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Posted October 2005

Santa Barbara Wine Country Featured Restaurant: Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant

Don’t ask for the table Jack, Miles, Stephanie and Maya sat at in the movie, Sideways; it doesn’t actually exist. Set up just for the onscreen dinner, the table the foursome shared at the now-famous Los Olivos Café in Solvang was actually located in the café’s wine store, a one-time deal. With a backdrop of hundreds of bottles, many movie-fans, says owner Sam Marmorstein, are often disappointed to hear that they can’t dine in the store. They can, however, eat many of the same foods served in movie—an edible consolation—as well as a variety of Pinots, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, and yes, even Merlots from the region.

The Los Olivos Café, like many other wineries and restaurants in Santa Barbara County have suddenly found themselves on the map. The influence of Hollywood may have put them there, but stellar Pinot Noirs, a Riviera-like setting and the slow and steady emergence of big-city-worthy restaurants like the Los Olivos Café are keeping the Santa Ynez Valley a popular destination.

And deftly pairing the region’s wines with Mediterranean-influenced dishes like Salmon, ravioli and lamb shanks are keeping Marmorstein’s tables full. “We started out focused on wine, but the food got so good, it sort of took over,” he says. The menu features roasted butternut squash and cranberry salad, chicken parmigiana, artichoke-stuffed ravioli, rustic pizzas with seasonal produce and cheeses, and a variety of hearty meat dishes created to pair well with the wines of the region by Chef Nat Ely.

The American Riviera
Marmorstein, a successful Los Angeles businessman found the valley by accident when a friend invited him to the quaintly kitschy town of Solvang for a bicycle ride. “I’d never even been here. I was surprised by its beauty—it was like Ireland or something,” says the restaurant owner, who was inspired to buy several acres of land for his own vineyard in 1995. “I live in paradise and work in paradise. Every morning I wake up and look at the vineyard and know I’m doing what I love,” he adds, saying that spring and fall are among the best times to visit.

His paradise, however, has been found. Though the influx of visitors has been mostly manageable, he says that sometimes locals have to wait for a table a little longer than they’d like…or even make a reservation. Traffic in the tiny town of Solvang, especially during busy summer months can get, if not bad by Los Angeles standards, at least more congested than folks might like. But overall, says Marmorstein, the notoriety has been a boon.

“Many people never knew this area ever existed are able to see how great these wines are. Nobody should be complaining that they’re sold out of Pinot Noir,” he says, acknowledging that the region’s Pinot has seen massive interest, with many wineries selling out of vintages, since Sideways’ main character, Miles, was such an avid fan of Santa Barbara’s growing region.

But aside from Pinot, the region is also a strong contender in the arenas of Chardonnay and Syrah, a favorite of Marmorstein. The restaurant owner recently started bottling his own brand of Syrah, called Bernat. He makes just 500 cases of Syrah and Chardonnay from his three acres of vineyards each year, a painstaking labor of love that he personally oversees. The wine is sold in the restaurant and at his wine shop, next door. Other favorite Syrahs from the region include Beckman and Foxen, he says.

If you visit
The Los Olivos Café Wine Merchant carries hundreds of local wines, specializing in Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah. The shop has weekly tastings of hard-to-find reserve wines and often features small wineries that don’t have tasting rooms of their own. It also carries a selection of gourmet foods and deli items for picnicking.

The Café offers a $29 prix-fixe Sideways menu featuring butternut squash salad, café salmon, a glass of Pinot Noir (or Chardonnay) and the restaurant’s Chocolate Scream (ice cream, flourless chocolate cake and caramel sauce.)


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