Rex Pickett's Sideways Tour
Where to Play
Alisal Ranch Course Not to be confused with the uninspired Alisal River Course close by—where the golf scene in Sideways was shot—this is for members and guests of the Alisal Guest Ranch only. That's the bad news. The good news is that the course is in immaculate condition and uncrowded during the week. Designed in 1955 by Billy Bell Jr. (Torrey Pines before the Rees Jones redo), this relatively short (6,830 yards) course by today's standards is deceptively difficult. Laid out on a flat parcel of maturely wooded ranchland, the fairways are serpentine and narrow and the beautiful bent/poa greens tiny, requiring pinpoint yardage control. An old-style design without all the undulations in greens we see today, it's a beautiful parkland course in a very special part of the world. 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang; 805-688-4215. Greens fee: $100.
La Purisima Golf Course In a word: majestic. Robert Muir Graves crafted a masterpiece out of a roller-coaster canyon interlaced with scrub oak. Only two adjoining fairways, starkly different nines, greens that are impossible to read, barbarous spring winds that wreak havoc on your psyche, and at 7,105 yards from the tips with a 143 slope rating, this track has it all. And I love it! La Purisima is demanding but fair—so well-rounded it's been used numerous times for PGA and Champions Tour sectional, regional and even final qualifying. 3455 Highway 246, Lompoc; 805-735-8395, lapurisimagolf.com. Greens fees: $60$78; twilight rates available.
Marshallia Ranch Golf Course The generals must have been tossing a few back when they decided to open up the former Vandenberg Air Force Base military course to the public. Just north of Lompoc, it's close enough to the ocean that it's plagued by fog, but it's a great track at muni rates. Number sixteen, a brutish par four into the teeth of the wind to a treacherous green, is the signature hole. Not always in resort condition, but a hidden gem. Once used for U.S. Open qualifying. Casmalia Road, Vandenberg AFB, Lompoc; 805-606-6262. Greens fee: $37; twilight rates available. Weekend priority is given to military, but the public can enter a lottery for untaken times.
Rancho San Marcos Golf Course A little inland up Highway 154, set in a gorge in the Santa Ynez Mountains, this relatively new (1998) Robert Trent Jones Jr. course features contrasting nines—the front lies in a valley, while the back sports a lot of elevation changes and views of nearby Lake Cachuma. A heavily bunkered par seventy-one, it's only 6,817 yards from the tips but it's in great condition, with lightning-fast greens, blind tee shots, doglegs and uneven lies. The round gets off to a benign start, but the back nine will eat your lunch, so go light on the beers. Like La Purisima, it's blissfully unspoiled by fairway homes. 4600 Highway 154, Santa Barbara; 805683-6334. Greens fees: $65$85, including cart, but you're welcome to walk, too.
Where to Stay
Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort An upscale but utterly unpretentious ten-thousand-acre working ranch/resort tucked against the north face of the Santa Ynez Mountains. It comes with all the amenities and more: scenic hundred-acre lake stocked with bass and trout (and guides to take you fishing), miles of riding trails, hiking, boating, picnicking, tennis and your own private golf course. The seventy-three cottages have high wood-beam ceilings, beautiful brick, and wood-burning fireplaces, and are hugely commodious. No TVs or in-room phones, but my cell worked just fine. Breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate in the Ranch's own fine restaurant, presided over by Chef Pascal Godé. The eclectic dinner menu changes nightly and the breakfasts are everything you would expect at a truly great resort, from artery-clogging omelets to yolkless scrambled eggs and grains. A truly magical place in a preternaturally beautiful setting and, frankly, considering what you get, a bargain. 1054 Alisal Road, Solvang; 888-425-4725, alisal.com. Room rates: $450$590.
Ballard Inn A charming fifteen-room two-story Victorian B&B centrally located just south of Los Olivos. Quiet, rustic, a great place from which to begin your wine- tasting excursions or to unwind from a brutal day battling La Purisima. Miles and Jack probably wouldn't be caught dead here, but that was then and this is now. 2436 Baseline Avenue, Ballard; 800-638-2466, ballardinn.com. Room rates are a value at $215$305, but it fills up fast.
Santa Ynez Inn In the tiny faux-western town of Santa Ynez, this fourteen-room B&B newcomer is a tastefully appointed two-story Victorian that provides more amenities than most such establishments. Sumptuous breakfasts. Outdoor sun deck with whirlpool. Fitness room with sauna and massage treatments. Like the Ballard Inn, the Santa Ynez books up fast on weekends. 3627 Sagunto Street, Santa Ynez; 800-643-5774, santaynezinn.com. Room rates: $285$475.
In the past I holed up at the two-story no-frills Windmill (now Days) Inn, largely because it was cheap ($30) and I was running on credit card fumes. Fronting the noisy 101, the Days Inn is where the two main characters in Sideways, Miles and Jack, bivouacked, and where the scenes between them were actually filmed. I don't recommend it at today's inflated rates unless you just have to have that Sideways experience. 114 East Highway 246, Buellton; 805-688-8448. Room rates: weekdays, $60$80; weekends, $110$159 (ouch!).
Where to Eat
American Flatbread About fifteen miles north up the 101 from Buellton in the tiny—aren't they all?—town of Los Alamos, this artisanal bakery magnanimously transforms itself into a pizzeria two nights of the week. Delicious wood-fired pizzas baked in a massive stone oven, employing all local, incredibly fresh, organically grown ingredients. But what really impressed me was the plethora of local wines, more than ten of them by the glass. What a gift to the area, and arguably the best pizza I've ever had. 225 West Bell Street, Los Alamos; 805-344-4400. Only open Friday and Saturday for dinner; no reservations taken. Pizzas come in two sizes—ten-inch and fifteen-inch—and all are ridiculously low-priced for what you get. $$$
Ballard Restaurant On the first floor of the Ballard Inn, Chef Budi Kazali, whose impressive credentials include stints with Ming Tsai of TV Network fame, has returned to his home stomping grounds and brought a pan-Asian influence to his many creative dishes while transforming what was formerly Café Chardonnay into one of the best restaurants in the valley. Charming, intimate dining room with a wood-burning fireplace that's especially cozy in the fall and winter. Another outstanding, fairly priced wine list, mostly of local product. 2436 Baseline Avenue, Ballard; 805-688-7770. Dinner only; closed Mondays and Tuesdays; reservations suggested. $$$$
Hitching Post II An institution, and now, owing to the movie where it almost became a character in and of itself, a legend—a dark, wood-framed building with odors of oak-grilled meats wafting from the smoking chimney as you approach. With its own line of pinot noirs sourced from local vineyards, it's basically a steakhouse with scant attention paid to the secondary dishes, but it oozes charm and local color. Despite the rabid Sideways crowds, it's still worth a visit. 406 East Highway 246, Buellton; 805-688-0676, hitchingpost2.com. Dinner from 59:30; wine tasting from 46:30, with an $8 tariff. $$$
Panino A great little sandwich shop in Los Olivos, and a relaxing place to unwind from all the wine tasting. I love the chicken and roasted red bell pepper sandwich on a baguette. Beer, soda and local wines. 2900 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos; 805-688-9304. MondaySaturday, 9-5; Sunday, 105. $
Patrick's Side Street Café The affable Patrick Rand is the terrific chef/owner. In the heart of Los Olivos, this casual dining spot with its open kitchen puts out dishes that belie its decor. It leans toward the hearty—the slow-roasted prime rib is the best I've ever had—so bring an appetite. Great wine list, featuring primarily local wines, many of them by the glass. Patrick's keeps long lunch hours, and don't forget the outdoor patio, which is lovely on a warm summer night. 2375 Alamo Pintado Road, Los Olivos; 805-686-4004, patrickssidestreetcafe.com. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. $$
Where to Taste
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards Tasting Room Pioneering Richard Sanford, formerly of Sanford Winery, has just opened this new winery and its new tasting room just off of Highway 246 in Buellton. Having retained 107 acres from the sale of Sanford, Alma Rosa's first vintage features a pinot gris, a chardonnay, a pinot noir and a single- vineyard pinot noir from its La Encantada property. Chris Burroughs (who cameoed in the movie)—arguably the most famous tasting room manager in the world—has left Sanford and is conducting the pouring here. Christian Roguenant, who spent fifteen years with the French firm Champagne Deutze, is the winemaker. I have not yet tasted these new wines, but the pedigrees of all involved promise incredibly high quality at mid-range prices. 201 C Industrial Way, Buellton; 805-688-9090. Open daily 114.
Foxen Winery and Tasting Room This scenic spot is sixteen miles off the 154 up the tortuous Foxen Canyon wine trail. Drive right past the tourist traps of Fess Parker and Firestone and head straight to Foxen, an old blacksmith building rent open on the sides by large sliding doors to allow the afternoon zephyrs to waft through. Splendiferous wines ranging over a wide spectrum of grape varieties, from pinot to chardonnay to cabernet franc to mourvèdre. On a warm day (or any day!), this place is just heaven. 7200 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria; 805-937-4251, foxenvineyard.com. Open daily from 114; $10 tasting room fee.
Sanford Winery Tasting Room (not to be confused with the actual winery). Five miles west off the 101 just before Buellton, the wine sampling takes place in an old dairy barn nestled at the end of a gravel road. It's my favorite tasting room in all of the area. Unfortunately, since longtime owner Sanford sold out to the Terlato Wine Group in 2005, I can no longer vouch for the wines, but it was once one of the great pinot producers in the area, and is still a great tasting room. 7250 Santa Rosa Road, Buellton; 805-688-3300, sanfordwinery.com. Open daily 114; $5 tasting room fee.