Far from home, in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje, the American wine-lover’s flick Sideways was providing background fodder at a wine event. For a second, Shawn and I thought we’d been whisked back to the United States, until we spotted the Academy Award winner’s subtitles written in the Cyrillic script, an alphabet made even more foreign after a glass of wine.
Fast-forward two years, and we’d find ourselves in the heart of Sideways filming locations, in rustically-beautiful Santa Barbara County, California. On a tasting excursion with wine entrepreneurs Kevin and Sherene Donoghue, of Santa Barbara Classic Wine Tours, we’d explore three wineries and a beer taproom, don furry Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and hear a plethora of praise for the 2004 film that helped to put this Southern California wine region on the map.
Santa Barbara County Wine Country
One of California’s coolest wine-growing areas, Santa Barbara County’s topography features a unique east-west orientation of its coastal mountains. Since the region’s valleys are opened directly onto the Pacific Ocean, fog and ocean breezes roll in, creating numerous microclimates. This generally-cooler air also means that grapes don’t need to be harvested as early as their cousins in hotter climates. This allows Santa Barbara’s grapes to develop rich flavors and characteristics.
Though grapes have been cultivated for about two centuries in the Santa Barbara area, modern viticulture wasn’t ushered into the region until the 1960s. Today, wineries number around 200, and there are even a variety of breweries and taprooms to visit. Popular grape varietals include whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and reds such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. About half of Santa Barbara’s grapes are exported to winemakers outside of the area. There are 5 viticultural areas or ‘appellations’ in Santa Barbara County.
Stopping in the wine-tasting mecca of Los Olivos a day before we met Kevin and Sherene, we marveled at the number of tasting rooms in the town. On the day of our tour, we would learn that many of the spots in the county are not zoned for public wine tastings – thus tasting rooms have sprung up in large clusters in Los Olivos instead. Some ranchers are apparently concerned that wineries located in the countryside would generate excessive traffic.
Our first stop with Kevin and Sherene was the Foxen Winery, which is well-known for being a Sideways filming location. The winery features two tasting rooms just a stone’s throw from each other. In the 1980s, Foxen was founded by Dick Doré and Bill Wathen on the site of the Rancho Tinaquaic. The winery is named after Dick’s great-great grandfather, an English sea captain who established a ranch there in the 1830s, raised cattle, and paid homage to his naval past by incorporating an anchor into his cattle brand.
Foxen 7200 – perhaps better known as ‘the Shack’ – focuses upon Bordeaux and Italian style wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The new, state-of-the-art tasting room just down the road – simply known as Foxen – specializes in Burgundy and Rhône-style wines, like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Mourvèdre.
The ‘Shack’ is the winery’s original tasting room and was formerly a blacksmith shop. The view from the rustic structure, with doorways opening out into the surrounding countryside, rewarded us with sightings of hummingbirds and a Garfield-lookalike cat named Jack
Foxen 7200 Tasting:
- 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Vogelzang Vineyard
- 2012 Pajarito, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
- 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Happy Canyon of Vogelzang and Dierberg
- 2012 Range 30 West
- 2012 Guillermo Grosso, Santa Ynez Valley
- 2012 Cabernet Franc, Tinaquaic Vineyard
Just down the road from the Shack is Foxen’s new tasting room, built in 2009. It features sustainable principles such as solar-power and dry-farmed vineyards, as well as a roaming canine ambassador named Henry. The personable Pug was featured in the coffee table book, Wine Dogs – California. Shawn just about spirited him away in his backpack!
As we tasted, Kevin shared an analogy about winemaking that spoke to me.
“Winemaking is like a Rubik’s Cube,” he said. “Winemakers work with grapes coming from different vineyards and different clones. Pinot Noir, for example, has about 48 different recognized clones.”
- 2012 Chardonnay ‘Steel Cut’
- 2012 Chardonnay ‘Dry Farmed’
- 2014 Rosé Mourvèdre
- 2013 Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (My favorite!)
- 2012 Pinot Noir, Block 43, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
- 2012 Pinot Noir, John Sebastian Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills
- 2012 Syrah, Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard
Situated on the picturesque Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, Fess Parker Winery was founded by Hollywood actor, Fess Parker, best known for playing Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in 1950’s and 1960’s TV series. It was also featured in the movie, Sideways.
In between tasting, we strolled the winery’s grounds, at times sporting faux fur Davy Crockett coontail hats. Clearly the day’s wonderful wine had already had an impact on us! :)
Over a hearty lunch on the winery’s immaculate grounds, we got to know Sherene and Kevin better. Sherene, as it turns out, formerly ran a studio in Hollywood, and Kevin is a Sheriff’s Deputy. A ‘Renaissance’ couple long interested in wine, the duo plans to get Level I Sommelier certification in Napa later this year.
Most of our group feasted upon panini sandwiches; I ate a scrumptious gluten-free chicken salad and organic greens. All were catered by a local artisan sandwich shop, which coincidentally had just been featured on The Today Show..
Fess Parker Tasting:
- 2013 Chardonnay, Ashley
- 2012 Viognier, Rodney’s Vineyard
- 2014 Pinot Noir Rosé
- 2014 Santa Barbara County White Wine (My favorite.)
- 2012 Pinot Noir, Older Barrel
- 2012 Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido
- 2012 The Big Easy
- 2011 Syrah Vintage, Rodney’s Vineyard
Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café
Ever in Sideways filming country, Kevin suggested we pop into the Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café, where the film’s four main characters dined on a double date. We were immediately impressed by the restaurant’s extensive and aesthetically-pleasing wine collection, illuminated by spotlights and a sparkling chandelier.
J Ludlow Vineyard
Our final wine-tasting stop of the day would be at the J Ludlow tasting room in the town of Los Olivos. Appreciated for its Bordeaux-style wines, J Ludlow allows its wines to age longer than others in the area.
“The ultimate compliment,” explained manager Damien, “was when French visitors arrived, sniffed the wine here, and it said it smelled like wine from back home.”
We enjoyed J Ludlow’s wines, especially its Jigsaw Sauvignon Blanc, which is a perfect wine to enjoy on a sizzling summer’s day. We were also happy to hear that the winery gives back to the community. Specifically, the owners like to help charities that support Autism research, hence the puzzle logo incorporated into much of J Ludlow’s decor and marketing.
J Ludlow Tasting:
- 2012 Pinot Grigio, Contra Costa County
- 2013 Jigsaw Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley (My favorite.)
- 2011 Jane Merlot, Santa Ynez Valley
- 2011 Kemsley 1550 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley
- 2012 Hudson Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company
Just as we were ready to hop into the van and head back to our home away from home in Los Alamos, Kevin asked us if we’d like to sample a bit of beer. Ever aware that I can’t do beer because of the gluten, Shawn chivalrously declined, but with a twinkle in his eye, mischievous Kevin gave us an extra nudge, and introduced us to Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, where he and Shawn would sample four types of beer.
With the advice of wine educators swirling in my mind, reminding me of the importance of fine-tuning my olfactory senses, I sniffed the beer intently. The unusual scents captured my attention – particularly the Renaissance Man variety with its fruity aroma. Shawn reported that he enjoyed his sips too, and he left feeling quite pleased that Kevin spontaneously took us there. Apparently, men who tire of wine tastings opt to go to Figueroa Mountain (or another taproom) while the ladies take to Santa Barbara County’s wineries.
Figueroa Mountain Tasting:
- Zero to Sexy (hint of coffee)
- Renaissance Man (apricot essence)
- Davy Brown Ale (smooth)
- Lizard’s Mouth (chocolatey, with a coffee aftertaste)
Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- Santa Barbara County wine country is located about 50 miles (80 kms) from the city of Santa Barbara.
- Sherene, the co-owner/founder of Santa Barbara Classic Wine Tours, together with her husband, Kevin, picked us up from Los Alamos, but they most often do pick-ups in Santa Barbara. The couple leads tailored tours to boutique wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, and Foxen Canyon areas. I greatly appreciated that they ensured that my lunch was gluten free!
- During our time in Santa Barbara wine country, we spent two nights at the Alamo Motel (affiliate link) in the small town of Los Alamos. We liked the Alamo Motel’s proximity to wineries, plus its Southwestern character and outdoor communal area fire pit, where we met traveling pooch Bixby and her owner Mike, of Where’s Bixby fame. I also appreciated Los Alamos’ 19th-century feel. One late afternoon when many of the town’s establishments were closed, Shawn and I window shopped along its main street, peeking into tiny tasting rooms, antique shops, and art galleries. I imagine the area’s much more lively on weekends, but we enjoyed Los Alamos’ laid-back nature during the week.
- For a Santa Barbara wine country map, events, and details about wine-growing areas, see the Santa Barbara Vintners site.
- Finally, if you’re a fan of the movie that made this wine region even more popular, soak up some Sideways trivia and filming locations via this handy map.
Disclosure & Thanks:
Santa Barbara Classic Wine Tours hosted us during this day’s excursion.
We’d like to thank Kevin and Sherene for sharing their anniversary afternoon with us, and for making our exploration of Santa Barbara County’s wine country such fun. And, a special thank you to Sherene for doing all the driving so that the three of us could sample Santa Barbara County’s vino!
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.