In search of a decent picnic lunch in a most bucolic setting, we recently decided to rev up the old motor and head to the rolling hills of Santa Ynez Valley’s wine country, 35 minutes north of Santa Barbara. There we found our old pith-helmet-wearing friend, Frank Ostini, a true restaurant and wine legend and all-around very nice gentleman. For over three decades, Frank has expertly run The Hitching Post 2, made famous in the film Sideways, an old-school restaurant known for awesome steak, fish and chicken plus fantastic red wines, delivered by exceptional servers, all at the right price.
Frank Ostini is recognized for his talent in a special regional Santa Maria style of barbecue that dates back to the 19th century, when ranchers held Spanish-style cookouts, grilling simply seasoned top-block sirloin and tri-tip over a native local oak species to add a smoky flavor to the meat. This bbq draws fans from around the world and for very good reason.
Because of favorable buzz, we were drawn to Ostini’s latest venture, Hitching Post Wines’ first-ever tasting room on a 12-acre site adjacent to the restaurant. A deep fragrance of red oak hangs in the air as you approach the tasting room, a beautifully renovated 1950s-era farm cottage on four idyllic acres overlooking the Santa Ynez River and mountains beyond. The charming cottage has a gray exterior trimmed in white accents and window shutters. Guests first view a cast iron Hitching Post brand inlaid into the polished concrete floor when entering the front door. A main tasting room has polished original oak floors and a fireplace dating from before 1950. The color palette includes warm stone grays with details of white, copper and bronze.
There is a private tasting room ensconced in gray wainscoting accented by a distressed corrugated tin ceiling. Separating the two wings is a secondary tasting room showcasing historical photos of Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley, Frank’s longtime partner producing outstanding Hitching Post reds and whites of superb quality.
Throughout the property are walkways and casual picnic areas that invite guests to linger over a bottle of wine while taking in the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains and river landscape. Dogs with attending families are welcome. It’s all serene and calm here, just the right tone and setting to settle in and put the feed bag on.
Thirsty from our drive, we started by attacking some wines. 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. We tasted a darn good Chardonnay, Rose and loved the Hitching Post’s flagship Highliner Pinot.
Then we headed to the cleanly scrubbed picnic tables shaded by trees and overhead screens located around the property. We placed our orders with a friendly young couple and took in the delightful views. Frank offers two menus: one for lunch and another for afternoon snacks.
Among the fulsome lunch options ($10-$12) were grilled chicken salad, corn & cheese quesadilla, grilled artichoke with smoked tomato mayonnaise, oak grilled burger, steak & caramelized onion sandwich, triple-fried french fries, and pulled pork sandwich on a soft brioche bun. Something called “The Beyond Burger” with smoked tomato mayo and eggplant jam is, well, beyond delicious.
The snack menu, served from 2 pm Sunday-Friday, heats up with roasted garlic done with balsamic, roasted peppers and olive oil spread on toast, bbq mushrooms sautéed in red wine, steak bits served with salsa, stuffed Pasilla pepper with grilled corn salsa, mussels steamed in beer, and grilled Texas quail with Wild Turkey mashed potatoes.
All of this bounty gets transported from the restaurant kitchen in an insulated box mounted on a big tricycle or electric cart. Within minutes up drove the charming Mr. Ostini in said electric cart with our lunches. They were delicious in every sense, reflective of the well-known Hitching Post quality. We lingered for a second glass of vino and just communed with Mother Nature marveling at just how wonderful life can be. She communed back, by the way.
Time to go, we sadly arose and headed to the Mercedes. It was a superb lunch and happy day to remember. A picnic lunch at the Hitching Post Wine Tasting Room is a complete first class wine and food experience to savor whether you are with the one you love, on business or just solo. When you combine excellent cooking, superb, relaxing views, wildlife, smiling service and the finest wines, you have a combination that simply can’t be beat. A marvelous time with several glasses of wine and a fine meal can easily come in under $100. The tasting room is open Sunday – Thursday: 11 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. Lunch service from The Hitching Post 2 is available from 11:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.; the snacks menu from 2:00 – 4:30 Sunday-Thursday and Friday-Saturday 2:00 – 7:30 p.m with limited cheese and charcuterie available for purchase in the tasting room. Be sure and take a few bottles home after lunch as we did!