My Scottish brother-in-law, visiting with my sister from their temporary home in South Africa,wanted to see some of the wine country made world famous by the movie Sideways.
I wanted to explore somewhere new,having taken that tour a few times already.
I figured the Santa Maria Valley would be a good compromise, as its in the vicinity and Id managed to miss it in three years living here. I didnt even realize at the time that we would be treading some Sideways ground.
Its not hard to miss the pocket of wineries in that area.Theres little indication of the fertile valleys that lie just beyond from the strip mall lined interstate through Santa Maria. And most travelers are probably speeding toward the more populous wine destinations of Edna Valley, Paso Robles or Santa Ynez Valley.
But a delightful excursion awaits those who leave the well-traveled road.
The highway side tasting room and produce shop of Costa De Oro was a tempting first stop, but we were anxious to get in among the vineyards, so we saved that stop for a day of Santa Maria box-store shopping.
It didnt take long from the interstate exit to reach pastoral landscape, so we were lured by the first winery we encountered along Santa Maria Mesa Road.The family-owned Cambria Winery is set among sloping vineyards and clusters of bright flowers.
Inside the newly renovated tasting room, with windows providing a view into the impressive barrel room, we discovered Roxy, the pet parrot of a San Francisco couple who apparently accompanies them every where.
We also discovered a tasty no-oak chardonnay. (Roxy didnt get to sample the wines, but she did get a cracker.) The stainless steel bottling prevents the fermentation and aging that occurs in oak, creating a wine thats more pure to the grape.
Im not usually a chard fan, and Pete, the brother-in-law, says he was brought up on the ABC rule of wine drinking: Anything But Chardonnay. So our group was surprised to find that it was our collective favorite of Cambrias offerings.
Ive had ample opportunity to drink the fruits of Kenneth Volkthe new venture from the founder of Wild Horse Wineryand Cottonwood Canyon and so while those stops were alluring, we continued on to untasted ground.
We dropped back onto the valley floor and into the driveway of newcomer Riverbench Vineyard and Winery. The vineyards have been contributing to great wines for decades, but the label and the tasting room are new this year, with the legendary Chuck Ortman as winemaker.
The tasting room is in a fully restored 1920sCraftsman ranch house,with large windows out onto the surrounding vineyards and rich, evocative colors on the wall.We all wanted to move in.And their no-oak chardonnay the Chablis-style 2007 Bedrock Chardonnay was the crowd pleaser again.
Before we headed on,we decided to try out the bocce ball court out back. After some rather feeble attempts,my sister and I began a game of horseshoes, but quickly decided that hucking heavy metal objects wasnt the best idea for us.
We ventured even further off the beaten path, onto a narrow lane next to a vegetable farm, past olive and orange groves and into the shaded clearing at Rancho Sisquoc.The tasting room, reminiscent of a farmstand where locals trade gossip as well as produce, wasw elcoming, as was the water cooler next to an antique icebox on the warm day.
With a group split two and two between red and white drinkers, we werent expecting to find many common likes.Already surprised with the chardonnays, we were even more shocked to come across another white we all enjoyed.
Rancho Sisquoc claims to be the only California winery to produce a sylvaner, something I immediately began to regret.And at $14, the crisp, slightly sweet white was well-priced, so we took the opportunity to stock up for the week of dinners.
With a double-date at the Los Olivos Café awaiting I had to give in to at least one movie experience we had already sped past Foxen Winery when we recognized it as the place Miles and Jack helped themselves to an extra pour.
We almost turned back when we realized we were coming up to Frass Canyon, in reality the estate winery of Fess Parker where in the movie Miles chugged from the dump bucket. OK, two movie experiences.
We tried on the coonskin hats and argued about whether Parker played Daniel Boone or Davy Crocker (it was both). We gazed at the gentile landscape spreading out from the veranda-rimmed tasting room and left with Reidel glasses sporting small coonskin caps.
As we later drove north following a pleasant meal, we remarked at the Sideways-inspired impression that the area was purely pinot country. And then we remembered Miles telling Jack,as they sped toward Buellton at the beginning of the movie, that the regions winemakers were doing interesting things with chardonnay.
Yes, Miles, yes they are.