Curti’s Comeback: Popular Chef Launches New Restaurant in Solvang

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Tenley Fohl, Tenley Fohl Photography
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/5/17

When Leonardo Curti launches his new restaurant later this month, he’ll be opening his doors to plenty of expectation.  And he’s well aware of that. (UPDATE: Leonardo's opened for business on January 18th!)

Chef Leonardo Curti
“Your customers get used to the flavors you create,” he says.

For almost 20 years, inside a buzzy dining spot in dusty downtown Santa Ynez called Trattoria Grappolo, Chef Leonardo Curti made a name for himself.  The restaurant he co-founded in 1997 was known as one of the best in the county and, for a long time, by far the best Italian place to eat in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Over the years, Mr. Curti padded his rising star status with occasional TV stints with the likes of Giada De Laurentiis, and he authored three popular cookbooks.

But earlier this year, “it was just time,” Mr. Curti says, and he sold his interest in Grappolo to set his sights on something new.  He cast out a wide net: “I called every restaurant in town to see if anyone would sell, or if they needed someone to work,” recalls Mr. Curti, who spent several months in the kitchen of Mad & Vin at Solvang’s new Landsby Hotel.   But it was finding just the right location inside the Nielsen Shopping Center in Solvang – “It’s the heart of the Valley, in the middle of everything,” he says – that pushed Mr. Curti to launch his own restaurant anew.

“And now we’re going to have the old Leonardo back,” he says, enthusiastically.  “I’ll be able to spread my wings and do my creations as a chef once again.”

Leonardo’s Ristorante will begin welcoming customers on January 18th, and the fact opening day happens to fall on Mr. Curti’s birthday is fitting.  This is, after all, a very personal venture, inspired by this Calabria native’s own traditional roots (his culinary training began alongside his grandfather at age six) and by his relentless need for “a taste of home” (at his Buellton residence, he replaced the front lawn with olive and cypress trees and a sangiovese vineyard). 

The main attraction will likely be the exhibition kitchen that’s been built right in the middle of the 50-seat restaurant.  The voyeuristic perks for diners abound, to be sure, but this is a setup that fits Chef Curti’s outgoing, engaging personality well.  “You can almost hear the customer ordering the food, you can see who’s coming in the door, you see people reacting to your food” says the chef, who envisions a system where orders are shouted out to the kitchen, or announced, rather than written down or entered into a computer.

The exhibition kitchen and imported pizza oven at Leonardo's

The centerpiece kitchen will also feature a pizza oven, which arrived from Italy just last week.  The commercial grade oven is traditionally Neapolitan, with a semicircle brick dome shape and dual gas and wood-burning options to provide both functionality and experience.  “You can see the guy flipping the pizza in the air right in front of you,” the chef says.

The Leonardo’s menu will also include traditional renditions of fish, steak and veal that are driven by ingredients that are locally and seasonally available.  Here, Chef Curti will depend on relationahips with purveyors that he’s been cultivating for decades – Jordanno’s, The Berry Man, All Itallia Imports, Universal Seafood – and relationships he continues to keep person-to-person.  “I don’t need a computer form to order my food,” he insists, in his genuine Italian accent.  “I can find info online myself, but I like the relationship, when the salesman comes over and we just talk.  Come one, we’re ordering food.  I’d like to talk to a person!”

That conversational approach has always defined Chef Curti’s rapport with his clientele, too.  “A customer is like a friend coming to your house – you have to make them feel welcome, not just like someone who pays a bill,” he says.  In fact, Mr. Curti is training his staff to get to know repeat clients: where they like to sit, what they like to eat.  “It takes a few tries, it takes time,” he admits, “but as soon as they come in, customers have to feel good.”

Chef’s chattiness extends to the kitchen, too, where Mr. Curti is not too shy to admit, colorfully, that he talks to his food.  “You speak love to the pizza, it makes it perfect,” he says.  “Every single ingredient adds its part.  It’s not just pepperoni or just tomatoes.  It’s not just a round disc with ingredients.  Pasta sauce on its own is basic, but you put it on the plate and it becomes part of something.  So you have to talk to it, like it’s alive.  You have to create a relationship with the food you’re making.”

Chef Curti has shown his hand to reveal some of his upcoming dishes.  Like the Pizza Cent’Anni, with mozzarella, ricotta and parmigiana cheeses, arugula, spinach, prosciutto “and an egg yolk on top.”  A bagel-inspired pizza will feature mozzarella, craime fraiche, salmon, caviar and green chives.  The traditional Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe will come with fresh-ground pepper and plenty of pecorino Romano cheese.  And the dessert bamboloni – stretched out pizza dough that’s shaped and deep fried – will be sprinkled with sugar and served with vanilla and chocolate sauces for dipping.

The chef is also giving himself plenty of creative leeway.  He says the “Leonardo’s” name also doubles as homage to Leonardo da Vinci, a genius whose many talents included cooking and developing forward-looking rules of restaurant etiquette.  “So why not be traditional but also creative? Why serve lasagna always in layers, why not as a roll?” muses the chef.  Mr. Curti will also launch a menu he dubs Aficionado, inspired by five friends who’ve been Monday night regulars for years and who always order whatever Mr. Curti wants to whip up on the spot.  “It’ll be a menu on the wall, with unique dishes,” he says, that expose clients to new flavors and offer the chef creative license.

The wine list at Leonardo’s is still a work in progress but will be heavily focused on Santa Barbara, with a few imported Italian labels.  It’s being put together by Mr. Curti himself, who insists, “It has to be representative of this region we’re in.”

Leonardo’s Ristorante, 606 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang.


Holy Spirit: SoCal Winery is Major Sacramental Wine Producer

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/22/16
images courtesy of San Antonio Winery

When Father Lawrence Seyer led a wine tasting last month, he was on a mission.

The parish council at Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, tasked with choosing a new sacramental wine, sipped through options from three producers.  Some were too sweet.  “More like a sherry,” says Father Seyer, who, for practical reasons, was actually leaning toward a rosé.  “I’ve always thought a lighter wine makes it easier to clean the purificator.”  That’s the white linen cloth used to wipe down the wine chalice during and after a Catholic service.

But in the end, “San Antonio Winery won,” says the parish’s new reverend, “and the council went with the red, because the color best resembles the blood of Christ.”

The relevance of wine for the Catholic Church, as well as for several other Christian denominations, is well known.  “We can look at it in two dimensions,” Father Seyer explains.  “The ritual of sacrifice, for one, as well as a reminder of the last supper Christ had with his apostles.”  During a Catholic service, it’s with a priest’s blessing, known as the consecration, that wine is symbolically transformed to represent the blood shed by Jesus during His crucifixion.

This iconic sacrament dates back 2000 years, of course.  And for San Antonio Winery, it has been an important element in its portfolio from the beginning.

“Making sacramental wine is what allowed us to survive Prohibition,” says Anthony Riboli, fourth generation winemaker at San Antonio, whose great-great uncle, Santo Cambianica, an Italian immigrant and devout Catholic, founded the winery in downtown L.A. in 1917.  Saint Anthony of Padua was his patron saint.

A frightening Prohibition sight: lawmen ordering wine be dumped!
Prohibition, the constitutional sanction on the production and sale of alcohol that stayed in place from 1920 to 1933, decimated Los Angeles’ flourishing wine industry.  “About 100 wineries existed here before the ban, but there were only about 10 after,” Riboli tells me.  Thanks to Cambianica’s strong ties to the Church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles exempted San Antonio and allowed it to continue to make altar wine during the ban.  The winery not only survived Prohibition, it emerged from the restrictive injunction as a prominent California winemaker.

A century after its launch, what is L.A.‘s oldest winery remains a major player.  The original downtown winemaking facility, a designated cultural monument, remains at its original Lamar Street location.  There’s a tasting room in Ontario, too, and a state-of-the-art production facility and visitor center in Paso Robles.  The company’s estate vineyards stretch from Napa to Monterey to Paso.  Its brands – more than a dozen labels – include Italian imports, popular products like Stella Rosa and upscale bottlings like San Simeon and Riboli Family Wine Estates.  Anthony Riboli, a UCSB grad who joined the family business in 1998, is one of three lead winemakers.  And even his grandfather Stefano, who emigrated from Italy in 1936 to ultimately take over the family business, and who just turned 94, is still calling the shots.

San Antonio Winery's original downtown L.A. façade
On the sacramental front, San Antonio Winery remains an industry leader.  The pious products sell to various denominations, including Lutheran and Episcopalian, although Catholics remain its biggest buyers around the world.

“The key to altar wine is consistency – they’re typically slightly sweet,” Riboli tells me.  “But a priest can use any wine he wishes and they’ll typically find a style that fits their comfort zone, or that their parishioners like.”

San Antonio Winery's downtown L.A. façade today
To that end, San Antonio offers four options: a light muscat, a rosé and a red, all around 12% alcohol, as well as a fortified 18% alcohol wine called Angelica.  The wines carry a California appellation; grapes are sourced from Central Valley vineyards near Fresno and Bakersfield, mainly, because warmer weather yields natural sweetness.  And the wines are non-vintage, “allowing us to do blends from year to year to guarantee a consistent style.”

Riboli admits that sacramental wines are distinct from their higher-end counterparts geared toward serious drinkers and collectors.  The lighter, fresher, fruitier style does have a secular audience, though; the wines are often sold over-the-counter at the downtown L.A. tasting room.  And the wines remain “a very important part of what we do,” Riboli adds.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the 305 churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, orders of sacramental wine are placed by the case on a quarterly basis.  Though many churches serve it at every mass, the Montecito church only offers it on Sundays, during the 10am mass.  And while most every parishioner accepts the Eucharist during Communion, many opt out of sipping from the shared chalice.

Demand for the wine is likely to go up this Sunday, though; after all, we pretty good Catholics always become really good Catholics on Christmas.

For more information on San Antonio Winery, including on the various events to celebrate its centennial throughout 2017, check out


Italian Inspired: Santa Barbara's Four Seasons Resort Announces New Chef and New Menus

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/15/16

"That view – it reminds me of home,” says Marco Fossati, the new executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.  He’s sitting inside the Montecito hotel’s Bella Vista dining room, gazing out at Butterfly Beach, as the afternoon sun bounces off the water.  A lot like the Italian Riviera.

Chef Marco Fossati in the kitchen
Chef Fossati’s childhood culinary influences, in fact, stretch back to the shores of Italy’s Liguria region – home to Portofino, the Cinque Terre and Genoa – where “I was always next to my grandma in the kitchen,” he recalls.  He still uses a tomato sauce recipe she taught him.  As a teen, summers were spent working at local restaurants, “doing everything from cooking to cleaning.”

The gastronomic path he’s followed ever since has been as diverse as it’s been impressive.  He moved to Milan in the mid-1980s, where he worked alongside another up-and-coming chef, Alessandro Cartumini.  The fellow Italian gourmand preceded Mr. Fossati at the Biltmore – he spent seven years in Santa Barbara’s flourishing food scene – and is now Food & Beverage Director at Four Seasons’ deluxe resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In London, Chef Fossati cooked for royalty.  In Paris, he was chef at the first Italian restaurant to ever earn a Michelin star.  And in Egypt, he catered to a well-heeled international clientele.  Most recently, he helmed the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in Palo Alto.

Santa Barbara became home for the Fossati family – Chef Marco, his wife and their 2-1/2 year old daughter – this past May.  His influence on the Biltmore kitchen – and the four restaurants it feeds – has been evident ever since.

“My push is to make changes,” he says, in a distinctly rich Italian accent.  “If we stay comfortable, there can be problems.”

The marinara sauce Chef Fossati learned from Grandma makes a great bread dipper
To that end, his push for change is ongoing, driven as much by the seasons as Chef Fossati’s own imagination.  “If I get an idea, I’ll put it on the menu right away as a daily special,” he says.  If feedback from both his staff and clientele is positive, the item may well become a regular selection.  “The menu builds itself and is open to evolution at all time,” he says, adding that guests can expect to see three to five items rotated on and off the menu each month.  That’s how Bella Vista diners recently found a new offering –a handmade tagliatelle pasta tossed with a charcuterie-inspired sauce of salami, coppa and bresaola, served with a poached egg and pecorino cheese.  Fifteen orders sold on its introductory night, making it a menu item the next day.  And when diners raved about a bass “crudo” special – a locally sourced tartare topped with a salad of fennel and blood orange and served with a savory cream of russet potato, kefir and lemongrass – it was printed on the appetizer menu soon after.

Chef Fossati finishing off his Ravioli del Plin
Bella Vista, the hotel’s al fresco waterfront restaurant, remains a major focus for Chef Fossati, who’s planning a more substantial overhaul after the holiday season.  But he’s already taken several changes for a test drive, even during the property’s landmark brunch.  Like a build-your-own breakfast bowl, avocado toast (45 sold in the first two days) and a revamped Eggs Benedict.  “When hotels have it out, it’s a disgrace – the egg gets old and dry and the bread gets soggy,” he says.  Instead, he’s fashioned several Eggs Benedict preparations served to order directly from the kitchen.

Local fish, salads and paninis feature prominently on the lunch menu now.  And dinner features California- and Italy-inspired pastas and pizzas, as well as several meat, poultry and seafood preparations.  A new favorite is “Ravioli del Plin.”  Plush pasta pockets are stuffed with certified black Angus short rib that’s cooked for 17 hours in its own juices, ground, then seasoned with marjoram and salt; its served with spinach, sage, brown butter and aged pecorino cheese.

Ravioli del Plin
Charcuterie features more prominently now, driven by the fact that Bella Vista is one of only 12 restaurants in California – and the only one in Santa Barbara – licensed to cure its own meats.  And that slow-cooked, naturally sweet, naturally thick childhood marinara sauce – the one a young Marco learned from Grandma – is showing up in everything from pasta and cioppino specials to roasted bread dippers.

In the Ty Lounge, a cocktail haven just off the resort’s lobby, Chef Fossati is aiming to attract the millennial crowd with a focus on tapas-style plates meant for sharing.  Charcuterie features prominently here, too, and menu items – like empanadas de carne and smaller-portion paellas – showcase a Spanish and Moroccan slant.  The all-new Mussel Madness menu is offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays and offers six preparations, each served in cast iron bowls and with grilled country bread.  In The Belgium, for example, mussels are steamed in Belgian ale, Dijon mustard, shallots and herbs.  The menu will end when mussel season ends, around March or April.

At the Coral Casino, Tydes Restaurant and the Coral Café & Bar are open exclusively to members and overnight guests of the resort.  Chef Fossati is focusing on fresh Mediterranean flavors and locally-sourced ingredients here: Pacific Gold Oysters, Scallop & Foie Gras, Spot Prawns, Lamb Loin, Wagyu Tenderloin.  The popular Halibut and Squid Ink Pasta Carbonara features Santa Barbara uni.

Chef Marco and sou chef Chris Shertzer are expanding the resort's charcuterie program
For Chef Fossati, catering to four restaurants is a source for inspiration all its own.  For example, “We’ll soon be making four different burgers – one for each restaurant and each one with different pairings,” he says.  “That way they can compete against each other and we can see which one our guests like best.”

The Santa Barbara sea bass "Crudo"
The “we” he’s referring to is his staff of 80 cooks.  It’s a culinary team that “I don’t want to micromanage,” Chef says.  “But I do like to challenge people to see their capabilities.”  It’s one of the reasons for having menus that are dynamic, menus that evolve with what’s regionally and seasonally available.  “It gives guests incentive to keep coming back but it also keeps the staff learning and expanding their knowledge,” Chef Fossati says.

On a recent Saturday morning, Chef Fossati took several members of his kitchen crew to the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, where local boats sell fresh catches of the day right off their decks.  When they got their hands on a limited batch of black bass, Chef Fossati created a special on the spot and took to social media.  “Just enough for 15 portions,” he tweeted, along with pictures.   That night, in a unique learning lesson for guests and cooks alike, they sold out.

“We all have to be swimming in the same direction,” says Chef Fossati, “so that we can all grow together.”

For more information or to make reservations, visit or call 805-969-2261.


No Wrong Answer: Tips for Bringing Wine to a Holiday Party

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/8/16

‘Tis the season for holiday parties.  And while picking out just the right ugly sweater to wear is important, for many, what bottle of wine to bring is even more so.  People float a lot of etiquette rules.  But as with any rule, they’re meant to be broken, especially since wine, and the experience around wine, is so personal.  So here are some rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, in the event they help you this holiday season.  And if they don’t, hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

What to Bring
Holiday parties and holiday dinner tables are defined by their eclecticism – there’s a lot going on.  Lots of flavors, lots of textures, lots of colors.  So I say go with bubbles.  Sparkling wine is safe because it’s what you open to get a party started, but great bubbles can also flow easily throughout a meal and well into the night.  Sparklers also denote revelry, which is what this time of year is all about: we should all hope that the effervescence in the glass spills into the lives of all around us!  That said, you can make an argument for red, since a pinot or a merlot or a zinfandel matches the hues all around.  And you can make an argument for white, especially if you know that’s what your hostess prefers.  What’s more, don’t we all dream of a white Christmas?  So the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Many to Bring
Any other time of year, my wife Renee and I feel totally comfortable showing up with just one bottle.  When we’re talking holiday parties, though, we like to up that to two.  One white and one red is a nice way to mix things up, though it’s less about colors and more about making sure there’s enough to go around.  It’s amazing how quickly wine can flow during a feast (and how wide smiles get when they see you walk in the door double-fisted)!  That said, no one is going to show you the door if you bring just one bottle of your favorite cabernet, nor if it’s a six-pack.  So, again, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Much to Spend
My wife’s favorite wine these days is a Santa Barbara County pinot noir that I’ve been finding on sale lately for under $15.  Thank you, God!  But an etiquette rule stickler once told me I should spend between $30 and $40 on a bottle to bring to a Christmas fete.  Pshaw!  Sure, that’s a very dependable sweet spot – you can find a ton of great wines, especially local ones, in that price range.  But why would I not share with my friends that great, delicious $15 bottle that happens to be a bargain?  More than price tag, focus on the story: tell your host about who made it, about the time you first sipped it, about how it (just like the invitation to this party) always brings a smile to your face.  Even better: track down the winemaker (easier to do than you’d think in a small, informal wine region like Santa Barbara) and have them sign the bottle.  That turns a $15 gift into a valuable and memorable gesture.  Of course, you’re always welcome to bring that winemaker's more limited-production $60 bottle.  SO, once more, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Open or Not to Open
Etiquette experts will tell you never to expect your host to open the bottle of wine you bring.  It’s a gift, that’s it.  Fie, I say. I will admit that I’m expecting my wine contribution to be opened.  A little has to do with me wanting to ensure that there will be at least one wine at this party I’ll enjoy drinking.  But much more has to do with the notion of sharing, a very holiday season-friendly notion, no?  If the wine is meant to be a special gift, meant to be stored away for a later special occasion, meant for that trip I know you’re taking next month, well then I’ll say so.  Otherwise, imagine a shiny new corkscrew hanging around the bottle I’ve brought.  Indelicate?  Yes, for some.  But I’ll remind you of my favorite short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Regift or Not to Regift
When a winemaker gifts me a bottle he’s made, I never regift.  When anyone gifts me a bottle that comes with a sentimental meaning, or a special story, I never regift.  When I’m gifted a bottle that’s got my name written right on it with ink I can’t erase, I never regift.  Otherwise, the beauty of wine is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Even if you brought it over because you were running late and it was the closest thing to the door as you rushed out, I’m going to be happy with it.  I will enjoy it with a smile.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll regift it, too.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s no coincidence, after all, that a bottle of wine fits almost perfectly into a stocking.

If you disagree, of course, I fall back on what a wise man once said: there’s no wrong answer.  Because, like I said at the beginning: hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

Merry Christmas!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, check out


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!