Santa Barbara - Beyond Sideways: a wine region that stands upright on its own

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by Robert P. Farmer

Though I know it places me among a small minority for thinking this way, I consider it ironic that the popularity of the film, Sideways, based on the Alexander Payne book, was used so heavily to leverage the popularity of Santa Barbara. I think it's ironic because, while the movies beautifully shows off the landscape and is chock full of cameo appearances by great vineyards and restaurants — giving locals a thrill, no doubt — the movie tells the story of the private downward spirals of two longtime friends whose only real solace is found in the copious (and ostentatious) consumption of fine wines.

As with most tales of personal debauchery, there are several good laughs along the way. But the story is more a cautionary tale than a celebration of wine country, and therein lays, in my opinion, the irony. Still, I suppose the Santa Barbara region is right to take advantage of its newfound stardom, and nobody can blame the folks in the area for making the most of it. It's also highly likely that most visitors to Santa Barbara wine country have a much different (and certainly much better) experience than that of the characters in the movie. I must admit as well, it's also fun to visit the locations used in the movie, because they did manage to incorporate some of the area's best places as their natural backdrops. So my encouragement to those who trek to Santa Barbara for a wine country experience is to understand that the region is anything but sideways – it stands firmly upright as a wine-producing province and as a destination for soaking up the good life.

Once upon a time not long ago, Santa Barbara County was home to just a scattering of upstart wineries. Today, the County has more than 21,000 vineyard-planted acres, grown and tended by dozens of wineries. Many maintain small-batch production and several are family-owned- and-operated. The wineries are primarily situated in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, about 35 miles north of Santa Barbara. Rich with history and shot-through with breathtaking coastal scenery, the area's AVAs produce, of course, remarkable Pinot Noirs (as fans of the movie are now well aware), but also excellent chardonnays and cabernets. There are more varietals on offer from Santa Barbara in smaller quantities, including merlot (yes, merlot!), and select malbecs and viogniers.

In spite of the spike in interest around and visitors to Santa Barbara County wine country since the movie, the region has managed to retain its mellow, unpretentious appeal. The relaxed pace and easy-going charm actually translated well on screen, and visitors can easily take advantage of it with a well-planned weekend. Whether exploring the quaint Danish-transplant town of Solvang or discovering one of the many great restaurants in the valley towns, the intrepid traveler will find Santa Barbara County every bit as appealing as California's more famous wine country to the north—and you need not careening toward intrapersonal oblivion to enjoy it.

The region's four main towns— Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Ballard — each have a distinct character. Also worthy of attention is the town of Buellton to the north. Solvang is self-described as the Danish Capital of American, founded by Danish Americans in 1910 and established as an ethnic colony with architecture and culture to match. As serious-minded as its beginnings were, the charm of Solvang is undeniably kitschy, with more souvenir shops than should possibly fit into one town and buildings that look like they're from the Disneyland back lot. There are a handful of interesting museums in Solvang, including the Solvang Motorcycle Museum and the Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Don't miss the Presidio Winery Tasting Room (1539 Mission Drive, 805-740-9463), where the staff are typically friendly and eager to expound upon the history and state of the regional wine industry. Also in town is the surprisingly urbane Cabana Tasting Room & Wine Bar (1539 Mission Dr. 805-686-9126), offering a great collection of wines by the glass from local vintners.

In Los Olivos, the small town atmosphere gives way to chic assortment of shops, galleries, and restaurants. There are more than a dozen wine tasting rooms here, too, including outlets by Andrew Murray Vineyards, Daniel Gehrs Wines, and Los Olivos Vintners.

Los Olivos is a good starting point to explore two of Santa Barbara County's major wine trails: the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail and the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Trail. Stop by the popular Los Olivos Grocery and grab picnic supplies — excellent pannini-style sandwiches, cheeses, meats, etc. — before heading out.

There are several great option for overnight stays in the area, including Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa in Los Olivos (2860 Grand Ave, 805-688-7788; www.fessparker.com), the Wine Valley Inn & Cottages in Solvang (1564 Copenhagen Dr., 805-688-2111; www.winevalleyinn.com), and for something completely unique, the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang (1054 Alisal Rd, 805-688-6411; www.alisal.com), where you can ride horses, play golf, go fly-fishing, and other activities not wine-related.

Of course, whether you decide to pick up a “Sideways” map to make sure you see all the places on screen in the film is entirely up to you. It's worth noting, though, that many locals are less than enthusiastic about making the connection. Because, like me, they have long understood that Santa Barbara County has much more to offer than a beautiful destination for letting your life go sideways.

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