Frank Ostini’s Santa Barbara County steakhouse, The Hitching Post II, is famous for its Santa Maria–style barbecued meats, and for the fact that it figured prominently in what locals call “the movie”: Sideways. (I wrote about the restaurant in the October 2008 issue of Gourmet, which hits newsstands in a little over a week.) Ostini is more than a restaurateur, though. For almost 30 years, he and his colleague, Gray Hartley, have made wine under the Hartley–Ostini Hitching Post label.
Both men are self-taught in this pursuit. Ostini graduated from the University of California at Davis, famous for its school of viticulture and enology, but he studied environmental planning. “I didn’t even take the famous wine-tasting class,” he says, “let alone set foot in the enology department.” But he became the wine buyer at the original Hitching Post—not far away in Casmalia, and owned by his siblings—just because he was interested in wine. As he traveled around the California wine country and got to know the winemakers, his interest grew into a passion. “I realized pretty quickly,” he says, “that making good wine was about starting with good grapes”—something it turned out his part of Southern California had in abundance.
Gray Hartley is from the Los Angeles area, but, as he puts it, “At the age of 21, I drove a ’47 Plymouth all the way to Alaska and ended up staying there as a salmon fisherman for 27 years.” Eventually, he decided to head back south, where he began fishing off the Channel Islands, off the state’s Central Coast. He found a house in Casmalia and, drawn by the seductive aromas coming from The Hitching Post, became a regular there. “One night,” he says, “I saw a group of people who were obviously getting ready to run out on the check. I told a young man who was working there about it, and then followed them out into the parking lot and got their license number. That’s how I met Frank.”
The two became friends, and one evening, Ostini asked Hartley if he had any interest in trying to make some wine. Sure, said Hartley. They released their first wine in 1979. Today the winery is famous most of all for its Pinot Noirs, but that wine was a Merlot (those who have seen Sideways will appreciate the irony). “We still make it,” Ostini says. “We have a great source for grapes. Our joke is that we’re making Merlot tongue-in-cheek. But it’s really pretty good wine, and we can sell it.”
From 1984 to 1989, the winemaker at Hartley-Ostini was Ostini’s then-wife, Lane Tanner, who had actually trained as an enologist. Her efforts brought serious attention to the winery for the first time, and established the enterprise as a contender in the Pinot Noir game. (Tanner now has her own eponymous winery, and continues to make excellent wine.)
Ostini and Hartley got a big break when they “stumbled upon” the Sierra Madre Vineyard in nearby Santa Maria. “Previously,” says Ostini, “all the grapes had been going into blends, bulk wines, but we realized that it was producing really good fruit. The vineyard did naturally what everybody does with vineyards now, producing a low crop without a lot of water.” Eventually other people noticed, and the Robert Mondavi Winery bought Sierra Madre. “They continued selling to us for a few years and then stopped—but we found other sources that were just as good. Today we buy from eight or ten different Pinot Noir vineyards, and make about 24 different lots of wine in all, from different clones, different picks. We keep them all separate and let them develop their personalities, then blend them every spring.” The results, some of them with professional fishing terms for names (Highliner, Corkdancer, Perfect Set), tend to be elegant and fairly dripping with Pinot Noir character.
“I still pretend that I just make wine for the restaurant,” says Ostini. “I also claim that I like to blend because I’m a chef. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”