The Coast News Group
Hit the Road

How good wines can enhance your life

The temperature is in the triple digits, but our van has AC and our guide, Kurt Kummerfeldt, thankfully has way more energy than his eight passengers. We are on a six-hour winery tour with Stagecoach Co. Wine Tours that will take us to four wineries on the west end of the Santa Ynez Valley.

Located north of Santa Barbara, the valley is perhaps best known as the setting for the movie “Sideways.” Actors and production crew spent 10 weeks there filming in 2003; the movie was released the next year. As longtime fans, it’s a happy coincidence that this first week in October marks the 10th anniversary of the film’s debut.

“This is a tour for people who enjoy wine, so there’s no room for snobbery here,” declares Kummerfeldt, a member of the Guild of Sommeliers. “Basically, we want to showcase what we have here in the Santa Ynez Valley and how good wines can enhance your life.”

We agree that this sounds like a good plan.

“You also should know that no one will be insulted if you choose to use the dump bucket during the tastings,” our guide adds. “If you drink everything you taste today, you will have consumed a bottle-and-a-quarter.”

Judging by the passengers’ reactions, this doesn’t seem to be bad news.

Stagecoach selects their destination wineries based on “whether the staff likes the wine, customer service, the ambiance and ultimately, guests’ feedback,” Kummerfeldt explains.

Size matters, too.

Stagecoach likes to focus on the smaller wineries that produce just a few thousand cases a year (some vineyards produce up to 250,000 cases), and there is no shortage of choices. In 1993, there were 24 tasting rooms in the valley; today there are 220.

Part of the reason for the growth is a change in the business model.

“You don’t have to buy land, buy equipment, plant vines and wait 10 years to bottle the wine,” Kummerfeldt explains. “Now you can buy fruit from a vineyard and use their equipment or a custom crush facility for $10,000, and within a year, you can be selling wine.”

We visit Mosby and Dierberg tasting rooms, enjoy a gourmet box lunch, then head to Bella Cavalli, a private winery behind electric gates. Visits are by reservation only. Like a scene from a Tuscan family vineyard, we settle into chairs around oversized wooden picnic tables thankfully situated under large shade trees.

Dr. Jack Lockwood, a retired obstetrician and father of the owner, recounts stories of his military days in between sampling six wines. Soon everyone is contributing tales about their parents’ military service.

Kummerfeldt finally extricates us from this bucolic setting, and it’s no surprise that we are behind schedule for our last tasting at the Loring Wine Co.

Later we visit the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art in Solvang to see the exhibit of photos taken by Merie Weismiller Wallace during the filming of “Sideways.” (The film received five Academy Award nominations; it won for best screenplay.) We are surprised to see one of the movie’s co-stars, Virginia Madsen who played Maya, chatting with Wallace while watching a slide show of the photographer’s stills. We run into Madsen twice more — outside the museum and as she arrives at the Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton.

In the movie, Maya worked here as a waitress. The restaurant is just one location that received a bump in visitors and wine sales after the movie debuted.

“Sideways” definitely left its mark.

“One thing that happened is that a lot of people came here to drink and to party but no one was buying wine,” Kummerfeldt remembers. “As a result, the wineries started charging for tasting.”

But when wine sales did take off, it was hard to find a bottle of pinot and you couldn’t give away a bottle of merlot. That’s because Paul Gomati’s character, Jack, extols the virtues of the former, and vilifies the latter.

Sales of pinot increased by as much as 45 percent.

“I moved here in 2005 and nobody I know ever thought that a teeny independent movie would have this kind of effect,” Kummerfeldt says.

For information on Santa Ynez Valley:

Stagecoach Co. Wine Tours:

Map of filming locations throughout the Santa Ynez Valley:

Where to stay: Santa Ynez Valley Marriott: Offers cycling and wine tour packages. Located just off Highway 101 in Buellton and a five-minute drive from Solvang.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at [email protected]