Celebrating a Sense of Place: Famous Santa Maria Vineyard Turns 20

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on 9/26/19

Solomon Hills Vineyard
When the boundaries for the Santa Maria Valley AVA were drawn, they excluded a thousand-acre plot of land so far west, it was considered too cold to grow grapes. An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a carefully outlined ag  area that’s been determined by the federal government, through myriad considerations like topography and climate, to be uniquely suited for producing wine. The Santa Maria Valley became the very first AVA on California’s Central Coast when it won recognition in 1981, and winemakers have been showing it off on labels ever since to denote a wine pedigree stemming from a special sense of place.
That plot along Telephone Road that was originally excluded was a working avocado ranch when brothers Steve and Bob Miller bought it in the late 1990s. “My parents would drive past it all the time on their way to Bien Nacido, so they had an eye on it for a long time,” says Nicholas Miller, Steve’s son, and VP of Sales & Marketing for Santa Barbara-based Thornhill Companies. The family-owned enterprise holds various wine operations in Santa Barbara County, including the world-renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard, which the Millers planted in Santa Maria in the 1970s  -- a pioneering move in a still-nascent wine region – and the vineyard that would come to be known as Solomon Hills inside an AVA whose boundaries would eventually be re-drawn.
“It’s located in the coldest spot in all of the Santa Maria Valley,” continues the younger Miller. “It’s very marginal for growing grapes, actually, and we really struggle for yields every year.”
The Millers picked the “choicest spot for wine grapes” and planted just 100 acres of pinot noir, mainly, along with some chardonnay and syrah. Soon, it would become clear that a “struggle for yields” often translates to resilient gapes of superior caliber. Today, the land’s remaining 900-or-so acres are leased to various private enterprises, including Driscoll, which cultivates some of the best blueberries here in all of California.
The Miller men: Steve, center, with sons Nicholas (left) and Marshall
Solomon Hills Vineyard turns 20
Solomon Hills was planted to wine grapes in 1999, making this year’s vintage its 20th anniversary. As the family and a whole community of wine aficionados look back, they recognize its potential for consistently growing stellar grapes – grapes made spectacular by sandy, chalky, gravelly soils that long ago were blanketed  by the Pacific Ocean and a persistently cool climate driven by ocean breezes and fog.
“The pinot berries tend to be small and intense, leading to a racier, darker, broodier pinot noir wine – it has intensity,” says Nick Miller. The chardonnay grapes “are beautifully unique,” he adds, “creating wines based on minerality and acid. The chard is a real gem here.”
Solomon Hills Vineyard is managed by celebrated grower Chris Hammell. Its grapes are earmarked for the Millers’ world-class estate program, under the Solomon Hills label, which produces less than 1000 cases a year and which, until just a few weeks ago, was led by winemaker Trey Fletcher. The rest go to choice producers who, recognizing the fruit’s quality and potential, carry long-term contracts, like Liquid Farm and Ojai Vineyards. All these wine growers consistently see top marks from critics for their Solomon Hills-sourced wines.
To celebrate Solomon Hills’ 20th vintage, the Millers are hosting a first-ever event onsite – a special chance for consumers to visit this special place and taste the family’s latest releases, including the 2016 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir. The event, with food provided by Orcutt-based Trattoria Uliveto, takes place Saturday, October 5th, from 4pm to 7pm. Tickets -- $60 and $45 for wine club members – are limited and available through eventbrite.com.
The wines of Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido are always available for sipping and purchase at their destination tasting room, located along Grand Avenue in beautiful downtown Los Olivos. Find out more at biennacidoestate.com.

Flying Goat Turns 20: Landmark Santa Barbara Label Pioneered Local Sparklers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Norm Yost’s pygmy goats were more than mere pets. His affinity for the precocious pair inspired a very personal project in the year 2000 – his own wine label, Flying Goat Cellars. Santa Barbara County’s 2019 wine grape harvest, which is now well underway, means Flying Goat is turning 20.
This past weekend, Flying Goat Cellars threw a Harvest Lunch and Barrel Tasting at their Lompoc winery. Guest perks included tasting pre-release wines and blending their own cuvée. Yost hosted alongside his business partner Kathleen Griffith; the pair is happily married and will celebrate their 10th anniversary on New Year’s Day.
Norm Yost (credit: Bob Dickey)
Yost’s been making wine for more than 40 years, with a resumé that features Napa Valley, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I got to know him during his first few years as a Santa Barbara wine grower, including a stint as winemaker at Foley Estates. The launch of Flying Goat, though, solidified his role as a top-tier producer, focusing on delicious vineyard-specific pinot noir wines from the coveted Sta, Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley growing regions.
The launch of his Goat Bubbles portfolio was a pioneering move in 2011. What could be called the first serious sparkling wine program in Santa Barbara County has exploded into a field of dozens of bubbly producers today. However, Yost’s long-term commitment to sparkling wine, which now includes five unique bottlings every year, was indeed visionary.
“Emulation is always the best form of flattery,” he told me recently.  “It’s actually exciting to see, since we’re now utilizing these wonderful Santa Barbara County grapes in another form."
Images from Flying Goat's first pick of the 2019 harvest  (credit: Makena Blanco)
Flying Goat’s 20th harvest began on August 30th, with a pick of more than four tons of pinot noir and chardonnay that will become 2019 Goat Bubbles, out to the public in about three years. The very early harvest preserves acidity in the grapes – that’ll translate to brightness and pop – and keeps sugars – and subsequently, alcohol – low.
Find out more at Flying Goat's newly redesigned website: flyinggoatcellars.com.


Everything’s Coming Up Sideways: Cult Wine Country Film Turns 15

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on 9/5/19

Little known fact about the 2004 cult film, Sideways: if George Clooney and Brad Pitt had gotten their way, the heartthrob pair would have seen their own names on the movie’s marquee. Director Alexander Payne turned them down, though, opting instead to cast lesser known names that wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the story or its characters. In the end, Payne’s calls paid off, reeling in five Oscar nominations and one win for Sideways and launching a funny little film about two bachelors fumbling their way through Santa Barbara wine country – often with a fair amount of raunch tossed in – into Tinsel Town immortality.
Me, actor Paul Giamatti and chef-winemaker Frank Ostini at a Sideways 10th anniversary party in 2014
Indeed, here we are, 15 years later, still talking about Sideways and counting down the days to its crystal anniversary on October 22nd, the date of its official U.S. release. In fact, preparations for "Sideways Fest" are already underway – a three-day fete from October 18th to 20th, with myriad events throughout the Santa Ynez Valley put on by the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance. The festival will include a screening of the film at the Solvang Festival Theater, a shuttle tour of locations featured in the film and a grand tasting at Buellton’s River View Park.
It would make sense, of course, that the Santa Ynez Valley would pay homage to Sideways. At its core, the movie plays like a travelogue – a road trip vignette – filmed  in panoramic fashion that brings the sweeping beauty of our wine region to life. Local tasting rooms, towns and even residents became a real-life supporting cast to the partying pair of Miles and Jack, played by Paul Giamatti and Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church, and love interest Maya, portrayed by Virginia Madsen, also an Academy Award nominee.
Frank Ostini & Gray Hartley at the Hitching Post tasting room in Buellton
One of those biggest local stars? The Hitching Post II, the popular family-owned Buellton steakhouse that became a regular hangout for author Rex Pickett, whose tome by the same name would inspire the Sideways movie. The eatery is a pivotal setting in the film and is mentioned by name numerous times. It’s the kind of marketing only Hollywood – with a dash or two of serendipity – can provide.
“Within three years, the movie opened up an unlimited national and international market for us,” recalls chef-winemaker Frank Ostini, who owns the Hitching Post II with his wife, Jamie, and who makes wine under the Hitching Post label with business partner, Gray Hartley. The two men make cameos in the film – Hartley as a gregarious diner in the background and Ostini’s hands, actually, as a Santa Maria-style barbecue is prepared over an oak-burning grill. The quick shot made Ostini $55 for his work as an extra, a check he never cashed.
Partnering with Discover Buellton, the tourism group that promotes travel to one of the six quaint towns that make up the Santa Ynez Valley, Ostini joined Sideways producer Michael London last week at a dinner and screening of the film at the private H Club in Hollywood. A handful of mostly LA-based media were on hand for an introduction to Buellton’s allure – an opportunity to leverage the renewed attention around Sideways to inspire Angelenos to make the drive north, past Santa Barbara, into the heart of a still-burgeoning wine region.
This map by my friend Bob Dickey showcases the stops throughout Santa Barbara wine country made by Miles and Jack, and it became a super hot marketing tool in the years following Sideways' runaway success 
Indeed, Sideways’ impact on Santa Barbara County’s viticultural region and on the world of wine as a whole is inarguable.

Hitching Post Wines “went from producing 250 cases a year before Sideways to more than 2000 cases today,” said Ostini during a post-screening Q&A. What’s more, those rumored effects on pinot noir, the red wine the film champions, and merlot, the red wine the film eschews, are true. Santa Barbara pinot prices soared after Sideways, and they’ve remained high, as pinot retains its place as a local darling today; at the same time, Sonoma-based Vineyard Financial Associates (VFA) reports that pinot production in California is up 170% since Sideways’ release. Merlot, meantime, is finally showing signs of a rebound; VFA estimates a $400 million loss among merlot producers in the decade following Sideways’ big screen debut.
The HP Highliner gets mentions by name in Sideways
However, for the many local enterprises featured in the film – wine labels like Whitcraft, Andrew Murray, Fiddlehead and Margerum Wine Co. and destinations like Ostrich Land, downtown Solvang, The Los Olivos Café and the River Course at The Alisal – the movie’s greatest achievement is the way it memorializes the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I remember telling my employees during the filming: this movie will come and go, but we’ll still be here, so we have to keep our integrity, focus on our customers and keep prices the same,” Ostini told the captive crowd last week. His focus paid off, of course; the movie’s unexpected triumph has been an added bonus.
“In 100 years from now, long after I’m gone, people will watch this movie and see a little snapshot of what my life is all about right now,” says Ostini. “And that’s just amazing.”
The Hitching Post II is open for dinner nightly and just celebrated one year since it’s 11-acre expansion, which includes a new tasting room and a full lunch menu. Find out more at hitchingpost2.com.
Learn more about Buellton at discoverbuellton.com.
And for tickets to Sideways Fest, visit sidewaysfest.com.