A taste of vintage California
We join the Sideways wine trail and discovers some quirkier corners of the US riviera
When a quirky little film called Sideways garnered an Oscar and a cult following for its portrayal of the joys of flirting amidst the California vines, it started a whole new branch of the tourism industry.
Since the film came out in 2004, Los Angeles party people have been heading north 100 miles to Santa Barbara County to socialise over weekend wine-tasting and a good meal in one of the restaurants featured in the film.
The Sideways Tour - which has become such a fixture that its key locations are now on the official Santa Barbara website - makes an equally good diversion for Brits heading for LA and wanting a congenial day in beautiful countryside a couple of hours' drive from the city. But better by far is to stay a few nights in Santa Barbara itself and take time to explore this elegant old city and its surroundings.
Like all southern California this is a year-round destination, but October is a specially fine time to go for oenophiles, who will enjoy the annual vintners' festival. Celebration of Harvest this year runs from October 10-13, suggesting a lovely post-Yom Kippur treat at a time when airfares are lower but the days remain warm and golden.
During the festival, a "Vintners' Visa" buys tastings at a dozen wineries over four days for less than £20 - a bargain when many California wineries are now charging a nominal $10 (about £5) for a selection of sample quaffs in order to keep numbers manageable, due to the popularity of tastings.
There are also special winemakers' dinners and open-house tours of wineries which do not normally admit the public. But the tasting rooms will still be open in November and a lot less crowded for those in search of winter sun and low fares and hotel rates.
While handsome chateau-style wineries set in acres of rolling vines like Sanford and Firestone (both featured in the film), are designed to feast the eyes as well as the tastebuds, connoisseurs will want to make a side-trip to the so-called Ghetto. The name comes from the cluster of some of southern California's finest boutique wine-makers, who have decided to invest their all in vines and modern plants rather than fancy tasting-rooms. But they still welcome visitors who care more about tasting great vintages than salubrious surroundings.
This is where Kathy Joseph, a Jewish ex-medical student who gave it all up to make sublime pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, hangs out with neighbouring vintners on an industrial estate behind the Home Depot store in Lompoc, an undistinguished coastal town previously known for its air force base.
Her modest tasting counter may not have made it into the film, but her prestigious wines did - Sideways characters Miles and Maya rave about Fiddlehead "sauv blanc" over dinner at the Los Olivos Cafe.
Los Olivos is the modern, Mediterranean restaurant Santa Barbara wine country deserves. It is especially suited to lunch, when it is delightful to eat on the verandah and look out on the charming little eponymous country village. The café may not be kosher, but Jewish proprietor Sam Marmorstein, a former stockbroker-turned-winemaker and restaurateur, gives great salmon with spinach and fennel, bruschetta, tapenade, rustic pizzas and super main-course salads; there is even a children's menu, and food is served all afternoon.
The restaurant most heavily featured in Sideways is quite different: the Hitching Post in Buellton is a real down-home country dinner house, despite the sophistication of its wine list. Goodies here include roasted garlic, grilled artichokes served with smoked tomato mayonnaise and a different grilled fresh fish every day, though most diners are confirmed carnivores as well as wine aficionadoes. If you plan to dine and sup exquisite vintages at this large, cheery restaurant, it is advisable to stay nearby in Solvang, even if the town itself is a bit twee.
Its Wine Valley Inn offers charming boutique lodgings within easy reach of several wineries, and the shopping district is well worth a stop for authentic Danish pastries. Solvang, however, is a fair hike from Santa Barbara, while the latter, which has a lovely outdoor shopping mall, is close enough to Los Olivos to be an ideal base for those who have sightseeing and shopping in mind, as well as dining and wine-tasting.
The age as well as the elegance of Santa Barbara, which pre-dates Los Angeles by more than 100 years, is a sharp contrast to the modernity of LA. Spanish missionaries settled there in 1780, and Spain ruled until 1822, by which time the many grand and gorgeous colonial-style buildings had formed a majestic skyline from the Pacific ocean to the hills. Elegant Victorian houses were added when a small but strategic port brought shipping wealth after the Civil War, but only the old Spanish buildings survived the earthquake of 1925 and a new city ordnance decreed that the centre be rebuilt in colonial style.
The result is a pleasingly homogenous cityscape with wide boulevards and - thanks to the sea of red-tiled roofs - a real Mediterranean feel. No wonder more than 1,000 films were shot here in the early days of Hollywood; the beautiful, romantic Mission Santa Barbara is where Gloria Swanson had her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.
While the Biltmore on the coast is the posh hotel, the stars of old stayed at Charlie Chaplin's Montecito Inn, and it is still possible to stay at the San Ysidro Ranch up the lane, where Laurence Olivier wed Vivien Leigh and John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned. This affluent coastal suburb is idyllic, and the Montecito shops are a must.
For affordable but stylish digs in the coastal part of town, a good choice is the Oceana, across from the beach and near the harbour, where Chuck's Waterfront Grill is a delightfully informal and unpretentious fish restaurant.
A last treat awaits wine-lovers who also want gourmet kosher food: Tierra Sur, the acclaimed restaurant at the Herzog kosher winery at Oxnard, midway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles International. Expect delicious modern food in an elegant setting, and a selection of the excellent kosher table wines California now produces.
Wine Valley Inn (001 805 688 2111; www.winevalleyinn.com) has double rooms from £50; Hotel Oceana (001 805 965 4577; www.hoteloceanasantabarbara.com) from £60. Los Olivos Café (001 805 688 7265); the Hitching Post (001 805 6880676); Herzog Winery (001 805 983 1560). Call ahead for tastings at Fiddlehead (001 805 742 0204). Information at www.santabarbaraca.com and http://www.sbcountywines.com/
Jewish Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has a Jewish Fede-ration (www.jewish santabarbara.org) and five synagogues, including B'nai Brith, which holds outdoor services in summer
The Herzog winery at Oxnard has a kosher restaurant (www.herzogwinecellars.com; 001 805 983 1560)
The Santa Barbara Jewish Festival takes place annually in Oak Park in spring