The shock waves of cult wine movie classic “Sideways” are still being felt four years later. The first wave came soon after with our obsession with pinot noir, the red variety wine geek Miles endlessly blathered about. We couldn’t seem to get enough of the stuff in the first few months, and even years after the movie’s release.
But I think more importantly, “Sideways” shined a light on the lesser-known wine growing regions of California, like the areas around Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Miles’ favorite producer, Sanford, near Lompoc, is at the heart of this region. The area is warmer than the Napa and Sonoma valleys, yet still receives ample moisture and marine influences from the coast. The result is big, fruit-forward grapes from the warmth, but a solid acid balance from cool evenings and fog. In the Paso Robles wine growing area alone, the winery count has grown the past 10 years from 50 to about 170 today, according to trade journal Beverage Analyst.
The movie also accentuated fruit-forward pinot noir, which I think helped us break out of the cab and merlot rut we were stuck in. As we explored pinot noir, we discovered other fruit-forward wines from the region like zinfandel and syrah, and that’s when things really took off. The red wines are well suited to our fruit-loving palates and typically are less expensive than those from Napa and Sonoma.
A cultlike following has emerged outside of pinot noir for zin and syrah lovers. The Rhone Rangers, anchored in the region, is dedicated to promoting the principle varieties of France’s Rhone Valley grown in California, including syrah, viognier, mourvedre and grenache. Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, or ZAP, is another organization for zin lovers. Though both have been around since before “Sideways,” their rolls have grown as more wineries have sprung up and consumers have discovered these wonderful reds.
Another facet that makes these areas compelling is that many wineries are still family run. It feels like the Napa and Sonoma of old. Only a few large conglomerates like Constellation Brands have set up shop. Eighty percent of the brands are still family owned, says Beverage Analyst. Some well-known European families like Chateau Beaucastel have set up shop, but not more than a few hundred acres at a time. These larger companies make some of our favorite wines from the area like Tablas Creek and Estancia. Miles’ beloved Sanford is controlled by Chicago-based Terlato Wine Group, but not much has changed on-site. The larger companies have preserved much of what makes the region appealing, which we’re sure Miles would approve of.
Here are a few other standouts, pinot noir or otherwise, that we’re certain he would savor. And, no, you won’t find merlot here.
Wild Horse Winery 2005 Pinot Noir. This wine bursts with aromas and flavors of dried cherry and earthy vanilla-spice. It’s rich and satisfying and would work well with salmon or grilled chicken. $25.
Firestone 2004 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah. A full texture of blackberry dark fruit and smoky juniper-pepper dazzles the senses. Supple tannins and a long finish make this one smooth ride. Serve with a steak or perhaps and mushroom-based pasta dish. $20.
J. Lohr 2005 South Ridge Syrah. Strong and dense with red-purple hues, this juicy wine is full of dark fruit and cherry-spice notes. Can stand up to spicy foods, so why not whip together some beef fajitas? $15.
EOS Winery 2004 Zinfandel. Not the massive bomb many other Paso Robles zins can be, which is nice. The chocolate and warmth is still there, but so is brighter raspberry-cherry impressions. Pair up with some ribs. $18.
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