santa maria

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


My first impression was not exactly positive.

I was a pre-pubescent, extremely self-conscious, buck-toothed kid trapped on a "family getaway" that involved standing on the side of the freeway in front of a chain-link fence decorated with a giant wooden rosary while large vehicles barreled past. Apparently, someone in Santa Maria claimed they had seen the Virgin Mary, so my very Catholic parents had to make a pilgrimage. (Growing up, nearly all of our family trips involved going to uncomfortable places in the middle of nowhere because someone had a vision. Don't even get me started about the time we went to a farm in rural Georgia and prayed in a field for hours and it was hot and the only bathroom was a port-a-potty.)

Naturally, I tried not to return to Santa Maria ever again. And I didn't -- until after college, when I was living in San Luis Obispo. This time, the pilgrimages were all about going to Del Taco. Many prayers of gratitude were uttered for those nacho fries (which aren't on the menu, so you have to ask for them specially and now you know). Hallelujah, praise the Del Classic Chicken Burrito!

It's funny how Santa Maria keeps sneaking back in there.

I flew down yesterday for a media dinner at one of our wineries. I turned my rental car east, past ag silos and row after row of thick, leafy green crops, and ended up in rolling hills and a patchwork of vineyards. I saw deer. And hawks. And a tarantula crossing the road. (Seriously, it is kind of disturbing when a spider is so large that you can identify it as a spider from the vantage point of the driver's seat.)

The dinner itself was a miracle: About an hour before the event was scheduled to start, the winery lost power and water. Which meant the 20 health-and-fitness journalists -- who had just finished a two-and-half-hour bus ride -- were greeted with toilets that wouldn't flush. And the caterer providing the meal was trying to cook with bottled water. And our poor winemaker -- up since 5 a.m. and caught in the throes of harvest -- had wine stuck mid-pump and looked like she wanted to pull her hair out.

But thankfully, just as we were about to sit down and do our best, the power came back. The toilets flushed. The food was served (a pistachio-themed menu -- really incredible). And the winemaker gave a wonderful introduction to the advantages -- and occasional challenges -- of growing grapes on the benchlands of Santa Maria.

And you know what she said?

"This is God's country."

I should've guessed.

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