Pet Project: Liquid Farm Winemaker Launches Own Kings Carey Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/17

The newest player in the Santa Barbara wine scene in someone who, actually, has already made a significant mark in it.  James Sparks has been winemaker for the celebrated Liquid Farm label since 2009, crafting beautiful chardonnays that combine fruit from multiple vineyards as a way to encapsulate the Sta. Rita Hills region in each bottle; the about-to-be-released 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay, a blend of six vineyards, is floral and racy. Liquid Farm recently expanded into pinot noir production, too.
 
But Sparks’ Kings Carey wines are totally new, with the first three bottlings just now hitting the marketplace.  “It can be challenging, finding that balance,” Sparks says of juggling his full-time gig at Liquid Farm with his pet project. But the focus of Kings Carey is precise – grenache only, for now – as a way to both eliminate competition and explore something totally personal.
 
Sparks’ foray into winemaking is relatively new, itself -- and fascinating, when you consider his background. One of a dozen children raised in rural Idaho, Sparks, 41, left the Mormon religion a little over a decade ago – a totally new way of life, and an introduction to the world of alcohol consumption and creation. His brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, now became an important connection; a former employee at an L.A. wine shop, he’d helped found Dragonette Cellars in 2005, and as the label began its quick climb to becoming one of Santa Barbara’s premiere boutique wine labels, it also became James’ foot in the door.
 
Serendipity is a powerful thing. But there’s no denying Sparks’ own knack, which saw him transitioning as assistant winemaker at Dragonette to winemaker at Liquid Farm within a year. Just a handful of vintages later, his presence and influence established, Kings Carey becomes Spark's next chapter.
 
Interestingly, the label’s name pays homage, in part, to Sparks’ upbringing; he hails from Carey, Idaho, a river valley ag town with a population of about 600. “Kings” is a tip of the hat to Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, a marketing whiz from Kings Point, on New York’s Long Island. The pair lives in Solvang with their beautiful three-year-old daughter, Bea.
 
“Why grenache?” I ask him as we sit and sip. The Kings Carey launch features a 2016 Rosé of grenache, a 2015 Sta. Rita Hills grenache and a 2014 Santa Ynez Valley grenache. I ask him, in part, because word on the street is that grenache, like syrah and other Rhone wines, is a hard sell.
 
“I want to do what I like, first and foremost,” he says.
 
Grenache also allows him to explore a new winemaking avenue: whereas Liquid Farm is a study in blends, Kings Carey sheds the spotlight on single varietals and single vineyards, with a push for minimal manipulation and lower alcohols.
 
The 2016 Rosé ($20) is fresh and juicy, with floral aromas and red berry flavors that scream afternoon sipping. “I love café,” says the winemaker. “It can go with almost anything, from salads to burgers.” The fruit comes from Brick Barn Vineyard, located in the warmer stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.
 
The 2014 and 2015 reds reveal what grenache can do in cooler environs. Their source is the same: the renowned John Sebastiano Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. But remember the contentious battle a few years ago to expand the boundaries of SRH? This vineyard featured prominently in this fight. Before the feds' approval of the expansion, most of it lived within the AVA, with a small portion spilling into a zone that had to be identified more broadly as Santa Ynez Valley. The 2014 Kings Carey grenache was bottled before the SRH borders were stretched, which requires Sparks to use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA moniker on his label. By the time the 2015 wines were put in bottle, he had the federal government’s blessing to label it, officially, Sta. Rita Hills.
 
No matter what it says on the label, though, these wines are awesome, although distinct. The 2015 Grenache ($29), harvested a bit earlier in the season, is more youthful, with tangy red berries on the nose and bouncy mouth feel. A lunch red, if you will, or a red you can easily sip as the sun goes down on a warm summer’s day. My favorite, the 2014 Grenache ($29), was picked a bit later and exhibits more depth – more earthy – with red currants, oak, white pepper and even a dab of cocoa, and a luscious finish. More of an evening meal wine, perhaps. Both grenache wines are about 13.5% alcohol and are drinkable now, though they exhibit wonderful aging potential, too.
 
Another standout element here? The Kings Carey labels, which feature black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphia-based artist Hawk Krall. The hand-drawn images pop and have a hip, urban vibe. Touching again on grenache’s marketplace challenges, Mrs. Sparks, the branding pro, says, “It speaks to the millennial audience that we’re after.”
 
Find out more at kingscarey.com.
 
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Mexican Dining, Elevated: Santo Mezcal Opens on Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/18/17

For several weeks, Ricardo Garcia put his clientele’s taste buds to the test.  The executive chef at Santa Barbara’s popular Los Agaves began offering daily specials – unique gourmet dishes that weren’t on the Milpas Street restaurant’s standard Mexican food menu, which draws a steady stream of customers daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It was a culinary experiment, of sorts.

Pulpo a las Brasas
“The idea was to give him the ability to create dishes that are creative and that take extra time to prepare,” says his boss, restaurateur Carlos Luna.

The dishes that fared best – the ones that got the most raves from guests – now have starring roles at Santa Barbara’s newest restaurant, Santo Mezcal, which opened in early May on lower State Street.  The new project by Mr. Luna has been more than a year in the works and takes over the spot that has housed other buzzy restaurants in the past, most recently Nuance.  But the best timing for a hit eatery just a block from Stearns Wharf may be now.

“This area is finally revitalized,” says Mr. Luna, 36, during an recent interview.  It’s the lunch hour, and he’s sitting by a large glass door that opens onto State Street, sporadically welcoming patrons he recognizes in both English and Spanish.  “It’s all been construction here, but now – it’s the perfect time to open Santa Mezcal.”

Camarones al Mezcal
For years, the two blocks of State Street between the beach and Gutierrez Street have, in fact, been an area to avoid.  Street closures, construction crews and choppy street patterns have afflicted this zone, and many locals and visitors alike have opted to dine, shop and drive elsewhere.  But summer 2017 is the light at the end of the tunnel here, with the grand opening of a brand new luxury hotel.  Already, the highly-anticipated MOXI Museum, right next door to Santo Mezcal, is welcoming guests daily and several other eateries and wine bars have opened, or are about to.

So, Santa Mezcal becomes the latest fresh arrival in this newly imagined section of Santa Barbara, and its prospects hinge squarely on the dining experience it creates moving forward.

The name pays homage to one of Mexico’s most revered distilled cordials; mezcal enjoys widespread exaltation among its fans as a divine sipping spirit.  Born in the state of Oaxaca, it’s made from the agave plant, just like tequila.  But because it’s roasted in underground ovens covered by earth and rocks, it exhibits a distinctive smoky flavor.  The wall behind the bar at Santo Mezcal houses dozens of mezcal bottles, which are often identified by their village of origin or even the age of the origin agave plant.  Mezcal can be ordered by the shot or in a cocktail, like the Margarita Jamaica ($11), which features spiced hibiscus syrup and hibiscus flowers, or the Sant-Old Fashioned ($12), with add-ins like agave nectar, chocolate-mole bitters and burnt orange essence.  All the flavoring syrups and nectars are made in house by mixologist Sean Sepulveda.

The mescal and tequila selections at the Santo Mezcal bar
The bar also features a comprehensive lineup of tequilas.  The wine list is concise but varied, representing Santa Barbara, mainly, as well as Chile, Argentina and Spain.

The kitchen is enclosed in glass, allowing lunch and dinner patrons to watch the kitchen crew in action.  The focus is on ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonally available, and the menu leans toward the sea.

Margarita Jamaica
Appetizers include several ceviche preparations.  The Ahi Tuna Ceviche ($13.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) features a tangy medley of cucumbers, jicama, cilantro and corn; the salsa that’s folded in gives it a refreshing edge.  The Ceviche Pulpo ($13.95, $14.95) features octopus meat that is remarkably tender, along with onion, cucumbers, avocado and cilantro.

The entrees, dubbed Especiales del Mar, include one of Mr. Luna’s favorites, the Pulpo a las Brasas ($22.95, dinner only).  Two grilled octopus tentacles, marinated in a housemade vegetable stock to ensure a tender bite, comes with a garbanzo bean purée; the chile oil drizzled on top as it’s exiting the kitchen offers each bite a spicy pop.  The Camarones al Mezcal ($14.95, $15.95) features several oversize Mexican shrimp sautéed in a velvety mezcal cream and comes with Mexican rice and salad.  And the Salmon Tropical ($19.95, dinner only) is served over grilled pineapple and topped with mango salsa and grilled shrimp.

House specialty dishes – the Especiales de la Casa – are hearty, like the veal osso bucco Chamorro ($18.95, $19.95) and the Cazuela Poblana, with grilled chicken and pasilla peppers topped with Oaxaca cheese.  Meat lovers will eye the off-the-grill specials, which feature ribeye steak in myriad preparations and served with sides like cheese-stuffed pasilla peppers and crab enchiladas. There are several taco and enchilada entrees on the menu, as well as one- and two-item combination plates.

Several of the dishes are vegetarian and gluten-free, by design.  “We really wanted to give those customers a lot of good options,” says Mr. Luna, “which is easy to do with Mexican cuisine, because it’s so fresh.”  Dishes will be rotated regularly, too, “to give customers more reasons to come back."


Ahi Tuna Ceviche
Food aside, the reason to return for many patrons will be Mr. Luna, himself.  The restaurateur who founded Los Agaves on Milpas Street just nine years ago and who’s grown the enterprise to four bustling locations (in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Westlake Village) is known as the consummate host.  His demeanor is understated, although the numerous interactions with patrons and even passers-by during this interview points to a personality that’s much larger.  Mr. Luna makes a point of mentioning his regulars.  “These are people who gave us a chance,” he says.  ““Local support is what keeps us going."

Dining at Santo Mezcal?  Look for free 75-minute parking at the city lot by the Amtrak station, just up State Street.

Santo Mezcal, 119 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-883-3593. @santomezcal_sb on Instagram.


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The Food’s the Focus: Buellton’s New Bottlest Bistro Raises the Culinary Bar

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/4/17

Beef Short Ribs w/carrot puree, roasted carrots & preserved meyer lemon
In Buellton’s steady march toward becoming a culinary epicenter, Bottlest Bistro is the latest major milestone.

The gourmet bistro opened its doors just a few weeks ago, and in a familiar space.  It’s linked to Terravant, a large scale custom crush facility that allows dozens of labels – think handcrafted projects like The Hitching Post II’s Hartley-Ostini – to produce, age and store their wines.  And it takes over for Avant, a tapas-focused eatery that became known for its casual vibe, mainly.


With Bottlest Bistro, the focus is squarely on the food and wine, and on a dining experience that’s meant to be approachable but gourmet.  “My overall philosophy is quality over quantity,” says Executive Chef Owen Hanavan.  “If we have quality service and if we have quality food that we put out consistently – that’s the biggest thing – then our image will speak for itself."


Jidori Chicken w/whipped potato, kohlrabi noodles, grapefruit, chicken jus

Chef Hanavan’s resumé impresses, with stints at Michelin-starred COI restaurant in San Francisco and Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore in Montecito.  As Head Chef, he also helped open the wildly popular Barbareno in downtown Santa Barbara.  And he credits his experience at various country clubs, including Santa Barbara’s La Cumbre Country Club, with expanding his culinary perspective.  “Having to offer members and their international guests a wide variety of food and flavors – it was like getting extensive training in global cuisine,” he says.  “So sneaking Japanese flavors into classic French dishes, for example, is something I love to do.”


Wild Atlantic Salmon w/cooked lentils, sprouted lentils, meyer lemon, mirpoix
He’s crossing borders when it comes to ingredients, too, with a focus on “quality product.”

“It could be a cheese out of the Midwest or a fish from the Mediterranean flown in that morning,” says Hanavan, 29. But, “I’m looking to showcase quality products, starting with our surrounding area.  We have an abundance of farmers and fishermen."

At Bottlest, Chef Hanavan leads a still-growing team of cooks, including Chef de Cuisine Bart Jones, and the menus are seasonally inspired and ingredient-driven.  For lunch, the restaurant’s wood fire pizza oven produces specialties like The California, with chicken confit, garden greens and fontina cheese.  The Buellton Steak Salad features red bell pepper dressing and quinoa, and the Beets Salad (one of Chef Hanavan’s favorites) presents the root vegetable three ways – raw, cooked and pickled – along with burrata cheese and Egyptian spices.  Other lunch options include supple lamb meatballs with mint; a white cheddar Mac and Cheese with chicken, jalapeno and bacon add-on options; Pork Belly with sunchoke; and locally sourced Yellowtail adorned with Japanese-inspired flavors.

Dessert is served: Belgian Chocolate Rice Tart w/house made crème fraiche & seasonal jam
More dessert, please: California Bay Leaf Ice Cream/vanilla & amaretto cookie
On the dinner menu, hearty but elegantly presented dishes include Beef Short Ribs with carrot puree, a Jidori Chicken with whipped potatoes and kohlrabi noodles and the Sixteen-Spice Pork Shoulder served with almond rice, pilaf and a date glaze.  The already-popular NY Strip is attractively festooned with potatoes cooked in duck fat, crispy leeks, a soubise onion sauce and a house-made chimichurri sauce.  For dessert, the California Bay leaf Ice Cream does not disappoint.

Flavors matter, but so do looks.  “I was always taught to season in layers, to develop flavors that are elegant,” says Mr. Hanavan.  “But truth is, we eat with our eyes first, smell afterwards, then dig in.”

Lunch items range from $12 to $18 (the cheese board is $24), with dinner prices between $13 and $33.

 
52 wines by the glass accessible via a high-tech dispensing system
Detailed attention to the wine list is part of the Bottlest DNA.  The bistro, actually, shares its name with Terravant’s new online customization tool – the first of its kind – that allows individuals anywhere in the world to craft their personal bottle of wine from beginning to end.  The Bottlest  website, which is still in Beta testing mode, allows would-be vintners to use a wine profile wheel to control aspects like earthiness, oakiness and sweetness, and then design their own label.  Each blend, made with proprietary Terravant wines, is then shipped out.  Terravant also runs a wine club with a slew of VIP benefits.

At the bistro, guests can choose from 52 wines by the glass.  The constantly changing selections are displayed on the Wine Wall, a unique dispensing system that accepts pre-paid cards in return for one-ounce tastes or half- or full-glass pours.  The wine program, which leans heavily local, is run by certified sommelier Vlad Stojanov, whose international résumé includes, most recently, Bacara Resort & Spa.

The centerpiece bar, which is adjacent to the dining room, is sleek and open.  Local ingredients are a priority here, too, with all syrups and flavorings made onsite.  The Lavender Gin Paloma features house-infused lavender gin and grapefruit juice.

Bottlest Bistro is airy.  It’s one floor up from ground level, and it makes good use of south-facing windows for natural light.  The open floor plan includes several large portals into the busy kitchen and a massive glass frame that overlooks one of Terravant’s production rooms, filled with oversize stainless steel tanks.

Bottlest Bistro is open for lunch and dinner daily, from 11am-9pm Sunday through Thursday and until 11pm Friday and Saturday.  Visit bottlest.com/bistro for more information and reservations.


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BREAKING: Brewer-Clifton Now Part of Jackson Family Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
posted 5/18/17

Winemaker Greg Brewer (Bob Dickey photo)
In a deal expected to close on Friday, May 19, Jackson Family Wines is acquiring Santa Barbara’s celebrated wine label, Brewer-Clifton. Financial details have not been disclosed. Winemaker Greg Brewer spoke with me from his office in Lompoc today about this deal, which will bring Brewer-Clifton under the umbrella of one of the biggest beverage companies in the world. Here are some excerpts from our chat:
  • “I am honored to be their sole voice now in the Sta. Rita Hills, and I think this is a huge showing of confidence for the evolution of the appellation."
  • "They’ve stated, under no uncertain terms, that they want me to continue to do what I’ve always done. They have a multitude of other wine brands, with their own spot in the marketplace, so their reason to purchase Brewer-Clifton is -- they want it to remain as is."
  • “This means an infusion of marketing, outreach and exposure for the brand. We’ll now have a tremendous amount of resources at our disposal. It’s a different scale – they have networks and infrastructure that few other people do, so I’m excited to be part of this system now."
  • “There’s tremendous momentum now in the Sta. Rita Hills, the future is bright. This deal furthers opportunities to grow our market awareness, not just for me, but largely for the appellation. There are many corners of the world that have not tapped into Sta. Rita Hills, and knowing there’s more in the marketing and publicity side of things to get further exposure is exciting.”

Brewer-Clifton was founded in 1996 by Brewer and friend Steve Clifton, though Mr. Clifton was bought out of the partnership within the last two years. The label produces what are considered some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay wines out of Santa Barbara County, if not the entire state of California. It sources fruit exclusively from four estate vineyards that comprise a total of 60 acres.
Brewer-Clifton currently produces about 12,000 cases of wine a year, a number Mr. Brewer plans to grow.

The deal also includes acquisition of Diatom, a project Mr. Brewer launched in 2005 to focus exclusively on crisp, stainless steel-fermented chardonnay.

In a statement, Jackson Family Wines chair Barbara Banke said, “I’ve long been impressed with the purity and intensity of these wines. Brewer-Clifton strengthens our portfolio of singular, site-specific chardonnay and pinot noir, while complementing our offerings from the nearby Santa Maria Valley,” where the company owns Cambria and Byron.

More to come...


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Pioneer to Retire: Ken Volk Selling Legendary Santa Barbara Co. Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/11/17

As he heads into his 40th vintage as a Central Coast winemaker, Ken Volk is calling it quits.

“It’s driven by my health,” Mr. Volk, 59, says of a decision that is, really, bittersweet.  The well-known winemaker is still reeling from the effects of a significant stroke three years ago, which affected the part of his brain that control the optic nerves, inducing a wandering blind spot.  He had a knee replaced last week.  And, along with recent bouts with epilepsy, he may be seeing the early onset of Parkinson ’s disease.

“Not being able to drive, not having the stamina I used to have – it makes it pretty hard to play in the wine business,” he says.

Vintner Ken Volk at harvest
Volk’s impact on California winemaking has been, however, a tour de force.  It began in the mid-1970s, with fruit science studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and harvest work at Edna Valley Vineyards.  In 1981, he founded Wile Horse Winery, a label that would become one of the most recognizable on the Central Coast, and a venture that would grow to 200,000 cases a year before he sold it to a division of Jim Beam Brands in 2003.  His move into Santa Barbara County followed when, in late 2004, he bought a legendary vineyard.

The original Byron Vineyard was founded by winemaker Ken Brown and partners that included famed grower Dale Hampton.  Located in the northeastern portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA, and at the mouth of Tepesquet Canyon along Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the sprawling 12-acre property was acquired by Robert Mondavi in 1994.  Mr. Volk purchased it, and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards, 12 years ago.

The tasting room on Ken Volk Vineyards
As part of his retirement, Mr. Volk is putting his namesake winery and vineyard on the market.  A decades’ worth of upgrades and infrastructure improvements by Mr. Volk include a plumbing overhaul and improved crushing equipment.  The turn-key operation includes a tasting room, a winery with a 25,000-case capacity and a four-acre vineyard of what’s easily considered world-class pinot noir and chardonnay.  There are also native gardens, event facilities and a commercial kitchen.  Represented by real estate broker Jenny Heinzen (who helped Mr. Volk sell Wild Horse), the property is being offered at $3.7 million and the entire business -- including label and wine inventory -- for $5.5 million at wineryrealtor.com.

“In a perfect world, I sell the vineyard and the brand as a package,” says Mr. Volk, who's open to maintaining, at least in the short term, his label.  “I do plan on bringing in fruit this year, and crushing,” he says, “just very scaled back from what I’ve been doing.”

I asked Volk what he’ll miss most of a career four decades in the making, and in a region that’s seen the number of producers explode along the way.  “The viticulture side,” he answers quickly, fessing up to a genuine love for grapes, especially under-appreciated grapes.  “Pinot noir and chardonnay pay the bills, and they’re popular because they’ve proven they can make interesting wines around the world,” he says.  “But if I could go back, I’d go back to school, and I’d do analysis, and I’d study to better understand lesser-known grape varieties and where they came from.  The fact we’re now able to follow the DNA trail and the alpha protein trails of grapes, we can really see what’s related to what.”  He pauses, and then adds, with a chuckle, “Yeah, it’s kind of goofy.”

The Volk chardonnay selected for Pope Francis's U.S. visit in 2015
Over the years, Mr. Volk has served on a variety of grape grower alliances and advisory councils on the Central Coast.  He’s also received myriad accolades, including Winemaker of the Year from Wine & Spirits Magazine and Wine Industry Person of the Year from the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association.  He also made news two years ago, when his chardonnay was selected for Pope Francis’ flight into New York City during his U.S. visit, which Volk described as, “a nice surprise for my company.”

The father of two children, ages 30 and 26, Volk lives with his wife in San Luis Obispo. Find out more about Kenneth Volk Vineyards at volkwines.com.



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There’s Food, Too: Santa Barbara’s Longest Running Wine Festival Expands Focus

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/4/17

There’s a new wine festival in town.  OK, not new.  In fact, the annual wine fete that takes over the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is the longest running festival of its kind in our area.  But this year – the year that marks its 30th anniversary – this hugely popular gathering is changing its name, and expanding its focus.  Welcome to the Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival.

For those of us who love wine, what was formerly the Santa Barbara Wine Festival has always been a standout, and for several reasons.  The setting, for sure, since the museum’s grounds, behind the Old Mission, are simply lovely.  Straddling stony Mission Creek and speckled with towering oaks, rustic bridges and meandering dirt paths, this is a nature lover’s oasis.  The festival also takes place in June, so the weather is perfect – sun-drenched and warm.  The crowd, which usually numbers about 1000 enthusiasts, is always in a dependably amiable mood.  And then there are the stars themselves: the wines and the women and men who made them.

The museum's bucolic grounds
This has, actually, always been a sort of who’s who of Santa Barbara winemaking.  Many of this area’s wine pioneers have poured at this festival themselves – not winery reps – from day one.  Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, Ken Brown, Fred Brander, Doug Margerum, among others. 

Richard Sanford once told me he favors this festival because, “I love connecting with the season here.” 

Drake Whitcraft once said he remembers coming to this festival each year with his dad – the late, great Chris Whitcraft, one of this event’s founding fathers –and going off to play in the creek nearby, “until I was old enough to pour.” 

They pour every year: winemakers Graham Tatomer, Drake Whitcraft and Richard Sanford
Most of these winemakers claim their favorite pouring spot year after year, and they regard the audience for whom they pour as advocates both for their own pet projects and for the Santa Barbara region as a whole.

On this 30th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s namesake wine festival, none of this changes.  The cast of characters remains – expands each year, actually, as new producers are carefully hand-picked and invited to come and wow with their liquid creations.  The 50-or-so wineries featured this year include the very best: Foxen, Kalyra, Zaca Mesa, Tercero, Palmina, Municipal Winemakers, Blair Fox, Fess Parker, Melville, Longoria, Tatomer, and so on, and so on.

But there’s something new afoot.  Food is getting top billing now, too.  Sure, there have always been nibbles and bites to enjoy along the way.  But the caliber of the culinary purveyors has grown to mirror the collection of their winemaking counterparts.  So the festival is changing names to reflect that – the Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival.

More than 30 of our area’s top restaurants, caterers and purveyors will be there this year.  I’m looking forward to seeing many of my friends, like Bob Oswaks of Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos and Michael Hutchings of Michael’s Catering in Santa Barbara.  Some of your own tried-and-true fave eateries will be there, too: Tre Lune, Industrial Eats, Via Maestra 42, Brophy Bros. and Finch & Fork.  And if you haven’t visited the new, exciting, buzzed-about kitchens in town, then this is your chance: Barbareño, Loquita, Pico, Helena Avenue Bakery and Freezer Monkeys will be there, too.

Well beyond recognizing the extent and caliber of the event’s food offerings, the name change just makes sense.  Wine and food are meant to be savored together, they complement each other like nothing else, they are the ultimate match – simple as that.  And it’s clever marketing, since the expanded focus now targets a wider audience – people who might like to drink but who love to eat.  It expands its appeal.  And so the new moniker has the real potential to not only strengthen festival attendance but to grow the funds it raises as well.

In fact, that’s another thing that won’t change about this festival, no matter what you call it.  The money raised by this event – $85,000 last year and a $93,000 goal this year – pays to enlighten and inspire and educate school kids from throughout the state.  More than 40,000 students a year come here to spend the day with docents, scientists and curators, to study exhibits hands-on and run the grounds, and to become engaged in the world of natural history.  It’s one of our community’s truly great outreach causes.

The 30th annual Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival takes place Saturday, June 24th, from 2-5pm.  Tickets are $100, or $75 for museum members.  For $125, upgrade to the VIP Lounge and get early admission and several culinary perks.  There’s no auction at this festival, but bring extra cash for the Every Cork Wins raffle: pay $40, pull a cork, and win a guaranteed prize valued at least $40 (some go as high as $400).  Buy tickets through the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website, sbnature.org.


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Ranch to Table: Parkers’ New Restaurant Sources Products from Family Ranch

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Chef John Cox, Kodiak Greenwood & Grey Crawford
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/27/16

Katie Parker on the family ranch (my pic)
On a horseback ride through her family’s 700-acre ranch last week, Katie Parker reminisced about her grandfather.  “He was a real visionary,” she said of Fess Parker, the Disney icon and Santa Barbara entrepreneur who passed away seven years ago. As she speaks, her steed’s steady gait takes her over rolling hills, past flourishing vines and across leafy pastures as far as the eye can see.  “He would have loved what we’re doing now,” adds the mother of four young children, “because I think he always imagined it.”

When Fess Parker bought this plot in the mid-1980s – a rambling property that sprawls along Foxen Canyon and abuts what was once Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch – it was wild and unkempt.  Today, it’s a working ranch run by his kids and grandkids, home to a vineyard that carries his name and a thriving ecosystem that includes dozens of Wagyu cattle, pigs, rabbits, quail, chicken, bees, fruit trees and heirloom vegetables.  And because it’s integrally linked to what’s about to become the newest restaurant in the county, it’s also part of could well be one of the most comprehensive culinary enterprises that this area has ever seen.

Chef John Cox
When The Bear and Star opens to the public on May 1, it’ll be a return to the restaurant business for the Parker family.  Located inside the deluxe Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in downtown Los Olivos, this is where Restaurant Marcella once flourished – a pet project for Fess and Marcy Parker that was as much a spot to eat as a place for neighbors and friends to gather.  It was leased out and renamed Petros in 2008, however, until the restaurant closed last summer.

Driven by a new vision, Ashley and Eli Parker are launching The Bear and Star as homage to their father, for one: the Star pays tribute to Fess Parker’s home state of Texas while the Bear denotes his adopted state of California.  But this is also about synergy.  It’s about producing and preparing food in a closed loop – from beginning to end, from ranch to plate – based on the notion that controlling every element guarantees quality and creates a unique customer experience.

Located just seven miles away, the Parkers’ ranch, then, plays a pivotal role.

“No one has a connection to those cattle and animals and produce the way the Parkers do,” says Executive Chef John Cox, who partnered with the Parker family to create The Bear and Star.  “They’re the only ones who can bring it to consumers in a very personal and intimate way.”

The Bear and Star's menu is inspired in large part by the dozens of Wagyu cattle that call the Parker Ranch home (my pic)
Mr. Cox, 36, comes from Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, where, for the last 15 years, he’s helped create one of the most lucrative dining experiences in the country.  “I wasn’t looking to move on from Post Ranch – it’s a lifetime job, as good as it gets,” he says.  But a serendipitous meeting with Eli Parker and a visit to the Parker ranch struck a very personal chord for the fellow Texas native.

As chef and contributing food writer for several national magazines, “I’ve always been a voice for sustainable food and farming practices,” he says.  “So many restaurants claim they’re ‘farm to table,’ but are they? Are they really making a difference in their community? This project, to me, was a chance to do something sustainable in a much larger scale.”

The Chef's Room, above, and the dining room bar at The Bear and Star
Chef Cox spent more than three months living on the ranch while he created The Bear and Star menu.  He calls it “refined ranch cuisine.”  For the Parkers, many of the recipes are actually familiar, since they’re inspired by meals created by Marcy Parker herself.

“We have been calling it family recipes with a twist, or re-envisioned,” says Ashley Parker.

The bar and main menus are inspired expressions of the ranch, the cattle in particular.  There’s an 18-oz. Wagyu Ribeye, a Wagyu Burger topped with smoked cheddar and tomato jam, a Smoked Wagyu Carpaccio, Wagyu fries and a Wagyu Meatloaf served with potato puree and garden vegetables.  The Berkshire Pork Chop comes with cheesy grits and syrah-braised cabbage.  The Stuffed Quail is doled out with farro risotto and bay laurel.  The Gnocchi Stroganoff features farm-grown mushrooms and crispy herbs.  The Parker Ranch Chile is served with cheddar, chives and cornbread croutons.

Bar Menu prices range between $3 and $15 and entrees on the Main Menu are priced between $14 and $32.

For breakfast, offerings range from Home-Made Country Sausage with poached eggs and sourdough country toast to Smoked Wagyu Hash with farm eggs, root vegetables and lemon-thyme hollandaise.

Chef Cox will, naturally, reach beyond the ranch as needed, although he’ll keep the spotlight squarely on the region, including neighboring farms and local seafood.  “It wouldn’t make sense for me to serve dishes I made in Big Sur,” he insists.  “The way I cook is really about creating an experience that reflects an environment.  In that sense, there’s no better place to do what we’re doing than Santa Barbara.”

Smoked Wagyu Meatloaf, above, and Classic Cheese Pie
The Bear and Star’s sommelier-run wine program will feature the family’s three labels prominently – Fess Parker, Epiphany and Fesstivity sparkling wines.  It’ll be buoyed by selections from Santa Barbara to France and a by-the-glass program focused on iconic and older vintages.  The market cocktail program will follow local and seasonally driven ingredients; the Wagyu Bull Shot is made with vodka, beef bone broth, turmeric and ginger.

In the kitchen, Chef Cox’s team includes Santa Barbara native Chef Jeremy Tummel and Sous Chef Trent Shank.  The revamped state-of-the-art kitchen will be the restaurant's gastronomic epicenter, for sure.  But the crux of the cooking will be performed on a custom, self-contained, reverse-flow, Texas-made, 30-foot smoker.  Complete with Big Green Egg barbecue, pizza oven, three-compartment sink with running water and on-board refrigeration and lighting, it’s parked out back.  But as a veritable kitchen on wheels, it’ll be on the move often.  “I want to be able to pull into anywhere and, without water or electricity, be able to cook for a couple hundred people,” says Chef Cox. “It’s a pretty awesome tool.”

The design of the revamped restaurant is both ranch-inspired and sleek.  There are four environments, including a glossy bar-lounge.  The main dining room has velvet chairs and bronze metal café tables, and it opens both to a terrace along Grand Avenue and a back patio decked out in raised herb planters and aquaponic fish tank.  The preserved skull of Maggie, a cherished Texas Longhorn that was fatally injured on the Parker ranch, is displayed above the fireplace.

The Wine Room has a secret entrance – a sliding wall of more than 200 wine bottles – and is earmarked for winemaker get-togethers.  “They can go completely off the radar here, enjoy wine, get geeky, invite friends – if they get rowdy, it’s okay,” says Chef Cox.  Private events can be booked here, too.

And the Chef’s Room is a sexy space, complete with chandeliers and nine-foot marble table, which the chef describes as his command center.  Festooned with dry-aging cabinets and a personal collection of cookbooks and chef’s knives that spans 20 years, this is a space “for creative inspiration,” according to Chef Cox.  “The idea is to take all our cooks’ combined decades of fine dining experience and distill recipes, so that we can make them as best we can.”

For more information, check out thebearandstar.com.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, on horseback, Katie Parker reveals her own plans to help bring this culinary experience full circle: offering guided rides through the ranch to the public, beginning in a few weeks.  “It’s confirmation that we really are ranch to table,” she says.  “Come see it – it’s all here.”

Katie recently led me and my two boys on a trot through the Parkers' home ranch, check it out: 






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