Celebrating Sanford & Benedict: Santa Barbara Wine Community Gathers for 40th Anniversary of Landmark Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/25/16

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard
“I call this vineyard, ‘hallowed ground,’” winemaker Frank Ostini tells me, referring to the sweeping Sanford & Benedict Vineyard that runs along Santa Rosa Road in Lompoc.  “It’s one of the birthplaces of an industry that’s really substantial now.”

That nostalgia, and a first-hand appreciation for all that this fertile lot has to offer, is what inspired Ostini to throw a spectacular fete this past weekend in its honor.  And to celebrate the men who, in a story that’s probably equal parts personal intuition and divine intervention, brought it to life.  And to celebrate the wines that have been born here for decades.

Richard Sanford and Michael Benedict were there -- a dual celeb sighting, of sorts, and a rare treat, especially since Benedict keeps a pretty low profile these days.  Winemakers who’ve made wine from the pinot noir and chardonnay that have always flourished here came, too: long-timers like Jim Clendenen, Bill Wathen and Rick Longoria, along with buzzy newcomers like Gavin Chanin, Rajat Parr and Nick de Luca.  And then there was the wine: dozens of bottles, many of them rarities, all made from Sanford & Benedict fruit and all representing every vintage between 1976 and 2014.

So, a lot of sipping to do.

Dinner was served up by the stellar crew from Frank and Jami Ostini’s Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton – duck, ribeye, lobster tails, chicken, veggies, all roasted and smoked over that signature oak wood fire.  We feasted inside the old barn that sits overlooking the vines, a rustic wooden structure with vaulted ceilings and stone floors, shrouded in yellow lichen, that once housed the first Sanford & Benedict winery.  And as the evening hummed along, and as guests clinked and mingled, it was impossible to ignore – visible in all its glory through those oversize barn doors – the night’s true guest of honor. 

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard is a gorgeous property, breathtaking in the way it undulates to and fro and in the way it glows as it’s bathed by the afternoon sun.  This time of year, with harvest in full effect, those vigorous vines are ample and shapely, buxom even, and full of promise.  It’s a forgone fact now, of course – that they will yield grapes of the utmost caliber.  What Ostini calls “the fruits of a truly grand cru-type vineyard.”

We know that now.  And the wines we’re sipping all evening long, regardless of age – in fact, especially the chardonnays and pinots with several years on them – are a testament to that.  The Sanford & Benedict name on any label is a badge of honor.  Pedigree.  Lineage, even.

But it was different in the beginning.  There were no grapevines planted in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA when Sanford and Benedict partnered in the early 1970s.  They were trying something totally new.  Setting a new course.  Unchartered territory.  Though Sanford, a Vietnam navy lieutenant who was now, in his 20s, aiming to connect with nature as a way to reconcile the pain of a thankless return home, did feel a special connection to this untamed plot.  “The climate and the structure of the soils were so remarkable and unique,” he tells me.  “And then there was just the physical beauty of the place.”

Sanford and Benedict’s first pinot, vintage 1976, generated buzz right away.  It was a remarkable wine.  Something special was happening in an unknown part of Santa Barbara County, and the industry took notice.  And 40 years later, the fascination continues.

Michael Benedict and daughter, left, catching up with Thekla and Richard Sanford
Winemakers Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), Steve Fennell (Sanford) and Frank Ostini (The Hitching Post), all of whom source the fruit behind them for their wines
Ostini with Foxen winemaker Bill Wathen
Clendenen with Carina Cellars' David Hardee
The Wathens and the Saglies
Plenty of wine to go around...
...and a good time was had by all
The Hitching Post II knows how to throw a feast
Richard Sanford
The story of this vineyard comes with some ups and downs, a few twists and turns.  Sanford sold his stake in the vineyard to launch Sanford Winery in 1981.  A tough decision, he says.  But when Robert Atkins, and English wine collector, bought the property from Benedict in 1990, he tapped Sanford to manage it.  “The fact that the vineyard came back to me was extraordinary,” says Sanford.  He’d go on to plant vineyards adjacent to Sanford & Benedict – La Rinconada and La Encantada – and he’d build a dream winery.  But financial challenges would force the Sanfords to bring on the Terlato family, big industry players, to help.  And the new investors would eventually buy Sanford Winery, along with Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, outright.  Today, the Terlatos continue to make major investments in both enterprises: the vineyard has seen a handful of re-plantings, though many of the original vines remain, while the Sanford label, under the direction of winemaker Steve Fennell, continues to produce outstanding wines.  Richard and Thekla Sanford now make wine under the Alma Rosa label, which always impresses.

Through it all, when it comes to Sanford & Benedict, “there’s a lot of my soul that remains there,” says Sanford, almost wistfully.  And that makes his presence among this ebullient crowd of wine lovers especially wonderful.

Frank Ostini (and that's me wearing real cowboy boots!)
The night wears on and the wine flows.  Many of the winemakers will pause, on occasion, to reflect on the common denominator in the dozens of bottles before us: this beautiful vineyard just a few feet away, which is now sparkling under an August moon.  “There was always this sense that this was a great spot, that this was a great vineyard for pinot noir,” says winemaker Rick Longoria, who’s been sourcing from Sanford & Benedict since 1985. 

“You know it’s a great vineyard when it can make wine that’s good when it’s young and when it’s old,” says Ostini.  “Some of us aspire to make wine that continues to get interesting over time,” he adds, and Sanford & Benedict allows for that.

Even Sanford admits, “Within the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, you can specifically taste the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.  The deep soils, the weathered rocks, the climate – they give character to all the wines made from this place.  And I can taste that connection.”

A connection 40 years in the making.

This very special 40th anniversary celebration of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard's first vintage was an experience co-sponsored by the Ostinis and Sanford Winery and auctioned off live during this year’s Santa Barbara Wine Auction.  The affair, thrown by the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners’ Foundation, is held every two years to benefit Direct Relief.  To date, it has raised more than $4 million.

For more information, check out sbwineauction.org


Through the Years: Jaffurs Tastes through 15 Vintages of Syrah

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/11/16

“Thinking of ageability is a more recent worry,” winemaker Craig Jaffurs tells the small group of friends sitting amidst a cavalcade of wine bottles.  “When we started, we just wanted to make a wine that was clean, palatable, immediately accessible and a little bit powerful.”

This special gathering of about 15 people at Jaffurs Wine Cellars last week is certainly a time to reminisce.  Jaffurs Winery GM Dave Yates is here – the two left the aerospace industry together to embark in the wine industry in 1994.  So is co-winemaker Matt Brady, who joined Jaffurs in 2005, and assistant winemaker Stephen Searle.  Antonio Gardella, credited with selling more Jaffurs wine during his tenure at distributor Henry Wine Group, is in attendance, along with a handful of longtime wine club members, wine aficionados and local wine writers, like me and Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, who’ve been tracking the Jaffurs effect for many years.

Thompson Vineyard is here, too, in more ways than one.  New owner Noah Rowles is tasting with us, along with vineyard manager Jason Grupp.  But this special spot – a rambling 42-acre estate along Alisos Canyon in the Los Alamos Valley – is also inside each of the bottles that have been popped open this afternoon.  Thompson bore its first fruit harvest in 1994, the same years Jaffurs started making wine.  And the newness that brought these two together 22 years ago would turn out to be shared promise, in the form of a Thompson Vineyard-designate syrah – and fruit soured from the very same block – made under the Jaffurs label every year since.

Today, Jaffurs makes several vineyard-specific syrahs every year – his current releases feature Bien Nacido, Kimsey and Larner, along with Thompson – as well as a blended entry-level Santa Barbara County syrah and a super-premium selection of each year’s six best barrels, dubbed Upslope.  But his relationship with Thompson is important.  “I was making wine at night back then, and on weekends,” he tells us, “and sourcing from Thompson from the very start certainly helped push my winemaking along.”

The lineup
The tasting
The aftermath
The winemaker
The original
The cork was pulled slowly from the unlabeled bottle of 1994 Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard syrah that we were about to share.  This was a special treat: once we emptied it, only three bottles of Jaffurs’ very first creation would remain.  As expected, lots of sediment in the glass.  But the racy acidity, the juiciness, and the red licorice flavors in the wine are remarkable.  “I was tickled,” Jaffurs would later tell me.  “It’s still holding up – enchanting, nice flavors, still lighter in color and aromas you don’t usually get.”

The impetus for our gathering, though, is to witness how Jaffurs’ Thompson Vineyard syrahs have grown and developed in the years since.   We’re gathered inside the eastside Santa Barbara facility that Jaffurs opened in 2000, where, all along, a philosophy of limited intervention – minimal handling or pumping, no filtering or fining – has prevailed.  But the Jaffurs team has never before done a comprehensive 15-year analytical tasting like this – a side-by-side comparison of the 15 vintages from 1998 to 2013.    The nuances we’re about to find will, most likely, be snapshots of year-over-year variations in weather.  And whatever common thread emerges will show us what happens when sense of place and winemaking knack coalesce.

While all wines impress, several vintages shine for me.  The ’99 showcases a liqueur nose, velvety mouth feel and solid tanning structure; it tastes surprisingly young.  The 2001 is balanced and structured, with lively flavors and a grippy texture.  The perfume on the 2005 is lovely, and there are caramel notes and supple tannins.  The 2007 is downright beautiful, with an intense black cherry nose and a lively bounce in the mouth.  The mint and tobacco profile on the 2008 is fascinating.  The 2010 and 2011 syrahs, both products of a soggy growing season, are remarkably spicy, earthy and tangy.  And the newest wines, the 2012 and the yet-to-be-released 2013, impress with red fruit character, springy acidity and clean finish.

Jaffurs would later tell me that he’s especially impressed by the 2007 – a vintage he had previously underestimated – and the 2012, which, with age, “is going to be a dynamite wine,” he said.  But the entire lineup pleases him, actually, “because there is a lot of uniformity.”  Indeed, if there is a common thread here, it’s purity and balance and a drinking experience driven by red fruit flavors, spice edges and elegant finishes.  A clear dependability to Jaffurs’ syrahs, year after year, is what’s helped him develop a successful brand.

“That’s what I want for the consumer,” he’d later tell me.  “That when you see a Jaffurs wine on a list, you can order it blindly and know that there’s quality there and that you’re going to get a nice glass of wine.”

The 15 vintages I tasted are certainly proof of that.

Many of the notes gathered last week will be part of an upcoming Jaffurs wine club newsletter.  You can taste Jaffurs’ latest releases, which also include viognier, grenache and pinot noir, at the winery, 819 E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara.  You can also shop for wine on the website, jaffurswine.com.


Pit Stop: Vintner Hopes New Tesla Charging Station Revs Up Business

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/29/16

Rick Longoria moved into his brand new winemaking and wine tasting facility in Lompoc just last week.  It’s a pit stop for wine aficionados to be sure: Mr. Longoria’s premium reds and whites have been among Santa Barbara’s most sought-after wines for almost 35 years.  But there’s something else onsite that’s got customers all charged up.

This Tesla charger makes Longoria Winery a destination
The Lompoc Winery Tasting Room at 415 E. Chestnut just became the only location in Lompoc, and one of a few in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Tesla car owners can charge their vehicles.  As part of Tesla Destination Charging, the 9000-square-foot facility is outfitted with a high-power wall connector and appears on a GPS-powered interactive website that Tesla Model S drivers can navigate through a touchscreen on their car’s center console.

“We’ve always been eco-conscious,” says Mr. Longoria, so the charging station is really an extension of the way he and his wife, Diana, run their business.  In fact, “when we were developing this property, I had space in the parking lot pre-wired to accept a charger.”  The Longorias then applied to have Tesla Motors approve their tasting room as a charging destination.  Approval, based on hours of operation, location and amenities, meant that Tesla picked up the costs for the charging unit and half the installation.  And now, “we’re the only spot along Highway 1 between Goleta and Arroyo Grande where Tesla owners can stop for a charge.”

The convenience has the potential of generating business.  The stations add 58 miles of range per hour, just enough time for drivers to stretch their legs and visit the Longoria facility.  “Tesla owners are well- heeled, so they’re the key demographic for wines in our price range,” says Mr. Longoria, whose wines range from $19 to $55, with most vineyard-designate pinot noirs priced at $50.  “They’re the perfect group for us to get in front of.”

The dual charger at Bob's Well Bread in Los Alamos, one for Teslas
and one for everything else, like this BMW i3
Longoria joins a rapidly growing network of Tesla charging locations on the Central Coast.  Only one other winery in Santa Barbara County has one: Presqu’ile in Santa Maria.  Spots in Santa Barbara include hotels like The Canary, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore and The Fess Parker – a DoubleTree by Hilton Resort.  In North County, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton, ForFriends Inn in Santa Ynez and public parking lots in Solvang have them.  And the only Los Alamos spot, Bob’s Well Bread Bakery, has provided a dual charging station – one for Tesla Model S cars and a universal plug for all other electric car types – for the last 10 months, with most all installation costs picked up by Tesla Motors. 

Rick Longoria welcomes the Taylors to charge and sip
“The only thing I’m responsible for is promoting it, and for the electric bill,” says owner and master baker Bob Oswaks.  With monthly power costs that amount to less than $20, and with the foot traffic the charging outpost drives to his doorstep, this is also about smart business for him.  “They hang out here and eat, so it gives us a chance to make a good impression,” adds Mr. Oswaks, “especially as more and more electric cars hit the road.” 

Since last week’s opening, the Longorias have welcomed just one couple who found their tasting room on the Tesla website.  They expect many more Model S owners to follow, though.  As Mr. Longoria puts it, “It’s good for us just to be on the map.”


Sold! Legendary Wine Auction Moves Into Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/28/16

CCWC founder Archie McLaren
The Central Coast Wine Classic has been one of the most spectacular wine events in the country for more than 30 years.  The charitable focus of this multi-day affair has certainly been a boon for the Central Coast: from 2004 to 2014, it gifted more than $2.5 million to more than 125 non-profit groups throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.  And then there’s the enviable lineup of wine-centric experiences, from auctions to seminars to that legendary feast at Hearst Castle.

Throughout its lifetime, CCWC has drawn wine aficionados mainly to San Luis Obispo, holding its events in coastal towns like Avila Beach and Pismo Beach and raising the lion’s share of its funds for non-profit radio station KCBX.   But the five-day extravaganza moves down the coast this year: many of its best events – including the signature live auction of spectacular wine and lifestyle items – will be held in Santa Barbara.

The Heasrt Castle dinner
“It’s a combination of experience and intuition,” founder Archie McLaren tells me about this decision to bring his event south.  “We have always had a huge number of supporters from Santa Barbara, and this seemed like an appropriate time to expand.”

McLaren’s accomplishments have always been built on his relationships.  The camaraderie of this well-known bon vivant with some of the great winemakers of the Central Coast helps explain the success of CCWC for decades, as well as the success of the highly regarded WOPN event, or World of Pinot Noir, which he founded with vintner Brian Talley in 2000.  The fact he’s now spending more time at home in Santa Barbara helped pivot the spotlight of CCWC toward a town where people are “increasingly sophisticated, ” according to McLaren, and where they are “more and more interested these days in the symbiotic relationship between fine wine and fine cuisine.”

The 2016 Central Coast Wine Classic will run August 10-14.  The experiences begin up north on Wednesday, with a barrel tasting and auction at San Luis Obispo’s Greengate Ranch followed by a pair of wine dinner options.  Thursday afternoon will see the option of a vineyard tour and luncheon at legendary Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles ($75) or a Bordeaux seminar and lunch at nearby Eberle Vineyard ($115).  That evening beings the spectacular Dinner at Hearst Castle ($1250), where only the historic luxury setting rivals the world-class wine and gourmet food prepped by a bevy of local chefs, including James Sly of Sly’s Restaurant in Carpinteria, James Siao of Finch & Fork at Santa Barbara’s Canary Hotel and private chef Michael Hutchings.

Chef James Sly
On Friday, a tour and tasting event of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande properties ($75) includes breakfast and visits to vineyards like Saucelito Canyon, Talley and Tolosa.

And then the events cross the county line.

Friday afternoon, iconic vintner Richard Sanford will host a tour of his Alma Rosa Winery in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills, along with tastings and lunch ($75).  Later, a chardonnay and pinot noir seminar at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in the downtown Funk Zone ($75) will feature wines by Babcock and Fess Parker while a pinot noir symposium at the newly-renovated Santa Barbara Inn on the waterfront ($75) will showcase wines by Au Bon Climat and Longoria, among others.  That evening, there will be three dinners to choose from: a Rare Wine Dinner with exclusive French wines at the Santa Barbara Club ($750), a Winemaker Dinner aboard the Channel Cat catamaran in the Santa Barbara Harbor ($150) and a special feast in the stunning Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse ($150), with wines from Fred Brander and Qupé’s Bob Lindquist.

Double-fisted bidding is encouraged
Saturday will see a morning cabernet sauvignon seminar ($95) and Champagne-and-caviar symposium ($95).  But the climax of CCWC may well be the Saturday afternoon Rare & Fine Wine & Lifestyle Auction and Luncheon ($175), held this year at real estate tycoon Pat Nesbitt’s sprawling Bella Vista Ranch in Summerland.  The 70-acre ocean view estate is a draw all its own, complete with polo field and butterfly garden.  But the oohs-and-aahs are most likely to come from the dozens of spectacular lifestyle lots, including a 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51, a five-star trip for two through France – Paris, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne – and luxury excursions to China and Bhutan.  There are several deluxe dinner experiences up for grabs, as well as original artwork by several high-profile Central Coast artists.  And a slew of local winemakers have donated one-of-a-kind salmanazars of wine – huge nine-liter bottles that are the equivalent of 12 regular bottles.  The event will also feature an exotic car showcase and cuisine by Chefs Frank Ostini (of Hitching Post II fame) and Rick Manson.

For a peek at all 52 live auction lots in the Central Coast Wine Classic auction, click here.

CCWC ends Sunday with an Australian wine roundtable at the Santa Barbara Inn ($75) and a VIP Departure Brunch at Stella Mare’s Restaurant ($95).

This is a spectacle to be sure: 18 events, spread across two counties, and featuring world class wine and food served up by a veritable who’s who of the culinary world in one stunning location after the other.  Most events are close to being sold out.  For more information, check out www.centralcoastwineclassic.com.


Rob DaFoe’s Next Chapter: Cabernet Phenom Now Taming Burgundy

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/14/16

“You’re bottling Sybil when you’re bottling pinot noir,” winemaker Rob DaFoe tells me as we sip. “And you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘When will she surrender?!”

DaFoe is talking about a wine grape he loves, of course, all while candidly comparing it to the psychiatry patient whose bout with multiple personalities famously became a 1970s TV miniseries starring Sally Field.  It’s a newfound realization for DaFoe: that pinot noir undergoes myriad transmutations in its infancy.  “And if you taste all the time to see what’s happening, you’ll go mad,” he says.

Rob DaFoe at the Easy Street Wine Collective, 90 Easy Street, Buellton
Those changes in young pinot – during fermentation and barrel aging and even in bottle – can happen day to day, and they're what DaFoe has come to understand as the wine’s intrinsic evolution.

As winemaker, “you have to trust what you’ve done, that’s the bottom line,” he adds.

I say that these are newfound discoveries for DaFoe because working with Burgundian grapes – pinot and chardonnay – is indeed a new venture for him.  It’s his new label, called Rake, as in a ne’er-do-well scoundrel.  The name was inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song that’s “hauntingly poetic and terrifying at the same time,” according to DaFoe.

But DaFoe has already made an indelible mark on the Santa Barbara winemaking scene with Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon in particular.  I first met DaFoe about 10 years ago, when the pro snowboarder-turned-photographer-turned-filmmaker won acclaim with a movie about making wine, called Ground to Glass.  That intimate documentary, which featured on-camera sit-downs with more than 30 wine industry stars and which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006, was also a creative seed for the man behind the lens.  By 2009, DaFoe had launched the Tanner DaFoe label with friend Jeff Tanner and the wines –a fascinating blend of intuition, knack and good fortune, for sure – were knockouts.  The 2011 cabernet blew my socks off – “a remarkably luscious, rich, elegant wine where flavors and tannins converge in harmony,” I wrote last year.  And four vintages of Tanner DaFoe wines – 2009 through 2012 – have garnered between 90 and 93 points from Wine Spectator, among the highest for any Bordeaux wines from Santa Barbara. (The 2013s are currently in barrel.)

Then, one day, DaFoe became intrigued by rosé.  “It wasn’t really a fit,” for the Tanner DaFoe label, he says.  So Rake was born.

DaFoe is still making cabernet and cab-based blends under Tanner DaFoe; priced between $75 and $110, they’re sourced from a secret vineyard on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Similarly, the magic behind Rake is driven by location.  In 2013, DaFoe got access to the four-acre Destiny Vineyard in Los Alamos, a 50-50 planting of pinot and chard.  “The soils are very clay-like, with a fair amount of sea fossils – perfectly suited for Burgundian grapes,” says the winemaker.

Indeed, if rosé was the genesis for his new project, DaFoe has heeded the call well.  The 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($20) is bracing, lively and fresh.  The acidity is vivid, while the fruity nuances of the pinot grape shine through.  He pours next a sample of his yet-to-be-bottled 2015 rosé, which smacks of Provence, with watermelon and raspberry aromas, a clean roundness on the tongue and spicy pop mid-sip.  Delicious.  And because it’s what sipping rosé tends to inspire, our conversation soon drifts from wine to heady ideas about history, women and life.

I am sipping with DaFoe at the Easy Street Wine Collective in Buellton, a small tasting room that Rake shares with the Cordon label, by DaFoe’s winemaker friend, Etienne Terlinden.  Both men, along with a handful of other boutique producers, work out of the winery that abuts the intimate tasting space.

We taste the 2014 Rake Chardonnay ($30) next, which is bouncy and animated, with limestone and grapefruit notes on the palate, and with a subtle nuttiness in the finish.

And we end with the 2013 Rake Pinot Noir ($35), with a perfumed nose – black cherries and dark berries – and a clean, supple mouth feel.  The wine was bottled only in February, but balance is predominant.  “Every time I taste this, different parts are more dominant and others are more subdued,” DaFoe tells me, harkening back to his Sybil reference.  But “I’m finding that pinot develops way better in bottle anyway,” he adds.  So, certainly, the future for Rake looks bright.

Rake Wines are currently available through the Easy Street Wine Collective tasting room, which is open for public tastings on weekends, as well as Wine + Beer at the Santa Barbara Public Market, Corks 'n Crowns in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone and Pierre Lafond Market in Montecito's Upper Village.

Find out more at www.rakewine.com.


Taking it in Stride: Santa Barbara Restaurateur Walks for Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Spring 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Magazine
photos provided by Tom Dolan

Tom Dolan has long loved taking walking vacations throughout Europe.  “They have an incredible network of trails there that connect beautiful villages,” says the Santa Barbara resident, 58.  But his long-distance treks – exploratory week-long travels on foot on which Mr. Dolan covers 20 miles a day – have taken special meaning ever since he became a restaurateur.

For 20 years, Mr. Dolan worked at Emilio’s in Santa Barbara, a popular Italian bistro where he went from waiting tables to managing.  He’d worked restaurants before, including the Four Seasons Biltmore for 16 years and stints in Seattle, Park City, Los Angeles, even cruise ships.  But it was when Emilio’s closed that Mr. Dolan saw an opening.  With his wife Vicki, a 33-year management veteran of the Four Seasons Biltmore, Mr. Dolan opened Toma Restaurant in 2013.

Suddenly, his walking trips offered something new: a chance to enhance his restaurant’s wine list.

Last year, for example, Mr. Dolan walked 120 miles across Barolo, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.  He started in truffle-laden Alba and visited tiny historic towns like Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d' Alba before giving his soles a rest in Dogliani.  “The landscape is breathtaking – we’re walking through forests and vineyards most of the day – and you meet people you just wouldn’t if you were driving,” says Dolan.  “It’s also extremely hospitable.  The only danger you encounter is overeating and over-drinking!”

That’s what the nights are about – slow, multi-course meals and mingling with locals ‘til late.  But the days, aside from the sweeping vistas, are about discovering wine.  Mr. Dolan meets with artisanal winemakers – some by appointment, some by chance – and sips through their wares with the goal of finding special bottles to bring back home.  After last year’s Barolo trip, Mr. Dolan placed nine boutique wineries on his wine list.  Names like Damilano, Vietti, Sadrone, Rinaldi and Pio Cesare.  “They’re rare labels or special blends that you might not see anywhere else,” he says.

With Toma, Italy is a clear focus.  Umbria and Chianti have been covered, and Veneto is a serious possibility for 2016.  “I usually travel in September, when the weather’s still good and the crowds are a lot smaller,” says Mr. Dolan, who researches his trajectories on his own, with the help of online topographical maps.

The annual expeditions have also become boys’ trips.  Mr. Dolan’s pedestrian partner these days is Dr. Barnard George Valeska, a Santa Barbara dentist.  “With 17-pound packs on our backs and 20 miles a day, for both of our wives, it’s, ‘No, thank you!’”

Toma Restaurant, 324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara.  805-962-0777. www.tomarestaurant.com.

Quenching Quaffers: New Whites to Beat the Summer Heat

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/30/16

As summer temps continue to climb these days, even the most ardent red wine drinkers are going lighter to quench their thirst.  Santa Barbara rosé wines are clearly getting renewed attention and – with fresh flavors that match their pretty colors – for good reason.  But I’ve been exploring a newly released batch of refreshing whites, and here are some of my favorites. 

Lucas & Lewellen 2014 Viognier ($22): With more than two dozen grape varieties under his watch, Louie Lucas remains one of Santa Barbara County’s most prolific growers.  This delicious viognier, made by Megan McGrath Gates, was sourced from his sustainable vineyards near the town of Los Alamos.  Peaches and tropical notes on the nose are followed by bright flavors of melon and citrus.  In a sale that ends today, Lucas & Lewellen is offering a six-pack of white wines – this viognier, along with sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, dry riesling and two chardonnays – for an awesome $59 (UPDATE: this offer has been extended through July 15th).  llwine.com.

Palmina 2014 Malvasia Bianca, Larner Vineyard ($26): The aromas of this wine are enchanting: flowers, honey, grapefruit.  The palate experience is bracing and fresh, brimming with flavors of tangerines and a super clean finish.  These grapes were sourced from Michael Larner’s celebrated vineyards in Ballard Canyon, “where the climate is quite similar to its Fruili-Venezia roots – maritime fog, warm sunny days and cool, crisp nights,” according to Palmina winemaker Steve Clifton.  This wine is a winner with spicy Asian dishes or fresh crab legs. palminawines.com.

Alma Rosa 2014 Chardonnay, El Jabali Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills ($30): Winemaker Richard Sanford delivers another spectacular chardonnay here, complete with pretty straw hues, clean minerality and racy flavors of white stone fruits and lemongrass.  A subtle creaminess on the palate enhances the sipping experience.  The fact these grapes are 34 years old – sourced from the historic El Jabali Vineyard along Santa Rosa Road that Richard and Thekla Sanford planted in the early 1980s and that they continue to farm organically – enhances the wine’s distinguished structure. almarosawinery.com.

Cambria 2014 Benchbreak Chardonnay ($22): Much of the chardonnay fruit that grows on the Cambria estate in the Santa Maria Valley dates back to the 1970s and, since 2009, has been cultivated sustainably.  This brilliant wine is teeming with green apple and ripe tropical flavors, like pineapple.  Generous acidity and a lovely spicy thread add character.  Fresh fish off the grill or a bevy of aperitif cheeses will make a perfect match.  Another standout chardonnay by longtime winemaker Denise Shurtleff.  cambriawines.com.

Babcock 2014 Chardonnay Top Cream ($45): The search for the perfect dinner table chardonnay ends with this spectacular release by Bryan Babcock.  Drawn by his spectacular pinot noirs to the Babcock tasting room along Highway 246 this past weekend, this remarkably textured estate wine – alive with bright acidity and stone fruit and citrus flavors – blew me away.  There’s a delicious creaminess here, with a flavor-rich finish that doesn’t give up.  This is what you drink during an al fresco meal of chicken fajitas and grilled veggies at the end of a warm summer day spent mostly outdoors.  Top Cream refers to the lean, gravelly, loamy top soil that blankets sandstone on the Babcock ranch which, according to the winemaker, “definitely governs the vigor and morphology of the vines that grow in it.”  babcockwinery.com.  

Liquid Farm 2014 Chardonnay La Hermana ($40): When Nikki and Jeff Nelson treated us to a homemade wine country lunch at their Santa Ynez home this week, we met their kids.  It was their lineup of chardonnays, actually, which they presented and described in terms of personality and character.  The five boutique bottlings of chard we sipped, imagined by the Nelsons and crafted James Sparks, are all made to impress and, more importantly, to capture the unique character if their vintage and vineyard source.  The La Hermana wows with its zesty character, freshness and subtle suppleness.  A nod to the FOUR Chardonnay ($74), too, which combines the best four barrels of the 2014 vintage and delivers an amazingly complex and structured drinking experience.  Keep in mind that, due to super low production, most of the Liquid Farm wines go by allocation to wine club members. liquidfarm.com

La Crema 2015 Pinot Gris Monterey ($20): This is my one out-of-town choice, a just-released white from cool-climate vineyards in Monterey.  This wine is juicy and refreshing, especially if you’re trying to cool off during a toasty summer afternoon spent by the pool – full of grassy notes and flavors of peaches, apricots and lemons.  “Pinot gris expresses itself best when handled gently, so we pressed the grapes without de-stemming and fermented the wine slowly in 100% stainless steel to preserve with vibrant fruit flavors,” says winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas.  This wine drinks really well on its own; a spread of fresh fruits, nuts and semi-soft cheeses, though, won’t hurt.  lacrema.com