Looking at Buellton Sideways

It turns out the Paul Giamatti movie Sideways is not only one of the best buddy/wine movies ever made, it’s a damn fine blueprint for tracing your way around one of California’s hidden tourism gems.

The town of Buellton, let’s be honest, has very little going for it at first peek. In fact, if you’re cruising along the 101 from LA to the Napa Valley, which is where you head if you’re a wine enthusiast with three days to kill and a rented Jeep Renegade in hand, chances are you’ll pass Buellton by at 70mph.

But if, like me, you’ve stopped along the Pacific Coast Highway a few too many times to grab some seaside selfies, and spent too long poking around Santa Barbara to see what all the fuss about Oprah’s new mansion is all about, it may well be that Napa Valley is a bit too far away to do in one drive, and you need to pull off the freeway for a kip in the Motel 6 that’s right there at the exit to, well, Buellton.

The thing about Buellton though is that — not unlike the movie — if you pay more than cursory attention to what’s going around you, it gets its hooks into you pretty quickly.

Because it just so happens that there’s enough going on in Buellton and surrounds to make that last-minute trip to Napa somewhat redundant. The entire movie of Sideways was filmed not in Napa, but in Buellton, as well as nearby Lompoc, Solvang, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Los Alamos and Orcutt, a glorious piece of California that you can explore in just a day or two, not to mention come away with some superb wines.

And yes, as Giamatti’s character Miles would tell you, the local pinot noir is simply stunning, and has well and truly put Buellton on the proverbial map.

For me, the experience was particularly surreal as I got to have it with my high school best friend who I hadn’t seen for 33 years, and who is now a Hollywood screenwriter with whom I had spent several days mingling with the likes of Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito, Cuba Gooding Jr, Tom Jones and movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg. Needless to say, movies were on my mind.

So, over six or so hours we hit most of the wineries made famous by Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s characters, who were also college buddies intent on leaving their imprint on unsuspecting Buellton.

We began where they begin in the movie — on the Santa Rosa Road between Buellton and Lompoc, a stunning drive along winding bitumen through beautiful valleys that are blessed with constant cool breezes off the Pacific (hence the thriving pinot grape). It’s here that you’ll find Sanford Winery, where there is not one, not two, but three different pinots to whet your whistle. Tastings at any of the wineries in Sideways country cost between $US10-20, a cost they strike off if you spend enough money on wine. And believe me, that’s not difficult to do at Sanford. Because as well as the stunning pinots, there’s also a glorious syrah, which they only bring out for very special (Aussie) guests.

Next stop was Solvang, a small town which to this day remains an authentic piece of Denmark right there in California. Solvang is all about the shopping, the eating and the drinking, everything from danishes for breakfast to chocolate for morning tea to Padron cigars for dinner. It’s close enough to everywhere else on the Sideways landscape to be the go-to town in-between wine-stops.

Kalyra Winery, where Miles and Jack first encounter Stephanie, is just down the road from Solvang. Kalyra’s winemaker is Aussie Mike Brown, and the tasting room is an homage to his home country, from the surf board hanging behind the bar to the dot paintings around the walls. His wines, too, have quite different characteristics to those you find throughout the rest of the district. Take a closer look at the walls and you’ll see the photographic tributes to Sideways and behind-the-scenes snaps of the cast and crew.

Head north from Kalyra through Los Olivos, a small town also featured in the movie and which has just as much character as Solvang (not to mention several tasting rooms), and then on to Firestone, a grand winery owned by financier Bill Foley, who also owns wineries in Washington and New Zealand. In fact, you’d swear their flagship pinot noir was grown and produced in Central Otago. Like Sanford, Firestone’s wines are superb, and by the end of the tasting you’re thankful to have your old high school buddy along to play skipper.

Not 10 minutes up the road from Firestone is perhaps the pick of the bunch, Fess Parker Winery (called Frass Canyon in the movie). Fess Parker is famous for playing Davy Crockett in the 50s miniseries, as well as Daniel Boone in the 60s series. And the winery is perhaps the most memorable in the film, as it’s the place where Miles deals with the rejection of his unpublished novel by near drowning himself in the slops from the spit-bucket. Fess Parker produces some stunning wines, so good that we’re on the verge of recreating that very scene when we’re told it’s been done multiple times before — most famously by a guy who strode in to the tasting room, spilled wine everywhere, then strode out again without uttering a word.

I settled for a 2012 syrah and a 2013 pinot noir.

There are more wineries to visit on the road to Orcutt, including Foxen and Andrew Murray, but we were determined to end our day where Miles ended his, alone, and sipping wine from a paper bag, at the Orcutt Burgers fast food joint, where we enjoyed what are undeniably some of the finest burgers you will ever eat … in Orcutt.

Left to my own devices as my buddy headed back to Beverly Hills, I did as any true fan of Sideways would and checked in at the motel favoured by Miles and Jack, the Windmill, which is worth every bit of its single star on tripadvisor.com. If your TV fails to provide a decent picture, as mine did, you can be sure to be entertained by the couple in the room next door, who sound so close they may as well be sharing the cost ($US80.00) of your room.

My one regret was that I never got to eat at the Hitching Post, where Miles first meets Maya. But I can vouch for its existence. It’s right there on the main highway, just a couple of kilometres from the Windmill. It’s on my list of things to do when I return. And return I will, because, like the movie itself, Buellton and surrounds are a delightful and unexpected surprise that will no doubt only improve with repeat viewings.

WHERE IS IT? Buellton is 2-3 hours’ drive north of LA along the 101 and coastal route 1.

HOW TO GET THERE? A good rental car, like a Jeep Renegade, will cost about $US70 per day, including taxes and charges. A three-day round trip is ideal.

WHERE TO STAY? A room at the Motel 6 costs about $80; as does a room at the Windmill. The Motel 6 is recommended.