Gobble Gobble Wines: Local Chefs Suggest Holiday Feast Bottles

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 22, 2012) 

Happy Thanksgiving, and good luck.  I’m speaking to you, Thanksgiving feast host, who probably rose before this very paper was delivered this morning to—anxiously and excitedly – prep what may be the most important meal of the year.  May this thought help comfort you, however: once all your blessings are counted, the merits of any meal will pale by comparison.

And I’m speaking to you, too, guest-in-waiting.  I know your anxiety well, so good luck.  The wine you bring to dinner tonight, after all, will enjoy the attention, if not the scrutiny, worthy of a meal anticipated for months by an entire nation.

But here’s a thought that might soothe you: the Thanksgiving meal is eclectic enough, and diverse enough, that whatever you bring is bound to match at least something on the table or, perhaps more importantly, impress at least someone seated around it.  For what it’s worth, my easiest suggestion is sparkling wine; its celebratory fizz is fitting, for sure, and its merits for matching a wide range of foods are well-tested.

To offer you more noteworthy suggestions, though, I turned to three local chefs who, themselves, have plenty of reason to be thankful.  Each of these three men has recently opened a restaurant in an admittedly competitive arena, and their business is flourishing.  What’s more, their knack for pairing food with wine is renowned.

 Ron True, Arlington Tavern
I ran into Chef Ron True at the recent Bouillabaisse Festival, held at Brander Vineyard to benefit Hospice of Santa Barbara.  I was happy to be among a small group of very lucky food judges.  True was happy, too; he won first place in the Classic Bouillabaisse category.

This talented gastronome opened his Arlington Tavern along W. Victoria Street in downtown Santa Barbara just seven months ago.  But already he’s making a splash with his comfort food-done-right, with starters like crispy pork belly and heirloom tomato salad and mains that range from filet mignon to lamb shank to fried chicken.  And yes, he’s got bouillabaisse on the menu, too.

Arlington Tavern will, in fact, be open for Thanksgiving dinner today, with seatings starting at 2pm.  Aside from regular menu items, the restaurant will feature a four-course feast with wonderfully traditional foods, like turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish.  There’s a homemade pumpkin cheesecake with spiced apples for dessert.  “As someone who’s now not only a chef but also an owner, it’s always a joy having a lot of people at the restaurant,” True tells me.

His turkey technique takes some doing.  “I cook the dark meat and white meat separately, because they cook at different times, and put brine on the turkey to give it flavor throughout and to reduce the possibility of bacteria,” True says.  He also roasts the bones to make a hearty stock base for gravy.

And his wine pick came quickly: Zaca Mesa Winery’s Z Cuvee, a grenache-mourvedre-syrah blend by winemaker Eric Mohseni.  “It’s great for Thanksgiving,” True says, “because it has a broad spectrum and is easy to drink.  There’s a fair amount of tannin structure, plus balance of fruit, so it has a good chance of pairing well with several items on the table.”

In wine distributor circles, word has it that Arlington Tavern moves more Z Cuvee than any other restaurant in the country – up to five cases a month.  After tonight, that number may be that much easier to hit.

David Cecchini, Cecco Ristorante
Chef David Cecchini’s storied culinary past includes the Wine Cask, the popular Restaurant Nu in Santa Barbara and Nuuva in Ballard; the last two, he also owned.  He taps his Italian roots at his newest kitchen, Cecco Ristorante along First Street in Solvang, which opened its doors some 18 months ago.  But it’s been such a success – the chef credits Solvang’s burgeoning appeal as a wine destination and the city’s steady contingency of crowd-drawing weekend events – that Cecchini is already looking for a second location, probably in Santa Barbara.

Tonight, though, Cecco is closed, as the chef heads to his parents’ home in Solvang for a gathering of about 15 people.  His turkey secret echoes that of Matt Nichols: “Stuff it and roast it like a chicken,” he tells me.  And his wine insight is refreshing: “It’s not pairing wine with the food that’s all that difficult, it’s pairing it with the people that are going to be there,” he says.  To that end, there may be strength in numbers.  Cecchini adds, “You should have a few different wines on the table and that way people can pick what they want.”

I push him to pick one he’s sure to bring to Mom and Dad’s tonight, and Cecchini chooses something familiar: a sangiovese he, himself, makes under an eponymous label.  He’s made sangiovese on three vintages with the help of friend, and celebrated Palmina and Brewer-Clifton winemaker, Steve Clifton.  With the 2008 vintage still aging in bottle, he picks the 2007 wine – an 85-15 sangiovese-merlot blend made with grapes from Honea and Eleven Oaks Vineyards.  “It’s got good fruit – not a ton of fruit, but good fruit – and it’s balanced really well and has good body on it,” he says.  “It works across the board.”  And that might be all you can hope for when it comes to the very varied Thanksgiving meal.

By the way, Cecco, which is usually open seven days a week, will reopen tomorrow.

Matt Nichols, Sides Hardware and Shoes – a Brothers Restaurant
After a legendary 10-year stint hosting hungry crowds at the landmark Mattei’s Tavern, the Nichols brothers – Jeff and Matt – opened their new eatery this past April.  The quirky name is a nod to the entrepreneurs who housed the same Los Olivos building at the turn of the 20th century.  These days, the brothers’ restaurant is a destination all its own in the heart of wine country.

At Mattei’s, Thanksgiving night was traditionally one of the Nichols’ busiest of the year.  “We’d have about 400 people come in,” recalls Matt.  But this year, because of more limited space at Sides, the restaurant is closed and the siblings will be enjoying tonight’s meal separately.  “I won’t be responsible for the Thanksgiving meal for the first time in years,” rejoices Matt, who’ll be at his in-laws’ place in Santa Maria.  But his tip for novice cooks is simple: “Think of it as just cooking a big chicken.”

And, as the restaurant’s wine list keeper, his advice for Thanksgiving bottle seekers is simple, too.  “I love the pinots by Rick Longoria, like the one from his Fe Ciega Vineyard,” he says.  He quickly recommends Longoria’s “Lovely Rita” pinot, too – with fruit sourced from the celebrated Fe Ciega and Bien Nacido Vineyards – as an equally delicious yet simpler wine.  And his white of choice is winemaker Nick de Luca’s brand new personal project, Ground Effect; Sides features the 2011 “Gravity Check” – a chenin blanc, albarino, pinot gris blend – by the bottle.  De Luca’s philosophy “is what Thanksgiving is all about,” says Matt.  “Taking something produced in the ground  --  a pumpkin, a grape, whatever – and turning it into something special for a special day.”

And if all else fails, Matt’s parting thought made the most sense to me: “To help alleviate some of the stress of the day, just start drinking some of these wines a little bit earlier than everyone else.”

Gabe Saglie is still counting his blessings.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can email him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.

Worth a Sip: Restaurants Turn to Upscale Producers for House Wines

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 8, 2012) 

Let’s be honest: the restaurant house wine has long enjoyed a dubious distinction.  The most affordable wine on the list?  Probably.  A great wine?  Probably not.

I’d say this remains true at many eateries these days.  Cheap wine is an easy way for restaurateurs to make a buck, since selling it at $7 a glass and squeezing four, maybe five, glasses out of every bottle can allow them to cover their cost handsomely.  And the unassuming diner wins with a buzz for cheap.

But I’ve noticed a refreshing trend in recent years – more and more quality eateries focusing on high value rather than low price point for their wine house programs, and putting extra weight on quality.

Several years ago, as my wife and I settled into a luxe meal at Roy’s of Hawaii on the Kahana coast of Maui, we got a kick out of noticing that their house wines were produced in our hometown of Santa Barbara.  The chardonnay, the server touted, was made by a man named Jim Clendenen.  “I know him,” I bragged.  But I was mostly impressed by the fact that this popular upscale chain had turned to the man behind Au Bon Climat, one of our area’s most celebrated producers, for their entry-level stuff.  My wife didn’t care that I ordered one of the cheapest whites on the list; she knew it would be a great sipper.

Recently, I tasted wine with Bilo Zarif, the bon vivant behind Summerland Winery.  I jokingly asked for his autograph, since I’d recently seen him on an episode of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (don’t judge me, my wife makes me watch it), walking some of the show’s well to-do ladies through a vineyard.  It turns out Summerland Winery makes four wines – a sauvignon blanc, a rosé, a cabernet and a pinot , all from Paso Robles – for housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s successful Villa Blanca Restaurant.  I know winemaker Etienne Terlinden well; he’s a talented, versatile, award-winning guy.  So ordering the house wine here – celeb sighting or not – would be a very safe bet.

And this is true at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill, too, where I was among some 150 people at a recent harborside wine tasting to benefit the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara.  As we meandered through their revamped outdoor setting – with awnings that look like sails in the wind and granite floors that radiate heat – we tasted several high-end labels, like Cargassacchi and Fess Parker.  But what really piqued my interest was the amount of house wine being poured – all great stuff, and all by great producers.

“We look for wines that people don’t have to think about too much, something to sip while you’re enjoying a meal and enjoying the boats on the wharf,” says owner Steve Hyslop of their house wine program.  “But also something good enough so they ask, ‘Hey, what was that?’”

To that end, Hyslop and his team put winemaker’s offerings to the test each year.  “We taste all these different samples they bring to us and then decide on what we think will work well for us and for our guests,” Hyslop says.  “They’ve got to have good acidity and fit well with the food we do.”  Chuck’s Waterfront Grill and its upstairs sister restaurant, the Endless Summer Café, draw steady crowds with a wide range of surf and turf specialties.

Currently, the Endless Summer Café’s house label features three wines, all produced by winemaker Megan McGrath Gates at Lucas & Lewellen Winery.  A 2009 merlot, a 2011 chardonnay and a non-vintage Rincon Red – a blend of 93% sangiovese and 7% petit sirah – each appears on the wine list for just $22 a bottle.

The house red at Chuck’s Waterfront is made by local pioneer winemaker Fred Brander.  It’s a 2008 syrah – a luscious, rich wine – that goes for $35 a bottle.  “Exceptional for the price,” says Hyslop.  “You’re getting a steak?  This is your wine.”  And the restaurant’s house white is made by the aforementioned Jim Clendenen.  This is a business partnership based on a longstanding relationship, since Clendenen and Hyslop attended UCSB together many years ago.  The 2008 “Café Chardonnay” is offered at just $23 a bottle.  “I might run the other way if I saw an ’08 chard, but Jim’s wines have that ability to age really well,” says Hyslop.

The upscale focus on house beverages doesn’t end with wine, either.  For years, the restaurants’ best-selling beer on tap is their proprietary Endless Summer Blonde, a classic, medium-bodied, warm-weather brew.  It’s produced by Firestone Brewery.

These great private label wines and beers are a win for the restaurants and a win for the consumer, of course.  But they’re also a win – a viable marketing boon – for the winemakers, themselves.  “On the back label of each wine, it says who made it and where it came from,” says manager Gary Lynd, a recent addition to the Chuck’s team after stints at State & A Restaurant and the Canary Hotel.  “And since we always carry other wines by the guys who make our house wines, people often upgrade and try others, by the glass or by the bottle.”

There are some other neat examples of this around town.  Fred Brander, for example, also makes the house syrah and house chardonnay for Cold Springs Tavern, and the house merlot for Ca’Dario.  Craig Jaffurs, locally renowned for his Rhone wine prowess, makes the private label syrah for both Opal Restaurant and Arigato Sushi in downtown Santa Barbara; each year, the owners from both eateries “come to the winery to taste through wines in barrel, they tell us what would work with the food at their restaurant and we go back to them with specific wines that fit,” says Jaffurs general manager Dave Yates.  Arigato’s house chardonnay, by the way, was just entrusted to a guy whose Burgundian prowess may well be a combination of both natural knack and genetic predisposition: Drake Whitcraft.

In Other News:
What a blast we had at the Celebration of Harvest at Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria, which took place on October 13th!  I did notice a dose of star power, as actors Jason Priestley and Tiffany Amber-Thiessen – Beverly Hills 90120 fans, take note – sipped together.  But every autumn, I tout this as the region’s culinary event of record for the awesome food and wine, and, once again, the 100+ members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association did not disappoint.  Neither did Mother Nature, whose sparkling blue skies capped a lavish affair that included some great wine finds, like The Hitching Post boys’ “Perfect Set” pinot noir and winemaker Sonja Magdevski’s Casa Dumetz “Babi’s” gewürztraminer.  My wife, far more particular about white wines than I, gave the day’s biggest thumbs-up to Tessa Marie Parker’s vermentino, which was brilliant, unassuming and easy on the lips.  My wife likes her whites like her men, I guess. 

Gabe Saglie prefers brunettes but has never passed up a taste of an Endless Summer Blonde.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can email him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.