The warm and smoky scent of a wood-burning fire wafts through the rolling landscape at Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort in central California.
I follow the eucalyptus-laced aroma like a barbecue bloodhound over the creek and through a grassy knoll to the source: A large, black ironwork grill with embers as red as the oak fueling the fire.
A small group of us—30 or so—fill the seats in front of the ether-filling inferno, and like giddy first-day-of-middle-schoolers, we clutch our Alisal BBQ Bootcamp booklets and wait for legendary grill master Frank Ostini to ring the bell.
“I’m just the barbecue guy,” he says waving off applause and taking his place behind the grill; a smile curving under his distinctive moustache.
Learning the tricks of the trade from Chef Ostini is like getting a relativity lesson from Einstein himself. Ostini was practically born with a pair of tongs in his hand at his family’s steakhouse that specialized in Santa Maria-style barbecue, or the process of grilling meat over a Live Coast Oak (red oak) fire. Today, Ostini is the regional spokesman for Santa Maria-style barbecue and he helped make the traditional cooking method famous in his award-winning restaurant, The Hitching Post II, which was featured in the Academy Award-winning, anything-but-Merlot film, Sideways.
As Ostini casually flips a locally-sourced beef tri-tip the size of a paperback novel, he tells our group of eager carnivores that Santa Maria style celebrates the soul of central California through: 1) deeply rooted techniques tied to the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Native Americans, and 2) the unique adjustable ironwork grill brought by the Spanish to central California in the 1800s. The fragrant, local red oak ties everything together.
“We tell a story and communicate culture through taste,” Ostini says. “Alisal is a perfect place to do that.”
Ostini has been instrumental in developing and expanding the Alisal BBQ Bootcamp, which started more than 60 years ago. The program has grown into an interactive, two-night event of workshops and receptions with award-winning chefs, winemakers and farmers from the region. Ostini and Alisal Executive Chef Anthony Endy are staples at the boot camp, and they complement a wide range of culinary talent and featured guests: This weekend, for example, includes learning to cook wood-fired pizza with chef and owner Clark Staub from Full of Life Flatbread in Los Alamos; building signature spice blends and rubs; and mastering a crème fraiche skillet cake with cherries and rhubarb in a Big Green Egg grill with chef Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections in Los Angeles.
But first, we must try the tri tip, now grilled to smoky perfection. It is melt-in-your-mouth tender. The owners of Firestone Walker Brewery share stories over sips of IPA, and Gray Hartley, co-owner of Hitching Post Wines with Ostini, fills wine glasses with a smooth, spicy red. Before the Sideways fame, Hartley, a retired Alaskan fisherman, named one of their pinots the “Hitching Post Highliner” in honor of the great fishermen he worked with for 28 years at the salmon fishery (“highliner” being the best fishermen in the fleet). The Highliner was the featured wine in Sideways and is still one of their most popular wines. I wonder what it will take to earn a glass after my first fly-fishing lesson in the morning.
Alisal has been a full-service guest ranch since it opened in 1946. Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley and surrounded by mountains, the Western-style resort offers more than 10,000 acres of adventure including 50 miles of horseback riding trails, two 18-hole championship golf courses, tennis courts and a large spring-fed lake.
The quaint guest cottages and suites are a throwback to simpler times (read: no television or telephones in the rooms). And smartphone service is spotty (if you must update your Instagram account with delicious photos of barbecue, try the front parking lot). But that’s what the generations of visitors expect here.
I meet two young families on the hay wagon (our yesteryear ride to Alisal Lake for fishing) who offer similar stories: They grew up vacationing at Alisal, and they want to share this slice of a bygone time with their kids. The 8-year-old girl sitting next to me says she caught three fish last time she was here.
Feels like a challenge.
The 20-minute ride winds past giant sycamores and the occasional guest-on-horseback on the way to the water. My fly-fishing guide, Mark Dullea, puts our rods and gear in the boat and Mitch Giese, another fishing guide, unties us from the dock. We motor through the water in search of the perfect spot. “Over here where we caught a bunch yesterday,” Mark instructs to Mitch. Mark goes on to tell us about his first time fly fishing: He learned all he knows from the guy who taught Queen Elizabeth to fly fish. That’s quite the royal high bar.
I ask Mark if he’s noticed an increase in women interested in fly fishing. ”Absolutely,” he says. “And you know what I like about this trend? Women listen more. So while her husband is struggling to get a bite, she’s bringing them in!”
We cut the engine a few yards from the shoreline and hear a loud squawk. I look up in the gnarled branches of a tree to see a baby bald eagle spreading its wings; the mother swooping into the nest with breakfast. To the right, a doe and her fawn dance through the brush. A native Michigander with an eye for nature, I’ve never seen anything like it. Then I spy two spotted cows under the eagle tree. They sigh and look past us, slowly chewing, as if to say, “no big deal—we see this every day.”
Also unimpressive: my casting ability.
Mark shows me—again—how to cast and then hands me the rod. I follow his advice—nearly taking off his head—and whip the line back and forth before casting out into the water; Mitch uses a traditional spinning lure. A few moments tick by. Nothing. We try again. Not even a nibble. And then Mitch hooks a bluegill. Probably a three-pounder, we muse, and then release the monster back into the water.
We move to the next spot. Cast. I feel some movement and a tug. But it’s something green. Seaweed. Mitch hooks a largemouth bass. Then another bluegill. And then another largemouth bass.
By the end of the lesson, I’ve had some bites, but no catch. Mark looks distraught, but I remind him that we saw a baby eagle. And I got a good arm workout, which will help tonight at the final dinner where we help behind the grill before enjoying another Santa Maria-style feast.
The allure of a boot camp—at least for me—is the opportunity to emerge a changed woman. I’ll be stronger. Smarter. And—considering the past 48 hours here at Alisal—push myself past the meatsweats to taste, grill and devour more than I ever thought possible.
At the pancake breakfast on the final morning, our group gathers around a campfire. We make small talk about vacation plans and how we may never eat again after this weekend. And then the triangle sounds and we happily grab a plate to savor one more taste of central California—Alisal style.