December 21, 2009

Going Merlot

The 18th at Rancho San Marcos.

The 18th at Rancho San Marcos.

Fans of the 2004 hit film "Sideways" have come from as far as Russia to get a table at the Hitching Post II. It's the family-owned roadside restaurant in the dusty Southern California town of Buellton and the inspiration for the movie about a buddies trip involving a little golf and a lot of wine. The Hitching Post II doesn't open until 4 o'clock, but there they were, well before noon, "Sideways" enthusiasts taking pictures in front of the mustard-yellow sign and scouring the perimeter looking for a way in.

Sensing a frenzied atmosphere, Hitching Post II owner Frank Ostini remembers calling an emergency meeting of his employees after the movie came out. "Our roots are the guiding light," he reminded them. "We offer hospitality, good food and over 50 years of service in the restaurant business. If we don't perform, they won't come back."

I was there recently, and "I'll be back." The Santa Barbara area, 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, makes for a great golf getaway. The food and wine are as exceptional as the scenery, and though the golf might not rival Pebble Beach or Torrey Pines, there are quality courses for a lot less money.

Santa Barbara Golf

My itinerary included the three best public golf options within a reasonable distance from downtown Santa Barbara: Glen Annie, Sandpiper and Rancho San Marcos. (The local muny, Santa Barbara Golf Club, remains open during a makeover that is scheduled to be completed after the first of the year.)

Glen Annie, $85 on weekends, is a good Santa Barbara starter course. I played it from 5,945 yards because it's narrow, with enough undulations and afternoon wind to make it feel as if it plays longer. The course, which survived some financial troubles in 2009, is set in the hills about 10 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara and offers some outstanding views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands.

The next day, on the coast just below Glen Annie, I played two rounds at Sandpiper. It was hard not to. Given the location, pristine condition and holes running along the water, Sandpiper understandably gets a lot of the area's golf buzz, but that comes at a price -- $175 on weekends. William F. Bell, who was brought in to build Torrey Pines after his father died, also designed Sandpiper, and there is a resemblance.

Sandpiper has some memorable holes, but it has too many generic ones to consider it a great course. Four out of the six holes that have ocean views were my favorites: the fifth, sixth, 11th and 13th. The starter told me about one guy who recently played the par-3 11th, with its elevated tee shot to an ocean-side green, and announced, "I now know where I want them to spread my ashes." A worthy spot, but a somber thought on a perfect October afternoon.

The Santa Barbara area is often called The American Riviera. The average high temperature from December to March is about 65 degrees. The average high in the summer is just below 80.

On the last day of my trip I went 25 minutes inland and played a round at Rancho San Marcos, which is located at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains and provides its own set of stunning views. It tends to be a lot warmer without the ocean breeze, so drink lots of water and bring plenty of sunscreen. After the fifth snake-warning sign through three holes, my snake repellent of choice was not looking for lost balls.

is one spot where a camera is the right choice.

Aside from poisonous hazards and some quirky characteristics to the routing (five par 5s and six par 3s), Rancho San Marcos, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, is the best course I played, and priced at $120 on weekends, it's also the best deal. But I'd add that you couldn't go to the area and not play both Rancho San Marcos and Sandpiper. You'd be robbing yourself of two complementary hillside and ocean-side experiences.

Back over the hill in Buellton, I met Ostini and his partner in the wine business, Gray Hartley. We ate tapas and tasted the flavors of the area at the new Avant Tasting Room in the back of the $24 million, state-of-the-art Terravant Wine Company, which services 38 of the 108 local wineries. The Hitching Post label is a big customer, having gone from 5,000 cases per year before "Sideways" to what Ostini says was 15,000 cases the year after the movie was released. "And it has hovered at that number since."

Ostini and his staff are clearly performing. The Hitching Post II is regularly packed. Mark Terrill, the brother of the photographer for this story, lives two hours away and routinely makes the drive just so he can have the artichoke appetizer. The Los Angeles Times named its french fries "the best in Southern California" and included them on a list of "75 sublime reasons to dine out."

Ostini suggested a New York strip steak, cooked over a red-oak flame and a height-adjustable grill, just like his father used to cook 'em back in 1952. I ordered the artichoke, the fries, a steak and a bottle of their finest Pinot Noir (Hitching Post Highliner for $42). I didn't have the guts to order a Merlot.

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