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Hitching Post
Those who want to enjoy Santa Maria BBQ can do so with a view at the Hitching Post II Restaurant in Buellton. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
ColumnsHit the Road

Hit the Road: Hitching Post still a destination for wine lovers

I’m sure that Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini, co-owners of Hitching Post Wines in Buellton, Calif., have told their stories a bazillion times, but it doesn’t sound like it. I suspect they may be enjoying it, too.

We are sitting under massive Coast Live Oaks that lord over the Hitching Post II, a Buellton restaurant owned by the Ostini family. (Ostini’s father had the original Hitching Post in tiny Casmalia, near Vandenberg Air Force Base.)

From our elevated perch, we have a million-dollar view of a slice of the Santa Ynez Valley, which includes an ostrich farm below. We also are relishing the best-barbecued ribs we’ve ever tasted. But more on that later.

Pandemic rules don’t allow inside dining, but dining al fresco here is hardly a sacrifice. Ostini’s Hitching Post II Restaurant became a mecca for wine lovers after playing a prominent part in the 2004 hit film, “Sideways.” That’s because the author wrote much of the book on which the film was based sitting in its bar.

Gray Hartley, co-owner of Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines in Buellton, holds tiny, early-stage Pinot noir grapes grown in the Santa Ynez Valley “that are just about to flower.” Hartley was a salmon fisherman in Alaska for 28 years before he became a winemaker. Photo by Gray Hartley

“Rex Pickett would hang out at the bar and told us he was writing a book about the Santa Ynez Valley, and the people around here in the wine industry,” Hartley tells us. “I thought, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I figured it would never get published much less be made into a film.”

But it did, and it put Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley on the map.

And since I love the movie, I’m delighted to listen to Ostini and Hartley lay down one anecdote after another about the filming. For instance, Paul Giamatti, who played the melancholy middle school teacher and frustrated novelist Miles Raymond, never broke character, even during breaks in the filming. And Virginia Madsen, who played waitress Maya and Miles’ love interest, is the “nicest person ever.”

Just prior to our late March visit, many of the film crew and actors had returned to the Hitching Post II to celebrate the 15th anniversary of “Sideways.” What many locals remember, though, is how a bit of dialogue between the film’s characters negatively affected the sale of Merlot and sent the sale of Pinot noir soaring.

“Fortunately, Merlot has recovered,” says Hartley.

And about those barbecued ribs…Hitching Post II offers what has become known as Santa Maria Style BBQ. Meats and vegetables are cooked outside over red oak, then slathered in a (gluten-free) barbecue sauce – a smell that pulls in visitors from the parking lot.

While we could sit all day in this shaded, breezy bit of paradise, but we have an appointment at Buttonwood Farm, Winery & Vineyard in Solvang. We trade our open-air seating at the Hitching Post for a table on a covered porch with winemaker Karen Steinwachs.

A 20-year veteran of the high-tech business world, Steinwachs did what many think about but never actually do: trade their cubicle for outdoor life and lessons in the craft of winemaking. Now her days can begin at 4 a.m. during picking season and go late into the day with other responsibilities.

“The day I pick and the day I bottle” are the gravest, Steinwachs says. Once these decisions are made, “there’s no going back.”

Winemaker Karen Steinwachs at Buttonwood Farm, Winery & Vineyard came to the Santa Ynez Valley after a 20-year career in high tech because she wanted to get closer to the earth. Drinking wine “should not be a pretentious exercise,” she believes. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Steinwachs explains what makes the Santa Ynez Valley so perfect for growing wine grapes.

“The mountains run east and west instead of the usual north and south and act like a huge funnel so the fog can come in and the hot air pushes it back out,” Steinwachs said. “The cool nights (in the 50s) and hot days (in the 90s) are good for growing the thicker-skinned grapes.”

Steinwachs believes that drinking wine should not be a “pretentious” exercise.

“It is made just to be enjoyed,” she said. “It’s the fifth food group on the table.”

Buttonwood Farm (buttonwood is the East Coast name for sycamore) was established by Betty Williams, an active and contributing community member, originally as an equestrian facility. She later added a vineyard, winery and farm, and not only preached sustainability but lived it.

Today, the farm grows vegetables, herbs, melons, pumpkins, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, eggplant and more. Buttonwood also is known for its 20 varieties of peaches from its 250 trees. In the summer of 2020, because of the pandemic, all the peaches were donated to charity.

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