The Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton enjoyed some high-profile exposure in the 2004 movie “Sideways.” A scene early in the film shows aspiring author Miles and his pal Jack walking along Highway 246 and up to the restaurant, where the roadside Hitching Post sign glows brightly in the twilight.
They sit down at the bar and are served Hitching Post Bien Nacido pinot noir. Later, waitress Maya, on a break from her work, orders a glass of Hitching Post’s flagship Highliner pinot and sits with them. In another restaurant scene, a downcast Miles, portrayed by Paul Giamatti, orders a bottle of Highliner to polish off by himself.
The movie inspired the well-known rush of tourists to Santa Barbara County’s wine country, and the Hitching Post has been among the leading beneficiaries. Frank Ostini, chef and owner of the restaurant, told me its cocktail napkins became an instant collector’s item among visitors. The current version has “FOREVER SIDEWAYS” in the design.
Ostini has been a longtime partner with Gray Hartley in Hitching Post Wines, a separate business. The wines have a strong presence in the wholesale market, Ostini said, but until recently the partners have not focused on direct-to-consumer sales. Those represent less than 20 percent of their business, while the typical Santa Barbara County winery sells more than 50 percent directly to consumers, he said.
That’s likely to change following the opening on Aug. 20 of Hitching Post Wines’ first-ever tasting room on a 12-acre site adjacent to the restaurant. More than 200 guests gathered on Aug. 21 to sample wines and Santa Maria-style barbecued ribs, sliders and other fare at the opening celebration.
Ostini said he’s excited about the beauty and potential of the leased property, with its four acres overlooking the Santa Ynez River and mountains beyond, and eight acres below that near the river. The tasting room in a 1950s-era farm cottage was formerly occupied by Loring Wine Co., which moved to a location on Industrial Way in Buellton.
Ostini and Hartley, who have been making wine together for 39 years, carried out a lot of cosmetic improvements and they added a major expansion of the parking area between the restaurant and wine venue.
Outside, they trimmed trees and cut back brush on the riverbank to open up the vista. There’s new corral-style fencing on the perimeter. Picnic tables shaded by trees and overhead screens are located around the property.
The bar in the main tasting room has a rustic wood finish and polished copper top. Another room with antique-painted tables and a weathered, corrugated metal ceiling is for private tastings and events. An overflow area between the two rooms includes a tasting bar and photos telling the story of Hitching Post Wines.
Pinot noir has been the main wine since the early 1980s. “When we first met it we were smitten right away,” said Hartley, who was a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaskan waters for 28 years. Eighty percent of their wines are pinot noirs.
“We were kind of maverick back in the ‘80s,” a steak house featuring pinot noirs, Ostini said. They thought it was the best grape grown in the area at the time, and it’s become Santa Barbara County’s most sought-after variety. “There wasn’t syrah planted in those days or heaven knows we might have been a syrah producer exclusively,” he said.
A $15 tasting flight includes a dry rosé, three pinot noirs and a red blend. A $20 reserve flight offers single-vineyard pinots from the likes of Sanford & Benedict and Bien Nacido, and a red blend.
Along with the wine, Hitching Post food will be an attraction. Lunch items from the restaurant, which is open only for dinners, can be ordered from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Among the options are barbecued burgers, steak sandwiches, grilled artichokes and triple-fried french fries, transported from the kitchen in an insulated box mounted on a big tricycle.
That food setup is temporary. A 1970s Airstream trailer that was a commercial kitchen in Seaside, Florida is on site, being readied to serve as the lunchtime hub with food served at a window in front.
Grilling Santa Maria-style, on hot oak coals, has been in the Ostini family for 67 years. Frank Ostini Sr. and partners bought the original Hitching Post in Casmalia that is now owned by his son Bill. Frank Jr. owns and operates Hitching Post II, which opened in 1986.
The partners said they’re not in a rush to increase production. “We’re going to let demand drive that equation,” Hartley said. Hitching Post Wines produces 17,000 cases a year as an alternating proprietor at Terravant Wine Co. in Buellton.
There’s great potential in direct-to-consumer sales, Ostini said, but they didn’t want to take away from the dining experience to focus on that in the restaurant. At the tasting room, they can spend more time showcasing the wines.
“This location,” Hartley said, “now allows us the opportunity to share with people our story and have a more complete wine experience.”
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]