A visit to Solvang

“I will NOT drink any fucking Merlot!”
– Paul Giamatti’s character Miles from the film “Sideways”

Most people would recognize the tiny town of Solvang, Calif., from the award-winning film “Sideways.” It is a kitschy little place in the heart of California’s Central Coast Wine Country, featuring a walkable town center with windmills, Danish bakeries, clock shops and wine tasting rooms. Imagine a tiny village from Denmark transplanted onto California’s coast, and you have Solvang. It is absolutely adorable.

I thought I would spend an hour in Solvang before continuing the drive south to Santa Barbara — just to take a few pictures of the windmills, hit up the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, go to a wine tasting, then move on. But I was so enchanted with this little town, I decided to stay the night.

As I strolled the quaint streets lined with gingerbread-style buildings, it felt like I was stepping into a fairy tale, even if that fairy tale atmosphere is slightly manufactured to delight Solvang’s visitors. I am a sucker for a quirky destination that draws upon the imagination. When I feel like a little girl again, I want to hang onto that feeling. And Solvang turned me into a wide-eyed eight-year-oId girl. I actually caught myself skipping a few times.

Eager to make sure I could spend the night, I found a 12-room motel on Solvang’s main street that had a neon vacancy sign. There aren’t a lot of hotels and motels in Solvang, as the town itself is only a few blocks. Fortunately, it was a Tuesday night, and midweek travel to Central Coast Wine Country isn’t as crushing as it is on weekends. I considered myself lucky in regards to this timing. After walking into the motel to inquire about availability, I walked out with keys to Room No. 12 at the Viking Motel.

Yes, Vikings are huge in Solvang. As is The Little Mermaid, clogs, tulips, Hans Christian and, of course, wine. Amidst the colorful kitsch, the people who come here are very, very serious about their wine. It is pretty amusing, this yin-yang of playfulness and seriousness in a town such as Solvang.

It is not so far off from what you see in the film “Sideways” actually.

In an arts-meets-reality moment, I actually walked into a conversation at a local wine bar about … Merlot. A guy in a baseball cap was discussing with the bartender about how it was definitely, most definitely, a “last resort” wine and should only be used in blends. It took a lot of effort to control my laughter, mainly because I was buzzed from an earlier wine tasting in town.

The entire night of wine tastings and wine bar hopping in Solvang — on Tuesday night, in the rain — evoked the jovial pub crawls of Ireland. I would walk into a bar, sit down and immediately make friends with those around me. Even though I was a solo visitor, I felt embraced by the other guests, the locals and Solvang’s bartenders. It’s the type of scenario that I would not be able to replicate in Chicago.

I had a private wine tasting with a bartender who was on the verge of closing up shop, which led to another poignant moment in my visit. I learned a little bit about her life story in the process of sipping Pinot Noirs and Melanges and nibbling on cheese and chocolate. An older woman in her “golden years,” as she described it, she’s moved around quite a bit over the years. When I told her the short version of my story, and how I am making my way back home to Chicago after nearly five months of travel, and that I looked forward to settling back into some sense of normalcy … she smiled.

“Nothing will be the same when you go back,” she said. “Remember that.”

Then she poured me another glass of wine.

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