Published On: June 11th, 2024Categories: Connecticut News

Wine Walkabout—Santa Barbara, ‘Sideways’ style  – Hartford Courant

Long Island Wine Country was a blast, but it’s time to grab your seats on the bus while you contemplate your hangover, and where precisely the evening took a crazy left turn, I will drive us straight through Cannonball-Run style to make our next Walkabout destination.

Welcome to the breathtaking vineyards and vistas of Santa Barbara wine country in California. Here, the vines are as abundant as the gossip at a Hollywood cocktail party, and the wines can be as intricate and compelling as a Tarantino plot twist. This journey into their wines will merely skim the surface to a realm where Pinot Noir reigns and Merlot is as popular as Jaws 4.

But that’s not all; Santa Barbara offers a variety of wines beyond Pinot Noir, including Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, and sparkling wines. Each varietal has its unique story and flavor profile, and your palate is waiting to discover them.

Before we delve into the world of Santa Barbara wines, let’s address the 600-pound oenophile in the room: “Sideways.” This film propelled Santa Barbara wines into the limelight, revolutionizing our perception of Merlot and, more significantly, Pinot Noir. If you haven’t seen it, take a break from this article and watch it. I assure you, it’s a worthwhile investment of your time.

As you familiarize yourself with the movie, let’s jump into why Merlot faced such a dramatic fall from grace. Perhaps Merlot’s downfall was inevitable. After enjoying early successes in winemaking, it may have chosen the path of profit and mediocrity during the 1980s and 90s, resulting in flabby, lackluster mass-produced plonk for the most part. American Merlot seemed a world apart from its Bordeaux-right-bank kin, but was the delicate Pinot Noir the grape to deliver the final blow? This thin-skinned varietal is known for being a diva in the vineyard, requiring a seasoned winemaker’s deft hand to transform it into fine wine. Yet, this was the grape poised to overthrow Merlot and become the next big thing, only to face the risk of becoming mass-produced and marginalized.

At its pinnacle, Pinot Noir can be nectar from the gods, boasting flavors of smoky raspberry, sage, dill, and cedar, all wrapped up in tannins with great acidity. At its base, it can be as thin as a runway model and bear little resemblance to the true essence of Pinot Noir. The impact of consumer demand on wine quality is a concern that cannot be ignored. I’m sure that the large wine-making conglomerates set out with the noblest of intentions to craft quality Pinot Noir for under $12, but when demand outpaced supply, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what would happen next.

Pinot Noir prices soared, and wine producers scrambled to flood the market with all the Pinot Noir they could get their hands on; regardless of origin, quality, or the Syrah, they would likely have to blend in to give the wine more weight on the palate.  All, of course, while squeezing out every drop of profit.

Now that we’re all caught up, let’s discuss the varietals (grapes). Thanks to the movie, Pinot Noir is the unofficial mascot of Santa Barbara, with wine lovers flocking to the region in search of their own Jack and Miles moment while joyfully getting overserved. I know this because my friend and I embarked on our “Sideways” trip in 2007, but that’s a story for another time.

There’s so much more to Santa Barbara wines than just Pinot Noir. Take, for example, the Chardonnays of the Santa Maria Valley—a region known for its cool climate and maritime influence, which keeps the grapes temperate and from overheating during the hot summer months and developing too much sugar, which can leave a wine flabby, much like me after winter. The cool sea air encourages crisp, mineral-driven acidity and vibrant fruit in the finished bottle, making it easy to pair with roast chicken and grilled swordfish.

And then there’s the Syrah of the Santa Ynez Valley—a region that “Sideways” only briefly touched upon. But that’s OK because we’re here to spotlight these robust wines that mirror many traits of their Northern Rhone counterparts but at a fraction of the cost. Imagine tasting a Syrah with its dark red fruit, hints of white pepper, smoked meats, and tobacco. These wines are perfect for the heartiest game and beef dishes.

Other notable players in the Santa Barbara wine scene include the Sauvignon Blancs of the Happy Canyon AVA, the Grenaches of the Ballard Canyon AVA, and the sparkling wines of Santa Rita Hills. Each AVA and varietal displays its unique flavor profile in the glass, contributing to the depth and complexity of the Santa Barbara wine scene.

Put Santa Barbara wine country on your list for your next adventure if you’re a die-hard Sideways fan or a casual wine glugger looking for your next great bottle. The whole point of this is to get out of your comfort zone with wine and not be timid about trying new varietals because you never know what’s going to be your next favorite sip of wine, and as with many things in life, the one that impresses is the one you least expected. And who knows, maybe you’ll even have your own Sideways moment—a chance encounter with a quirky waitress, a soul-searching conversation with a friend, or a life-changing sip of Pinot Noir. After all, as Miles famously said, “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (blank) Merlot.”

Now it’s time for a fun summertime recipe from Chef Ryan Calvo of the Hartford Golf Club:

Spanish Gazpacho

Soup Base:
1 large can of tomato juice or V8
1 cucumber de-seeded
1/2 cup toasted almonds
5 corn tortilla chips
1/2 can piquillo peppers
½ cup EVOO
1 tablespoon coriander
Salt to taste
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and slightly thickened from tortillas.

For vegetable garnished
1/2 cup of yellow zucchini, small diced
1/2 cup of green zucchini, small diced
1/2 cup cucumber, small diced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes halved.
1 tablespoon cut chives.
1 tablespoon chopped parsley.

Mix all ingredients as a relish, spoon two soup spoon servings into the bottom of the bowl, and then pour the soup base over the garnishes.

Behind the Wine is written by: Johnny Noakes; Recipe by: Chef Ryan Calvo of The Hartford Golf Club

Swing by the West Hartford Maximum Beverage store I manage, where you might catch me holding court, ready to field your questions and comments and fill your tasting glasses.  There are three Maximum Beverage locations; stocked with wine, cheese, and cigars and serving the Greater Hartford community for over 20 years.  Visit on the web at, on Instagram/X @Maximumbev and @JohnNoakes. Check out our YouTube Channel @MaximumBeverageCT for irreverent wine-tasting videos.

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