Food & Drink

Sideways into the Santa Maria Valley

My Scottish brother-in-law, visiting withmy sister from their temporary home inSouth Africa,wanted to see some of thewine country made world famous bythe movie Sideways.

I wanted to explore somewhere new,havingtaken that tour a few times already.

I figured the Santa Maria Valley would be agood compromise, as it’s in the vicinity and I’dmanaged to miss it in three years living here. Ididn’t even realize at the time that we wouldbe treading some Sideways ground.

It’s not hard to miss the pocket of wineriesin that area.There’s little indication of the fertilevalleys that lie just beyond from the strip malllined interstate through Santa Maria. Andmost travelers are probably speeding towardthe more populous wine destinations of EdnaValley, Paso Robles or Santa Ynez Valley.

But a delightful excursion awaits those wholeave the well-traveled road.

The highway sidetasting roomand produce shopof Costa De Orowas a temptingfirst stop, but wewere anxious toget in among thevineyards, so wesaved that stopfor a day of SantaMaria box-store shopping.

It didn’t take long from the interstate exit toreach pastoral landscape, so we were lured bythe first winery we encountered along SantaMaria Mesa Road.The family-owned CambriaWinery is set among sloping vineyards andclusters of bright flowers.

Inside the newly renovated tasting room,with windows providing a view into theimpressive barrel room, we discovered Roxy,the pet parrot of a San Francisco couple whoapparently accompanies them every where.

We also discovered a tasty no-oak chardonnay.(Roxy didn’t get to sample the wines, butshe did get a cracker.) The stainless steel bottlingprevents the fermentation and aging thatoccurs in oak, creating a wine that’s more pureto the grape.

I’m not usually a chard fan, and Pete, thebrother-in-law, says he was brought up on theABC rule of wine drinking: Anything ButChardonnay. So our group was surprised tofind that it was our collective favorite of Cambria’sofferings.

I’ve had ample opportunity to drink thefruits of Kenneth Volk—the new venture fromthe founder of Wild Horse Winery—and Cottonwood Canyonand so while those stops werealluring, we continued on to untasted ground.

We dropped back onto the valley floor andinto the driveway of newcomer RiverbenchVineyard and Winery. The vineyards havebeen contributing to great wines for decades,but the label and the tasting room are new thisyear, with the legendary Chuck Ortman aswinemaker.

The tasting room is in a fully restored1920sCraftsman ranch house,with large windowsout onto the surrounding vineyards andrich, evocative colors on the wall.We all wantedto move in.And their no-oak chardonnay—the Chablis-style 2007 Bedrock Chardonnay— was the crowd pleaseragain.

Before we headed on,we decided to try outthe bocce ball court out back. After somerather feeble attempts,my sister and I began a game of horseshoes, but quicklydecided that hucking heavy metalobjects wasn’t the best idea for us.

We ventured even further off the beatenpath, onto a narrow lane next to a vegetablefarm, past olive and orange groves and into theshaded clearing at Rancho Sisquoc.The tastingroom, reminiscent of a farmstand where localstrade gossip as well as produce, wasw elcoming,as was the water cooler next to an antique iceboxon the warm day.

With a group split two and two betweenred and white drinkers, we weren’t expectingto find many common likes.Already surprisedwith the chardonnays, we were evenmore shocked to come across another whitewe all enjoyed.

Rancho Sisquoc claims to be the only California wineryto produce a sylvaner, somethingI immediately began to regret.And at $14, thecrisp, slightly sweet white was well-priced, sowe took the opportunity to stock up for theweek of dinners.

With a double-date at the Los Olivos Caféawaiting — I had to give in to at least one movieexperience — we had already sped past FoxenWinery when we recognized it as the placeMiles and Jack helped themselves to an extrapour.

We almost turned back when we realizedwe were coming up to Frass Canyon, in realitythe estate winery of Fess Parker where in themovie Miles chugged from the dump bucket.OK, two movie experiences.

We tried on the coonskin hats and arguedabout whether Parker played Daniel Boone orDavy Crocker (it was both). We gazed at thegentile landscape spreading out from theveranda-rimmed tasting room and left withReidel glasses sporting small coonskin caps.

As we later drove north following a pleasantmeal, we remarked at the Sideways-inspiredimpression that the area was purely pinotcountry. And then we remembered Milestelling Jack,as they sped toward Buellton at thebeginning of the movie, that the region’s winemakerswere doing interesting things withchardonnay.

Yes, Miles, yes they are.