We left the deserts death heat of 110 degrees at 10:30am. I was ever so excited to actually reach a cooler climate as the desert is clearly not the micro climate my body prefers. We passed through the desert valleys and gazed up at the looming white giant windmills that stood like a high tech forest along the highway. As we drove closer to LA we noticed a looming haze of smoggy pollution which was ever so inviting. Fortunately the drive was pretty care free as we took a highway which allowed us to avoid entering the hectic traffic laden city. Our first stop after 3 1/2 hours of driving was in the sunny, wealthy and palm tree obsessed city of Santa Barbara. My favorite Santa Barbara claim to fame would have to be that it is home of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The downtown is surrounded by rolling hills which are covered in idealized colonial Spanish style mansions.
We ate at a gorgeous Italian restaurant on the main street called Passucci. The restaurant was far larger than I initially thought. At first glance I thought it had a lovely sidewalk terrace and an inviting dining room with dark mahogany table tops and maroon leather back seating. As we were taken to our seat I passed by the open concept kitchen chef tables bustling with Mexican cooks. We were taken to an even larger dining room in the back of the restaurant that was designed to look like an Italian villa. We were seated beside a water fountain and rummaged through the menu to find our perfect pairings. I ordered a La Crema Chardonnay and side Caesar to start. Followed by a baked pecan crusted veal chop with lemon and caper cream and a four cheese penne alfredo as accompaniment.
We drove into the fog filled mountains where dark orange and yellow wild flowers grew along the road side. The drive to San Luis Obispo took another two hours and was dotted with cattle ranches and sprawling fruit farms. As we drove into Obispo it was clear that we had entered wine country. As far as the eye can see, vast, lush green vineyards. We arrived at our hotel and decided that over-eating may just become a little issue so we decided to have a laissez faire grocery store dinner which was a perfect idea considering how tired we were from the lengthy drive. As we drove to the grocery store we realized how ridiculous the number of Tanning Salons in Southern California there are. You’d think in an area of the world where you can’t get away from the sun (even if you want to) people wouldn’t feel the need to pay to go tanning! I was infuriated once again when I arrived at the grocery store wine shelves. Imagine that you can pay a measly $3.99 for a bottle of Lindemans Chardonnay! The LCBO clearly marks up their bottles an astronomical amount. I’ve reminded myself again and again that before I get on my flight home I have to pack my suitcase full of cheap California wines.
We sat by the pool a bit and I researched some of the wineries around town that we would be visiting the following morning. We plopped ourselves on our hotel beds and snacked on crackers, aged cheddar, gala apples, snickers bars, Blue Diamond Roasted Almonds and honey roasted peanuts. We drank two bottles of lovely wine: Castoro Cellars White Zinfandel Paso Robles and Napa Valley Vineyard Chardonnay Reserve. The highlight of the evening was watching a hilarious Seinfeld rerun and a Mexican Jerry Springer type television show called Casa de Famila. Even though we had no clue what the guests on the show were saying we were laughing hysterically. I believe the premise of this episode was a family (who were not getting along at all) and their eldest brother who claims to be the most muscular Mexican and adamant wrestler.
Sleeping in the same room as my father has become somewhat of a chore. I woke up realizing I probably got 3 hours of sleep as his snoring sneaks up on me throughout the night like a lethal sneak attack. I sat on the bed as he packed up his things and was transfixed on the TV watching the Democratic Candidates bicker about policy. We drove by California Polytechnic (which dad claims is full of brilliant young people on par with MIT).
And then we hit the vineyards. By 11:20am I was drunk. For the record. I counted on the Pasa Robles wine route map over 80 wineries. The scale of wineries just in this area is huge compared to what we have back in the Niagara region. These agricultural lands used to be the home to some of the best Almond farms in the nation but since the Wine industry has boomed these farms have moved inland. Our first stop was at the gorgeous Bianchi winery which is situated on a man made lake full of ginormous fish the size of small poodles. We paid a measly five dollars for unlimited tastings and a take home Ridel wine glass! My speech started to slow and I distinctly remember smiling so much that I couldn’t even frown if I tried. I drank the following: two Pinot Grigio, two Sauvignon Blanc, two Chardonnay, Syrah, Zen Ranch Zinfandel Reserve, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Sirah. Dad bought a book, a bottle, a magnet and a long sleeve shirt (he keeps these places in business).
We then stopped at the end of the road at Tobin James Cellars which is a fairly eclectic looking winery when you first hop out of your car in the parking lot. I was a bit skeptical as wineries tend to feature stoic architecture and beautiful store front gardens. This place had a neon painted sign and the tasting building was outfitted with cowboy paraphernalia. We entered the building and I laughed a bit when I realized that all of the tasting booths were actually old school “cowboy bars” with huge mirrors behind the bartenders. This wine tasting was FREE and unlimited. We had about 9 tastings and I almost asked our bartender to stop as my stomach was feeling a bit acidic to say the least. But I quickly overlooked my stomach discomfort and continued along the list with a sweet Muscat and a late harvest Zinfandel. I felt the need to indicate that we were Canadians and lived right near our infamous Icewine vineyards in Niagara. I sipped on their late harvest (which they labeled “liquid love”) and held my head high (and as pretentious as possible). I finally realized why Icewine is such a big deal, when you grow up around it you take its greatness for granted. The Liquid Love they were dishing out was hogwash. I actually smiled at the thought of having a bottle of Icewine on me so that I could have shared it with the people at the tasting, they would have flown directly to Toronto I’m sure. Father bought two more bottles of wine (continually legitimizing the purchase by saying “mother really needs to try these”). As I excited the building I noticed a sign that explained the concept of the winery. The owners wanted to create an ambiance which was not threatening to “common Americans” who are used to drinking beer and tequila. He certainly removed the pretentiousness of wine (I thought this concept was perfectly executed when I walked past a few cow troughs and old pioneer wagons.
We headed downtown as we had heard it had one of the best main streets in America. How sad that claim was. Dad parked the car quickly at a playground because his bladder was bursting (I threw that tidbit in here simply to keep the memory alive forever). After looking for the main street for over 10 minutes we stopped our car and asked where it was, the lovely lady said “you are on it right now.” We looked at each other bewildered and headed to one last winery before we headed north.
The final winery is a huge Californian producer J. Lohr. This was another free tasting (Canadian wineries really need to catch up with this Californian tradition of complementary tastings). I would also like to take a minute to express how quickly we had been served at all wineries. They poured us a glass and as soon as we put it down we were introduced to a new beverage. I almost felt like they were trying to get me hammered! We had five tastings here (and I certainly didn’t need any more than that at this point). Father purchased The French Laundry Cookbook, one of the most famous restaurants in America located in Napa Valley. He also bought four bottles of wine (has anyone noticed that his purchase orders escalated as he continued to drink throughout the day?) I certainly did.
I took one last glance across the vast vineyard landscape and sighed. I stumbled to the car and fell into the passenger seat. Note to self: complementary wine tastings all morning, a splendid way to spend a sunny morning on the coast.