Your New Summer White: Grenache Blanc

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/13/17

Grenache blanc has likely been on your wine drinking periphery for a while now.  You’ve seen it on the shelf, you’ve spotted it on a few wine lists.  But the time to try it, is now.

My visit to the SB Rhone Rangers tasting, w/Tercero's Larry Schaffer
A bevy of grenache blancs were on display last week, when the Santa Barbara chapter of the Rhone Rangers – a non-profit advocacy group aiming to elevate the marketplace visibility of Rhone grapes – poured for the public.  The intimate event at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective, in the Funk Zone, featured winemakers showing off world-class syrah, grenache and viognier wines.  But it was the grenache blanc that really shone for me.

One of the most widely planted white wine grapes in all of France,  grenache blanc is still a novelty in California.  Most figures I’ve found put the state's total planting of grenache blanc at under 200 acres.  Most of the recent surge in grenache blanc interest, though, is driven by wineries throughout the Central Coast, and by some of Santa Barbara’s own top producers specifically.

Part of grenache blanc’s delicious appeal, to me, comes from balance.  With a drinking experience reminiscent of sauvignon blanc or a very crisp chardonnay, grenache blanc tends to be generous and bright all at once, rich and crisp, full and vibrant.  That makes this easy-drinking white wine as a much a perfect afternoon sipper as a dinner table companion for dishes like sushi and pork chops.

Here are some Santa Barbara grenache blanc wines and blends worth discovering.

Tercero Grenache Blanc 2014 ($30)
Tercero winemaker Larry Schaffer, an unabashed champion of all things Rhone, often serves his grenache blanc at room temperature, not chilled. That allows the wine’s aromas and richness to come alive, he told me.  This wine has bright and beautiful aromatics, a racy acidity that reminds me of ripe grapefruit and clean, generous flavors.  Aged in neutral French oak barrels for 15 months.

Bernat Grenache Blanc 2013 ($24)
A bit more age, and no filtering or fining, gives this grenache blanc extra body, extra creaminess.  But this wonderful richness is balanced by lively acidity, citrus notes and a splash of minerality.  The finish delivers subtle spiciness.  Sourced from Camp 4 Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Bernat is a pet project for winemaker Sam Marmorstein, who, with wife Shawnda, also owns the Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Café.

Jaffurs Grenache Blanc 2013 ($27)
Winemaker Craig Jaffurs poured at the Rhone Rangers tasting; although he sold his eponymous label last year, he’s still helping to promote its Rhone-inspired portfolio.  The just-released grenache blanc did not go through full malolactic fermentation, he told me, which keeps the wine clean and crisp.  The mouth feel is rounded, nonetheless, and the tropical notes are lovely.  Sourced from the Thompson Vineyard in the Los Alamos Valley.

Fess Parker Winery “Marcella’s” 2015 ($20)
Named for the late Disney icon’s wife, Marcella, this wine showcases how well grenache blanc can get along.  As a blending agent – and, at 53%, the biggest component here – it provides green apple flavors, lemon tart nuances and just enough palate heft.  The other players in this wine include viognier, roussanne and marsanne, which impart floral and tropical fruit overtones.  An all-Santa Ynez Valley wine.

Zaca Mesa Z Blanc 2014 ($20)
Grenache blanc is not the biggest player in this blend; the wine is 28% grenache blanc, along with 66% roussanne and 6% viognier.  The latter two components add an array of flavors and floral notes, while the grenache blanc imparts refreshing flavors of green apple and lively minerality.  Another win by winemaker Eric Mohseni and the winery that brought the Rhone to Santa Barbara when Zaca planted the county’s first syrah vines in 1978.

Do you have a favorite wine? Let me know about it on Twitter or Instagram!


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In Julia’s Honor: Celeb Chef Nancy Silverton to Launch Culinary Weekend Named for Julia Child


by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/6/17

Chef Nancy Silverton still calls her now-famous TV appearance with Julia Child her “defining moment.”

“I felt that knock on my hip, so I knew I had to hurry up,” she recalls of the 1997 “Baking With Julia” episode that she taped at the master chef’s historic Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen.  The tap was Julia Child’s way of letting Ms. Silverton know it was time to wrap up her cooking segment.  So the guest chef finished up her dessert dish – a crème fraiche custard brioche tart with white wine sabayon, toasted nuts and powdered sugar – and topped it off with a very hot stone fruit syrup.

Screen grab: Baking with Julia, 7/11/97, PBS
“She stuffed it in her mouth, and then – I see tears in her eyes!  And I thought, ‘Wow – I burned her!” says Ms. Silverton.

Julia Child, instead, catches her breath, smiles and then raves.  “A dessert to cry over – a triumph!” she proclaims.  “The best dessert I ever tasted.”

Beyond this special moment, Ms. Silverton’s culinary career is speckled with successes.  The budding gourmand who dropped out of college to pursue cooking in Europe would go on to become the first pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, a co-originator of L.A.’s Campanile and a bread-making phenom as co-founder of La Brea Bakery.  She’s authored several best-selling cookbooks and twice won a James Beard Foundation award, most recently in 2014.  Currently, she helms Osteria Mozza in Hollywood, a joint venture with Mario Battali and restaurateur Joseph Bastianich.  And she just launched a line of gourmet gelatos and sorbets, Nancy’s Fancy.  Even through several setbacks – there was that nasty experience with Bernie Madoff that cost her millions – Ms. Silverton has gained fame by elevating the American dining experience and inspiring a still-growing culinary movement.

“For my mom’s generation, food was a function of convenience – women had to get food on the table,” Ms. Silverton says during an exclusive interview this week.  “Today, there are more choices, and cooking is like a culture that everyone wants to be a part of.”

But back to Julia Child.

That disarming moment when the famous chef actually wept when she tasted her food – that moment tops any accomplishment.  “Reporters always ask me, ‘What’s the most remarkable or defining moment of your career?’ And it’s so special that I actually have one.”

Nancy Silverton
Ms. Silverton reminisces about Julia Child’s approach to food, an authenticity that drove her impact and success.  “You could tell she oved what she did,” she says.  “She loved to cook and loved to eat, and that came across.  She wasn’t going to change anything because of trends or fads or diets.  She was confident in what she believed in and what she wanted to do.  In an era when people thought of food as a chore and an obligation, Julia made cooking seem fun and enjoyable, as it is.”

It is apropos, then, that Ms. Silverton would headline this year’s Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend, a three-day culinary extravaganza that honors Julia Child and is presented by the Santa Barbara-based Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.  The event, now in its fourth year, returns to Bacara this weekend, April 7-9.  Tickets are available at bacaraculinaryweekend.com.

The food fete features a Grand Dinner with Santa Barbara wine pioneer Richard Sanford and Bacara Executive Chef Vincent Lesage ($250); a locally-sourced wood-fire lunch with Full of Life Flatbread Chef Clark Staub ($65); a Craft Brewer’s Garden with Santa Barbara-made beer, cider, mead and cocktails $35; a slew of cooking demos and tastings ($20-$45); and a Neighborhood Market Tour highlighting local culinary hotspots, from Los Alamos to the Funk Zone ($20 kids, $50 adults).  Julia Child’s great-nephew, Alex Purd’homme, will lead a discussion of his new book, The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act (Free).  And the hit film Julie & Julia, with Meryl Streep portraying Child, will be screened at 4pm Saturday in Bacara’s state-of-the-art theater (Free).

Ms. Silverton is teaming up with Santa Barbara Vintners to kick off the weekend with a Wine Reception ($99).  The Friday evening event will take place in Bacara’s brand new oceanfront restaurant, Angel Oak, and will include a tribute to Julia Child.  To pair myriad local wines, Ms. Silverton’s menu includes roasted carrots in a cumin vinaigrette, garlic-rubbed skirt steak served with Santa Maria-style beans and marinated baby peppers with tuna.  A mozzarella bar – an Osteria Mozza concept that has garnered Ms. Silverton acclaim – will feature Burrata and several accompaniments, like pesto, slow-roasted tomatoes and black olive tapenade.

Nancy's Fancy (Jason Varney photo)
Dessert will feature Ms. Silverton’s brand new Nancy’s Fancy line.  The Italian-inspired sorbetti and gelati feature flavors like roasted banana with pecan praline, spiced coffee with cocoa nibs, butterscotch budino, salted peanut butter and non-dairy coconut stracciatella.  “I’m profiling flavors with a lot of punch to them,” says Ms. Silverton, “and they’re made with real fruit, not flavorings.”

Ms. Silverton is looking forward to returning to Santa Barbara this week, a getaway destination with which the Hollywood resident is very familiar.  “I started making the pilgrimage up there when Julia started talking about La Super Rica,” she says, recalling the Mexican restaurant along Milpas Street that continues to reap the publicity rewards of Julia Child’s steady patronage.  Today, Ms. Silverton, who was an investor in Santa Barbara’s recently-closed Hungry Cat, has several favorite local food stops, including The Lark, Wine Cask and Bob’s Well Bread.  And she marvels at the epicurean evolution of Santa Barbara's neighbor communities like Buellton and Los Alamos.

“You only travel 90 miles to get there, but you feel like you’re on vacation!”

For more information on Nancy Silverton, visit Osteria Mozza LA.

Watch the PBS "Baking with Julia" episode with Julia Child, Nancy Silverton and that tear-worthy crème fraiche custard brioche tart (aired 7/11/97).

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Wine Review: Cordon of Santa Barbara Syrah 2014

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Etienne Terlinden knocks it out of the park with the wines he makes for Santa Barbara's Summerland Winery label.  But the wines under his pet project, Cordon, come across as especially personal.  The wines feature exceptional grape sources and employ classic, thoughtful, Old World-inspired methods -- a tip of the hat to Terlinden's Belgian and European upbringing and to an appreciation for wine that begans when he was young.

I recently got my hands on one of the last remaining bottles of the 2014 vintage of Cordon's White Hawk Vineyard syrah.  Only 90 cases were made, so this is a small-batch, hand-crafted endeavor through and through.  Sourced from an organically and sustainably farmed vineyard, and aged for 18 months in half-new/half-neutral French oak barrels, the wine is smooth and elegant and well-rounded in the mouth.  Rich earth notes are balanced by ripe dark berry flavors.  A perfect match for any grilled meats, especially lamb and filet mignon.

Look out for the 2015 rendition of this wine, coming soon.

  • Label: Cordon Syrah
  • Vintage: 2014
  • Source: White Hawk Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
  • Winemaker: Etienne Terlinden
  • Alcohol: 14.5%
  • Price: $32 (though some shops with a few remaining bottles are pricing it under $20)

Find out more about Cordon of Santa Barbara at cordonwine.com.

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Rhone Rising: Local Wineries Aim to Educate Through Tasting

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/30/17

When Larry Schaffer launched his Tercero wine label a decade ago, he hung his hat on Rhone wines.  He was on the Fess Parker winemaking team back then, and the focus there on wines like syrah was clearly an inspiration.  But what sealed the deal for Schaffer was potential.

“I was attracted to how diverse Rhone wines are – how diverse they show themselves to be when given the opportunity,” he told me this week.  “These wines express themselves so distinctly and differently.”

Schaffer will be showcasing the expressive spectrum of Rhone wines next Monday, when the Santa Barbara chapter of the Rhone Rangers pours for the public.  The event will feature wines from Andrew Murray Vineyards, Qupe, Zaca Mesa, Beckmen and Fess Parker Winery, among others.  Tickets to the event, which runs 4:30-6:30pm at the Funk Zone’s Santa Barbara Wine Collective (131 Anacapa Street), are just $25.

Larry Schaffer (Bob Dickey photo)
“It’s a chance to get up close and personal with winemakers,” Schaffer says.  But it’s also about consumer education.  Fact is, consumers “are not that familiar with Rhone wines,” according to Schaffer.  And outreach efforts by a small group of Santa Barbara Rhone Rangers (with a membership of about a dozen wineries) is often drowned out by a powerhouse marketing machine in neighboring Paso Robles and by a heavily invested push by Burgundian endeavors (that’s pinot noir and chardonnay) in nearby Sta. Rita Hills.

“I applaud what those guys have done,” Schaffer says.

The challenge has led to a national non-profit Rhone Rangers alliance and a handful of sub-chapters (like Santa Barbara) that, for several years, have taken on promoting the grapes native to France’s Rhone region.    Some of the 22 grapes under the group’s promotional umbrella are pretty familiar: reds like syrah and grenache and whites like viognier.  Others – like vaccarese, muscardin, bourboulenc, picardin and ugni blanc – are not.

But what all these grape varieties have in common should appeal to consumers on multiple levels, Schaffer says.  They’re great matches for food, for one, thanks to tempered alcohols and varied textures.  And they’re a solid buy, too.  “You can find a really good bottle of syrah for under $30, but you’re hard-pressed at that price to find an equally great pinot,” Schaffer says.  As Santa Barbara pinot’s price points continue to climb over the next few years, as many in the industry predict, the value of Rhones will only grow.

And then there’s the appeal that can attract consumers the way it lures winemakers: the potential in the bottle.  Unlike other families of wine grapes, Rhone varieties can be resilient, expressing different flavors and aromas based on where they grow.  And while they can deliver solidly good wines when they’re bottled on their own, they’re wonderful blending agents, too, often elevating the imbibing experience simply by cohabitating. 

It’s enough to keep Schaffer infatuated – his word.  “I’ll never get bored working with Rhone wines,” he says.  It’s also enough to make consumer education a priority.  And tasting is lesson one.

For tickets to Monday’s Santa Barbara Rhone Rangers event, click here.

For more information on Tercero and its Los Olivos tasting room, check out tercerowines.com.


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Wine Review: Rusack Vineyards Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2015

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Winemaker Steve Gerbac runs a fantastic chardonnay program at Rusack, with bottlings that represent several prime Santa Barbara County locations – and even Catalina Island!

At under $30, this delicious chard is one of best values around, especially when you consider its pedigree: this all-Santa Maria Valley white is 28% Sierra Madre fruit and 72% grapes from the world-famous Bien Nacido Vineyard.  Barrel fermented and aged for 10 months in mostly-neutral French oak barrels, this is a layered, structured, sophisticated chardonnay that also delivers a ringing acidity and quenching flavors of pears, apples and citrus.

Open this wine in the afternoon and enjoy a glass while reclining in the grass and reading your favorite guilty-pleasure magazine, along with some dates and nuts.  Finish off the bottle at twilight, as you prepare dinner and munch on cheese and salad fixings, and as you watch the sky’s daytime glow soften into evening.

  • Label: Rusack Vineyards Chardonnay
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Source: Santa Barbara County
  • Winemaker: Steve Gerbac
  • Alcohol: 14.4%
  • Price: $28

Find out more about Rusack Vineyards at rusack.com.

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Review: Fess Parker Winery Syrah 2013

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

This month marked seven years since Fess Parker passed away, and I still fondly remember doing one of his very last sit-down interviews.  We spent time in the lobby of his namesake DoubleTree hotel, along Santa Barbara's waterfront, discussing family, business and wine.  And we sipped, too.  His favorite -- syrah.

Fess Parker Winery's 2013 Santa Barbara County syrah is a delicious balance of brawn and beauty.  There's certainly muscle here: it's inky, full-bodied and extracted.  It's meaty on the palate, with big flavors of blackberries, plums, mocha, pepper and earth.  But winemaker Blair Fox and his team have also achieved finesse and elegance here, with a potpourri of herb aromas, a buxom mouth feel and a silky finish.

Made with Santa Ynez Valley fruit -- a 62-38 combo of Rodney's Vineyard (estate) fruit and Camp 4 fruit -- this wine saw almost two years in (mostly neutral) French oak barrels. It's the perfect inspiration for your favorite home-recipe lamb kabobs or medium-rare burgers.  Or just sip while chomping on a big chunk of aged cheddar.

  • Label: Fess Parker Winery Syrah
  • Vintage: 2013
  • Source: Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County
  • Winemaker: Blair Fox
  • Alcohol: 14.9%
  • Price: $30 

Find out more about Fess Parker Winery at fessparker.com.

Also, the Parker family is about to launch its brand new restaurant in Los Olivos, The Bear and Star; read my preview story here.

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Review: La Voix “Here and Heaven" Chardonnay 2015

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/16/17

Know someone who’s sworn off drinking white? Want to change their minds? Pour them this!

You know winemaker Steve Clifton from the world-class Brewer-Clifton pinots he crafts with Greg Brewer and the wonderful Italian varietal wines he makes under the Palmina label.  Clifton’s pet project, La Voix (which is French for, “The Voice”), is his first solo effort focused on French varietals.  And this chardonnay does, in fact, sing!

It’s vibrant, electric and racy! The aromas are radiant – oranges and herbs.  And the flavors of tangerines, cantaloupe and honey are as lively as they are generous. 

This is a melody about a special place for sure – the John Sebastiano Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, where clay and limestone, and a relentless ocean breeze, enhance each note.  But any memorable song is a testament to the performer’s talent, and Clifton proves with this wine that he really knows how to carry a tune.

  • Label: La Voix “Here and Heaven" Chardonnay
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Winemaker: Steve Clifton
  • Source: John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
  • Alcohol: 13.5%
  • Price: $55

Find out more about La Voix at lavoixwinery.com.

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