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church go tasting in "Sideways," as real-life Sanford Winery employee Chris Burroughs looks on.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company