Friday, 6 March 2015

A + J in Wine Country

Californian Wine Country is generally regarded as the region north of San Francisco, but for cash-strapped students short on time and based in Los Angeles, there are alternative pilgrimages to be found. J & I decided we'd go away the weekend between our respective Spring Breaks, someplace with good food and good drink and good scenery, and I realized I knew just the place. I'd watched Sideways on a flight over a decade ago, and while the finer plot points faded away to hazy memory, 'Pinot Noir' and 'Solvang' stubbornly stuck around. We'd have to brave the horror that is Friday traffic in LA to get there, but the pain would be over in under three hours, no big deal. 

Pacific Coast Highway Flora

The only other hiccup was finding a place to stay. Even the motel prices were outrageous that weekend, and we didn't fancy being out $200 before we even started our bacchanal. Was I alright bunking in the trunk if we folded down the backseat and layered the whole thing with blankets and pillows? Yes, I said. I'd originally wanted to go camping anyway, and this would make the whole thing seem more like an adventure. So, off we went.

Cruising down California

I hadn't realized how acclimatized I'd become to the smog of LA until we rolled the windows down and I breathed in the sea air two hours out of Downtown. My room in LA faces an indoor courtyard, and managed to be even darker than the shoe box I called home in Euston, so the endless clear blue sky and the feeling of warm sunshine overhead that morning basically had the same effect on me as that first glorious Spring day did in London. 

Los Padres National Park vista

Even before we'd had a single sip of wine, I was already bubbling over with joy, delirious on life. It was probably just my body recovering from a serious lack of Vitamin D, but then it felt like some strange alchemy was at work, making everything feel extra magical. 

Highway 101

The journey itself took us past some amazing vistas, and it felt like such a shame to speed past it entirely. I'd sketched out a rough plan for the weekend, but we really weren't in any hurry, so J indulged my whims, pulling over whenever it was safe to do so, just so we could hop out and admire the views, usually so fleeting when caught through a window. 

California Forests

Our route there was somewhat more circuitous but definitely more scenic, departing the stunning Pacific Coast Highway only to thread through Los Padres National Forest and past Cachuma Lake. There was a walking path down to the water that we debated taking, J noting he could always throw me over his shoulder if I didn't feel like hiking, but in the end, we were thirstier for wine than a closer glimpse of the water. 

Cachuma Lake

Our first winery was a little past Solvang itself, almost smack in the middle of the road leading out of the town towards Buellton. This early on a Friday, we were the only people doing the wine tasting at Shoestring Winery, and had all the attention of Danah, who talked us through everything we drank at length. The tasting room is also where many of their barrels are kept for aging, so it was freezing compared to the warm day outside. The option of sipping our wine out on the patio was given to us, but Danah was such fun to talk to that we stayed inside. 

Wine Tasting Shoestring

Much of our conversation revolved around the best things to eat in town. Danah, an avowed foodie, allowed us to pick her brain for the best in local dining, and every single one of her suggestions was completely on point. She also encouraged us to try some of the winery's own snack offerings, including a bacon jam that J felt was genius, and some homemade chocolate wafers that paired well with their Merlot. All of us concurred that if more churches provided this particular combination of wine and wafer, people would turn up in droves for Holy Communion. 

Wafer and Wine

Later on, we realized that starting with a winery where we found their different bottles consistently excellent was probably why we weren't wowed as much by our subsequent tastings. Still, it probably saved us from excessive and impulsive buys. Was it as good as that Shoestring bottle? became a pretty consistent question we asked ourselves. We did all our shopping on our final day so none of our bottles would languish in the car, and planned to hit up Shoestring last for symmetry. We rocked up 20 minutes before Google said they were due to close Sunday, but the gate was already shut, and we had to go back without that last wine we wanted to get. It was the biggest tragedy of our trip.


Nature conspired to give us a memorable weekend, so on our way up to Rusack, we caught a small bird of prey taking off from a power line. We were suitably awed by how majestic it looked. 


I'd read about Rusack Winery's patio bring one of the loveliest picnic spots in Solvang, so that was where I decided we would lunch. Picnic in tow, we skipped in, only to realize a large swathe of the outdoor seating area, patio included, was under construction. The tables and chairs had been moved onto a nice patch of green though, and the rolling hills were as verdant as advertised, so it was still a very pleasant spot to feast on all the food we'd brought along with us. The construction work turned into a little side show, and in between bites we went over to look at how the cement was being poured in. 


What wine should you pair with fried buttermilk chicken? In the absence of proper guidance, we tried it with everything so we could make an informed decision. Surprisingly, the reds were a better match. The plump, juicy strawberries I picked up from the school's Farmers' Market on the other hand, went particularly well with the rose. J felt that the setting was perfect for a mid-day nap, and nodded off almost immediately. I amused myself by looking at the world through a rose tinted glass while he dozed. If I stole little sips of J's wine while he was unconscious, well, it was only natural. 


Tilting my face toward the sun, I came face to face with the tree canopy. As I admired the pleasing way the branches reach out, and the glittering green leaves rustling, J stirred. I pointed up to show him the view, and the both of us just sat there, heads back, taking it all in. 




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