James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Tri‑Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

Tri‑Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

Wine in Santa Barbara

It had been a few years since I’d gone wine-tasting in the hills above Santa Barbara. I had good memories: meandering country roads that led to decent wines and excellent tri-tip sandwiches. I’d gone through a divorce and gotten remarried, coming out the other side fitter and happier. Kelli, my new person, and I were both looking forward to going back to the Santa Barbara wine country; she had spent time there in her previous life and we were keen on making new memories. The Santa Barbara wine country, meanwhile, had gone through Sideways.

I left the wines to Kelli. My task and purpose: find a good tri-tip sandwich. Tri-tip is the great mystery meat of Central California, a particular cut of sirloin that most non-Californians have never heard of. I knew just the place. R Country Market, a tiny grocery store located on the edge of the town of Los Olivos. I’d been there on previous trips; my memories were of huge slabs of beef slowly roasting over a wood fire to still-bloody perfection, then sliced and served atop delicate French rolls. I remembered the sandwich costing five bucks; if memory served, that was also what the wineries charged for tastings, if they charged you at all. The plan was to grab a couple of sandwiches and eat them over a tasting at the Zaca Mesa winery.

My first clue that things had gone, well, sideways: the big grill outside of the R Country Market was unlit. Walking past it, it looked like it hadn’t been fired up in a while. We ordered two tri-tip sandwiches at the counter at $12 a piece, and they were handed to us, foil-wrapped, from beneath a warming light. “Maybe they were carved just before we got here,” I said to Kelli. I also noticed lots of people wandering up and down the streets of Los Olivos. It was a Sunday. Shouldn’t they be at home?

The Zaca Mesa winery had a bit of a crowd as well, people who weren’t there to merely taste, but to drink—open bottles were at every occupied table. The tastings were $15 a person. Inflation and Hollywood, I thought. We unwrapped our sandwiches. The meat inside was cooked to the greyish color favored by hospital kitchen cooks and the current President of the United States. It was served on what appeared to be slices of grocery store garlic bread. My fond memory had become production-line food, tourist grub. At least the wine was decent. I sipped at it, trying to stretch those 15 dollars. As we left, a guy from one of the crowded tables yelled out “I’m NOT drinking fucking Merlot!”, to the delight of his companions. It was the fifth time I’d heard Paul Giamatti’s signature line that day, and happy hour was still two hours away.

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