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In Lompoc, a W.C. Fields trip for two

An amble in the comedian's footsteps yields enough history and hospitality to keep spirits high.

March 30, 2003|Barry Zwick | Times Staff Writer

Lompoc, Calif. — We set off from the San Fernando Valley late one hazy Friday morning with only two notions about our destination: It was the flower seed capital of the nation, and the locals were drunk and dysfunctional. The first we learned in school, and the second we learned from "The Bank Dick."

W.C. Fields' 1940 movie classic is set in Lompoc, and my wife, Bobbie, and I have seen it countless times (and, of course, know the depiction of locals is fictional). In October, we decided to walk in Fields' footsteps.

We took U.S. 101 north about 100 miles to Santa Rosa Road, just south of Buellton, and drove west through the green and gold Santa Rita Hills. After 20 minutes, we pulled into the Sanford La Rinconada Winery's long driveway, thinking of Fields' screenplay for "The Bank Dick." Fields had described Egbert Souse, the dissolute hero he played, as "a scholar, gentleman and judge of good grape."

At the tasting bar, we told the hostess, "We're here for the tour."

"Tour?" she asked. "What tour?"

We had made an appointment three weeks in advance, we told her. She rounded up Mike Chase, the general contractor who broke ground for the winery two years before. We sampled four wines, including a lush Pinot Noir, and then set off with Chase.

"No trees died to build this winery," Chase said, explaining that even the oak aging barrels were made from recycled materials. "This winery is certified organic."

Inspired, we drove 25 minutes more to Lompoc, in search of the less high-minded people. From three blocks away, we spotted the most striking building in town, the 1890 House, a tall Queen Anne bed-and-breakfast inn painted cream and yellow with cobalt and rust-colored trim. A white picket fence surrounds the inn, identical to the fence around Egbert Souse's house in Fields' film.

Chuck Arnold, our ebullient host, welcomed us warmly and introduced us to his cheerful wife, Barbara. They told us they bought the house in 1989 and spent more than a year restoring it. The radios, telephones and hand-cranked Victrola were working antiques. The house smelled as if Grandma had been baking.

Bobbie and I walked up the stairs to our guest room, one of two in the house. Ours was pink and cream, with a canary yellow comforter and heavy, dark wood furniture. A curio cabinet filled with miniature vases and apothecary jars decorated one wall, and Renoir prints hung on another. The queen bed looked a trifle snug and the bathroom was down the hall, but for $80 a night, the room was a steal.

Market and murals

Bobbie and I crossed the street to Lompoc's Friday farmers market, past smoking barbecue grills the size of Suburbans, past flourishes of peppers and pumpkins. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chuck Arnold at a fruit stall, painstakingly selecting the best strawberries for our breakfast.

We headed for Lompoc's walk of murals. Since 1988 artists have been painting murals depicting town history. The works total more than 60. Our favorite was "Temperance," showing Mrs. J.B. Pierce, ax in hand, leading a group of women using rope to tug a saloon off its foundation -- an event that took place in 1883. The women towed the saloon for a block, and the streets ran with whisky. Lompoc was founded in 1874 as a temperance colony, which is why Fields singled it out for ridicule.

Temperance was not the order of the evening at the 1890 House, where we joined the Arnolds and their collegian granddaughter, Nina, for Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. They served us cheese and fruitcake and told us funny stories about their travels around the world with the Air Force, in which Chuck made his career. Nina wound up the Victrola and played big-band favorites from a tall stack of old 78 rpm records.

We drove nine blocks north to Saletti's, a brightly lighted oasis on a chilly and windy night.

Sophie, our charming young French waitress, presented a wine list, well balanced and reasonable, and menus. We decided on a Qupe Syrah for $25. Bobbie ordered broccoli cauliflower soup and rack of New Zealand lamb with mango chutney, and I chose roasted red pepper soup and macadamia-crusted halibut. Our dinners were wonderful. Faith Saletti, who owns the restaurant with her husband, chef John, stopped by to apologize for keeping us waiting, though we had spent only 90 seconds in the lobby. Wes Hagen, winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards on the road out of Lompoc, dropped off glasses of his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for us to sample. The chef's mother stopped at our table twice to ask whether we were happy. Sophie told us her tale of coming to San Diego as an au pair and ending up in Lompoc.

This does not happen to us at home.

We woke the next morning to the strains of Mozart and the aroma of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. As we hurried downstairs, we saw Chuck spooning whipped cream and homemade boysenberry jam over thick sweet potato Belgian waffles and towers of fresh strawberries. Our lace tablecloth was set with candles, red and pink roses, fine china and elegant stemware.

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