I flew North on the 22nd of August – and I can’t help but think it is a very different kind of “North” than the one I flew to at this time of year when I still lived in Canada. For ten years in a row, I flew to the Arctic each summer as part of a team of scientists collecting soil, plant and water samples from military installations. By contrast, my trip this summer took me to Northern and Central California and it was good wine, great waves and memories that I was looking to gather.
After flying into San Francisco, I departed the next morning and turned the Silver Bullet (a Mini Cooper with black racing stripes) South on Highway 101 and headed for Santa Barbara County. Five hours later I was pulling into the quaint western-style town of Los Olivos where I was to meet a friend at the Los Olivos Café. I shocked us both by being on time. The café is really more a wine bar and I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s also a location featured in the movie Sideways starring Paul Giamatti. Had I known of its illustrious past, I wouldn’t have eaten dried fruit and nuts on the drive down. Nancie had brought along a friend, Sue, both of whom are dyed-in-the-wool cowgirls employed by the ranch where they both live. Sue, it turned out, is also a biologist and a poet. We hit it off immediately. With my ability to stay in the saddle at stake, I ordered an Arnold Palmer and sat listening to the cowgirls talk story as they threw down a couple of beers and the soup of the day.
From Los Olivos we headed further North up the Santa Ynez Valley to Vino Vaqueros (that’s Spanish for Wine Cowboys) for some horseback riding and wine-tasting. I was disappointed momentarily when our guide informed me that the wine-tasting wasn’t done on horseback, but using the same reasoning I’d employed at the café, I understood why they don’t mix the two. We rode at a leisurely pace through neat, verdant rows of grapes contrasted against a backdrop of rolling golden hills. I hadn’t ridden in decades and that my knees weren’t accustomed to wrapping around such a large creature (or any creature at all these days) and they soon began to protest vociferously. Just then the guide decided it was time to canter the horses, but before she took off, she warned me that my horse, Zoomer, liked to go fast. She kicked her horse into high gear and Zoomer took off in pursuit while I winced and waited for my knees to tear away from the rest of my body. I was pleasantly surprised that they did not and that somehow the cantering made the pain in my knees subside – maybe it was that the pain in my butt now exceeded that in my knees?
I admit I was happy to see the stables when we headed back and was even more relieved when my legs didn’t give out and make me crumple to the ground when I slid out of the saddle.
The Fess Parker Winery was our next stop, where we were treated to a tasting that included seven of their wines. I was pleasantly surprised that the actor that played Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone was apparently also a remarkable vintner. While I managed to resist buying a synthetic “coonskin” cap, I did walk out of there with a bottle of The Big Easy – a blend of different Syrah grapes from around the valley, with just a touch of Petite Syrah and Grenache added in for depth.
For dinner we headed to Buellton, the town that Sideways made famous and ate, where else, at The Hitching Post. Turns out Nancie used to work there and every one in the place knows her. We got the royal treatment from our server Jackie as a result. Seeing as beef is another major product produced in the region, I ordered the filet miñon – it was off the hook…sooooo tender.
At the end of the evening, I followed Nancie back to her home on The Hollister Ranch, the fourth largest ranch in Santa Barbara County with over 98% of its 14,400 acres devoted to well managed and sensitive cattle grazing. But “The Ranch” as it’s locally known has more than just beef going for it. Mention of its name to a surfer and they invariably get a glassed over look in their eyes, as I imagine prospectors did when they spoke of California’s gold. That’s because the ranch occupies 8 miles of California coastline from Gaviota State Park to Point Conception and the riches here are uncrowded waves, the result of very low density development and vehicular access being limited to ranch property owners and their guests. We passed through the security gate where I received a guest pass to display on the Silver Bullet’s dash and then continued ten miles further along a wickedly sinuous and narrow road that climbs hills and drops into narrow valleys, up and down the whole way in the dark. The Bullet handled the road well and I was glad not to be driving a big pickup like Nancie was.
Arriving safely, we toasted my finally arriving at the Ranch with another nice Santa Barbara County wine and then hit the hay. As I dropped off to sleep I mind-surfed glassy, uncrowded waves.