Catch of the Day: Popular Bluewater Grill Expands into Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/1/16

Bluewater Grill, a Southern California-based and family-run restaurant group, is casting its nets on Santa Barbara.  The company is taking over the landmark Keeper’s Lighthouse along the city’s waterfront, and the building is already undergoing structural enhancements to accommodate its new tenant.  The new restaurant is a partnership between the group’s co-owners, Richard Staunton and Jimmy Ulcickas, and local beer magnates Adam Firestone, Andrew Firestone and David Walker.

The grand opening of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is slated for July 2017.

Acquiring the very visible building along Cabrillo Blvd., right at the foot of Stearns Wharf and at the threshold of the buzzy Funk Zone, was no small task.  “We’ve been chasing Santa Barbara and been knocking on people’s doors for the better part of 20 years,” says Mr. Ulcickas (his friends call him Jimmy U).  “This one came up last year and we jumped right on it.”

 The building at 15 E. Cabrillo Blvd. has a notable culinary history.  Most recently, it housed a Rusty’s Pizza.  But longtime locals remember it as the location of the famous Castagnola Lobster House, one of several local eateries established in the 1950s and 1960s by fishing industry legend George Virginio Castagnola.  The property, which is still owned by the Castagnola family, was recently rebuilt and is now being remodeled as a ground-level exhibition kitchen with counter seating and oyster bar.  Bluewater Grill is adding a second story with balcony to accommodate a full bar and dining room and “to take full advantage of those sunsets and beautiful views,” says Mr. Staunton.

The new restaurant’s location taps into some of Santa Barbara’s most robust foot traffic.  It’s also adjacent to the city’s newly reimagined lower State Street corridor, which will soon house a new luxury hotel and, in early 2017, the much-anticipated MOXI museum.  But it’s the water that sold the Bluewater folks.

The waterfront lighthouse building on the corner of Cabrillo Blvd. and Helena Ave. has a lengthy culinary history

“Imagine serving really good, fresh, awesome seafood right on the water – it’s the greatest no brainer of all time,” adds Mr. Staunton.    “But it’s not easy to do it right,” he adds, suggesting that,
with few exceptions, quality seafood, served oceanside, is tough to find in Santa Barbara.

Bluewater Grill may have well found the formula to doing it right.  Mr. Staunton and Mr. Ulcickas are fishermen by training who went into the restaurant business 20 years ago.  They prioritize sustainability, following the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch initiative and getting their fish purchases audited by the Long Beach Aquarium’s Seafood for the Future program. They serve up more than 40 varieties of seafood, reprinting their menus six to eight times a year based on what’s available seasonally and locally.  And they operate their own swordfish harpoon boat, the Pilikia, which cruises the waters from San Diego to Santa Barbara every June through October (that’s swordfish season) and supplies the Bluewater Grill restaurants with each fresh catch.
A rendering of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara (credit: LMA Architects)

Under construction, Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is set to open July 2017
“Whether it’s catching our own or buying from our suppliers, it’s always about getting the best,” says Mr. Staunton of their company strategy.  “And then it’s about controlling that product from the back door to when it gets to the plate.”

Mr. Ulcickas agrees: “The key to our success has been offering pristine quality at a value price.” 

Most dinner entrees on the Bluewater Grill menus range between $21 and $28.  The restaurants also feature lunch, brunch, a kids’ menu and happy hour specials.  There are in-season promos, too – currently, the restaurant is running a stuffed lobster special – and monthly themed wine and beer food pairings.

That emphasis on the right location, even the right building, has also been part and parcel to the group’s slow but profitable growth.  Its original Newport Beach location on Lido Peninsula, accessible by car, bike or boat, took over the historic site that once housed well-known The Sea Shanty and the very popular Delaney’s.  The Redondo Beach spot is right on Kind Harbor, surrounded by sailboats.  The Coronado Island eatery is in the former boathouse of the legendary Hotel del Coronado, which dates back to 1887.  And the Catalina Island restaurant sits right on Avalon Harbor, over the water.  When Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara opens, it’ll be the company’s ninth location. 

 “We don’t consider ourselves a chain, but rather a family of restaurants,” insists Mr. Staunton.  “Do they all serve fish and chips? Yeah.  But it’s not very interesting for us to cookie cutter the style for each restaurant.  Each menu is really styled for each location – and not only the food but also the design, which is always inspired by the buildings they’re in.”

Rick Staunton, left, and Jimmy Ulcickas (credit: Bluewater Grill)
And in that sense, Santa Barbara’s old Keeper’s Lighthouse building “was worth the wait,” adds Mr. Ulcickas.

The business connection with the Firestone-Walker team is really more a personal one.  Mr. Staunton’s wife, Cammy, was grade school classmates with Adam Firestone’s wife, Kate, and the families are longtime friends.  “I’ve tried to talk Jim and Rick into coming into Santa Barbara forever,” admits Mr. Firestone.  “I know they’ve always loved and had a connection to the local area.” 

Like all Bluewater Grill locations, the Santa Barbara restaurant will carry a variety of Firestone-Walker beers and Santa Barbara County wines.  It’s also looking to hire a Santa Barbara-based chef, as well as local management, servers, bartenders and kitchen personnel.

For more information, check out


Put a Cork In It: Tips to Save Your Leftover Thanksgiving Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/24/16

The year’s most bountiful meal usually comes with one conundrum: how long can we make our leftovers survive?  Your turkey dregs (and all the trimmings) are one thing – simply store properly and enjoy for days to come.  But what about all that wine?

As you know, there’s no wrong Thanksgiving wine.  With so many flavors and textures on the table, you can pretty much open whatever you want – it’s bound to match something.  But wine in excess means you’re likely to have half-empty bottles on Thanksgiving night.  Wouldn’t it be nice for it to still be drinkable when you have yet another turkey-stuffing-and-cranberry sauce sandwich three days later?

At our house, we’re never really concerned with preserving wine.  The best way to ensure wine does not spoil is to make sure there’s none left.  Consider that Tip #1.

Also, keep your wine standing up, rather than on its side – that’ll minimize how much of your wine’s surface area is exposed to oxygen, fresh wine’s biggest culprit.  And avoid temperature extremes, especially heat (i.e., don’t keep your bottle by a window, where sunlight can find it).

For other unique ways to lengthen your wine’s lifespan, I turned to a few friends who are in the business of making reds and whites last as long as possible.  Restaurant and winery folks, mostly, like Stephanie Varner, who manages the Rusack Vineyards tasting room in Ballard Canyon.  “Don’t forget to make ice cubes with leftover wine!” she told me.  Love it.

Laura Booras, general manager at Riverbench Winery, tells me that a wine’s age will make a difference.  If a wine is aged, say more than 15 years, it will definitely show signs of aging faster if you leave it open longer. In fact, many older wines will lose their freshness, delicacy, and nuances overnight, so it’s best to finish them the night you open them.”  And she has a warning for those who decant.  “The surface area has been more exposed, so it’s going to oxidize and age much more quickly.”

Riverbench runs tasting rooms in both Santa Maria and Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, where several commercial products have proven successful, including vacuum seals.  “But what about bubbly?” I ask Booras, well aware of the winery’s fabulous annual sparkling wine production.  She says she’s kept bubbles fresh for up to three days with a stopper called Tablecraft 398, which you’ll find at the Riverbench tasting rooms and on Amazon.

Tatiana Konovalov, assistant food-&-beverage manager at Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore in Montecito, touts this stopper, too.  “It fully seals the bottle, but be careful,” she says.  “It becomes pressurized!”

“If you consistently find yourself unable to finish quality wines,” Konovalov adds, it may be worth investing in a Coravin system, which can cost a couple hundred dollars.   “It uses a sharp needle to puncture the cork and uses argon capsules to pressurize and release wine,” she says.  “This system can only be used on cork sealed bottles and never on Champagne.”

Larry Schaffer, winemaker at Tercero Wines in Los Olivos, eschews gadgets because “the best solutions to any problem are the simplest.”  He touts refrigeration.  And, to minimize oxygen exposure, he tells his wine club members to have screw-capped half-bottles handy at home.  “The next time you’re not able to finish a bottle, put what’s left into the 375-ml bottle and fill as much as you can,” he says.  “Your leftover wine will now be in a vessel that has a lot less headspace – open air between the wine and the top of the bottle – and will be under a much tighter closure.”

Tom Dolan manages a spectacular wine list at his Toma Restaurant in Santa Barbara.  But at home, his wine preservation solution involves multiple bottles, too.  I always marry one bottle to another and fill till it overflows out the top, then seal it!” he says, thereby creating his own special blend.

I met Jon McDaniel when he ran the program at the Los Olivos Café a few years ago.  These days, he’s beverage director and sommelier for LessLaw Hospitality, the group that runs Chicago foodie hotspots like The Gage, Acanto, Beacon Tavern, The Dawson and Coda di Volpe.  “Wine is a living, breathing thing, so the moment you open up the bottle, the clock starts ticking,” he reminds me.

If you like big reds with your Thanksgiving bird, like cabernet and zinfandel, you’re in luck.  “The tannins and the higher alcohol are going to help maintain the structure of the wine and keep the taste for a couple extra days,” McDaniel says.  So if your last bottle is a light red, “like Beaujolais or pinot noir, it’s best to know you only have a day or so left.”

In the rare occasion when I do have to keep wine an extra day or two, my go-to solution is sticking the cork back in.  But not so fast, says McDaniel.  “Put in the same end that was touching the wine first.  I have seen corks that didn't taint the wine with TCA (a bacteria that will 'cork' the wine) initially.  But when you put in the other end of the cork first, you can come back the next day and have a corked or spoiled wine.  So even though the cork will expand a bit, try and put the wet end of the cork back in first.  And save your money on fancy wine stoppers with jewels or turkeys on them, they just don't work.”

If all else fails, refer back to Tip #1.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Fifteen and Counting: Margerum Wine Company Marks Milestone

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/3/16

Doug Margerum is marking his winery’s past 15 years by looking to the future.

Doug Margerum
“I’m hoping that our M5 White will become as accepted and germane to the Santa Barbara County wine scene as the red,” he told me this week.  Indeed, the Margerum Wine Company “M5” – a red blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, counoise and cinsault – has become the label’s flagship wine and, easily, one of Santa Barbara’s best-selling blends. 

The white version is brand new: a blend of grenache blanc, rousanne, viognier, marsanne and vermentino that premiered with the 2015 vintage.  It marks Margerum’s takeover of the prized Honea Vineyard near Solvang, where he’s replaced Italian grape varieties with classic white wine grapes from the Rhone region of France.  The 2016 M5 White ($27) will hit store shelves next summer.

Rhone wines have been a calling card for Margerum Wine Company (MWC) ever since its launch in 2001: along with the M5, Margerum produces the popular UBER – a yearly co-fermentation of his top syrah vineyard sources – as well as several vineyard-specific and reserve syrahs.  He’s always had his eye on sauvignon blanc, too.  “We set out to make a Loire-style sauv blanc with low alcohol and bright fruit and acid – a sauvignon blanc for restaurants and savvy consumers,” he says.  “And that’s still one of the main things we do.”

Other pet projects – from the recent launch of his Barden label to focus on pinot noir and chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills to numerous private label ventures to a boutique lineup of spirits – are added feathers to the Margerum cap.

From his staying the course, and from his steadfast focus on limited-production and handcrafted wines, have come Margerum’s 15 years’ worth of accolades.  Awards, high scores and honors galore.  Like having his Syabrite Sauvginon Blanc poured during a White House State Dinner this summer for Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong.  “Serendipity,” says the winemaker.  “The sommelier for the White House bought a bottle, took it home, loved it, then brought it to Michelle Obama, who apparently loved sauvignon blanc.”  A case of Syabrite also followed the Obamas on their recent vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.  And the wine was poured during last week’s Julia Child Award gala in Washington DC, where celeb chef Jose Andres was overheard numerous times raving about it.

The attention Margerum appreciates the most, though – more even than critics that dole out points – is that of industry people on the front lines, like wine stewards and retailers.  “It’s been great to see those who sell wine, and serve it and drink it actually embrace what we make for what they are: quality table wines meant for food,” he says.

Wine Cask owners Margerum and Mitchell Sjerven
Understating the critical amalgam between wine and food is one thing Margerum did bring to his winemaking project 15 years ago.  The UCSB grad had run his family’s Wine Cask restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara since 1981.  Soon after, he’d launched the Wine Cask Futures Program to help bring international attention to Santa Barbara wines.  And by 1994, he’d made the Wine Cask one of a handful of restaurants around the world to win Wine Spectator’s coveted Grand Award.  Today, he runs the Wine Cask with celebrated restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven and it remains one of the highest-rated eateries on the Central Coast.

Reminiscing on his first 15 years, Margerum recalls fondly the generosity his colleagues have shown him.  He considers winemakers Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist his mentors, for example.  And both winemaker Fred Bander and the Firestone family shared winery space with Margerum during his label’s first decade.  For the last five years, Margerum has called a 12,000-square-foot temperature-controlled facility in Buellton home.

Fifteen years in, Margerum enjoys a special vantage point.  Santa Barbara’s young wine scene is in the midst of a very gradual turnover, as pioneers who launched the industry in the 1970s and 80s are now working side by side with the 20- and 30-somethings who’ll carry it forward.  Partnership and comradery, says Margerum, is pervasive.  “Everyone here seems to actually like each other – they communicate with each other and taste with each other and share ideas with each other,” he says.  “It’s unique compared to other areas.  And it continues a Santa Barbara tradition: quality wine made by smaller producers who in turn train and put out into the world other small producers.”

And in these first 15 years, being witness to that, Margerum adds, “is what I’m most happy about.”

Margerum Wine Company is celebrating its 15th anniversary with the public this Sunday, November 6th, from 2 to 5pm, at the Wine Cask.  Tickets ($30, $20 for wine club members) are nearly sold out.  Get yours through the MWC website.


40th Pick: Santa Barbara Wine Industry Celebrates Brander

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/6/16
updated November 2, 2016

Fred Brander greets guests during his 40th anniversary fete
“Some people call this place Branderland,” vintner Fred Brander tells the large crowd gathered before him, with a big smile. “And I like that.  It denotes a sense of place.  It implies that what you’re drinking has provenance and an origin.  And that’s what makes wine special.”
Brander Vineyard is certainly a landmark in Santa Barbara wine country.  In a youthful viticultural area dating back just to the early 1970s, this vineyard was one of the first.  And, 40 years after its first grape harvest, it remains one of the best.
Brander's Dia de los Muertos-inspired altar
The throng that that came to the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley estate a few Sundays ago to raise a glass and mark a milestone certainly knows that.  It was an impressive mix of winemakers, restaurateurs and culinary influencers – people who call Brander both colleague and friend.  They noshed on food by some of the area’s best chefs – Michael Hutchings doled out a cassoulet with homemade sausage while David Cecchini pulled dozens of handmade pizzas from the wood burning clay oven.  Plenty of Brander wines to go around, too, including the very first taste of the 2016 vintage – a cloudy, still-fermenting barrel sample of a sauvignon blanc-riesling blend.  A selection of top sauvignon blanc wines from around the world was poured inside the winery.  Pictures of past vineyard events – including the famous Bouillabaisse Festivals hosted here between 1989 and 2012 – hung on the walls of Brander’s private art gallery. And in a candlelit corner of the barrel room, on an altar inspired by the upcoming Latin American Dia de los Muertos holiday, black-and-white photographs honoring men and women now deceased who helped shape Brander’s career:  his parents, winemakers Andre Tchelistcheff and Chris Whitcraft, wine merchant Frank Crandall, chef Julia Child and wine critic Robert Lawrence Balzer, among others.
Dozens of international sauvignon blanc wines were poured
“This place has always been a family business,” Brander told his guests of his eponymous vineyard; his 25-year old son Nik, who helps manage the winery, was standing nearby.  The property was an investment by his parents – Swedes by way of Argentina – that allowed the UC Davis graduate to plant vines in 1975 and harvest his first grapes in 1977. 

Forty vintages later, some key things at Brander Vineyard have not changed: the focus on sauvignon blanc, mainly, the Bordeaux white grape that gained Brander recognition from the get-go.  In 1977, “we barrel fermented that first sauvignon blanc,” Brander told me recently.  “There wasn’t a lot of barrel fermentation going on back then, so it was a novel thing.  It captured a lot of attention, and a gold medal at the L.A. County Fair, and that was instrumental in my focusing on that variety.”
Several of those original sauv blanc vines remain on Brander Vineyard, and the grape accounts for 75% of its annual production today.
Hundreds came out to celebrate Brander Vineyard's 40th vintage
But sauvignon blanc is also part of what’s new and different here.  What was a single bottling in the beginning now sees up to 11 different renditions each vintage. “So we’re maintaining but perfecting what we do with this grape,” says Brander.  He’s also growing several different sauvignon blanc clones these days, versus just one back then.  “There’s so much diversity of plant material now, different clones and rootstock, that it gives us endless possibilities of expression of sauvignon blanc,” he tells me.  And the vineyard is farmed biodynamically now, with special attention to canopy management.
Brander’s won acclaim for other Bordeaux grapes, too, of course – merlot, cabernet franc and a collector’s worthy reserve cabernet sauvignon program.  And as he turns the page on another decade, he’s not settling.  Just a few weeks ago, his team, led by winemaker Fabian Bravo, harvested first estate petit manseng, a rare grape native to southwestern France that makes “a somewhat sweet but super high-acid” wine.”  It’ll be released in late 2017.
Brander’s 40th anniversary vintage is made further special by this year’s birth of the Los Olivos District AVA, recognition by the feds that the 23,000-acre area, which includes Brander Vineyard, is uniquely suited to grow world-class grapes.  It was the culmination of 10 years of research and petitions by Brander.  “It’s one more way of defining yourself,” the vintner told the revelers who’d come to celebrate him.  And, returning to the theme of provenance and origin, he adds, “It helps mark the discovery of who you are, and of how you hope to translate that into your wine."
Brander Vineyards & Winery, 2401 N. Refugio Rd., Santa Ynez. 805-688-2455.

Eating La Vida Loca: Santa Barbara's New Loquita Restaurant Draws Inspiration from Spain

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/6/16
updated October 27, 2016

Chef Peter Lee
Executive Chef Peter Lee doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. It’s on the plate.

“I’m here to please,” says the man who runs the kitchen at Santa Barbara’s newest dining hotspot, Loquita.  That’s why, after he deliberately adorns a dish, “I like to follow the plate all the way to the table, until the serves sets it down, and watch for the guest’s reaction.”

That’ll be even easier for Chef Lee to do now, since the exhibition kitchen at Loquita – which is framed by a walnut-wrapped picture window – is wide open.  Diners at the six-seater Chef’s Counter get premium views of cooks working on state-of-the-art equipment.  But the kitchen action is easy to watch from main dining room, too, which is adorned with brass trims, vintage light fixtures, cozy banquettes, white-wash brick walls and Nicaraguan cement floor tiles.  The doors are salvaged from an old German monastery and the 19th century oil painting of St. Barbara on the wall once hung in a church in Argentina.  A stand-up counter separates the main room from the large walnut bar, with its 12 leather-tufted stools and framed mirrors.  A vault door leads outside to a white stucco patio decked out in wrought-iron chairs, jacaranda trees and stringed lights above.

Like the restaurant he’s helming, Chef Lee, 30, is new to Santa Barbara.  “I moved here three months ago,” says the Bay Area native who was at foodie-friendly Eldorado Kitchen in Sonoma and celeb-friendly Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles before working, most recently, at award-winning Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas.  Loquita, located right on State Street at the threshold of the Funk Zone and just two blocks from the ocean, opened in late September.

Loquita – the Spanish word refers to a young, jovial young girl – pays homage to Santa Barbara’s colonial history and youthful vibe with food and drinks inspired by Spain.  For Chef Lee, Spanish cuisine “always makes you feel like you’re at somebody’s home.  So our concept is to keep it as authentic as possible, but with a California twist to tailor it to our tastes.”

The Loquita menu is diverse yet refreshingly succinct.  The star dish here is the paella, the traditional slow-cooked rice dish that’s simmered in broth and festooned with add-ons like chicken, sausage, seafood, vegetables and spices.  The key to great paella is the rice, says Chef Lee, who field-tested several imported brands before settling on the Santo Tomas brand from Valencia.  The menu offers three paella preparations ($23-$41).

Finger-friendly items include the short “pintxos” skewers ($2 each) that are prepped with a variety of cured and pickled items “for pops of flavor” and “maximum one-bite impact,” says Chef Lee.  The “Date” features a Medjool date stuffed with the Spanish blue cheese “valdeon” and wrapped in thinly-sliced chorizo.

The charcuterie and cheese selections ($7-$21) include Spanish staples like Serrano and Iberico hams, 12-month old manchego and the delectably sweet quince paste known as “membrillo.”  The dozen-or-so tapas dishes ($4-$17) are meant for sharing.

Most of the main dishes come off an impressive wood-fire grill and include Spanish octopus in a black garlic aioli with potato and red onion ($21), Sonoma Valley lamb chops with eggplant and tomato ($34) and a 16-oz. prime ribeye with a traditional chermoula marinade ($47).

And among the early dessert favorites: the homemade churros ($9) served with chocolate, raspberry and dulce de leche dipping sauces.

Loquita's exhibition kitchen
Chef Lee says the menu will certainly evolve, driven by the seasons as well as customer response.  The key to successful service won’t change, though: “We show up early, prep, prep, prep and talk a lot through the process,” says Chef Lee.  His 10-member kitchen staff includes three sous-chefs he hand-picked from his previous restaurant jobs in L.A. and Vegas, including his longtime girlfriend, 26-year-old Chef Felicia Medina.  “I have the utmost confidence in my team,” adds Chef Lee.

The bar menu is worth noting, too, for its impressive lineup of Spanish and Santa Barbara wines and a cocktail list heavy on Spanish staples like gin-and-tonics, vermouths and farmers’ market sangrias.

Loquita is the latest offering from Santa Barbara-based Acme Hospitality, which also owns award-winning local establishments like The Lark, Les Marchands Wine Bar and the new Helena Avenue Bakery.

Loquita, 202 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-880-3380. Open from 5pm daily.  .


Spilling South: Santa Barbara’s Pali Wine Co. Expands with SoCal Tasting Rooms

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey and Pali Wine Co.
updated 10/24/16

Pali Wine Co.'s new San Diego tasting room is in the Little Italy neighborhood

In what is a first for any Santa Barbara winery, Pali Wine Co. is spreading south.

The popular premium wine producer already has a presence on the Central Coast, with tasting rooms in both Lompoc and downtown Santa Barbara’s buzzy Funk Zone.  This past weekend, Pali opened up a much-anticipated tasting room in San Diego’s vibrant Little Italy neighborhood.  And by this time next year, it plans welcome wine seekers with tasting rooms in Anaheim and the thriving Arts District in Downtown L.A.

“Our biggest goal is to increase our direct-to-consumer sales,” Pali winemaker Aaron Walker told me this week.  The winery currently leans on distributors to sell its wines, with margins that are comparatively slimmer.  Tasting rooms allow wineries to circumvent third-party distribution and sell wines straight to the public, allowing for bigger profits, more wine club sign-pus and better image control.

Aaron Walker (Dickey photo)
“Our Santa Barbara tasting room has done very well in the last four years,” Walker continues, “so our owners are making a real push to replicate that model in similar neighborhoods."

Indeed, the success of Pali’s expansion will hinge in large part on location.  Think of the dramatic rise in appeal of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone; an area once avoided by most locals now attracts steady foot traffic with hip happenings and stylish storefronts both day and night.  Little Italy, just north of downtown San Diego, is similar in its appeal, with vibrant culture, trendy restaurants and stylish stores all rolled into one.  Anaheim, famous forever for little more than Disneyland, is in the midst of a significant revamp which has led to a new batch of culinary and entertainment venues, from craft breweries to vintage shops.  And the Arts District, a once-gritty industrial zone in the eastern edge of Downtown L.A., now features a thriving street scene and a bevy of eclectic shops.

One common thread: “Up and coming, highly populated urban areas with high visibility and high foot traffic,” says Walker.  Prime for the direct-to-consumer model.

Pali’s San Diego tasting room is on Little Italy’s tourist-friendly India Street and features its various vineyard- and appellation-specific pinot noir and chardonnay wines, as well as Central Coast Rhone and Bordeaux varieties from its sister label, Tower 15.  The facility also offers eight rotating wines on tap, both for wines-by-the-glass and refills under Pali’s popular growler program.  A small-plate menu is also available, with items like charcuterie boards and seasonal, regional selections of snacks and fruits.  The space was also designed with a small wine-production space, which will allow Walker to build on a wine program launched last year that sources grapes from northeastern San Diego County.  “It’s our way of offering our wide range of wines while also keeping these locations local,” adds Walker, a San Diego State grad who lived in San Diego for 12 years before moving to Santa Barbara to make wine.  This year marks his 10th harvest with Pali Wine Co.
Pali Wine Co.'s new San Diego digs
Leveraging the appeal of small neighborhoods has always been part of the Pali persona, actually.  “Pali” is the colloquial nickname for Pacific Palisades, the seaside Southern California hometown of co-founders Tim Perr and Scott Knight (and this writer, coincidentally).  Many of their wines even bear the names of quaint Palisades communities, like Huntington, Bluffs and Riviera.  The label makes about 20,000 cases of wine a year out of its state-of-the-art Lompoc winery.

Find out more at


Growing Pains: Expansion Win in Santa Barbara Wine Area Ruffles Feathers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/8/16

Pence Ranch
The expansion of one of Santa Barbara’s most famous grape growing areas has upset many in the local wine community.  But for Blair Pence, it’s a major victory.

“We felt pretty confident that we’d ultimately prevail,” says vintner Blair Pence, who spearheaded the effort to expand the eastern boundary of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc.  The decision by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB), which took three years to achieve and which adds 2300 acres to the 33,000-acre region, becomes official on September 21.

Sta. Rita Hills is one of six American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in Santa Barbara County.  These zones get official federal recognition for unique characteristics – geology, weather, even history – that allow them to grow quality wine grapes.  Sta. Rita Hills, known now around the world for producing supreme pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, received AVA status in 2001.

Blair Pence
When Blair Pence, a successful real estate developer, bought a 200-acre property in2005 with the ultimate goal to grow grapes, it was situated right outside the Sta. Rita Hills’ eastern border.  And as his Pence Ranch label began to gain acclaim, defining the origin of his wines “became a real pain,” he says.

“People would ask, ‘Where are you?’

“And I’d say, ‘Santa Barbara County.’


“‘Between Lompoc and Buellton.’

“‘Where exactly?’

“Just telling people where we were always required a lot of explanation,” says Mr. Pence, so pushing to have Pence Ranch included within the AVA “was really a matter of clarification,” he says.

More importantly, he insists that the TTB decision – what he calls “a totally impartial move” – was based on “relevant data points” that prove that his land is a natural extension of Sta. Rita Hills, or SRH.

“The east [boundary] used to be defined by an arbitrary point-to-point between peaks, it was out of whack,” he says.  “What the TTB decision has done is taken the rationale applied to the west [boundary] and applied it to the east:  a 320-foot elevation line that wraps around the foothills.”

He calls it, “topographical continuity.”

The newly defined border now includes Pence Ranch in its entirety, as well as portions of neighboring John Sebastiano and Rio Vista Vineyards that were previously excluded.

The grapevines at Pence Ranch
Elevation variation helps define Pence Ranch
Mr. Pence’s thoroughly studied arguments, and the fact the federal government agreed, is not enough to quell the letdown of many of his neighbors, though.  The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, comprised of many of Santa Barbara’s best-known winemakers, voiced unified opposition to the expansion from the get-go, citing the integrity of borders that were carefully studied for years before approval.  The TTB decision to push out the eastern border, which is a rare occurrence in the wine industry, disappointed many in the group.

“It’s ill-founded,” says Richard Sanford, a pioneer winemaker who planted the first pinot noir vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills in 1971, long before the area was officially defined.  “It reduces the meaningfulness of appellations.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” says Richard Longoria, who’s been making wine locally since the early 1980s and who planted his Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  “What stops the ranch adjacent to Pence from applying for an expansion? Where does it stop?”

Truly legendary places and institutions are built upon strong foundations,” winemaker Chad Melville writes in his Notebook blog, which is published on Melville Winery website.  “If a foundation is ever-shifting, how can permanence and true greatness ever emerge there?”

But a more conciliatory tone is coming from J. Wilkes Wines winemaker Wes Hagen, the man who led the charge to have the Sta. Rita Hills officially green-lighted in 2001.  “I’m glad we’re moving forward after this decision’s been made so we can continue to elevate the region as the United States’ premier cool-climate region for growing great pinot noir and chardonnay,” he told me.  “The decision is what it is, and what we need to focus on is what we do best in the wine industry: putting delicious wine on the table and getting people back together.  I love that there was passion on both sides.  To me, the main issue is that the Sta. Rita Hills is now valuable enough to elicit this type of passion, and that’s a win no matter how this thing came down.”

The ruling now allows Pence Ranch to print the lucrative Sta. Rita Hills name on its labels, a potential boon with consumers.  But he doesn’t plan on bumping up the prices of his grapes; the lion’s share of the Pence Ranch crop stays with the proprietary label (with wines made by Sashi Moorman and priced between $40 and $56), while some fruit is earmarked for two other labels only, Whitcraft and Bonaccorsi.  And his focus is on business as usual.

“I’m keeping emotion out of this,” Mr. Pence says.  “We’re just out to grow the very best grapes and make the very best wines.”