by Tim Atkin

Sideways look

The Hitching Post in Buellton has got used to the attention by now. Five years after the hit movie Sideways featured two scenes filmed at its friendly, no frills bar, the local steakhouse is still attractingwine tourists by the busload. “Everyone wants to take my picture,” says its slightly bemused owner, Frank Ostini

It’s ironic that a film about two middle-aged losers (one of them with a drink problem) has done so much for California wine generally and the Pinot Noir grape in particular. Santa Barbara wine country, the movie’s beautifully bucolic setting, will enjoy the spin-offs for years to come.

The Sideways effect has been much greater in the US than on this side of the Atlantic, however, where California Pinot Noir is little appreciated, especially at £30 or more a bottle. The difference between the two markets doesn’t stop there. California may be the second biggest exporter to these shores, with nearly 16% of sales, but most of what we drink from the West Coast is cheap, sweetish and usually pink. You’d struggle to find Blossom Hill and Echo Falls, two of the biggest Californian brands in the UK, in a supermarket in San Francisco, although Gallo, sadly, is as prominent there as it is here.

Why don’t we see a more interesting range of Californian wines on our shelves? The answer is twofold: price (not helped by the exchange rate or the high cost of land close to the Pacific Ocean) and the timidity of supermarket and off-licence chain buyers, most of whom are unwilling to take a punt on anything that costs more than £6.99. Majestic, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have reasonable West Coast selections, but if you want a taste of the best Californian wines, you’ll have to go to a specialist, such as Vineyard Cellars (01488 6813130).

Are the top wines worth the dosh? It depends on the wine. If you’re asking me if I’d pay $500 for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that won’t be drinkable for another 10 years when I can drink classed-growth Bordeaux with two decades of bottle age behind it for a quarter of the price, then I’d have to say no. But put something like the 2006 Mount Eden Pinot Noi(criminally, not available in the UK) up against a village-level Burgundy at the same price and my response would be very different.

California is such a big place (it’s the world’s fourth largest wine producer) that it may be unwise to generalise about its wine styles. But here goes… If you avoid the over-ambitiously priced cult wines, most of which are bought by collectors who prefer stroking their wines to drinking them, you can find some excellent choices under £15. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are my favourites, but don’t overlook Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, which tend to be planted in hotter areas and offer better value for money as a result. Syrah tends to be well priced, too.

Four California wines I’ve enjoyed recently are the peppery, rich, old vine-sourced 2006 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi (from £7.49, 14.5%, Sainsbury’s, Majestic), the firmer, drier, damson and sage-scented 2007 Teichert Ranch Petite Syrah, Lodi (£8.99, 13%, Marks & Spencer), the toasty, citrus-tinged 2006 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast (£9.99 each when buying two bottles, 13.9%, Majestic) and the elegant, understated 2005 Edward’s Block Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (£14.99, 14%,

And if you want to recreate that Sideways experience? Try the ripe, textured, lightly oaked 2007 Home Ranch Pinot Noir, De Loach (£11, 13.5%, Marks & Spencer). This may come from vineyards all over the state, as opposed to just Santa Barbara, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that. At £11, it’s a bargain. And Sideways or no Sideways, that’s not something you hear people say too often about California.

Originally published in The Observer

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