Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Santa Barbara Wine Country, and Lompoc FCI

[Photos that accompany this blog can be seen at Look for the first link under "2005".]

I decided to visit my friend Gary in prison ("not his real name"). He's been at the Lompoc federal low-security lockup since summer 2003, and has 2 or 3 more years to go. I've been visiting over the past year and a half, but finally realized that Lompoc is a half hour from the gorgeous Santa Barbara wine country. I might as well make a fun weekend of it. I spent ridiculous amounts of time on the web learning about wineries, art galleries, beaches, old Mission churches. Almost every hotel was booked, but I got into the Buellton Day's Inn. This is the one with the windmill, where our heros in the movie "Sideways" spent some time. Oddly, the Day's Inn doesn't mention this anywhere. In fact, I got the distinct impression that although some 60% of current Santa Barbara wine country visitors find their way there through that movie, the locals rather pointedly and as if in pain try to distance themselves from the movie. (That 60% figure was given to me by a couple different wine-tasting hosts, as an estimate.) "Every weekend is like Festival weekend", one said, referring to some local wine bacchanalia.

Here are towns to visit when you're in wine country: Solvang. Los Olivos.

Solvang is an odd little Danish outpost. Apparently actually settled by Danish people in 1811, it somehow managed to stamp the town's psyche with some sort of Danish fixation. All buildings downtown must be obliged to paint themselves white with brown cross-hatches, running diagonally and up and down. I did notice a couple blocks from downtown, houses reverted to California kitsch. There are 4,000 Danish bakeries in Solvang. Solvang is Quaint writ large. But actually, it is not itself kitschy or cloying. You can happily spend a couple hours strolling around town, visiting shops and abusing credit cards. The Bulldog Cafe on the main drag is fantastic and not to be missed. Solvang is sort of a family's vacation town. While there are tasting rooms, I'm not sure how terribly oenophile they might be.

Los Olivos is more than the address of Michael Jackson's "Neverland" ranch. (There is no mention of Michael Jackson anywhere, and it's completely unknown to me just where his ranch might be - thank goodness - but I am given to understand Los Olivos's zipcode is the zipcode they use to order barrels of monkeys over the internet.) Los Olivos is distinguished by being a small village with more art galleries than anything, including (seemingly) houses for humans, or wine tasting rooms, or upscale cafes and restaurants. If Solvang is wholesome all-Danish family fun, then Los Olivos is connoisseurville.

Saturday, June 18, 2005: Salinas, Buellton, Wine Tasting, Pea Soup

But on Saturday morning, I didn't know any of this. I got up at 6 a.m. in Palo Alto, vowed to be in my car in a half hour, and succeeded in stashing the last of my junk in the car at 7:15 and heading off to fill 'er up. Always fill up your car before you head south on 101. There is this one stretch, about 150 miles south, where you enter a pleasant but Martian landscape, void of any human habitation or gas pumps for 50 miles. By 7:30 I was whistling with the radio and speeding south like the rest of the lost souls. Where are people driving at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday? And why? Why aren't they back home, sleeping in? I had a reason. But what could these other peoples' reasons be? This is the mystery of 101. Any time of day or night, there is a stream of madly rushing cars, all pushing to go as fast as possible: 70, 80, 85.

I flagged soon enough, my commuter coffee mug long empty, and on a whim veered off 101 into Salinas, vaguely thinking "breakfast" but more urgently thinking "bathroom". I had covered only 75 of the day's 280-mile journey, but I have a soft spot for Salinas. Breadbasket to the breadbaskets. Strawberries, artichokes, broccoli. And garlic, of course garlic: garlic capital of the world. Lots of work if you don't mind bending over all day and getting about $3/hour. This is Steinbeck's town. He lived here all his life, and wrote about it, and tried to escape it, and kept coming back. Sadly, conditions for field workers today are hardly different from when Steinbeck wrote about it in "Grapes of Wrath." Without any sense of irony, the town fathers and mothers erected a multimillion-dollar Steinbeck Museum. The Museum is fairly dull; what can you really display about an author's life? "Here's his writing table"? And again without irony, the local politicians are closing the town's library - budget cuts, fiscal responsibility, don'tcha know. So kids in Salinas can go the Museum, gaze in awe at their favorite son, the Author, walk past the shuttered library, and work after-school in the strawberry fields.

My initial foray into Salinas was not promising. I parked near the Greyhound station and
watched homeless men pulling their sleeping bags into bundles they grabbed as they shuffled to another part of town. I walked here and there and the town looked shut, dead, closed. I gave up, did a U-turn onto Main St. and ... discovered the cute part of Main St. You have to go past the Greyhound station on Main (at this point Main St. is bifurcated into two one-way streets) and do the U-turn to land on the cute block. I spied "Dudley's": Open. Exactly what I was looking for: a genuine old-fashioned small-town restaurant where the side of potatoes weighs in at three pounds. (258 Main St., Salinas, CA 93901, 831-758-5257.) Due to a long-standing pledge to myself to order Eggs Benedict whenever I see it on the menu, I was able to order almost as soon as the waitress came over with her coffeepot. E.B. recommended: two well-poached eggs, credible Hollandaise sauce, crispy toasted fresh English muffings. The only thing that took away from this vision of perfection was the horrid slab of ham: thick, tasteless, gargantuan. I felt almost guilty leaving that much protein, however horrid, on the side of the plate, and wondered if I could convince a homeless person I was not crazy and trying to poison him if I attempted to transfer the ham to said homeless. Coffee and E.B.: $9.01, not including tip.

Saturday Wine Tasting

I made it to my hotel california before 1 p.m. - not bad, not much over 5 hours on the road, which included the longish breakfast stop and a shorter stop. I was anxious not to waste any time getting to some wineries (there are are dozens and dozens, see but I was amazed to see that the World-Famous-Since-1924 Pea-Soup Andersen's Restaurant was practically across the street from my Day's Inn in Buellton! I had to check it out. I walked over and snooped around and got the lay of the land. It is a seriously down-market establishment. Perhaps its heyday was in the 50's. Not to be classist, but the entire population of the RV park across the street seemed to be dining there. Not to be sizeist, but each table seemed to boast at least one morbidly obese person - and I'm talking people who weigh in at 400 or 500 pounds and you just wonder how they manage to move about. More on Andersen's culinary delights later.

I am not ashamed to admit I got a lot of mileage out of the "Sideways Map", published by the Santa Barbara Wine Country people. I rapidly expanded the list of wineries I wanted to visit - by looking at their "wine trails", Santa Ynez and Foxen Canyon - but the simple little map that showed just the obvious main roads was a big help when you're getting started.

But like Napa and Sonoma, there are only a few main roads, and all the wineries hang off these, and they all go to great lengths to announce themselves and direct you into the parking area near the wine-tasting room. My wine pronouncements are amateur and probably not useful to people used to reading about "vanilla" and "blackberry" and "the slant of the sun over the deep black ocean after the fog has lifted", and so on. Every winery charges $5 (some $7) for tastings; you get to keep the logo wine glass. Which is kind of fun, actually.

1500 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang,
  1. 2001 Syrah: OK. Thin papery ending. Vinegary rather than pleasant sour red.
  2. 2000 Cabernet Franc: Thin, almost watery.
  3. 2001 Merlot: Heartier. Acceptable. A bit chalky. I wouldn't buy.
  4. 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon: Best of the bunch; standard Cab Sauv.

Foley Estates
1711 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang,
  1. 2002 Lincourt Pinot Noir: Very good flavor, full yet light.
  2. 2003 Foley Pinot Noir(Rancho Santa Rosa): Watery yet $38/bottle. Thin.
  3. 2002 Lincourt Syrah (Bien Nacido Vineyard): *A BUYER!* Sweetish but not sweet, not thin, not thick, no aftertaste.
  4. 2002 Foley Syrah (Rancho Santa Rosa): A bit of that vinegary mouthtaste; thin.

Fess Parker
6200 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos,

Pleasant tasting environs. Fess Parker was Hollywood actor in the 50's in westerns and disneys. He worked in Davy Crockett and Ol' Yeller and all that sort of stuff. He owns lots of restaurants and inns and spas around the world (including one in Los Olivos) and is threatening to develop 14,000 acres he owns in the wine country. People therefore hate him. During tasting at Fess Parker's, I got into fun conversations with people from Simi and people from Orange County, proving that people in those zipcodes are not all homocidal lunatics with perfect lawns and Republican voting records. We came up with the idea of me putting together a "Traveling Computer Circus", a whimsical sort of thing, that would be a "Computer Tasting" for people who had curiousity about (say) Apple or Linux or what have you, but wanted to try before they buy. Actually, perhaps I came up with this idea.
  1. 2002 Sauvignon Blanc ("Ashley's Vineyard"): Basic white, unremarkable. Named after Fess' daughter.
  2. 2003 Viognier ("Santa Barbara County"): Sweet, honeysuckle. Yuck.
  3. 2001 Pinot Noir ("American Tradition Reserve"): Pleasant, a bit sweet, medium (not thin, not thick.)
  4. 2001 Syrah ("Santa Barbara County"): *A BUYER!*
  5. 2001 Syrah ("Rodney's Vineyard"): *A BUYER!*

Andrew Murray
2901-A Grand Avenue, Los Olivos

Storefront in downtown Los Olivos. The previous were all out in the gorgeous countryside.
  1. 2003 Grenache: Good. Little of the cardboard.
  2. 2003 Syrah Tous Les Jours: Good. Buy anytime.
  3. 2003 Estate Grand Syrah: 8 syrah grapes. Excellent; nice blend. Long finish, well balanced. *A BUYER!*
  4. 2001 Oak Savonna Cellers Pinor Noir: OK.
  5. 2001 Oak Savonna Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon: end o' the day, I have no notes!
After all this exhaustive research, I repaired to Andersen's Restaurant and had some World-Famous-Since-1924 Pea Soup. Frankly it did not do that much for me. I think perhaps I can do better. But in the interest of promoting pea soup awareness, here is the recipe they print on a souvenir coffee cup ($5.95).

Recipe for 8 bowls of Andersen's Famous Split Pea Soup:

2 Quarts of soft water
2 cups of Andersen's specially selected green split peas
1 branch of celery, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon ground thyme
1 pinch of cayenne
1 bayleaf
salt, pepper

Boil hard for 20 minutes, then slowly until peas are tender. Strain through fine sieve and reheat to boiling point.

Sunday, June 19: Bulldog Cafe - Mission - Wine Tasting - Beaches - More Pea Soup

I had cleverly searched for "wireless internet cafe" back at home, and "Bulldog Cafe" at 1680 Mission Drive, Solvang, popped up. Mission Drive is the main drag. The Bulldog Cafe is in between First and Alisal and otherwise impossible to see - the sign is overgrown with ivy, or something. It is attached to a bookstore (!), both new and used (!), and also attached to the upstairs Hans Christian Andersen museum. The coffee is wonderful. They had real bagels. Copies of the Sunday NY Times and Santa Barbara Whatevers were scattered about. Sofas. Tables and chairs outside in the sun. All in all, a serendipitous find. The nicest coffeeshop south of San Francisco, with apologies to Palo Alto and Menlo Park, but that's how it is.

A block's walk takes you to the Santa Ines Mission, founded 1804 by Padre Estévan Tápis. (See for a list of all the missions in California.) I arrived during 9:30 mass. The sermon was about social justice: the priest invoked Nelson Mandela, Mather Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero (whom, he reminded us, is up for sainthood in Rome. Ha! That'll be the day - Rome acknowledging a liberation theologian.) I was gratified to hear strains of the Catholicism of my youth - care for your brother, care for your world - instead of the angry evangelical constricting Catholicism that is on the rise today. The mission building is grand and quiets the soul. It is a pearl, set in the beauty of the foothills. You can safely skip the gift shop unless you're looking for cassette tapes of pious choir music.

Zaca Mesa
6905 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos,

Caffeinated and illuminated, I headed into the country. Today I determined to drive far back into wine country, to the area where (I imagined) fewer people ventured - up along Foxen Canyon Road, beyond Los Olivos. I guess the direction is east, but it feels west. People who know me know I have a hard time with direction, as I impute value or emotion to directions, which aren't relevant, but which I can't shake off.

I pulled into an expansive, empty parking lot at Zaca Mesa at 10:45 a.m. and then pulled out and then pulled around and then reparked. The sign said they're open at 10. Hmm. Where were all the cars? Hard to believe, but I was the first person of the day. Within 15 minutes, their huge tasting room had filled with a dozen people or more. It was fun getting a wine-taster to myself the whole while, though. No doubt they saw me coming, as I bought two bottles. This is the only place out of the 6 that I visited that did not send you off with a souvenir glass. 's'ok, I don't need it. I'm just noting it for the record. However: they are also the only place that does complimentary tasting of their usual wines. There is a $10 fee to taste the reserves. But you can taste 5 or 6 wines for no fee. Zaca Mesa was my favorite winery. My wine taster wouldn't have any of my disclaimer "I only drink reds." She said, "Well, here, you'll taste some whites." I was glad she insisted - I bought a white (!)
  1. 2004 Z Gris: a potential buy!
  2. 2002 Chardonnay Zaca Vineyards: a soft Chardonnay. Another potential buy. Very nice.
  3. 2003 Estate Bottled Viognier: subtle, excellent, perhaps good as a dessert wine, slightly sweet and slightly dry both.
  4. 2003 Chardonnay Chamisal Vineyard: *A BUYER!* Not like any Chardonnay you've had - doesn't shout out "I'm Chardonnay." Not oak-y. Silky. Only available from the winery.
  5. 2003 Roussanne: A bit sweeter, creamy but also a bit spicy.
  6. 2000 Chapel Syrah: quite good. Only available from winery.
  7. 2002 Z Three Cushman Vineyard: *A BUYER!*
  8. 2001 Estate Bottled Syrah: *A BUYER!* I think I didn't buy all the wines I marked as to-buy ... This one is a basic beautiful standard mix syrah. Their signature wine.
  9. 2002 Z Cuvee: I would have put this on the to-buy list, but I was already maxed out.
After putting my couple bottles in the car, I hiked up a short path on the Zaca Mesa grounds to a beautiful overlook of the vines in the valley and the foothills all around.

Rancho Sisquoc
6600 Foxen Canyon Road, Santa Maria (but closer to Los Olivos!)

Sisquoc is Chumash for "gathering place". Chumash is the name of the local Native American tribe. There is a reservation outside of Solvang. The Chumash Casino was the site of the Michael Jackson Post-Verdict Victory Party. Apparently one juror went to the party. How weird is THAT?
  1. 2003 Chardonnay: Good. A poetic mix between June bloom and June gloom.
  2. 2004 Sylvaner: Too sweet. Perhaps OK if you like dessert wine.
  3. 2001 Sangiovese: The California name for Chianti, as you can only call it Chianti if you're making wine in a certain region in Italy. OK for a Chianti.
  4. 2002 Sisquoc River Red: A bit pucker-y.
  5. 2002 Syrah: Hmm, a vinegar aftertaste.
  6. 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon: Again, what's with that vinegar?
  7. 2002 Cebernet France: reasonable.
  8. 2001 Cellar Select Meritage: More reasonableness.
Other wine-tasters started giving me tips on where to eat, locally, and up and down the 101.
  1. Los Olivos: "Patrick's". Upscale, pricey, wonderful.
  2. Lompoc: "Tom's A-Z Burgers". 26 kinds of burgers, all worth sampling.
  3. Nipomo: "Jocko's"
  4. Guadalupe: "Far Western Tavern"
  5. Templeton: "McPhee's"
  6. Templeton: "A.J. Spurs". Get off on Vineyard.
  7. Tascadero before Paso Robles: "Village Cafe", Italian.
  8. Casmalia: "Hitchin' Post". Better than "Hitchin' Post" in Solvang/Beullton.
  9. Paso Robles: "Senor Sanchez", good Mexican, Spring St. off 24th
  10. Pismo: "McClintock's". You can see it from freeway.
  11. Pismo: "Harvey P's Bar" at the beach
I dutifully lunched at "Patrick's" in Los Olivos. I had the tender pork BBQ spareribs that were the special of the day. Hot to see the ocean and get my feet on the beach, I pointed the car west. Or south. Unfortunately, I chose a road that also doubles as a 4-lane fast state highway used by L.A. people on their way home on a Sunday afternoon. I had spent the past couple days meandering on deserted country roads, drinking in the oak trees and brown hills, and I freaked out with the SUVs on my tail. When my road intersected with 101, I turned north, but was disappointed to discover that you can't see the ocean from that stretch of 101, though the ocean is only a stone's throw away. I didn't take exits for "El Capitan Beach" or "Ocean Beach", thinking I knew better. I was aiming for "Gaviota Beach." Now it's quite possible I missed a sign, or missed an exit. All I knew was I flew by Gaviota without seeing a beach-like exit. I was sullen from the L.A.-SUV driving, so I decided just to return to Solvang, have a nice soothing coffee, and maybe check my email.

My second night of pea soup at Andersen's convinced me their pea soup really is quite awful. I recommend buying Progresso. But it is comfort food and I felt like comfort, and like being in a family-restaurant-establishment after so much upscale wine and food earlier in the day.

Monday, June 20: Visiting Gary at Lompoc FCI

I will fill in these details soon. Suffice to say a visit to a prison reminds you in a powerful way what freedom is, and why it matters. For people who think there is no such thing, or that the Patriot Act (as despicable as it is) is as bad as living in totalitarian China, well, they should volunteer for a month detention, and see if they still think freedom is an abstract concept. Freedom is not abstract. I hope some Americans still believe it and will stand up for it. I have this feeling we'll have to.