Score! Local Wines Land on Coveted Best-of List

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on December 8, 2011)

The significance of being featured in a publication like Wine Spectator Magazine is not lost on winemaker John Falcone.

“It’s the most read wine magazine in the entire country,” he says, “and probably even internationally.”

With an estimated readership of 2.6 million, and a global reach, Wine Spectator is readily known as the magazine of record among wine enthusiasts.  Its reviews and endorsements can help sell wine in large numbers.  Its writers are industry celebs.

Perhaps it most anticipated release is its yearly roundup of the 100 most exciting wines, which it first published in 1988.  According to a company press release, the top 100 wines “reflect significant trends, recognize outstanding producers and spotlight successful regions and vintages around the world.”  The magazine’s editors revisit wines they’ve already reviewed throughout the year and list them based on four criteria: quality (reflected in scores earned from a 100-point scale), value, availability and an overall “X-factor,” or general excitement generated by a particular wine.  Paring down more than 16,000 selections, the list of the best 100 from 2011 was released a few days ago.

“We didn’t know we’d made the list until a retailer in Chicago called us to say congratulations,” says Mr. Falcone.  The 2008 Santa Barbara County syrah he made for the Rusack label of Ballard Canyon was #27 on the list.  The $25 wine garnered 93 points – an enviable feat –- when the magazine first reviewed it last year.  The ranking honors a team that also includes assistant winemaker Steve Gerbac and enologist Helen Falcone.

This is the first time a Rusack wine’s made it on this high-profile lineup and Mr. Falcone admits “it’s quite an honor.”  The wine, itself, is sold out now; the 2009 syrah is on store shelves now.  But the buzz from the honor goes beyond the bottle.  “This kind of publicity brings recognition to the brand, period,” he says.  “People start to ask, ‘what other wines do you have?’  And a lot of them will look at Rusack a lot more closely the next time they’re buying wine.”

Mr., Falcone remembers 2008 as a reduced vintage for syrah, though “the wines tended to be fruity and forward, and very aromatic and easy to drink.”  About 60% of the wine’s fruit came from the Rusack estate off Ballard Canyon Road; the rest came from multiple syrah sources throughout the county.

Two other Santa Barbara County wines made the list, too.  The 2008 Rhone blend “The Offering” on the Sans Liege label -- a $25 wine that also was awarded 93 points – was 34th on the list.  And Doug Margerum’s Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon, a $21 bottle and 91-point winner, took slot #82.

Winemaker Brian Loring makes wine in Lompoc, and makes mostly vineyard-designate pinot noirs; the pinot he makes annually with Santa Rita Hills fruit is always a best-seller.  But Loring made this year’s list with a wine he made using fruit from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.  The $29 wine from 2009, which scored 93 points when it was first reviewed in February, ranked 75th.

Being on the Top 100 list is really cool because it's worldwide,” says Mr. Loring.  “It's also nice that the selections are based on price and availability, as well as score.  That means that the wines are often more consumer friendly than just a list of $1000 bottles of wine that very few people can afford.”

Since the list’s publication, Loring Wine Company has been an increase in phone calls, emails and mailing list sign-ups.  “That hasn’t resulted in increased sales per se,” Mr. Loring adds, “but it's always nice to get new people exposed to your brand, which should translate into future sales.”

The wine, itself, which saw a production of about 600 cases, has been sold out since early this year.  The winemaker recalls 2009 as “a fantastic year for California pinot noir” and “as perfect as you could wish for.  His Russian River Valley wine, specifically, “was probably the lightest, most elegant pinot we made from 2009.  Our wines tend to get bigger as you head south, with our Sta. Rita Hills pinots being some of the boldest we make.  While many of our wines received equally as good scores, I think it was the combination of the lower price point and relatively higher production of the Russian River Valley pinot caused the senior editors at Wine Spectator to choose that wine for their Top 100,” says Mr. Loring.

California Central Coast was further represented on the coveted list with three wines – and all red Rhone blends – from Paso Robles.  The 2008 “The Dirt Whisperer” from Denner Winery was #11, with 97 points and a $45 price tag.  Tablas Creek’s 2009 Cotes de Tablas was 37th, with 93 points and a $30 price point.  And with 97 points and a retail price of $75, Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard came in 52nd place; the winery’s ’07 blend by the same name got the top spot in the magazine’s list for 2010.

In all, Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines list for 2011 represented 12 countries.  The number one slot went to a Northern California Burgundian: Kosta Browne’s 2009 Sonoma Coast pinot noir, a $52 bottle.  You can find the complete list here:

Handcrafted in More Ways Than One: Couple's Los Olivos Venture Features Jewelry and Wine

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 28, 2011)

As the Santa Barbara wine buzz has exploded over the last decade, Los Olivos has become an oenophile’s mecca.  But as dozens of tasting rooms have opened their doors, the quaint Santa Ynez Valley town has seen many art galleries make way by closing theirs.  Now, one young couple is putting the spotlight back on art, with a venture that highlights the creative merits of both jewelry and wine.

“Both industries are extremely similar,” says jeweler Samantha Coghlan, 29.  “It’s the idea of taking something the earth is giving you – a rock or a grape – and transforming it into a beautiful handcrafted product.”

Mrs. Coghlan and her husband, Eric, fell in love with the Santa Ynez Valley when they celebrated their first anniversary here in 2008 and spent several days wine tasting.  The small-town feel appealed to them, and felt familiar; she’s from Sun Valley, Idaho and he hails from Kosciusko, a Mississippi town of about 7,000 residents.  When they returned on their second anniversary, they looked at real estate in earnest and stumbled upon a 100-acre property near Happy Canyon, about a mile inland from where Highway 246 meets the Chumash Highway. 

“There was a cabernet vineyard already on it, but it had been neglected for years,” admits Mr. Coghlan, 28.  But farming was in his blood; his father and grandfather had tended land in Mississippi since he was a boy, so this was a challenge Mr, Coghlan welcomed.  “We added 10 acres of vines and took it totally organic,” he says, noting that the property where they grow grapes is also the home where they’re raising their two sons, four-year-old Ozzy and eight-month old Cash.  “It’s important for us not to have chemicals affecting our children and our animals.”  Official organic certification of the Coghlans’ land is pending.

But there’s more than just the penchant for farming that runs through the Coghlans’ veins.  The two are graduate jewelry gemologists, having received their accreditation from the prestigious Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, in San Diego.  The organization is readily seen as a global leader in diamond grading, jewelry education and gemology.  “Getting a degree from here is seen like having a PhD after your name” Mr. Coghlan says.

This is where the couple met.  He was there pursuing the family business.  In 1956, his grandfather had bought what is now the longest running jewelry store in Kosciusko, run today by Mr, Coghlan’s parents.  His father, himself, had ventured to Southern California to get his training at GIA, and taught there for several years.  The younger Coghlan’s focus was on jewelry manufacturing arts and gemology.  “Doing work on a bench,” he explains, “like stone setting and metal snipping.”

She was there following her dream.  The young girl who once considered a career in the CIA or FBI began handcrafting jewelry at age 16, “making leather cuff bracelets with antique fabric,” Mrs. Coghlan recalls.  She got such positive response for her work, she evolved to working with gem stones and, by the time she attended college in Arizona and became active in the trunk show circuit, wire wrapping with beaded work.  “Making jewelry was my passion, and by now I felt that I really needed to have an education,” she says.  “Doing it just as a hobby was not fulfilling enough.”

The couple was engaged in 2006, and the pair reminisces with a laugh about the engagement ring that sealed the deal.  “The bad part about that was that whatever diamond I bought, she’d know what it was,” he jokes.  “I couldn’t pull the wool over her eyes.”  Mrs. Coghlan’s ring finger is now adorned with a champagne-colored diamond.  “We both love color,” he says, “and colored stones is what we enjoy working with the most.”  His wife agrees, and adds, “Our jewelry is an expression of artistic abilities and colored stones add a beautiful spectrum to that.”

So what’s a couple with a penchant for the artistic – not to mention newly-acquired degrees in jewels and a newly-acquired plot of vines -- to do?

Coghlan Vineyards and Jewelers opened its doors along Alamo Pintado Road in Los Olivos on May 19.  A unique venue, it features myriad jewelry handcrafted entirely by Sam and Eric Coghlan, as well a tasting room for their new line of wines.

The Coghlans’ handiwork is featured in displays throughout the store and on the walls, as well as inside the bar where wine curious visitors must rest their glasses between sips.  Talk about a captive audience.  The team crafts their pieces both at a studio at home and a small shop setup inside the tasting room.  And the work load is steady.  “We have to provide all of the inventory,” Mr. Coghlan says, “and we don’t repeat anything, it’s all one-of-a-kind.” 

Output demand varies.  “Eric works a lot with 18-carat metals and he may make three rings in a day,” says Mrs. Coghlan.  “More intricate rings could take three days or more to make.”

“And when we were getting ready for a street fair [in Los Olivos] recently, Sam was beading like crazy, pumping out five or six pieces in a day,” Mrs. Coghlan says.

Among the best-selling jewels are wire-wrapped bird nest rings that she makes.  At $30 apiece, “we can’t keep them on the shelf,” she says.  Her husband is gaining a reputation for a high-end line of real antique Roman coins, which he sets in gold.  “They sell like crazy,” she adds.

Thanks to a large selection of handmade beaded items, the Coghlans says they can keep price points competitive.  Gem stone earrings sell for $30 a pair.  Intricate necklaces can range from $90-$150.  “The most expensive item we have is an 18-carat gold bracelet Eric made,” Mrs. Coghlan says.  It sells for $5000.

Custom design is quickly becoming an important part of the Coghlans’ jewelry business.  “We’re updating, resetting, recreating pieces for many clients,” says Mrs. Coghlan, “and they can walk away wearing something for the first time in a long time and feeling good about it.” 

Modern technology also plays a role.  The couple uses sophisticated computer programs to help clients design and visualize jewelry pieces before they’re cast.  “We can see a rendered photograph of what they want us to make that’s so real, they can tell us right away what we need to adjust,” says Mr. Coghlan.  “Before, we had to do it all with wax.”

The Coghlans’ wine business is no less diligent.  They’re brought on celebrated local winekaer Alan Phillips to handcraft a lineup that currently includes a 2009 estate cabernet sauvignon and a 50-50 cabernet-merlot dubbed Fusion, made with grapes off the family’s Happy Canyon plot.  “We make them so it’s not highly extracted, not like the Napa Valley standard,” says Phillips.  “Instead, we’re going for elegance and balance, and luscious wines that are ready to drink as soon as you open them.”

Many of the new planting on the Coghlans’ property will come online next year, so the output of estate wines will increase.  For now, though, they’re sourcing grapes for their other wines from other established vineyards.  That includes a Grenache blanc and two pinot noirs, one made with fruit from Richard Sanford’s celebrated La Encantada Vineyards and the other from Rio Vista Vineyard grapes.

Just like any two pieces of handcrafted jewelry are unique, the two Coghlan pinots are distinct.  “My mantra is, let the grapes dictate your style,” says Phillips.  “Rio Vista is in the warmest, eastern-most portion of the Santa Rita Hills, so it’s more round and accessible, not as extracted.”  Le Encantada is in the much cooler, windier western stretch of the appellation, and the resulting pinot is “more dense, darker, fuller,” Phillips adds.

The Coghlan wine production is small – about 300 cases per lot.  They’re sold exclusively through the tasting room and, within a few weeks, the company’s new web site at

The jewelry and wine store on Alamo Pintado is on a one-acre piece of land which the Coghlans also own, and which houses two other enterprises.  One is the Art Outreach Gallery, a space the Coghlans donated to the nonprofit group that promotes the arts to students throughout Santa Barbara County.  “It’s a rotating art gallery where teachers can showcase their work,” says Mrs. Coghlan, who’s also vice-president of the group’s board.  “They can sell their work and proceeds go back to Arts Outreach.”

The Coghlan showroom’s other neighbor is another tasting room: Fontes-Phillips.  This is Alan Phillips’ own boutique label, which he owns with his wife Rochelle, and which features a highly-regarded pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris; their celebrated Rhone rosé is playfully called Panky.  Suffice it to say, beyond their business relationship, the Coghlans and Phillips have become good friends, and the winemaker appreciates the Coghlans’ efforts at bringing two seemingly disparate industries together. 

“They’re both artistic expressions in a different way,” he says.

Harvest Lessons: Local Winery Hosts International Interns

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 20, 2011)

Vanessa Guardia and Romina Regules have a lot in common.  The budding winemakers both work in the wine-buzz region of Mendoza in their native Argentina.  And, coincidentally, both are working on the same thesis toward their enology degrees, on winemaking’s carbon footprint and environmental impacts.  But the two have just recently become friends.

“We actually didn’t meet until a week before harvest started,” says Guardia, 32, in Spanish.

And that’s because the two women have something else in common: they are wrapping up their first harvest internship at Lucas & Lewellen Winery in Buellton.  They met just a few days before flying north for the summer, just before grape picking in Santa Barbara County got underway.  And now they, along with three other international winemakers, have new friendships, and plenty of new know-how, under their belts.

Lucas & Lewellen hosts interns every harvest.  The paid positions run about four months, to coincide with harvest season from beginning to end.  Winemaker Megan McGrath Gates, who’s been in charge of selecting interns for the last five years, finds prospects through an agricultural exchange program run by the state.  “We screen them digitally first, online, and then narrow them down to people with skills we’d be interested in,” she says.  “I require they either have some wine education or at least some hands-on experience.  I want people who show initiative and real interest in wine.”

This year, McGrath Gates picked five candidates with impressive global reach.  Joining Guardia and Regules for the 2011 harvest are Umberto Gaia from Italy’s Piedmont region, Gustavo Assandri from Uruguay and Mehul Patel from India.  The five are paid a stipend – they get time-and-a-half if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week – and are hosted as a group in a private home that’s walking distance from the winery on East Street.  “They love it because it’s a family setting under one roof, with home cooking, Internet access and TV,” says McGrath Gates.

The workload is steady, often six days a week, based on the volume of grapes that are picked and the day-to-day demands inside the winery.

“My goal was to basically gain more experience and learn new techniques to take back home,” says Regules, 26, also in Spanish.  “And, of course, to learn new cultures and to better my English.”  She admits that most Argentinians think Napa when they think California wine, and that zinfandel, California’s purported native variety, has notoriety.  “But I have been very surprised by the variety of wines here,” she declares.  “In Mendoza, most wineries focus on two, three, maybe four varietals.  But here we’ve been working with more than 20, which is great because we’re exposed to grapes we never get to work with.”

Truth be told, Lucas & Lewellen, which was co-founded by pioneering viticulturist Louie Lucas, is one of Santa Barbara County’s most prolific producers.  The company grows some 24 grape varieties on three estate vineyards in Santa Maria, Los Alamos and the Santa Ynez Valley.  It also sells grapes to myriad wine producers throughout California.  “We made less of our own wine this year because Louis sold more fruit to other wineries, especially up north where yields were dramatically down this year,” says McGrath Gates.  “Our own yields were down, too, but not nearly as much.”

For Guardia, seeing the differences in the malbec produced by Lucas & Lewellen and that made in Argentina has been a fascinating lesson.  The Bordeaux grape is readily considered Argentina’s flagship variety.  “The softness of the tannins is similar, but here it tends to be silkier and the color is so deep and intense,” she says.

Guardia also noticed some distinction in the way wine is made.  “In Argentina, we make wine in large quantities,” she says.  “But here, they work a lot in smaller batches, and each is different and unique, often with different alcohol and acidity levels.”

Regules adds, “To work with small batches at a time is great, because you can closely see the evolution of your wine.”

It hasn’t been all work, of course.  The group has gotten to know their temporary community well.  “Everybody has been so kind and giving,” Regules says.  And they’ve done their fair share of travel, visiting tourist hot spots like the Grand Canyon and Hollywood.  “Las Vegas was a lot different than Solvang,” Guardia says with a laugh.  For her and Regules, this was their first visit to the United States.

“For me, this has been an amazing opportunity both professionally and personally,” adds Guardia.  “We all formed friendships, talked about life in our respective countries, shared stories and expanded our experience in so many ways.”

The experience is always enlightening for McGrath Gates, too.  “I ask them about techniques they’re using back home all the time,” she says, but speaks most enthusiastically about the relationships she’s forged.  “I recently visited one of our former interns from Portugal,” she says, “and she took us all over Lisbon, introduced us to these amazing cheeses and Ports, and to all these cultural treasures.” 

Methodology can change, after all, but friendships can last long.

This year’s internship officially ends on Tuesday.  But Guardia and Regules are not planning on heading back home until early December.  “We’re still hoping to visit Miami,” they echo each other with a laugh.

Fame Official: Vintner Richard Sanford to be Inducted Into Vintners Hall of Fame

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 23, 2011)

Richard Sanford
When Richard Sanford got into the wine business, he had two options: study viticulture at UC Davis or roll up his sleeves and plant vines.

“I thought, ‘I could either have a degree in four years, or I could have grapes in four years,’” he recalls.  And I chose grapes.”

That unabashed pioneering attitude has been well recognized by the Santa Barbara wine community for decades.  The vineyard that has long bared his name – Sanford & Benedict – remains to this day one of zone’s more stories sources for Burgundian grapes.  And the wineries he founded – Sanford first and, most recently, Alma Rosa – have been indisputable pacesetters in quality wine production.

Now, that acknowledgment has officially gone mainstream.  The Culinary Institute of America is inducting Sanford into its 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes his profound contribution to an industry that may be as much about business and marketing as it is about instinct and art.  The new inductee feels humbled.

“I am flattered and proud,” he says.  “Just sort of overwhelmed, frankly.”

But even for the characteristically modest Sanford, there’s also as admission that the road to recognition has been paved with plenty of hard work and a fair share of innovation.

“For a long time, people have been talking about me as some sort of pioneer, and it’s all felt silly, really.  But truth is, it has been a long effort and experience and commitment.  And it feels great to look at the whole region and to see the quality we’ve achieved here.  That’s the biggest reward.”

The region Sanford refers to is the Santa Rita Hills, those roughly 100 square miles of now-prime grape growing real estate that stretches west of Highway 101, from Buellton toward Lompoc.  It won the federal stamp of approval as a unique appellation 10 years ago, and was touted as an area especially well-suited for cool climate grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay for at least a decade before that.  But back in the late 60s and early 70s, when a young Sanford spent many a day driving through the rolling valley with a thermometer in his car to study temperature and climate, “people thought I was nuts,” he recalls with a laugh. No one was growing wine grapes there, with plantings relegated instead to warmer areas like Foxen Canyon and Los Olivos.  “But I had confidence.”

In many ways, this environmental experimentation was cathartic for Sanford.  As soon as he’d graduated from UC Berkeley in 1965, he’d been drafted, and he spent the next three years at war as a sailor in the U.S. Navy.  “Back from Vietnam, to drive around in a tractor in nature was very healing,” he says.  “That time was precious, a spiritual kind of journey and a great period for me, personally.”

But the young man who’d opted for planting grapes instead of seeking a school degree had still managed to do his homework.  An early admirer of French wines, “I’d done a lot of research into the climates of Burgundy, went back 100 years in gathering climate information, and started comparing it to climates in California,” he recalls.  “My prejudice then was that pinot noir was going into climates that were too warm.  And I found that the east-west mountains [in the Santa Rita Hills] allowed weather to come in and make it cool.  That marine influence was important.  It’s about a degree Fahrenheit cooler for every mile you go west.  And that’s unusual for almost anywhere in the world.”

This, of course, was Sanford’s eureka moment.  It was the birth of a winemaking movement that, today, is responsible for some of Santa Barbara’s most lauded wines.  But in the years that followed, pioneering was a relatively lonely business.

Sanford and botanist Michael Benedict established the Sanford & Benedict nursery in 1970, cultivating cuttings from an experimental vineyard that had been planted in the Tepesquet Mesa in the mid 60s.  A year later, they put in the ground their namesake vineyard, which would take until 1976 to offer the young winemaker viable fruit.  That vintage was aged for two years and finally released in 1978. “That’s when people started to take some notice of the possibility here,” says Sanford, who left Sanford & Benedict in 1980.

Sanford Winery was founded in 1981, and much of the first decade of his solo winemaking project took Sanford on the road.  “I spent a lot of time traveling and talking about the region,” Sanford remembers.  And touting something brand new was no easy task.  “It would have been a lot easier if I was in a recognized region, like Napa.  And on the East Coast, everyone was looking to European wines in those days.”

Sanford admits that the Santa Rita Hills finally attained more widespread recognition in the 1990s, but he speaks about that period with a bittersweet tenor.  “By 1995, Prudential and Bank of America were the biggest vineyard owners in Santa Barbara County, and they were looking to get rid of them,” he says.  “Napa guys like Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson and Beringer were already buying up chardonnay from here to blend with Napa chard to increase quality, so they ended up buying all the vineyards from the insurance companies.  Of course, I lost the opportunity to buy grapes from Sierra Madre Vineyard when Mondavi bought it.”

He adds, “Once they had major investments here, that’s when they finally started to toot the horn.  It’s curious how it takes the effort of marketing to create a buzz,”

Sanford sold his eponymous winery in 2005 (the new owners continue to capitalize on the name) and launched his current and very personal winemaking endeavor, Alma Rosa Winery.

“This whole new effort is a chance to recognize the quality of the grapes growing in our region,” he says.  “At Sanford, we were making great wine but it was more classic and used more oak aging.  But I thought, here we are with these beautiful bright grapes and high acids, why not preserve that?”  The Alma Rosa wines include pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir; much of the latter is sourced from the latest vineyard planted by Sanford, La Encantada in the Santa Rita Hills.  The wines are produced sustainably from organic grapes and are typically brilliant and light; Sanford uses absolutely no malolactic fermentation, a process that converts tarter malic acid to softer lactic acid, to give wines a fuller, more buttery mouth feel.

And he uses screwcaps, no corks, in all his wines.  He and wife Thekla “are very pleased with the way the wine keeps in terms of freshness and aging,” he says.  He admits that some traditionalist consumers are yet to be won over, but “I’m sold on it.”

Spoken like a pioneer.

Sanford will be inducted to the 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame on February 20th, 2012, at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena.  The induction class, the 6th annual, will also include Peter Mondavi, Sr. of Charles Krug Winery, Professor Albert Winkler of UC Davis, Joe Heitz of Napa’s Heitz Cellars, former Beringer winemaker Myron Nightingale, Mendocino vintner Joe Parducci and soil scientist Dr. Eugene Hilgard.  Tickets are $175.  For more information, visit

And for more on Richard Sanford and Alma Rosa Winery, visit

Island in a Bottle: Distinct Wines Born from Rusack's Catalina Island Adventure

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 13, 2011)

Alison and Geoff Rusack
When Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff Rusack, planted the first ever vineyards on Santa Catalina Island four years ago, it was a lot like planting grapes in their own backyard.  After all, the rocky, 75-square-mile Channel isle – which is located some 22 miles off the Southern California coast – is a significant part of Mrs. Rusack’s family legacy.

The Rusacks own controlling shares of the Santa Catalina Island Company, which manages 11% of Catalina.  It’s proprietary control that stems back to Mrs. Rusack’s great-grandfather, William Wrigley, Jr.  The magnate who made a fortune selling chewing gum brands to the American public at the turn of the 20th century bought the island from fellow investors in 1919.

Perhaps most important to the Rusacks’ stake on Catalina is El Rancho Escondido, or the Hidden Ranch, which was established as a Wrigley family retreat in 1931.  For decades a tourist attraction, the ranch is closed now, as the Rusacks undertake a major overhaul aimed at transforming the property into a destination for weddings and corporate events, and to expand by adding a winery. 

The Rusacks have had commercial success with their namesake wine venture in Santa Barbara County since 1995, so this is them spreading their viticultural wings to their other home, across the channel.  Syrah was a serious consideration at first, but when weather studies pointed to ideal growing conditions for Burgundian grapes, the land was earmarked for pinot noir and chardonnay.  They also selected zinfandel, a warmer weather grape that’s not necessarily their ideal neighbor.  But this wasn’t your ordinary zin.  The Rusacks had obtained the wild vines from neighboring Santa Cruz Island, thanks to its long-standing collaboration with Catalina on conservancy projects.  Experts at UC Davis identified them as zinfandel, and it would be planted near its Burgundian neighbors, but on a sunnier south-facing slope.

Aerial view of Catalina Island Vineyard
The three vineyards are planted on six total acres that surround El Rancho Escondido: one acre of zinfandel, two of chardonnay and three of pinot noir; a portion of the pinot plot has been dubbed the “View Block” because the ocean is clearly visible in the distance on any clear day.  It’s over this block that the Rusacks envision building a wine tasting room with a deck.

For now the wines are being made at their Santa Ynez Valley facility.  That means that the grapes are being flown in a retrofitted Cessna from Catalina’s Airport in the Sky to the Santa Ynez Airport, then trucked to the awaiting winemaking team of John and Helen Falcone.  Not a cheap way to make wine.

The first Santa Catalina Island Vineyards vintage was 2009, a project made all the more thrilling by all the unknowns.  No one has grown wine grapes here before; there’s no past data to refer to; no past mistakes to learn from.  But “we’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” says John Falcone, “and that’s pretty cool.”

Falcone has made the Catalina wines very much like the Rusack wines from the Santa Ynez Valley; same facility, same barrels, same overall philosophy.  His goal is to extract the genuine flavors that the island imparts on the vines.  “What does Catalina really taste like?” he says.  And from what I can tell, the answer is, “Delicious and distinct.”

I recently sat with Falcone at the Rusack vineyard property to taste the three debut wines; in the case of the chardonnay and pinot, we taste them alongside their Santa Barbara County counterparts.  And what’s clear right of the bat is that there is, yes, plenty of merit here; the Falcones consistently make great wine.  But there’s also a clear uniqueness to these wines.  Terroir – or the expression of place inside the wine bottle – resides comfortably on the other side of each cork.

The Catalina chardonnay has a bouquet that’s rich in fruit, with earthy, spicy and tropical notes.  It’s big in the mouth – round in the front and mid-palate, especially – but with enough acidity, minerality and a wet stone streak to make it very drinkable.  It’s delectably layered and nuanced.  By comparison, the Santa Barbara County chard, made from Sierra Madre and Bien Nacido fruit, is leaner on the nose, with less acidity on the palate.  Equally worth every sip, of course, but different, and a fascinating study in differences in terroir.

The Catalina pinot noir may be the most distinct wine of all three.  Dark to the eye, and dark in its aromas of earth and tea leaves.  But its flavors are deliciously delicate: bright red fruit, some tart cherries, flowers and a soft spicy end.  It makes you want to reach for dried fruits – or a mix of nuts and cheeses – right away.  And it’s more focused on the palate than the Rusack Santa Maria pinot we tasted alongside, which proved broader in the mouth.  Overall, a very distinctive rendition of what’s become a very popular red wine.

“The ’09 zinfandel saw radically uneven bud break,” Falcone tells me as he pours.  “Like months apart.”  A Catalina curve ball.  But the result is surprisingly attractive, and sophisticated.  A perfumy nose leads to velvety jamminess in the mouth, generous fruit, black pepper and – stay with me here – a lean meat feel.  This is an elegant, restrained version of zinfandel and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many other, popular California zins: 14.3% versus 16% or 17%, or higher.  “Early on, this was really just going to be an experiment,” Falcone admits.  What would zinfandel grown so close to the sea really do?  “But honestly, when we tasted it after fermentation, we were all really impressed, so we went through with it and bottled it.”

The Rusacks have been permitted to plant 12 more acres, so this project’s output is bound to grow in vintages to come.  And since there’s no AVA, or federally-assigned appellation, established on Catalina (and seeking one for such a small venture may not be worth the expense), the wine carries a “California” designation.  The label features a simple drawing of the landmark Channel Island fox, seated, overlooking the vineyards and El Rancho Escondido.

With final pricing still being set, and public release expected within a few months, sales of the debut 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wines will be done through a waiting list, which you can access at

Island Vintage: Santa Barbara Vintners Launch First Ever Catalina Island Wines

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 9, 2011)

Vineyards on Santa Catalina Island
The news that Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff, are about to launch the first ever wines grown on Santa Catalina Island is fresh off the press.  After all, their debut release – an island-grown chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel from the 2009 vintage – is just months away (and has many serious wine drinkers on a growing waiting list on pins and needles).  But in some ways, this story really began close to 30 years ago.

“Alison and I had just started dating and I remember we were riding horseback along a ridge, looking out to the ocean,” recalls Mr. Rusack.  He pauses to gaze out the window of his private plane as, 45 minutes after taking off from its Santa Barbara Municipal Airport home base, it begins its descent toward a rural runway on Catalina; three neatly manicured vineyards are coming into view through the parting clouds.  “And we said to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have vineyards here one day and make wine?’”

Quite the prophetic notion, it turns out. 

But many years would go by before their romantic conception would become reality.  The Rusacks married in 1985 and settled in Los Angeles, where she developed consumer products for Disney and he worked as an aviation law attorney.  They made the pastoral leap to Ballard Canyon in the early 90s and, before long, the vintner bug bit.  Rusack Vineyards and Winery was established in 1995; the doors to its tasting room opened two years later.  And today, thanks in large part to the talented stewardship by winemakers John and Helen Falcone, the brand is synonymous with some of the best Rhone and Burgundian wines in Santa Barbara County.

There’s always been that connection to Santa Catalina Island, though.  Anchored 22 miles off the Southern California coast, it’s the third largest isle on the Channel Island chain and the only one that’s privately owned.  And that’s where Mrs. Rusack -- and her pedigree – feature prominently.

William Wrigley, Jr., her great-grandfather, is easily one of the great businessmen in American history.  He founded the Wrigley Company in the 1890s and would go on to make a fortune selling wildly popular brands of chewing gum to the American public.  In the decades that followed, he’d own the Chicago Cubs baseball team; their historic hometown ballpark was named in his honor.  And he’d own the luxury, landmark Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

But a significant chapter of his legacy is what he did for Santa Catalina.  He joined investors in the 75-square-mile island in 1915 – they were the Santa Catalina Island Company – and, four years later, bought them out to own it outright.  In the years that followed, the made major improvements, such as revamping water systems and public utilities, and developing real estate, which included building the island’s iconic Casino building.  He also founded a company that used local clay to make glazed tiles and house wares which, today, command big money from collectors.  And he regularly hosted his Cubs for spring training on Catalina, on a custom diamond he called “Field of Dreams.”

The Wrigley generations that have followed have continued the legacy of enhancing the island.  Son Philip (also a baseball buff, whose creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was depicted in the 1992 Tom Hanks film, A League of Their Own) created the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and deeded 88% of the island – to the tune of 42,000 acres – to it.  One percent of what remained is held, to this day, by private individuals, mainly longtime shop and home owners.  The other 11% is managed by the Santa Catalina Island Company, which Philip’s son, William, inherited; when he died in 1999, controlling shares in that company went to his daughter.

That daughter is Alison Wrigley Rusack.

Today, she and husband Geoff have taken the reigns in restoring the Company’s stake on the island.  That includes much of the tourism attractions on Avalon, Catalina’s main town and, for years now, a popular daytrip for Southern Californians.  “We’re primarily a real estate company,” says Mr. Rusack, referring to their three hotels and three restaurants in Avalon, including the much buzzed-about Avalon Grille.  The Company also manages several new tourist-friendly attractions – including semi-submersible boats, fly-fishing outposts and a 4000-foot zip-line – and general stores on the resort town of Two Harbors, which is popular with leisure boaters.

But the most important part of the Company’s portfolio, if for nothing more than sentimental reasons, is El Rancho Escondido, or The Hidden Ranch.  The rustic property was founded by grandfather Philip as a training ground for the Wrigley family’s Arabian horses, which were, for years, shown throughout the United States.  Until recently, and for some 70 years, the property was open to the public and became an effective attraction to get visitors off the beach and into the island’s unspoiled interior which, to this day, is marked by rocky roads, meandering canyons and wildlife.  Breeds of foxes, quail and shrews unique to the island are still readily spotted, as are more than 200 bison which were brought in as extras for a movie back in the 1920s and which, today, are allowed to roam free.   Native mahogany and ironwood trees dot the landscape.

The ranch is now closed, as the Rusacks begin the process of restructuring the property into what will one day reopen as “a spectacular visitors’ center,” says Mr. Rusack as he takes the News-Press on an exclusive tour.  “We’re envisioning this as a destination for weddings, concerts and corporate events.”

The property’s stable still houses expertly maintained carriages that, decades ago, would whisk VIP guests in from Avalon, as well as hand-crafted silver saddles owned by generations of Wrigleys.  Numerous black and white photos depict the family’s history; some, dating back to the late 1940s, show the Wrigley family arriving on the island for visits aboard their private DC-3.  And an old ranch house still abuts the stable; it’s home to dozens more old photos (one shows Phil Wrigley making music alongside Walt Disney), various taxidermied catches and a bathroom done entirely in that coveted Catalina tile.

But the most exciting part of the Rusacks’ project may be what Mr. Rusack animatedly outlines in pantomime fashion as he exits the stable.  “Here, here’s where we’ll put a winery,” he declares.  “And here, a tasting room with a deck,” pointing to a plot overlooking the ocean in the distance and -- and this is where the project’s uniqueness is most evident – a beautifully manicured vineyard in full bloom.

Prophetic notion fulfilled.

The Rusacks began to explore in earnest the idea of planting grapevines on Catalina Island in 2002.  They flew in experts from as far away as Australia to help study things like soil conditions and climate.  On the soil front, the initial news was not good; unrelenting ocean exposure had resulted in the presence of boron and, mainly, salt at significant levels.  The Rusacks would go on to do intensive soil flushing and rinsing; they would also plant vines at elevated heights to promote water flow, build a sophisticated drain system under each vineyard row and install a drip irrigation system.

At first, they considered planting syrah, a varietal with which they’d already had great success on the mainland, in Santa Barbara County.  “But all the data that was coming back was telling us that the conditions were so good for Bungundian grapes, that pinot noir and chardonnay became a no-brainer,” says Rusack.

In 2004, Mr. Rusack and two of their sons, Parker and Austin, flew out to neighboring Santa Cruz Island to hand-pick rugged grapevines that had long been growing wild.  Nature protection groups on both islands already enjoyed a collaborative relationship in myriad species recovery and environmental restoration projects, so when the Rusacks requested access to the vines, the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Cruz Island project “was happy to do so,” explains Rusack.  Cuttings were sent to UC Davis, where two grape varieties were identified: Mission and zinfandel.  The former enjoys little caché in the wine business, but the Rusacks made the call with little hesitation to include the newly discovered zin in their budding Catalina wine project.

In March of 2007, the Rusacks, themselves, joined members of Buellton-based Coast Vineyard Care in planting the very first vineyards on Santa Catalina Island: one acre of zinfandel, two acres of chardonnay and three acres of pinot noir; the pinot vineyard was quickly dubbed the “View Block” for the generous glimpse of ocean it offers.

It’s unusual to see pinot noir and chardonnay, which thrive in cooler environments, planted in such close proximity to the warmer-weather zinfandel.  “But we have the zin on a south facing slope,” says winemaker John Falcone, “and it’s amazing to see how different the conditions there can be.  It works!”

Falcone has two digital weather stations positioned throughout the vineyards, which he can check electronically even from the comfort of his Ballard Canyon home.  During harvest season, he flies out to Catalina at least weekly to check on growing conditions; usually, he tags along on flights aboard the Rusacks’ personal plane that are already carrying other employees on important family business.  When the grapes are harvested, they are transported to Catalina’s Airport in the Sky (it sits at an elevation of 1600 feet above sea level), packed inside oversized bins and loaded on a jet engine Cessna Caravan that’s been outfitted as a cargo plane.  They arrive, often in the early morning hours, at the Santa Ynez Airport, before being trucked to the Rusack Vineyards winemaking facility.  “I’ve never had grapes arrive by plane before,” admits Falcone with a chuckle.

The first harvest from the new vines took place in autumn of 2009.  There were, naturally, several challenges; among them, vastly different yields between the varietals and uneven bud break on the zinfandel.  “That’s common with zin,” says Falcone, “but here, it was definitely exacerbated.”  The 2010 yields were considerably smaller, due in large part to an unforeseen infestation by tens of thousands of yellow jackets.  The harvest for 2011 is going on now; no buzzers have been spotted in the horizon.

“When we planted, we really didn’t know what to expect,” admits Rusack as he meanders through the vines, inspecting grape clusters quickly nearing pick-ready conditions.  “But what’s really great to see now is how healthy the vines look.”

The 2009 debut crop resulted in 265 cases of chardonnay, 125 cases of pinot noir and just 60 cases of zinfandel.  A very small production for a truly unique wine project.  Real wine merits aside, these are bottlings that are, naturally, already generating buzz among the wine curious; prices are still being set and a waiting list is growing quickly for exclusive allocations of the first ever Santa Catalina Island Vineyards releases within a few months.  (You can find more information and join the waiting list at

But novelty aside, these wines are remarkably noteworthy and decidedly distinct.  “They were made the same way we make the Rusack wines” that use Santa Barbara County fruit, says Falcone, “but they are very different.”  What the industry defines as the expression of terroir – how a sense of place translates to flavor in the bottle – may be especially alive here.  The chardonnay is rich and tropical on the nose, with great acidity in the mouth.  The pinot noir is especially unique, with dark, earthy aromas but delicate red fruit flavors.  And the zinfandel displays wonderful elegance, generous in fruit and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many popular California zins. 

Distinctiveness is allowing the Rusacks to find real thrill in what started as an experiment and bona fide leap of faith.  For Falcone, the project has balanced a fair share of anxiety-producing unknowns with the type of professional satisfaction that may only come from doing something truly special.  “We’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” he says as he swings shut the gates to the vineyard than have been erected to ward off wandering bison.  “And that’s pretty cool.”

And so, with the investment and commitment of another generation, the Wrigley legacy continues.

A Personal Harvest: Local Food Purveyor Releases Book on Olive Oils and Vinegars

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 6, 2011)

“The possibilities for living a Caliterranean life are endless.”
This is how Theo Stephan ends her new book, “Olive Oil and Vinegar for Life: Delicious Recipes for Healthy Caliterranean Living,” which is set for release next week.

But it’s also a good place to start.

Stephan was born to Greek parents and into a household where cooking the Mediterranean way readily reigned supreme.  In her book, she recounts her earliest memory of tasting olive oil, at age eight, when her aunt Lou dipped a hunk of hamburger bun in it and had her take a bite.  “My mouth immediately welcomed the buttery, fresh, flowery fruitiness that is Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” she writes.

Fast-forward a few decades to the mid 90s, when Stephan, now a successful graphic designed based in Dayton, Ohio, found herself visiting Southern California regularly on business.  The climate and the land struck a chord with her; it recalled, in many ways, the place from which her own family had come.  She invested in a fixer-upper ranch in Los Alamos – a haven, of sorts, during her regular cross-country works trips – which happened to be home to 50 olive trees.  And then, what she calls her “eureka moment.”  She recalls thinking in her new book, “Why not start my own brand, grow and sell olive oil from that handsome property and quite possibly, daringly change my life forever?”

That leap of faith came in 2001, when she sold her Dayton-based business and launched Global Gardens, a company aimed at cultivating local olive oils, vinegars and food products, and sourcing quality ones from around the globe.  Five years later, she opened a quaint storefront by the same name in the heart of Los Olivos, the only food-tasting venue amidst dozens of wine tasting ones.  And her purpose remained the same: to further what she would ultimately call, and officially trademark as, the “Caliterranean” lifestyle.

“I was in the shower when I thought of the word,” she told the News-Press.  “It just washed over me.”

For Stephan, California is unique in the way it mirrors the Mediterranean not only in its natural distinctiveness and abundance but also in the way its people embrace a healthier way of life.  “I really see us Californians as starting and leading this trend toward learning about nutrition and understanding the importance of eating fresh and local,” she says.  “With all our obesity and health issues today, we have more opportunities here to broaden the healthful aspects of our lifestyle and to introduce it to the entire country.”

And that’s the crux of her new culinary tome.  The book reads as much as an anthology of olive oil- and vinegar-based recipes as a prose-style introduction and guide to Stephan’s favorite ingredients.  History, nutritional information and storytelling combine to create an assorted, thorough, stunning book.

The hardcover, with its textured olive-green cover, impresses from a physical standpoint alone.  Oversized and solid, it resembles a weighty coffee table book.  The design was all Stephan’s; her former professional incarnation was put to good use.  And most of the photography was hers, too.  The food shots are eye-popping and rich, as are the myriad landscape and detailed close-ups featured prominently throughout the book.

This literary project also became a family affair.  Stephan’s two daughters – sisters Sunita, 17, and Anita, 16, whom she adopted from Nepal 10 years ago and who work the Global Gardens store in Los Olivos every summer – each contributed.  The eldest was responsible for much of the food design featured in the book; the youngest, a budding photographer, added her fair share of food snapshots. 

“We did a lot of cooking for this book, and everything was measuring and taking pictures,” says Stephan.  She continues with a laugh, “It was a real joke with the girls because we couldn’t eat anything without photographing it, and when we were done, it was like something was wrong when we’d sit down to it something without shooting it.”

Involving her children was also a way for Stephan to deliver a message to her readers about the importance of introducing healthier cooking styles early.  “When the girls were little, I’d only do their grilled cheese sandwiches in Kalamata [oil],” she says.  “Our taste buds develop early, and kids are receptive to healthier foods when they are part of the selection process.  It creates harmony.”

Stephan began working in earnest on her book last autumn, after the olive harvest, and it took “a lot of discipline, and having to calendar everything out,” the author says.  It required a rigorous travel schedule, including visits to Death Valley to shoot the pictures for the book’s section on “Campsite Dishes” and to Mendocino, “where I put together 12 courses for 12 people,” Stephan says.  Location shoots also took place throughout Santa Barbara County, San Diego and Napa.

But the most time consuming aspect of the book prep took place in the kitchen.  Stephan’s goal, after all, was to show how olive oil can entirely substitute popular, less healthy alternatives, like butter.  And that meant retooling and retesting a lot of recipes.

“I had to play with recipes a lot to figure out dimensions,” she recalls.  “Like when I wanted to come up with a good pie pastry.  I wanted it to be light and flaky but not too wet, or it would fall apart.  So I froze olive oil in tablespoon increments in an ice cube tray, and that was my substitute for butter patties.

“You have to work really fast and you can’t touch it a lot because gets really chewy,” she learned.  “But figuring that out was my biggest thrill and my biggest surprise.”

For the reader, the surprises may also abound, especially when recipes for popular dishes force them to reach for an olive oil bottle from the pantry rather than a butter stick from the fridge.  All reference the lineup of Global Gardens products, 15% of which Stephan produces herself from olives harvested on her Los Alamos ranch and Los Olivos home (and which won six medals at this year’s L.A. County Fair), and the rest of which she imports from boutique purveyors from places like Crete and Italy.  In the book’s “Breakfast Recipes,” for example, Stephan’s “Stuffed French Toast” calls for her Santa Ynez Italian Varietal Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil while her “Fig ‘N Egg Omelet” requires both for some Global Gardens Meyer Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil and the Global Gardens Fig Balsamic Vinegar.

The bill of recipes may require the at-home cook to stock up on some new products and rethink the way standard foods are made, but it easily appeals on a fundamental, appetizing level.  The “Beginnings” section features recipes for an “Avocado Olive Salad” and “Mini Chevre Peppers.”  Seafood aficionados will find the “Scallops Ceviche and Red Curry Delight Sauce” especially tantalizing, while recipes for “Smoked Mendo Tri-Tip,” “Oven Roasted Chicken Supreme” and “Eggplant Caliterraneanna” – a baked delicacy featuring Farga Extra Virgin Olive Oil and two cheeses – will nab budding chefs with an appetite for something heartier.

The aforementioned “Campsite Dishes” includes recipes for “Death Valley Deviled Eggs” and “Campfire S’mores with Solar Sauce,” both of which call for Mission Manzanilla Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  “I love to go camping,” Stephan says, “but that doesn’t mean I have to starve.”

And “Desserts” include a mouth-watering array of sweet treats, from “Perfect Pecan Pie” (featuring that tried and tested pie pastry), a “Smoked Salt Chocolate Tart” and, of course, “Not Your Mother’s Baklava.”

There’s even a pair of recipes for Koroneiki olive oil -based “munchies” for dogs and cats.

Among Stephan’s own recipes are two that offer a healthy dose of nostalgia for her.  The “Lemon Garlic Veggies” are fried.  “If you’ve ever been to Greece and tasted fried zucchini and fried eggplant, you know it’s a real staple there,” she says.  She suggests Kalamata or Koroneiki Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil in her recipe, which “tastes just like Aunt Lou’s.” 

And her “Greek Walnut Cake” is “just like the one my grandmother used to make, and it’s a favorite dessert for my kids,” Stephan says; her recipe includes a pomegranate balsamic vinegar reduction.

The merits of olive oil in cooking are driven home by the inclusion of additional recipes by four high-profile chefs, including Bradley Ogden of Solvang’s Root 246 restaurant and Food Network regular Bill Wavrin.

Consumer education, of course, is a critical part of Stephan’s book.  She clearly defines what extra virgin olive oil means – it should contain “no more than 0.8 percent acidity” – and offers a list of flavors truly hand-crafted, quality olive oils will possess, including “grassy,” “peppercorns” and “woodsy.”  Stephan also includes a step-by-step look at how she produces her own extra virgin, first cold pressing olive oils, from tree to bottle; photographs detail everything from the harvest of her estate fruit trees to the certified organic stone mill in Petaluma that she contracts to press them.  The author also introduces the reader to the many varieties of olives she harvests and sources, like Farga, Koroneiki, Mission Manzanilla and Kalamata.  “Different varietals will give their own unique flavors to what you cook, much like pairing wine with different foods,” she insists.  “There are an infinite number of options.”

There are interesting historical tidbits sprinkled throughout, too; did you know Helen of Troy used to bathe in vinegar to relax, and that Caesar’s army drank it to avoid dehydration?

Stephan is currently working on her nutritionist certification and envisions two more books in the near future.  But for now, she’s excited about the day-to-day applications of her first publication.  After all, she says, “This country is still in its infancy of understanding how the right foods play into our overall health issues.”

For more information, visit

Autumn Brews: A New Season Means New Beers in Santa Barbara

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on September 29, 2011)

Brewer Brian Thompson wants to bring seasonality back to making beer.

“It’s something that’s kind of lost these days in industrial beer production,” he says, as he stands among several fermentation tanks inside his Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara’s eastside.  “Whether it’s a Beaujolais Nouveau wine, or tomatoes or peaches – or beer – there are flavors and tastes associated with special times of the year, and it can be very comforting and rewarding.”

So Thompson is excited about what autumn will add to his portfolio: two new brews, including a rye extra pale ale set for release this weekend and crafted with special colleagues in mind.  “Winemakers want a light refreshing beer to drink during harvest,” he says.  And this one’s light, refreshing with a clean hoppy bite.  “It’s under five percent alcohol, so you can have a few at the end of a long shift of picking grapes and still walk out of the winery,” he adds with a chuckle.

This beer’s official designation is XPA – for extra pale ale.

Thompson is also making an oatmeal stout this season; it’s a light but rich and hearty beer made with real oats for a velvety, smooth mouth feel.  It’ll be publically released during the Santa Barbara Beer Festival at Elings Park on October 15th.  Both beers will then be available on tap at the brewery only, and in take-home growlers.

Thompson’s brews celebrate the fall season, but it’s also good marketing.  “It does give people more reason to keep coming back to us as opposed to have the same four or five beers year round,” he adds.

At least two local brew masters are taking the harvest concept of beer making to heart this autumn.  Both Paul Wright at Carpinteria’s Island Brewing Company and Pete Johnson at The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara are releasing beers made from fresh hops, as opposed to the regular dried hops.  “You can only make a harvest beer at this time of year, as soon as the hops are harvested,” Wright says. ”Otherwise they’ll begin to dry or spoil.”  Wright made about 450 barrels of his harvest beer this year, using what some call “wet” hops overnighted to him from Yakima, Washington.  He is specific about the property that grew them – BT Loftus Ranches – because “it make the beer more special, like a wine made with grapes from a specific vineyard.”  And he admits that the flavor of a harvest beer may take some getting used to.  “A little bit of pine scent, and some citrus flavor,” he says.  “Very interesting.”

Wright is releasing his harvest beer – along with a second autumn-specific brew made using avocados from Carpinteria and honey from Fillmore – during this year’s California Avocado Festival, taking place the second weekend in October in downtown Carpinteria.

While Wright is now importing the fresh hops for his annual harvest brew (until last year, he was sourcing them from a private grower in Goleta whose output, alas, started coming in too small), the Brewhouse’s Johnson is able to make his from estate hops.  Using plants that have been growing in the downtown brewery’s backyard for the last decade or so, his production is smaller – about a quarter what Wright makes – but the flavor profile is similar.  “The wet hops give it an earthier, grassier flavor,” he says of his red-hued, draught-only concoction.  And while it enjoys a dedicated following, Johnson still admits that getting consumers to understand its season-specific timing continues to be a challenge.  “Some people don’t get it,” he says in his characteristically husky tone.  “They’ll ask me in the spring, ‘Hey, when are you releasing the harvest ale?’  And I’m like, ‘What part of this process have I not explained to you?”

Johnson will be harvesting his home hops in about a week and releasing his harvest beer in early November.  But the Brewhouse is already serving up Johnson’s other fall beer from on tap: his annual Oktoberfest brew, a smooth but malty homage to the annual suds carnival in Munich, Germany, which typically draws some six million thirsty partygoers (and which is going on now through October 6th).

At Firestone-Walker Brewing Company, brew master Matt Brynildson also uses Oktoberfest for yearly inspiration.  This year’s very traditional version, available in both bottle and on tap at the company’s popular namesake restaurant in Buellton, came out in late August.  It was crafted using the famous Augustiner yeast from Germany, imported malts and hops sourced from Bavarian fields just north of Munich.

A second autumn beer is set for release in the next few days.  Inspired by the Walker member of the brewery’s founding team, The Velvet Merlin is a traditional English oatmeal stout.  Rich, dark and creamy – dark chocolate and coffee notes have a starring role – this beer was partially aged in bourbon barrels and was inspired by a recipe Brynildson first devised as a burgeoning brewer in college.  (Deep in local brewing circles, the beer is actually known but its original name, which rhymes with “Merlin,” but which denotes something that’s arguably way too bawdy for mass marketing.)

The most momentous release of the fall season for Brynildson, though, may well be the XV, or Fifteen, which will celebrates the company’s fifteenth year in business when it’s released the first week in November.  This special brew has been a fall-only production ever since the brewery turned 10; it’s part of Firestone-Walker’s “Proprietors Reserve” series and one of close to 20 beers that Brynildson makes every year at the company’s Paso Robles facility.

“Beer is steeped deep in our local wine community, so what’s special with this beer is that we invite local winemakers to make it,” says Brynildson, who asked 16 Central Coast wine producers to come up with their own beer blend using higher-alcohol brews that had been barrel-aged for at least a year.  “We numbered each blend, got behind closed doors and had a blind elimination competition.”  The winning meritage, which was concocted by the winemaking team at Paso Robles’ acclaimed Saxum Winery (these are the folks whose 2007 James Berry red blend got the “Best Wine of 2010” nod from Wine Spectator earlier this year), clocks in at 12.5% alcohol and will be sold in 22-ounce bottles “that are really meant for sharing,” Brynildson suggests.

Ultimately, flavor is what mostly inspires many local brewers to make beer in the fall.  Flavors synonymous with a season defined by cooler, darker days and that are rarely found at their peak outside the post-summer months.  For brewer Eric Rose at Hollister Brewing Company in Goleta, which offers more than a dozen draught beers throughout the year, that includes local lemon; his annual Belgian-inspired, low-alcohol brew of lemongrass, ginger, lemon rind and lemon juice will be premiered at the annual California Lemon Festival in Goleta the third weekend in October.

And it includes local pumpkin.   Rose used more than 80 pounds of the gourd, grown at Goleta’s Lane Farms, to make his (almost) annual pumpkin beer, which is set for release next week.  “Nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves give most of the predominant flavors,” says Rose.  “The pumpkin creates more of that viscosity in the mouth feel.”  And although he’ll offer it on tap until it’s gone, “it usually sells best in October and November.”