On the Sideways Trail (without Miles)
When my wife and I pulled over to feed some ostriches on the road between Solvang and Buellton, we thought we were doing something rather spontaneous and kooky. However, after we got inside and those huge beaks started nose-diving into my bowl of grub, another couple walked up to join in the fun.
"Yes....this is part of Sideways, too! Yes it is! The part during the montage when the jazz music is playing. Remember?"
You can't escape that film in SoCal wine country these days, but it's not like the locals are complaining. Sideways has brought a huge boost of film tourism to the area, full of young Miles wannabes who go from location to location, hoping to recreate their favorite moments from the movie. It's kind of cool....I guess. I liked that movie when it came out and it did do a great job of making the Santa Ynez Valley seem romantic. However, what's interesting to me is how people tend to view Paul Giamatti's character. He doesn't like Merlot, so the entire U.S. stopped drinking it for almost five years because he must know best. Personally, I think he's an idiot who doesn't know anything about wine, but tries his hardest to act like he does. He's the last guy I'd want to be seated next to at a tasting. He's the kind of person who makes me embarrassed to like wine. But, in all honesty, I didn't feel that way when I first saw the film because I didn't know any better. It's an evolution that has occurred only after a half-decade in the business.
That being said, we couldn't go anywhere without other tourists quoting that movie. We thought about grabbing dinner at the Hitching Post (one of the film's main locations), but we were so over the Sideways experience that we decided to go out of our way to do the complete opposite of whatever Miles would do. There is so much to do along the Central Coast. It is a cornicopia of quaint downtowns, beautiful scenary, and inexpensive, yet delicious booze. There must be a way to have fun and get to know the area without mimicing every step of the world's most anal-retentive, fictional wine snob.
Where to go?
Pea Soup Andersens.
You've seen the billboards. There's a sign about every twenty miles as you go south on 101. The place looks like a gigantic truck stop full of tourist-trap bric-a-brac. And it is! But it's a nostalgic piece of America's road trip past, the kind of place we both remembered stopping at with our families as children (but without the crystal meth). It's so kitschy that it's heartwarming. Miles would never be caught dead here. How unauthentic and touristy! Except that it's not!
We walked in at around quarter to four on a Wednesday; apparently this is when the locals gather at the 1970's style U-shaped counter for coffee and a Danish (we are near Solvang). No tourists in here at this hour, only the funniest eavesdropping one can ask for. We could barely eat our food because we were so engulfed in local topics like farming trends and the grueling semi-truck schedule between Santa Barbara and Salinas. We expected to find traveling folk like ourselves, but apparently the tourists are eating at the Hitching Post. Because of Sideways the locals are gathering at the last place you would expect them! You must make an effort to eat here at 4 PM on a weekday.
Gotta get pea soup if you're going to Pea Soup Andersen's. How about a plate of boiled red cabbage on the side? A cold beer and a glass of white wine for the wife. The great part about the Buellton area is that literally every restaurant has local wine of quality available for a very reasonable price. The wines of the Central Coast tend to be a bit more restrained than the standard Napa fare, which is great for purists like me. You can get great wine at CVS in Buellton, if that helps illustrate its ubiquity. Everyone supports the movement; a show of solidarity that is touching and quite helpful for people like us who like to get drinks all around town. The pea soup and cabbage were delicious by the way. I ended up buying the official Pea Soup Andersen's cookbook before leaving.
The best place along the Central Coast to have some fun is the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obisbo. You need to visit the website and look at the rooms to really understand what I mean, but I'll share a few photos with you. This place has been an eclectic destination for kooks of all kind since the 1950's. It's even bigger and badder in the new millenium as the next generation of Madonnas have expanded the property to include a drive-in movie theater and world-class health spa. This caveman/Mr. Brady urinal stall is equipped with a sensor-driven waterfall, although it's hard to pee with people snapping photos of it every five minutes. If I had to advise someone between seeing Hearst Castle or this bathroom at the Madonna, I would choose the bathroom.
The dining room is from another era entirely. Over-the-top, yet classy as hell – a juxtaposition that isn't easy to pull off anymore. We didn't get a chance to dine, but we heard that this is a destination for every rock star within 300 miles.
There's a fantastic bar around the corner from the dining room and we decided to post up there for lunch and a few cocktails. Our bartender was a guy named Brad who kept the stories coming for nearly an hour. We were on the edge of our seats listening to tales of the L.A. punk scene from the early 80's and Trent Reznor parties in New Orleans in the 90's. You're not going to get this kind of history lesson drinking chardonnay in the Au Bon Climat tasting room.
There are all kinds of old liqueurs gracing the top shelf of the Madonna Inn bar. They're all for sale as well. I can't promise you that they won't have been oxidized, but they won't charge you if they taste like flat cola. I wanted this 1970's bottle of Amer Picon to blow my mind, but it was long past expiration.
When you're all done eating and boozing, you need to head to downtown Solvang and stop at every single bakery you see and stuff your face. Strudel, Danish, Bear Claw? You can have whatever you want! It seems like overkill, but it's amazing how many you can eat when you're determined.
Overall, I would recommend a few days along the Central Coast to anyone like me who hasn't been in almost twenty years. There is an endless amount of fun to be had that doesn't include hiking, cycling, camping or wine-tasting. You don't have to be a nature person. You don't have to be a wine person. There are loads of places to stop for mood, atmosphere, nostalgia, and booze.
And you can find some great Merlot.