Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Decade of Sideways: Miles of Film & Wine

When “Sideways” was released in 2004, the comedy had no way of knowing it would be nominated for five Oscar’s (with a win for Adapted Screenplay), rake in $72 million at the box office, supercharge wine and tourism in Santa Barbara, boost Pinot Noir sales, and famously malign Merlot, all in 126 minutes.

Me, Paul Giamatti & Alexander Payne at the Sideways 10 Reunion
On the 10th anniversary of the film, director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and other cast and crew met at the ranch of Jim Clendenen, winemaker of Au Bon Climat whose Pinot Noir was featured in the film, to partake in a fundraiser and reunion, and Cervins Central Coast was invited. The $1,000 a plate five-course meal – which included things like BBQ quail, grilled shrimp, and oak grilled filet mignon served with wines from the film - raised $100,000 for Direct Relief International, and was held in a tent lined with stills of the film, with appropriately spectacular views of vineyards.
At the dinner these conspicuous dump buckets reminded everyone of the film.

"Sideways" created an unexpected economic windfall for Santa Barbara when it originally hit theatres unlike any other film in recent memory. “I had no idea this would have happened,” Payne told me. “We were just making a movie. You never think about things like this nor can you predict it.” Actor Paul Giamatti, who played the central character Miles, held the same view. “I’ve never been involved with something like this. It’s gratifying to know that the film has actually had a measured economic impact on this area.” The film shot for 10 weeks in the region and three of those days were at The Hitching Post restaurant, which saw an increase in business of 30% after the film was released. “Our wine sales doubled and restaurant revenue quadrupled, and we were able to get an air conditioner. Thank you Alexander,” said owner and one of the chefs for the evening, Frank Ostini.
Along Santa Rosa Road

In the most quoted scene of the film Miles (Giamatti) vehemently proclaims he “won’t drink any fucking Merlot.” He also praised the virtues of Pinot Noir. That registered in the minds of the public, for reasons unknown. Sales of Pinot Noir increased 15%, while Merlot dropped about two percent in sales. The result of a line in a movie? Yes and no. Merlot had been over planted to begin with throughout California (Santa Barbara only produced a small fraction of Merlot at the time and it wasn’t very good) and there was a surplus of inadequate Merlot flooding the market, so the impact was actually minimal. These days the region known as Happy Canyon is producing very good quality Merlot and producers like Grassini Family Vineyards, and Happy Canyon Vineyards are solid bets.
Santa Barbara wines go anywhere!
Of course tourism to idyllic Santa Barbara wine country greatly increased following the film. People wanted to drive bucolic Santa Rosa Road, visit the Kalyra Winery tasting room, and eat steak at The Hitching Post. And they came…and they keep coming. The success of the film also spawned a Japanese language remake, transporting the location to Napa rather than Santa Barbara. But Santa Barbara wine country is not merely the residual “Sideways” phenomenon. The County is home to over 250 wineries strewn all across the area. For those who want classic wine tasting experiences there are plenty of wineries to visit first hand in the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valley’s set amongst unending rows of vines. In Lompoc the wine ghetto is a collection of tasting rooms set in an industrial area. The valley hot spot currently, Los Olivos, has 48 tasting rooms packed into its four-block radius, and in downtown Santa Barbara, just two blocks from the beach, the Funk Zone is popping with tasting rooms and there is the Urban Wine Trail. So it doesn’t really matter how or where you want to taste local wines, there is a spot for everyone – just make your way straight to Santa Barbara, not sideways.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Santa Barbara’s Best (Tucked-Away) Picnic Spots

July may be National Picnic Month but here in paradise, AKA Santa Barbara, it’s almost always time for a picnic. But finding the best and coolest picnic spots may be a little harder than you think. Everyone knows the obvious choices: Leadbetter Beach with its numerous tables, Tucker’s Grove with its family amenities and also numerous tables, Shoreline Park and such, so I scoured the beach, the mountains, and parks to find five less known but still classic Santa Barbara picnic places with diverse views but which are more secluded. So pack your picnic basket and discover some al fresco undercover gems of Santa Barbara.

 Andree Clark Bird Refuge

What was once considered a viable place to build the harbor in the 1920s has become something of a rarely visited respite. Set in a riparian woodland there are three small wood platforms with benches on them jutting out over the water, the last one being over a small bridge near the Santa Barbara Zoo. These wood platforms are accessed by a flat path that circumscribes part of the lake. You can sit directly above the water; the cool breezes from East Beach washing over you and you can have a modicum of privacy and quietness though these are not shaded. As the water laps up at your feet you’ll probably see diverse birds here including white pelicans on occasion. Located close to Coast Village Road in Montecito, food and restrooms are a short drive away.

Elings Park

Though it’s a popular spot for weddings, Cedric Grove atop Elings Park has easy car access, not to mention serene views back towards the city. There are restrooms nearby, plenty of picnic tables and a circular lawn surrounded by large mature oak trees. There is no food available here and they charge for parking on weekends, though weekday parking is free. Take the road all the way to the top and turn left on George Bliss Rd. The Wells Fargo Amphitheater offers the best views of the city not to mention plenty of graded seating. There are benches that flank both sides of the hill one to the city and other with views towards the park and out towards the ocean.

Lookout Park


You probably drive past this spot all the time and may not know it’s here. Located in Summerland right off Highway 101, Lookout Park is a small grassy bluff above the beach. There are benches, picnic tables and barbecue stands across the narrow park with plenty of parking available. The grass however is very uneven so watch your step. There is also a children's play area with swings and slides, a volleyball net on a sand base, restrooms, horseshoes and beach access. Dogs are allowed but must be kept on a leash. This is an ideal spot for a family picnic or large groups. Lillie Avenue is just two blocks away should you need to purchase food.

Sand Spit

Located at the termination of the breakwater at the harbor, there are a few whale tale benches in which to sit and watch Santa Barbara splayed out in front of you. You can also bring your own chairs and head across a short rock outcropping directly to the sand itself. To the right is Sterns Wharf, to the left are the boats moored in the harbor, in front of you is the city, and behind you is the majestic Pacific; it’s the best of all worlds. Take it all in, feel the gentle ocean breezes and hear the sea lions on the green buoy marker, but bring a hat as there is no shade. Restrooms, food and parking are all at the main buildings at the harbor. 

Franceschi Park
For the absolute best views of the city, this under the radar park located on the Rivera has unsurpassed vistas to downtown, the harbor, the ocean and islands, and is flanked by large eucalyptus trees. Part botanical garden, part city park, this is fairly secluded and quiet, set in a residential area and there is no food available near here. There are a few picnic tables and a few benches facing the ocean, and you also have the dilapidated but wonderfully odd Franceschi house nearby with its unusual embellishments, though the house is not open to the public. The park is open sunrise to sunset; there is limited parking and a restroom on site.  

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Only in Ojai: Of Deer, Hikes & Ancient Wisdom

Ojai in Ventura County, just south of Santa Barbara has long been considered a spiritual, grounded place, a Mecca for the artistic crowd, and those seeking something just left of center. A hub of meditation, spiritual retreats and teachings and simply an off the beaten path retreat paradise it was used as the backdrop for the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon.” These days the once secluded town is anything but hard to find. Summers see flocks of tourists shopping and dining along Ojai Avenue, doing yoga, getting in touch with their inner core or just escaping the hectic pace of somewhere else. Ojai built its current Spanish Colonial Revival diminutive downtown appearance because of a fire that decimated much of the town in 1917, and it’s a metaphor of the rejuvenation people feel when they come here. So here then are a few detox ideas, even for a place as sedate as Ojai.

The views from the Valley View Preserve


There is more rugged hiking in the Sespe Wilderness, but right near town the Valley View Preserve is a very moderate fire road hike perfect for an easy run or to take the dogs and burn a few calories. It runs its course along the north mountains looking out to the Ojai Valley on your right. Splayed out is the verdant greenery of the trees, orchards and parts of the town with views across the valley. There is no shade here so make sure you bring water and a hat. For a more strenuous hike you can pick up the Fox Canyon trail which will take you up the mountain side right off the main trail. Either way, to get there head up Signal Ave. towards the mountains and it will terminate at the trail head. There is minimal parking so early is better.
The library at Krotona
Also tucked into Ojai just like the trails, the Krotona Theosophical Institute is hidden away just off the main road into town on a 115-acre wooded site. Krotona moved to Ojai in 1926 when it had to abandon its Los Angeles home because of the construction if the Hollywood Bowl (back when admission to the Bowl was just $.50), however the Theosophy movement started in the 1870s on the east coast. First off, what is theosophy you ask? In their own words they, “encourage open-minded inquiry into world religions, philosophy, science, and the arts in order to understand the wisdom of the ages, respect the unity of all life, and help people explore spiritual self-transformation.” Works for me. What makes Krotona unique, aside from the fact that hardly anyone knows it’s there, is the 8,000-volume library relating specifically to theosophy, the occult, reincarnation, astrology, yoga, metaphysics and all things of paranormal nature. The library itself is intimate, a slightly Art Deco ambience. There is also a meditation school, and bookstore for anyone who wishes to visit, not to mention classes. The mirror pools behind the library are contemplative in themselves, as are much of the quiet grounds. You needn’t be a theosophist to visit and everyone is encouraged to stop in: it’s all free.
There are no shortages of terrific places to eat, most clustered onto the main drag, but for a unique taste of Ojai (literally) the Deer Lodge is just three miles from downtown and since 1932 this rustic, log cabin looking wood toned, animal-head-on-the-wall joint has been making people feel great. There’s live music, lots of beef and games dishes, cornbread and every Sunday they have a roasted pig. Yeah, a whole pig! But it’s their buffalo burgers and tri tip on the outdoor wood grill which is their calling card. There are a lot of bikers who come here on the weekends and it’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of Harleys out front, but don’t let that stop you. There’s plenty of indoor seating on old wood furniture and a back outdoor patio.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Carving Up the Sacred Cow: Jocko's in Nipomo

(Editor's Note: Jocko's was contacted on four separate occasions as to correct pricing, seasonings and recipes - they elected to not respond)
To say that Jocko’s restaurant in Nipomo is iconic is an understatement. The place has been grilling up meat over oak since the late 1920s and has become something of a pilgrimage for carnivores. So as a restaurant reviewer for eight years now it was inevitable I should find out for myself why throngs of people seem utterly devoted to this out of the way spot.

The place is utterly lacking in any kind of décor, but that’s part of its charm, according to some. Painted cinder block walls hold up a low wood roof over what amounts to cheap banquet chairs, worn carpet and faded pictures on the walls. It looks like a dive restaurant, and partly that’s OK, not everything needs to be spit polished and accented with design tips from Pier One. But don’t put on your Sunday best to come here.
Dinners get crowded and as early as 4:30 p.m. lines start forming on weekends and you’re in for a wait, even if you make reservations. Lunches are less crowded, but it’s important to know that the oak grill, what the place is actually known for, is not fired up during the day, just evenings.
Dinners are a slow parade of foods beginning with packaged soda crackers and salsa which is pleasant enough, a bit watery though with a minimal heat. Then there is the crudités plate with pickles, black olives, and peppers. Next your salad arrives, nothing more than basic iceberg lettuce with a few carrot shavings and a sliced beet on top for good measure, or perhaps because they had them sitting around, it’s hard to tell. All salad dressings are made on site including their ranch which is average in terms of flavor, as is their blue cheese dressing which is more thin and watery. The honey mustard dressing has a slight heat to it but is more sweet than tart. It’s important to understand that dinners will always take time due in part to the crowds and in part to the grilling. Our meal took 45 minutes from the time the order was turned in to when it arrived, so be prepared to wait…and wait. Dinners include baked beans (minimal brown spice and a slight molasses richness but lean towards soft), tedious garlic bread lacking much actual garlic, and some form of potato - baked, French Fries, mashed - or rice. We opted for the baker with butter, sour cream and chives - a standard baked potato, nothing more -, and the unremarkable white rice. The Small Spencer Steak ($22) is frankly quite large and is one of their signature cuts. The Spencer is minimally seasoned and definitely has a rich smokiness from the oak. The meat is reasonably tender, but that’s as far as it goes, meaning there’s little that’s memorable about it other than the ubiquitous oak smoke which covers anything that has touched the grill. The Sweetbreads ($17) are lightly breaded and tender certainly with the smoke infiltrating the meats, but are more devoid of any specific flavor. Dinners include dessert, which is no more than a scoop of ice cream, Rainbow sherbet, spumoni, or vanilla, and a cup of coffee. With the abundance of food most people walk away with a container of something and that is the success of Jocko’s – way too much food. We wish it was way too much terrific food, but that’s not the case.
Lunches include beans and salad just like dinner, but it’s much less crowded and in the light of day the place looks older and more tired. The Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($9) is a large, moist half breast with tomato, sliced red onion, and iceberg lettuce on grilled sourdough bread and is as fundamental a sandwich as you can get. The seasoning on the chicken is fine, but since it’s not oak grilled it lacks the nuances that dinner items possess. There is also the Ruben ($8.50) made with corned beef, cheese and sauerkraut on grilled sourdough. The flavors here are muted and unimpressive, the whole being fairly elementary. Yes the corned beef is appropriately tender and the sauerkraut slightly crisp and sweet, but that’s all. Overall that seems to be the point at Jocko’s – average is exactly what they aim for – and they succeed. Yes you’ll get bang for your buck, yes, you’ll be full. The service is a notch below average however, friendly but unfocused, scattered, uneven and rushed. Ultimately the seasonings and flavors of the meats and the entire experience doesn’t live up to the hype. Along the Central Coast, from Santa Barbara to Monterey there are a number of very good steak houses, but Jocko’s isn’t one of them. Frankly most of us can grill a better steak at home and ultimately, that’s where I’d prefer to be over the tedium of Jocko’s.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Serious Side of Paradise: Santa Barbara’s Missing Kids

  This blog is about the happy aspects of traveling to the California Central Coast: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey. But that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the article I wrote originally for a Santa Barbara newspaper for National Missing Children’s Day. My hope is that any of you who read this, regardless of where you are in the world, will be more aware and attuned to this global problem – our kids who go missing. Please share this information – and be mindful of what is happening in your community. Please.

It’s a sad commentary that we even have a National Missing Children’s Day - May 25th - but we do. Every day in the U.S. approximately 2,300 children under the age of 18 go missing, most voluntary, but many not. It’s estimated that 200,000 children annually are abducted by family members, and 58,000 are abducted by non-family members. The recent kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haran has highlighted a staggering problem not only across the globe, but right here in Santa Barbara. Our kids are at risk: from abduction, online predators, and physical sexual abuse which often is the root cause for kids to go missing in the first place.

Tim Hale is a Santa Barbara based attorney with the firm of Nye, Peabody, Stirling, Hale & Miller, LLP who represent victims of childhood sexual abuse in lawsuits against individuals and entities including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and public and private schools that have either failed to report or have actively tried to cover-up sexual abuse committed by their employees and volunteers. He knows firsthand the devastating effects our kids suffer. “Every child reacts differently - some withdraw and shutdown emotionally, some act with anger, sometimes with inappropriate sexual behavior, sometimes with self-medication through substance abuse,” he says. “Our lawsuits seek not only a monetary recovery for our clients’ injuries, but also the public release of a perpetrator’s personnel file where his employer’s cover-up has allowed him to escape criminal prosecution, rendering him unidentifiable to the public as a threat to children,” says Mr. Hale.

The point is not to live in fear, but to live wisely, to educate our kids and ourselves so we can mitigate those threats. According to the California Department of Justice, in 2011, (the most recent statistics available) there were 958 reports of missing children in Santa Barbara County alone: 908 were reported runaways, 17 were reported lost, 12 were reported family abductions, five were “suspicious circumstances,” and 25 were unknown circumstances. In California, more than 90,000 children were reported missing that year. In 2013 there were nearly 495,000 missing persons under the age of 21 throughout America. Actual numbers of missing children is something of a moving target. Some children go missing due to natural disasters, some are voluntary runaways (the vast majority), some are endangered runaways (classified as suicide risk, physical or mental conditions which might cause them wander off, or circumstances where kids fled to or from some danger), and some have been abducted by a family member, or a stranger. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an estimated 115 children annually are the victims of the most serious abductions and are either murdered, ransomed or taken with the intent to keep. “The first three hours are the most critical when trying to locate a missing child. Studies indicated that 76 percent of abducted children who are killed are dead within three hours of the abduction,” the NCMEC states. Regardless of the label given to any missing child the Central Coast sees kids go missing in some cases to escape sexual abuse at home, or after a prolonged online “friendship” with a predator.

Online Predators
According to the FBI one in 25 children ages 10 to 17 have received an online sexual solicitation where the perpetrator then tried to make offline contact. “Predators seek youths vulnerable to seduction, including those with histories of sexual or physical abuse, those who post sexually provocative photos or video, and those who talk about sex with unknown people online,” the FBI states. And this is clearly the driving reason parents need to monitor their kid’s social media behavior because with increased sexting (texting sexually suggestive words and pictures), there is the increased likelihood a predator sees this as an easy target. “Boys who are gay or questioning their sexuality are particularly at risk. 25 percent of victims are boys and almost all of their offenders are male,” the FBI says. It seems overwhelming, but being aware of, and admitting, these problems is crucial to the safe-keeping of our kids.

What Adults Can Do
“Every day we hear stories about children who escaped a would-be-abductor because someone talked to them about what they should do in that situation.” says NCMEC’s CEO, John Ryan. “Education and open communication are key to keeping children safer.” Obviously communication is crucial, though it can be difficult. “I can’t say there’s a specific right or wrong way to talk to your kids,” says Mr. Hale. “Every parent-child relationship is different. What I can say is that you need to talk openly and regularly, beginning with younger kids, about the fact their bathing suit areas are theirs and theirs alone, and no one should touch them in those areas except for mom or dad or select caregivers for younger children who still need help wiping themselves.” More often than not these are not crimes of violence, but of emotional manipulation. “It’s important the child understand that no matter how nice a person is being, no matter what they are offering, no matter what elevated status the person has in the child’s eyes, no one should touch the child’s bathing suit areas,” Mr. Hale advises.

With kids who text there is code that has developed, a shorthand language, many parents are clueless about designed to keep texts secretive. For example: “wtgp” (want to go private?); “p911” (parents are coming); “pir” (parent in room); “asl” (age/sex/location) and many others. This covert language can be a clue to what your child is doing. Photos on the other hand are less covert and may seem innocent enough. The website NetSmartz, an on-line resource from the NCMEC, warns: “Posting your child's pictures online could put them at risk for victimization. Using privacy settings to limit access to your children's pictures can help protect them. However, you need to be sure that only people you know and trust in real life are able to see your pictures.” There is no particular way to prevent uploaded photos from being copied. Frankly the only way to ensure no one uses your images is to avoid uploading them in the first place. Even if you use coding to prevent users from right-clicking and saving your pictures, anyone can still screencapture an image, and remember, once an image is online, there is no getting it back.

It’s naive to tell children to think before posting photos when adults don’t understand the potential issues either. So at the very least discuss parameters with your kids: “Personal photos should not have revealing information, such as school names or locations,” NetSmartz advises. “The background of any photo can give out identifying information without realizing it. The name of a mall, the license plate of your car, signs, or the name of your sports team on your clothing all contain information that can give your family's location away.”

What Kids Can Do
Of course it’s not merely what adults can do, but what kids themselves can do. First and foremost they should tell their parents about any unwanted attention, sexual or otherwise, either on-line or from an individual. “Hopefully parents have created an environment where the child feels comfortable telling them such things,” says Mr. Hale. “If telling a parent is not an option, they should tell a trusted adult.” Under California law, most child custodians and caregivers, such as teachers, youth group leaders, therapists, and doctors are mandated to report to law enforcement if they have a reasonable suspicion a child is being sexually abused and a mandatory reporter who fails to take action is subject to criminal prosecution, Mr. Hale advises. Of course many adults don’t want to get involved in someone else’s problem, it’s easier to turn a blind eye, but that only perpetuates the matter. The biggest weakness of parents? “Failing to recognize that anyone can be a perpetrator, that perpetrators more often than not are not the scary looking figure in in the shadows, and openly placing a person on such a high pedestal that a child is terrified of speaking out about them,” says Mr. Hale. The simplest and most obvious rule is the best one. “Perpetrators almost always use secrecy as a weapon, therefore families need a policy of no secrets,” says Mr. Hale. If nearly 1,000 Santa Barbara kids go missing each year, we need to be more vigilant. We have the power to help keep our kids safe, and it’s up to us.

Missing Children’s Day Timeline
May 25th, 1979: Six year-old Etan Patz goes missing in New York. He has never been found.
1979 to 1981: 29 children are murdered in Atlanta, all the result of one man.
1981: Six year-old Adam Walsh is abducted and murdered in Florida. His father, John Walsh, forms the first center for missing children, later hosts America’s Most Wanted.
1982: Congress enacts the Missing Children’s Act.
1983: National Missing Children’s Day first observed by proclamation of President Reagan.
1984: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is founded.
1996: Amber Alert begins. As of April 2014, 688 missing children have been successfully recovered.
2004: Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force (FBI) is formed making it the largest task force of its kind in the world incorporating 40 participating countries.

National Center For Missing and Exploited Children 
California Child Abduction Task Force