Last night, I had the opportunity to follow up in person with Frank Ostini (left, on the left, in his Captain Spalding mode) who previously had left a reassuring comment attached to my hand-wringing/head-shaking post about Alexander Payne's Sideways and the film's potential deleterious effects on some of my Favorite Things -- Santa Barbara County pinot noir wines and the delightful part of the world in which they are grown and made. Frank's Hitching Post restaurant and "Highliner" pinot noir feature prominently in the film -- which I still have not brought myself to see -- and have become the epicenter for Sideways-inspired wine tourism.
I spoke with Frank at a wine tasting/seminar event sponsored by the Duke of Bourbon, the excellent wine shop located in Canoga Park, California. (Those who know the San Fernando Valley will appreciate how unlikely it is that this sort of thing should exist in Canoga Park, but Duke proprietor David Breitstein has been there for more than 30 years.) Frank was accompanied by his winemaking partner Gray Hartley (on the right in the photo above). Also in attendance were Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wine Cellars -- who does not make pinot noir, but is one of the indispensable pioneers of California-grown syrah and other varietals of the Rhone -- and the brilliant and irrepressible Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat -- who does make pinot noir, some of the best to be found anywhere.
What was learned? Here are such highlights as I can bring to mind today:
- Gray Hartley had just returned to California from attending the Sideways premiere in Japan -- where enthusiastic autograph hunters mistook him at least twice for John Cleese, who he resembles only in being reasonably tall and maintaining a residence in Santa Barbara County.
- Gray can be seen in Sideways, sitting at a table in the restaurant. Frank's hands are the only portion of him to appear in the film.
- In chatting with me and at greater length in comments to the group, Frank Ostini reiterated much of what he posted here: the success of Sideways and the attention it has brought to his restaurant and winery is occasionally overwhelming, and he and his partner are working hard to take advantage of this unforeseen opportunity while still maintaining the quality that made their reputation in the first place. He acknowledged particularly a desire to maintain good relations with those who were supportive of All Things Hitching Post for the previous twenty years, in the hope that those loyalists will still be there when the film-driven excitement inevitably ebbs.
- The traditional production of Hitching Post "Highliner" pinot noir has been around 350 cases. The wine has always been intended as the best blend that the winery can achieve from sources throughout Santa Barbara County, with an emphasis in recent years on grapes drawn from the Santa Rita Hills region. In response to the explosion of demand, the production for the 2003 vintage was ultimately raised to 1150 cases -- and even that will have to be closely allocated. The wine is actually available for sale only at the restaurant at the moment, and limited there to two bottles per customer. The wider public release will not roll out until autumn. It has only been in the bottle for about four months at this point.
- How is the 2003 Highliner? (Yes, friends, we did taste it.) Still very young, but showing every sign of living up to the good reputation developed over previous vintages. As of last night, it had all the ripe cherry quality you could ask for, and is likely to complicate itself and improve markedly with time.
- Although they could almost certainly get away with it, Gray and Frank have not increased their prices to exploit their sudden popularity. Bless 'em for that. Highliner lists, as it basically always has, at $40.00.
- I have been tasting Hitching Post pinot noirs for at least ten years now, and they are reliably pleasurable, fine examples of what the grape can do in Santa Barbara County. Still, as a matter of personal preference and reinforced last night, Jim Clendenen's pinot noirs under the Au Bon Climat label tend to set the standard by which I judge all others. The three examples he offered last night did not disappoint, but my personal favorite of the evening was his 2003 Mendocino County pinot under the Ici/La-Bas label, his venture with Burgundian barrel makers, Francois Freres. That wine at this early point in its life is showing rich earthy forested components that I found very appealing and that bear out Jim's emphasis on letting the grapes develop on the vine in ways that minimize the need for elaborate processing and intervention in the winery. Scrumptious.
- The crew of Sideways was in the area for about three months for shooting, and the Hitching Post was a central locale for the crew after hours. Over that period, they got to taste and appreciate a lot of pinot noir. Still, it was reported that by the time they left the scene, the Sideways crowd's red wine of choice had become . . . syrah. More on that varietal another time.