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

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


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


Review: Area 5.1 "Equinox" 2015

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

Kalyra’s outer space-inspired sister label, Area 5.1, has one of the most buzz-worthy tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.  That’s where I met up with winemaker Martin Brown recently to taste through their blends.

They’re all blends here – unorthodox blends, mainly – with galactic-like names like Close Encounter (grenache blanc, albarino, rousanne, verdelho and loureiro) and Conspiracy Red (merlot, cabernet and syrah).

The Equinox really impressed – a 50-50 blend of chardonnay and riesling that delivers floral and citrus notes on the nose and tastes super refreshing.  The chard imparts a juicy, structured mouth feel that takes off with Riesling-inspired acidity and flavors of lychee.  This wine is easy to drink, so it’ll go quickly, especially if you share it while hanging by the pool, waiting for the shrimp-and-veggie skewers to come off the grill.

  • Label: Area 5.1 Equinox
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Source: Santa Barbara County
  • Alcohol: 13.5%
  • Price: $24

Find out more about Area 5.1 at 

I wrote about Area 5.1 in early 2014, shortly after the tasting room opened; read about it here.


The Table is Set: Parker Family Announces Opening of New Restaurant

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

Siblings Ashley Parker Snider and Eli Parker are bringing a slice of Texas to Santa Barbara wine country.  Their new restaurant, The Bear and Star, will feature refined ranch cuisine inside the family’s Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos.  Doors will open in mid-April.

“The food is going to be fantastic,” Ashley Parker told me this week.  “It’s not a barbecue joint, it’s not a steakhouse.  We’ve been calling it family recipes with a twist, or re-envisioned.”

The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos
The Bear and Star is, in fact, a tip of the (cowboy) hat to the family’s late patriarch in more ways than one.  The Star is an homage to Fess Parker’s native Texas; he was born in Ft. Worth and raised in San Angelo.  The Bear refers to Fess Parker’s adopted state of California, where he’d gain fame in film and television by portraying both Davy Crockett in the 1960s and Daniel Boone in the 1960s.  Mr. Parker became a cherished member of the Santa Barbara community, too, where he established Fess Parker Winery in the mid-1980s and spearheaded multiple hospitality and development projects.

The cuisine at The Bear and Star will be intrinsically connected to the 700-acre family estate nearby, along Foxen Canyon Road, where much of the food will be sourced.  There, the family raises dozens of Wagyu cattle that are often fed with the pomace byproduct of the family winery.  The property is also home to chickens, quail, rabbits, pigs, and bees, as well as heirloom fruits and organic vegetables.

Chef Jojn Cox (credit: Kodiak Greenwood)
“Connecting the restaurant to our family ranch is something we’ve always dreamed about,” says Eli Parker.

“It’s all about synergy,” adds Ashley.

At the helm of the kitchen will be Chef John Cox, a Texas native who formerly led the Sierra Mar culinary team at the deluxe Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.  His team will include Santa Barbara native Chef Jeremy Tummel and Sous Chef Trent Shank.  Andrew Scherer has been named general manager.

The restaurant is divided in to four distinct environments, including a Chef’s Room for classes and private dining groups and a Wine Room for special events.  The Bar & Lounge opens to an airy terrace along Grand Avenue, where breakfast, brunch and lunch will be served.  The 50-seat Dining Room, decked out in oversize chairs and velvet banquettes, will welcome guests in the evening.

The Bear and Star's smoker (credit: John Cox)
The crux of Chef Cox’s cooking will be performed on the Parker family’s newly acquired 30-foot, reverse-flow Texas smoker.  “It’s the neatest thing – it’s like a mobile kitchen,” says Ashley Parker.  The self-contained wood-fire kitchen houses a Big Green Egg barbecue, pizza oven, sink with running water, onboard refrigeration and lighting.

The Bear and Star is, in many ways, a return to their roots for the Parker siblings.  The family ran the space as Restaurant Marcella for many years before it was leased to restaurateur Petros Benekos in 2008.  Petros Restaurant closed last summer (although three sister eateries, including one in Santa Barbara, remain).

Regaining control with The Bear and Star will allow the Parkers to better manage it in concert with the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, as well as bolster the AAA 4-Diamond hotel’s room service and poolside service.  Adds Ashley, “Guests will have a more cohesive experience overall.”

For more information, keep an eye on


Retro Tasting: Hitching Post Dinner to Feature 11 Older Vintages

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/2/17 

Frank Ostini’s latest stroll down memory lane is speckled with oversize bottles.

“We’re not getting any younger, and neither are our wines,” the man behind Buellton’s Hitching Post II Restaurant and Hartley-Ostini wine label told me this week.  “So let’s enjoy them!  I mean, we do hoard these things forever sometimes, and they do have a finite life – they do start to fade at some point,” he continued, adding, teasingly, “Just like us!”

A simple premise, actually: that the present is as good a time as any to drink something special.  And it was the only excuse he and winemaking partner Gray Hartley needed to revisit 11 of their earliest vintages, one big bottle at a time.

A special retrospective dinner featuring 1991 through 2001 vintage wines by Harley-Ostini is slated for this weekend.  It’s part of World of Pinot Noir, or WOPN, which returns to Goleta’s Bacara Resort & Spa for its 17th run.  The two-day affair, which highlights Burgundy’s most famous red grape and brings together wine experts and consumers from all over the world, features tastings, seminars and dinners.  Ostini (one of the founding members of WOPN) and Hartley will host their throwback feast on Saturday night, March 4th, with most wines poured from a variety of large format bottles.  The cost is $120, with seating limited to just 65 people.

“The wonderful thing about wine is that every bottle will be its own experience,” says Ostini.  “Is every single one going to show great? Well, bottles vary.”  But when so much of what’s available to the consumer are younger, forward, higher-alcohol wines, this event is “a chance for people to appreciate older flavors,” continues Ostini.

Gray Hartley, left, and Frank Ostini, along with the large-format bottles they're featuring at WOPN 2017
Several of the vintages stand out to this reminiscing winemaker.  Like 1991, which marked the launch of the Hartley-Ostini pinot noirs.  “That was Santa Maria Valley, a blend of Bien Nacido and Sierra Madre fruit,” recalls Ostini.  The wines were made at the Au Bon Climat/Qupe winery back then (before the label moved operations to Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria in 2001 and then to Terravant Winery in Buellton in 2008).

Ostini remembers 1994 fondly, too, “because that was renowned as a very good vintage” in Santa Barbara County.  And 1995, for what that year’s Santa Maria Valley blend became.  “That wine was pretty weird when it was young, it had a stink about it,” he recalls.  It turns out, though, that the pungent smell was the byproduct of an effective preservative, “so it has actually evolved into this fresh and young-like wine today in a wonderful way.  I mean – it’s 22 years old!”

Ostini happens to like what age does to pinot – a funkiness sometimes develops that imparts unique flavors and smells, and that make it uniquely delicious.  That’s why several older vintages are always available at his Buellton steakhouse, like a 2000 vintage pinot offered by the glass and a 1997 pinot poured out of magnums.  But for those who prefer newer, fresher wines – and for the sake of age-inspired comparison – younger bottles from the 2006 and 2014 vintages will also be featured at Saturday night’s dinner.  Throw in that quintessential Hitching Post II barbecue experience – Santa Maria-style wood fire-grilled meats and vegetables – and this nostalgic culinary journey may well be the one WOPN event not to miss.

“We’re really in awe – that we’re able to turn grapes into a beverage, and we put them into bottles, and that fruit can be preserved for so long,” says Ostini.  “Fruit integrity doesn’t die over time.  It evolves.  But wine does not die.  And to be able to feature these older flavors and aromas is special to us.”

For more information on this and all WOPN events, check out

For more information on the Hitching Post II and Hartley-Ostini Wines, go to


Stately Sippers: Local Wines Poured at Department of State Dinner

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/26/17

A recent dinner hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a real feather in the cap for one Santa Barbara County winery.

Solomon Hills' estate pinot noir
Two wines from Solomon Hills Estate – a 2013 chardonnay and a 2012 pinot noir – were poured during a Valentine’s Day meal thrown by Mr. Tillerson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on a diplomatic visit to the U.S.  The wines were made by Trey Fletcher and were sourced from Solomon Hills, the western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.  They were hand-picked for the sit-down affair by State Department Executive Chef Jason Larkin.

“It is a great honor,” says Will Costello, a master sommelier who was recently named brand ambassador for Solomon Hills and its sister wine label, Bien Nacido.  “Our government didn’t just choose expensive wines but, rather, wines that were reflective of great quality and food-friendliness.”

The chardonnay was paired with the first course, a cauliflower velouté with porcini mushrooms and crispy parsnips.  The pinot was poured with the main course that followed, a monkfish “osso buco” served with a smoked tomato-saffron broth and stewed heirloom beans. 

“The combination of long warm days with cool ocean breezes imparts on the Solomon Hills wines a common thread: they’re bright and fresh, with intense fruit flavors and lower alcohols,” says Mr. Costello, 34.  “They’re what consumers are looking for these days – it’s not bombastic, oaky, high-alcohol wines anymore.  And these aren’t porch sippers or cocktail wines.  They’re meant for food.”

Solomon Hills, like Bien Nacido, has long been regarded a premier grape growing site in California; its fruit is hotly sought-after by winemakers who proudly distinguish the vineyard by name on their labels.  Recently, its owners, Santa Barbara’s Miller family, which has been cultivating wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley since the mid-1970s, decided to earmark two percent of each vintage for its own eponymous production.  That translates to only 180 cases of chardonnay and 150 cases of pinot noir each year, making these Solomon Hills wines especially desirable.

Solomon Hills Vineyard
A few bottles of the 2012 pinot remain at the Bien Nacido/Solomon Hills tasting room in Los Olivos.  Otherwise, newer vintages of each wine are currently in the marketplace, with the 2014 chardonnay retailing for $45 and the 2013 pinot noir for $65.  They can be purchased directly through the winery’s website, 

The State Department nod is a boon for the local wine industry as a whole, admits Mr. Costello, who ran the wine programs at the 5-Star Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas and the 5-Star Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego before joining the Millers’ Thornhill Companies.  He calls Santa Barbara County “a teenage wine region,” compared to older growing sites like Napa and Bordeaux.  “That creates lots of upside potential, both for branding and winemaking, and its makes the wines a great opportunity for value.”

The wines were certainly a political hit: Secretary Tillerson took several unopened bottles with him on a consular trip to Germany the next day.


Anniversary Bottle: Santa Barbara's Chuck’s Steakhouse Celebrates 50 with Local Syrah

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/16/17

You could say that the syrah Brad Schuette is pouring these days was 50 years in the making.

“I’m telling our staff and guests that it pairs perfectly with our Teriyaki Ribeye,” says the general manager and head bartender at Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse in Santa Barbara.  The 11-ounce piece of prime beef, marinated in tangy-sweet house made teriyaki sauce and charbroiled to order, is one of Chuck’s hottest dinner items.  “The wine has all the varietal character it needs to stand up to the steak.”

The wine is a 2014 syrah by renowned vintner Fred Brander and Brander Vineyards winemaker Fabian Bravo.  The fruit for this all-syrah bottling came from the legendary Zaca Mesa vineyard in Foxen Canyon, and the wine spent 14 months in American oak barrels.  It is a delicious syrah – a nice balance of fruit and earth that makes it especially well-suited to pretty much any protein on the Chuck’s menu, whether it’s the eight-ounce filet mignon, the 12-oz. prime top sirloin or the 18-oz. center cut T-Bone.  Ripe berries and black cherries upfront and mid-palate give way to smoky vanilla flavors and elegant tannins.

The wine’s merits aside, what makes it special for Schuette and his team is what it celebrates.  This is the official bottle marking Chuck’s 50th anniversary, a remarkable milestone in a foodie-friendly town where few eateries survive the test of time.  A lot of that has to do with the Chuck’s philosophy, which rings as true today as when Larry Stone opened its doors on Upper State Street back in 1967: quality steaks in a casual setting.  The people who’ve clocked in here over the decades have much to do with Chuck’s success, too. 

Schuette has worked at Chuck’s for a whopping 37 years.  A legend of Santa Barbara’s culinary scene, you could say.  And someone who keeps his clientele foremost in mind when putting together Chuck’s wine list.

“I’ve got people who come in here and want a glass of red whatever, and then there are others who want something specific and high end,” says Schuette.  “I want to be able to take care of both.”

At Chuck's 50th Anniversary party w/Larry Stone & Steve Hyslop

Schuette recalls that Chuck’s started to get serious about wine in the mid-1980’s, an effort driven by Stone’s business partner, Steve Hyslop.  Investment in equipment, like temperature-controlled units and nitrogen preserver-dispensers, allowed the wine-by-the-glass to flourish.  Santa Barbara’s wine industry has blossomed simultaneously in the 20-or-so years since, giving Schuette plenty more to choose from.  “I always prefer to do local stuff,” he says, “although I have a little bit of everything.

Many of Scheutte’s choices are personal, driven by his friendships with winemakers and wine reps who come to Chuck’s for dinner often.  The Jalama Canyon Ranch pinot, for example, is the pet project of vintner Wayne Siemens, a regular.  The only California tempranillo on the list is by Rick Longoria, who supped here just last week.  And the Cloud’s Rest Femme Fatale pinot out of Sonoma is a venture by Schuette’s brother, Scott.  Local labels like Fess Parker, Summerland, Au Bon Climat, Qupe and Margerum are complemented by Northern California whites and reds by labels like Stags Leap, Caymus, Rombauer, Duckhorn and Opus One.

Brander, a local pioneer who just celebrated his own 40th anniversary making wine in Los Olivos, makes several appearances on the Chuck’s wine list.  The sauvignon blanc and the reserve cabernet are top sellers.  But it’s Brander's latest syrah that’ll likely get the most play this milestone year.  “We’ll be coming up with a variety of specials to promote the wine throughout the year,” Scuhette tells me.

Currently, the 50th Anniversary Chuck’s Syrah sells by the glass for $9.50 and by the bottle – along with two limited edition golden anniversary logo glasses – for $50.

Chuck’s of Hawaii Steakhouse, 3888 State Street, Santa Barbara.  805-687-4417.