Viva El Vino: Downtown Santa Barbara Wineries for Fiesta Visitors

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/3/17

If you’re one of the thousands who’ve descended on Santa Barbara for Fiesta this week, you probably already know – this is a wine lover’s haven. The wines coming out of here are some of the best in all of California. And, between margaritas, the opportunities to savor them abound.

Downtown is home to a handful of working wineries, too – small but fully equipped facilities where grapes are crushed, put in barrel and transformed into wine over many months and years. Following are three winery destinations not to miss, which offer the chance not only to sip the afternoon away but to meet the guys who make the wines face to face. These should really be a teaser, though – motivation to discover the vineyards and estates that grow the world class grapes that birth these wines. They’re only about 40 minutes up the coast, over those mountains that cradle this lovely city, in towns with names like Los Olivos, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez. They’re well worth extending your stay here well after Old Spanish Days are over, especially since, with grape harvest already underway, the vines are at their most spectacular now.

Drake Whitcraft

Or come back. Even after the parades end, the music stops and the mercados close, Santa Barbara – and its wine culture – remains one of the California’s destination gems.

Whitcraft Winery
You’ll find history here. The late Chris Whitcraft could be considered one of the founding fathers of the Santa Barbara wine industry and his son, Drake, continues the tradition today. There’s an obsession here with remaining hands-off and allowing the grapes to show off. No pumping, no fining, no filtering, no enzymes, no watering the wine down. Foot stomping. Gravity racking. Whole cluster fermentation. A lot of fancy terms that, instead of me wasting words defining here, Drake would be happy to showcase for you in person. Bottom line: you’ll find some of the area’s most exciting pinots, chardonnays and syrahs here, along with a bevy of lesser known varieties (ever had gamay?). The tasting room is steps from the ocean. And when you go, say hi to Terra, the winery dog. Whitcraft Winery, 36-A S. Calle Cesar Chavez. 805-730-1680.

Dave Potter (my pic)
Potek Winery
Dave Potter made a name for himself first with Municipal Winemakers, the hip and affordable label that pours inside a converted dive shop in the Funk Zone; the bar here is open late on weekends. With Potek, Potter pays homage to his Romanian great-grandfather, whose name was changed from Potek to Potter when he landed on Ellis Island 100 years ago. The winery is inside a slick new complex called The Mill, near Santa Barbara’s eastside, where Potter cranks out high-end wines from extra special vineyards. The single-vineyard pinots are awesome, and the Rhone selections – grenache and syrah – are among the area’s very best. Tasting here is a sophisticated yet approachable experience. Take a bottle of Sta. Rita Hills bubbly with you, if it’s not sold out. Potek Winery, 406 Haley Street #1.  805-770-5105.

Ryan and Jessica Carr
Carr Winery
Ryan Carr was managing some of the area’s top vineyards before he turned to making wine, so the guy knows grapes. His wines are consistently good, all made from grapes that Carr grows himself, and crafted with a knack for reflecting a sense of place. The portfolio here is diverse, showcasing the diversity of microclimates in this area that generate a wide range of quality wines, including cabernet franc, pinot noir and grenache. The space itself is cool – a round 1940s quonset hut anchored by a wrap-around bar that’s surrounded by towering barrels. Wine aside, this winery has become a social hot spot, regularly hosting live music events. Carr Winery, 414 N. Salsipuedes St. 805-965-7985.

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BREAKING: Santa Barbara's Wine Grape Harvest is Underway

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
August 4, 2017

Doug Margerum, right, and his team

Winemaker Doug Margeum announced Thursday, August 3rd, that the 2017 wine grape harvest in Santa Barbara has begun.

"Low yields and a very steep rocky section at McGinley Vineyard resulted in perfectly ripe sauvignon blanc grapes," he tells me. McGinley Vineyard is in the Happy Canyon AVA, in the dependably warm eastern stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.

"It's about the same time as harvest has been the last few years."

Norm Yost and Cooper

The crew at the Margeum winemaking facility in  Buellton, including winemaker Michael Miroballi and assistant winemaker Lucas Meisinger, toasted harvest's inception with bubbles, sipping on Billecart-Salmon Rosé, as they've done for the last 17 harvests.

Other winemakers will be following suit soon enough.

Flying Goat Cellars' Norm Yost, along with wife Kathleen and their dog Cooper, have been scoping out grapes at Bien Nacido Vineyard, which barely escaped the fast-moving Alamo Fire last month.

Yost expects to "pull the trigger" on pinot noir cone 115 next week -- grapes he'll use for his popular lineup of sparkling wines.

Willson Family Vineyards pinot

"We find no evidence of smoke taint," Yost's team announced in an email blast this week. "Bright acid and racy cherry flavors are expressed early in the fruit this vintage."

In Carpinteria, my friend and budding vintner Tyler Willson plans on picking his pinot noir next Tuesday. His lovely Willson Family Vineyard, located in Shepard Mesa, is planted to one acre of pinot noir, and the wine is made by Fabien Castel, assistant winemaker at Ojai Vineyards.

More to come, cheers!

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Closing Time: Santa Barbara’s Downey’s Restaurant to End 35-Year Run

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/24/17

John and Liz Downey (credit: Phil Downey)
In 1982, when John Downey took over an existing restaurant at 1305 State Street in Santa Barbara, there was a piece of furniture he didn’t really want.  “It was a big old English armoire that they’d been using as a coat rack,” the chef recalls.
When he overhauled the restaurant three years later, he took it home. “But I’d come home, and I’d see this thing there every single day, and it was like I couldn’t get away from the restaurant. So I thought, ‘I have to sell it,’ and I put it in the want ads.”
The only woman who answered that ad bought it. Then she started dating the chef. And then she married him.
John Downey opens his restaurant in 1982
John and Liz Downey would go on to become one of the most revered and respected culinary teams in town. To this day, their intimate restaurant, with its pastoral paintings on the walls and its fresh-cut flowers on the white linen tabletops and its picture windows that peek at the street, remains one of Santa Barbara County’s best. And next month, 35 years after John Downey put his name on the menu, the chef is hanging up his coat and Downey’s is closing its doors for good.
“We are going to cook for each other and eat together, like real people,” Mrs. Downey jokes. “It’s very exciting.”
Truth is, for the length of Downey’s' run, the two have been at their restaurant posts almost every single night. Now, with son Phil and daughter Nina in college and out of the house, the couple says they’re ready for the next chapter of their lives.
The Santa Barbara food scene, of course, will lose one of its most skilled players. John Downey’s knack for the kitchen was obvious well us before he left Penelope’s (it’s known as Stella Mare’s now) to open up his eponymous eatery downtown. He’d become a chef at the age of 12 in his native England. “My teacher there instilled integrity – respecting the ingredients you’re using and how you prepare them, seeing them as gifts,” Mr. Downey recalls. “’Just do it right,’” he’d say. By 19, John Downey was cooking for the Queen aboard the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner.
The Downey's dining room today (credit: Phil Downey)
He settled in New York in the early 1970s, where he worked at fine French restaurants and became enamored with a new dawn in American fine dining. He moved to Santa Barbara in the late 70s. And 10 years after he opened his own restaurant, he met that pretty armoire shopper who’d become his wife and business partner.
When he reminisces about 35 years in Santa Barbara, John Downey muses, in a tone that’s almost bittersweet, “We could be the last of the old guard.” If there was an early trendsetter in the now modish farm-to-fork movement, it was Downey’s. Sustainability, organic ingredients, local produce – these have always been staples of the Downey’s experience. “I think I was one of the first chefs to start utilizing the farmers’ market, really,” he says.
His style has always hinged on seeking perfection. “I tend to micromanage,” he admits. “I want to do it my way and I want it done right.” And, as a pair, the Downeys have always leaned toward the charming and quaint. “Ours is more of a sit-down style, where you can enjoy nice conversation in a calm atmosphere. That’s our niche.”
But things change. While it’s true that the timing for retirement feels right for the Downeys, their departure coincides with a shift in how food is made and how people eat. “We’ve seen the dining scene in Santa Barbara change a lot, even within the last five to seven years,” Mr. Downey says. “There are a lot more small, quick, throw-together places. If it’s loud, it’s good. And that’s not for us.”
There’s less room today, the chef laments, for cooking that’s complex. “By the time I finish a duck demi-glace into a cabernet reduction, that sauce could be three days in the making,” he says. “People are not doing that anymore.”
“It’s an endurance sport,” his wife interjects, with a laugh.
“And it makes business harder,” he adds.
That cabernet sauce, by the way, is part of John Downey’s Grilled Duck, a best seller, served with turnips, leeks and exotic grains. It’s his wife’s favorite. He’s partial to his squab preparation, and to the seasonal sea bass and lobster that he festoons with a ragout of chanterelles, shell beans and smoked bacon. “You eat it with a spoon and you beg for more bread to soak it all up,” he declares. “Every time I make it, I say, ‘Damn, I wish was eating this!’"
John Downey's Lobster & Sea Bass Ragout (credit: John Downey)
John Downey's Local Spiny Lobster w/Local Papaya & Three-Citrus Dressing (credit: Phil Downey)
John & Liz Downey's favorite peach dessert: two layers of almond meringue, house made peach ice cream, toasted almonds, strawberry coulis and fresh peaches on top (credit: Shelly Vinson-Contreras)
The Downey’s menu, actually, has always mirrored the sophistication of the restaurant. Driven purely by what’s available, it features just a handful of carefully constructed dishes. Appetizers often include a lobster and angel hair salad with asparagus and sundried tomatoes, or local mussels with tiny black lentils and mild curry dressing. Entrees range from Hawaiian ahi with mango-cucumber salsa and king salmon with parsley potatoes to natural Angus filet mignon in a balsamic sauce to Colorado lamb loin with garlic and local green beans. Downey’s “Taste of Santa Barbara” menu rotates daily: four courses that end with homemade dessert presented on a cart.

End of an era: Downey's closing around the end of August (my pic)
Mrs. Downey has always had creative control over the wine list, considered one of the most diverse in town and always “geared toward John’s cuisine,” she says: bubblies and crisp whites for the salads and fish, syrahs and Bordeaux reds for the proteins. Mrs. Downey never had formal training, but “I’ve always had a really good sense of smell and a really good sense of taste.” And her sit-down tastings with a select group of local wine reps, every single Tuesday, “really taught me a lot. It’s remarkable how many wines I’ve tasted!"

The Downeys, who began thinking about retirement three years ago, have sold their restaurant to a fellow member of the Santa Barbara restaurant scene. Mr. Downey says the new owner will likely change the name and “change the concept, make it more casual.”
Once Downey’s closes its doors at the end of August, the couple is not sure they’ll remain in Santa Barbara; their kids are currently in college in Northern California and Washington State. The pair is very satisfied, though, with their 35-year run here. “It’s been a source of pride to be part of Santa Barbara’s restaurant community,” says Mr. Downey.
And that big old English armoire? It’s still at home.
Downey's, 1305 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-966-5006.
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BREAKING IN SANTA BARBARA: Downey's Restaurant is Closing

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

July 21, 2017

Chef John Downey
After 35 years as one of the very best restaurants in Santa Barbara, Downey's is closing its doors. John and Liz Downey have always been the consummate hosts, and if there was ever an early trendsetter in Santa Barbara's farm-to-fork movement, their restaurant was it. Working as a team, along with a solid staff, John crafted delicious food while Liz put together a wonderful, Santa Barbara-centric wine list.

For us, if a special occasion called for a special dinner, odds were we'd make a reservation at Downey's. We'll miss this place and this awesome couple!

The Downeys will likely retire by the end of August. More details to come. Here's the letter that broke the news today, sent out to Downey's email list.

Downey's, 1305 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-966-5006.

We believe this may come as a surprise & disappointment to many of our loyal guests but, later this summer, after thirty-five years of serving you with Santa Barbara's finest cuisine, Liz and I will be retiring from Downey's and moving on to our next life adventure. There will be a new restaurateur taking over 1305 State Street and we are confident that they will offer you a very pleasant dining option in the heart of the downtown theater district.

Liz and I would like to thank you, our guests, for supporting our efforts through these years. We hope you have enjoyed our hospitality as much as we have enjoyed sharing it. It really has been a rewarding experience for us, from shopping at the Farmers' Market, to preparing food, to tasting wines, to serving you, to...well, maybe not to doing the dishes! But you get the idea.

We will miss so many of our regular guests and that will be one of the harder aspects for us. Downey's has been a huge part of our life for many years. But it really is time for us to relax and enjoy our life together. First thing will be a nice, long vacation to adjust to the "no-restaurant" lifestyle. It's been a long time since we have had such a chance.
If you have an opportunity to join us for one last duck with baby turnips or maybe a slice of raspberry millefeuille, then we would love to see you. Our last day is not yet determined but we anticipate closing around the end of August.

Warm Regards and Cheers!

John & Liz

Hidden Oasis in Santa Barbara: New “Biltmore” Dining Venue Takes You Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/13/17

Don’t let its diminutive dimensions fool you. At 120 square feet, the Luna Terrace at the Four Seasons Resort “The Biltmore” Santa Barbara is likely the smallest noshing spot in town. But with a palpable sensuality that spreads from the décor to the menu, this is elite dining at its finest.

The mezze spread at Luna Terrace
Luna was created when the resort’s Ty Lounge underwent a full revamp last year, a project inspired by owner Ty Warner’s own extensive travels. A south-facing window became a wrought iron glass door, vegetation was cleared and a 12-by-10 space aimed at transporting guests through premium food and service was born.
“This is a little, intimate social hub,” says food and beverage manager Koji Akaboshi. “We want to tap into guests’ emotions, allow them to really connect with each other, and to really play to their senses – you hear the waves, feel the breeze, connect with the environment.” The private event venue is targeted to parties of two to eight and is prime for everything from a festive celebration to a secluded night out.
Luna leverages the luxury resort's prime beachfront location and famously lush surroundings perfectly; guests are completely enveloped by towering plants and colorful flowers. But it’s also a totally self-contained experience, emulating the shades and flavors of Morocco, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Custom wood furnishings are elaborate and eclectic, yet cushy, decked out in plush pillows and threaded spreads. The imported lamps, dinnerware and cutlery exude a Persian flare. Colors are striking and opulent at once: sapphire, camel, crimson and gold. Fabric drapes and canopy help round out a veritable oasis.
My wife loved our secluded Luna Terrace escape
Specialized training has created a service experience at Luna that’s unhurried and that pivots on refined attention: premium bottle service comes standard; bartenders mix and pour their custom cocktails on the spot; chefs arrive with the main courses to describe dishes and mingle with their guests. “We love to interact with our customers,” says Executive Chef Marco Fossati, who’s spearheading a culinary revolution at all the Biltmore dining rooms. “Not only because we want customers to understand the passion behind our dishes, but so we can also better understand their preferences. The more comfortable guests are with you, the better you can cater to them and surprise them.”
Pomegranate seeds add color & pop to the baba ghanoush
Drawing from his work experience at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, Chef Fossati has created new exotic dishes for the Luna experience. He lists herbs and spices he’s using much more readily: turmeric, cardamom, cloves, paprika, curry, cayenne pepper. “I love the combination of all these flavors,” he says. “The magic of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine is how these vastly different flavors actually create balance and dishes that are elegant.”
Dining is modeled after a traditional Moroccan mezze, which is served family-style in multiple courses. A basket of grilled flatbread and fried pita bread, all made in-house, are presented with a variety of gourmet dips, like charred eggplant, yogurt-and-herb and piquillo pepper-and-almond. The charred eggplant dip is velvety smooth and subtly earthy. The hummus is made with roasted garlic, smoked paprika, za’taar (an ancient Middle Eastern herb mixture) and preserved lemon, and is served warm.
A large mezze plate follows. Skewers of grilled chicken and lamb kofta come with a cilantro dressing for dipping. Ornate individual tagines carry a bevy of steaming seasonal vegetables, topped with poached eggs and herbs. The whole roasted cauliflower is like a crowning jewel. “Cauliflower is trending big right now,” says Chef Fossati, who strips the white contoured plant of its leaves before poaching it in a solution of white wine vinegar, water, red chili pepper, turmeric and salt “until it’s al dente” before baking it in the oven, drizzling it sporadically with olive oil and spices. “As it’s leaving the kitchen, we finish it with lemon and za’taar,” he adds. The gourmet cauliflower is served with a creamy blend of mild goat cheese, mascarpone cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil, for dipping.
The Luna Terrace décor is lush and exotic
The generous menu can cater to a variety of guest experiences on Luna Terrace. The “Casablanca Romance For Two” ($500), for example, features the entire two-course mezze along with Champagne or wine bottle service (off the full Ty Lounge bar menu) and a delightful tagine salver of decadent sweet treats. Couples can opt for sunset or moonlit service, and the experience comes with a three-hour limit. Similar “Moroccan Feast” presentations can be tailored for parties of up to eight people and with extras like rolling cart with private bartender and premium liquor bottle service. Private brunch ($75 per person) can be prepared at Luna, too, complete with bottomless mimosa, bellini or bloody mary bar.
Reservations for Luna Terrace are made through the Biltmore’s concierge. And while the mezze model is the only one of its kind in Santa Barbara, and easily one of its most distinctive dining experiences, the Luna experience can always be customized and personalized. After all, Chef Fossati says, “this is all about catering to desires.”
Luna Terrace at Ty Lounge, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, 1260 Channel Drive, Montecito. 805-969-2261.
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Sunset Sips: Wine Goes Wild at the Santa Barbara Zoo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 13, 2017

Who knew: the wildest spot in Santa Barbara is quickly becoming a wine lover’s haven.  “Most of our guests are Santa Barbara locals who maybe haven’t been to the zoo in a while and are drawn by a unique new way of experiencing it,” says the Zoo’s special event coordinator, Cheyenne Brooks, of the Sunset Sips series.

A main attraction at these summer gatherings, which take place after the zoo closes for the day, is the beautiful rolling hilltop lawn, usually the setting for weddings and special events. You can see the waters of East Beach from there, and the sights and sounds of the zoo’s residents only add to the magic. In fact, Sunset Sips guests get to feed the giraffes, ride the train that circles the property and even roam the zoo (as most animals are retiring into their dens for the night).

This month’s event is the final in this year’s series and will feature three boutique wineries: Pence Ranch, Roark Wine Co. and Sevtap. Common Cidery will also pour and Enterprise Fish Company, Vida Natural Baking Company and Hippy Pop Popcorn will dole out the edibles. See you at Sunset Sips on Thursday, July 20th from 5:30-7:30pm. $30 at

(Want more wine at the zoo? Attend the Dignitarios event during Fiesta, which features numerous local wineries, and look for the zoo’s annual Roar & Pour wine festival in May.)

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Sip N' Swirl: Wine with a View at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 7, 2017

Going on its fifth year, the Sip N' Swirl summer series at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel is a local’s favorite, where the focus is squarely on the wine.

“It’s a social environment where people come taste wine and have fun but also network with other like-minded people who are interested in all things Santa Barbara wine,” says Marc Simonetti, assistant GM at the hotel’s Finch & Fork restaurant. To that end, five wineries are featured each month; stalwarts like Zaca Mesa and newbies like Lavender Oak have already poured this summer. There’s the occasional special treat, too. “Last month’s tasting coincided with the hotel’s Negroni Week, so everybody finished off with a Negroni nightcap,” says Simonetti.

Good luck, though, focusing on what’s in your glass. Sip N' Swirl takes place on the Canary’s rooftop, famously one of the best vantage points in Santa Barbara. The views of the ocean, the mountains and the hotel’s myriad red tile-roofed neighbors, especially as the day dwindles, are breathtaking. Live music and gourmet cheeses come standard.

The three remaining Sip N' Swirl events are all on a Wednesday from 5:30-7:30pm:  July 19 (Larner and Babcock are pouring), August 16 and September 20. $35 at

The Canary and Finch & Fork are part of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

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