Last-Minute GIft Ideas? Wines to Stuff Your Stocking

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/18/14

Red may well be the greatest of holiday hues, weather hanging from my Christmas tree or swimming in my glass.  Even the most avid white wine drinker is likely to turn to reds this time of year, to better enjoy both longer nights as well as the richer foods the season inspires.  Here are a few top finds.
Byron 2013 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($19)
This was a year of many wins for Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy.  His release of the 2012 Monument pinot ($60) and the 2012 Julia’s Vineyard pinot ($45) showcase a knack for extrapolating nuances from every vineyard site he taps.  The 2013 Santa Barbara County release is an awesome value; a fresh and bouncy mouth feel, a floral nose and abundant flavors of cherries and berries make it the perfect holiday table topper.
Presqu’ile 2012 Pinot Noir, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($60)
This thriving family project is proof the Santa Maria Valley has world-class written all over it; the deluxe Presqu’ile visitor center is a destination all its own.  The Murphys, along with winemaker Dieter Cronje and vineyard manager Jim Stollberg, farm their 70-plus acres of estate grapes sustainably and favor an earlier harvest to keep alcohols low and acidity bright.  This estate pinot noir spent close to a year and a half in French oak and is a wonderfully elegant, smooth, balanced wine full of spicy notes and cherry flavors.
Edmeades 2012 Zinfandel, Piffero Vineyard ($31)
Nestled in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, this labels focus is squarely on zinfandel; they released six this year.  A trend emerges from their refreshingly natural and hands-on approach: all these wines have balance, a supple texture and solid integration.  But my favorite is from Piffero Vineyard, where grapes struggle in tough, rocky red soil to produce powerful flavors.  This wine is rich and jammy, yet velvety, and delicious red berry flavors are enhanced by spice rack touches.
Brander 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley ($28)
Fred Brander helms one of our area’s top cabernet programs; his reserve cabs are tougher to find but worth nabbing whenever you can.  This Bordeaux-inspired wine, helmed by winemaker Fabian Bravo, is made entirely from estate grapes, in Los Olivos, and from 100% cabernet sauvignon grapes.  It shines for its fruit-forward approach and incredible approachability; blue and red berries, cherry and vanilla notes prevail.
Rusack 2012 Pinot Noir, Catalina Island Vineyards ($72)
This is my pick for the year’s ultimate stocking stuffer.  For one, what a story!  The Rusack label, based in Ballard Canyon and already well-known for winemaker Steve Gerbac’s sophisticated Rhones, is developing a world-class wine program on Catalina Island.  For Mrs. Alison Rusack, a member of the famous Wrigley family, this is personal; her great-grandfather bought it in 1919 and would go on to revamp its infrastructure.  Today, a ranch he founded in 1930 – El Rancho Escondido – is the epicenter of a project by Alison and Geoff Rusack that will include a winery and visitor center.  Chardonnay, pinot and zin grow here, under oft-challenging ocean-driven conditions that have required extra investment and extra ingenuity.  But, neat story aside, these wines are unique and remarkable.  The 2012 pinot noir is big on acidity and layered aromatics, with a supple mouth feel, a tangy essence and bright cranberry flavors.  Only 98 cases were made. 

Merry Christmas!


Tasting Bubbles: Santa Barbara Public Market Hosts Champagne Event

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey,
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/4/14)

Even if you haven’t bought a bottle of bubbly all year, odds are you will now.
Strong Champagne sales “begin in October and November, and they  really pick up for New Year’s Eve,” says Sam Doernte, the buyer for the wine and beer retail shop – Wine + Beer – inside the Santa Barbara Public Market.  “I expect to see a big jump in sales in the next month."
Some of the fine Champagne to be featured at Wine+ Beer this Saturday
Indeed, ‘tis the season for suds, for bottled effervescence, and, yes, even for that occasional cork streaking at high speeds across the room.
No doubt, many of you avid Champagne fans have already earmarked your turn-of-the-calendar bottle while; for the rest of us, though, this will be a once-a-year buy, and a potentially intimidating one.
No matter what camp you’re in, though, this weekend’s Champagne tasting at Santa Barbara Public Market may be one of the best wine investments you make this year.
On Saturday, in two separate sessions, Wine + Beer will showcase 11 top-shelf Champagnes.  These are the real deal – some of the best producers grown and made in France’s legendary bubbles mecca.  Many are recognizable labels: Dom Perignon, Krug, Ruinart.  But several are boutique producers – low-profile labels and best-kept-secret sparklers.
“It’s actually a very small number of producers [in Champagne] who grow their own fruit, make their own wine, bottle it in their own cellars and then sell it,” says Doernte, who moved out from Palm Springs just six weeks ago to help stock the shelves at Wine + Beer.  “But the people who do it are always pretty high quality, and you get a lot of value out of them.”
Wine + Beer features several bubblies by the glass
Champagnes up for tasting include Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve N/V, Chartogne-Taillet "Sainte-Anne" Brut N/V, Henriot Brut Souverain N/V, Krug "Grande Cuvee" Brut N/V and Dom Perignon Brut 2004.
In a move that highlights the bevy of offerings at this buzzing culinary epicenter, guests will cleanse palates between sips with gourmet pairings from other Market merchants: oysters and caviar from Santa Monica Seafood, cheese and charcuterie from Culture Counter and duck confit from Belcampo Meat Company.
And since first-hand sipping always makes buying smarter and easier, 20% discounts will be offered on purchases of six or more bottles.
“How much will a solidly good Champagne cost me?” I asked Doernte during our chat this week.
“You can find great ones between $40 and $70,” he said, reminding me that Wine + Beer always  features two to three Champagnes by the glass and 30 sparkling wine selections by the bottle, about half of which are genuine Champagnes.
Saturday’s events – an early session at 4:30pm and an evening session at 7pm – will last two hours and take place in The Kitchen, the Santa Barbara Public Market’s commercial cooking facility that regularly hosts demos, classes and private events.  Tickets are $60 and attendance for each is capped at 40 – cocktail attire requested.  For tickets, go to or call 805-770-7702.

On All Cylinders: Former Race Car Pro Fuels Up On Passion for Santa Barbara Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/20/14
photos by Bob Dickey,

“We’re not winemakers.  We’re you.  We’re consumers.”
For Jamie Slone, that distinction – that he and his wife are entering the wine arena as avid wine drinkers, first and foremost – may well be the biggest driving force behind Jamie Slone Wines.
“We’re coming at this totally from the consumer’s standpoint,” he says, as his wife, Kym, adds, “And we’re putting out wines that we, ourselves, would want to drink.”
The husband-and-wife team of 25 years moved to Santa Barbara recently, and they opened the doors to the Jamie Slone tasting room inside downtown Santa Barbara’s El Paseo just two months ago.  They got here by way of Tucson, via Sonoma, with plenty of turns in between, quite literally.
Until a few years ago, Jamie Slone was a professional race car driver.  It was, on the one hand, “the worst drug I ever had,” he says, admitting of the flashy vocation, “You get pretty full of yourself.”  But it was also a five-year career wrought with thrills, lots of buzz and plenty of trophy wins.  Home based at the Sonoma Raceway, it was a successful stint and the ideal adrenaline rush, actually, for a man who admits that, no matter what he does, “it’s all about the experience for me.”
Before revving engines, Slone was running radio stations out of his hometown of Tucson, where he grew a multi-million dollar family business from two stations to five, before selling them off at a handsome profit in the early 2000s.
Jamie Slone pours at a late summer Wine Collection of El Paseo event
But three years ago, when the Slones’ twin daughters left for college, the couple sought a new high-stakes chapter, and a new adventure to enjoy together.  They had shared a burgeoning love for wine since the late 90s, following an immersive trip to vineyards in France and Italy and myriad business trips to Northern California.  “What became my passion was sharing wine with others,” Slone tells me as we sit inside his elegant tasting room, where attention to Santa Barbara-inspired detail – from original stenciling to handmade furniture, and even a wood-burning fireplace – has created an elegant and intimate space.  “I loved seeing the reaction people had to good wine."
The Jamie Slone Wines tasting room features handmade furniture and a fireplace
They explored the burgeoning wine scene at home, in Arizona.  Then they focused on Napa.  But it was well-known consultant Cary Gott (his son, Joel Gott, drives a very popular wine label based in Saint Helena), who suggested Santa Barbara.  “Napa’s crowded, he told us,” remembers Slone.  “Don’t you want to go to where you’d be able to access such a wide array of great vineyards?”
What followed was a hands-on crusade to find really good fruit. They spanned Santa Barbara County, from the cooler Sta. Rita Hills AVA in the west to the comparatively hotter Happy Canyon AVA in the east.  They hired right: celebrated vintner and restaurateur Doug Margerum makes their wines.  And, along the way, they forged important relationships with grape growers and vineyard managers. 
“They appreciated that we were doing everything ourselves, and that we were small,” Mrs. Slone tells me.  “So small, so new, that we had no attitude.  We had no reason to have any ego!”
Her husband adds, “Building those relationships – it was a challenging and humbling process.”
What’s resulted is a portfolio of wines that aims to encapsulate Santa Barbara County.  The inaugural lineup – just 440 cases – includes a 2012 pinot noir ($49) made with Sta. Rita Hills grapes and a 2013 chardonnay ($47, dubbed Aloysius, after Mrs. Slone’s late father) from Santa Maria Valley grapes.  The 2013 sauvignon blanc ($28) was aged 50-50 in neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels.  And the 2011 BoRific ($48, that’s Jamie’s nickname for Kym) features Happy Canyon fruit and is merlot-based, with cabernet franc added to enhance aromatics.
The 2014 vintage is allowing the Slones to bump up production to about 1300 cases; a cabernet sauvignon and a Super Tuscan wine are also slated for release early next year.
Their tasting room, located across the street from De La Guerra Plaza, is also pushing them to promote El Paseo, the historic and distinctive enclave off the busy 800 block of State Street, as a premium wine destination.  The Mission-style and Spanish-colonial architecture, the Moorish overtones and the cobblestone pathways scream “classic Santa Barbara vibe,” says Slone.  Dubbed Wine Collection of El Paseo, six tasting rooms –Jamie Slone, as well as Margerum, MWC 32 (Margerum’s reserve room), Happy Canyon Vineyards, Au Bon Climat and Grassini – call this zone home now.  And, though officially linked to the Urban Wine Trail, with most members part of the electric Funk Zone, this is a polished destination all its own.
Jamie Slone Wines runs a three-tiered wine club, and the tasting room is open seven days a week, starting at noon.  Check out the Jamie Slone Wines website.

And in This Corner… Larner and Sigouin Prep for Grenache Smackdown!

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey,

Turns out, Michael Larner and Mikael Sigouin have been keeping up appearances for years.

But this Saturday, all gloves are off, as the two go head to head in the ultimate winemaker showdown.

One grape.  Two styles.  And all gloves, off.

Kaena's Mikael Sigouin
“I’m the Grenache king,” Sigouin boasts.  And he’s serious about that.  On social media, in fact, that’s his calling card: #grenacheking.

And he backs it up with facts.

“I’ve been making a lot of Grenache for a long time,” he says.  He reminds me of his many years as head winemaker at Beckmen, where he helped put that label’s Grenache endeavors on the map.  And he tells me of his current, full-time efforts on his own Kaena label; he’s up to 2000 cases this year – Grenache noir, Grenache blanc and Grenache rosé. “I went big.  Because I want to dominate the Grenache market locally.  I’m like any passionate pinot maker, except I don’t take myself that seriously."

To hear Sigouin talk about his love for Grenache is to hear him talk about, well, love.

“I often think of Grenache the way I think of my wife.  Temperamental, sometimes difficult.  But voluptuous and sensual in every which way.  You treat it right, it’s the ultimate reward in the end.  And it’s a rollercoaster of a ride.”

Sigouin sources Grenache from multiple vineyards every year, but some of his best comes from Michael Larner’s vineyard, nestled in Santa Barbara County’s newest AVA, Ballard Canyon.  He’s been tapping this celebrated fruit since 2004.  “So I’ve been making Grenache way longer than Larner,” he adds, as the tough talk crescendos.

And it’s true: Michael Larner has only been using fruit from his family’s estate to make Grenache since 2009.  But for much longer he’s been selling the property’s six acres’ worth of Grenache to high-profile wine clients; his customers number 10 these days.

Larner Vineyard's Michael Larner
“So don’t forget it – I’m the source,” Larner boasts, in true challenger style.

And he tells me not to let his foe’s tales of a decade’s worth of Grenache-making experience fool me.

“He’s been making wine longer, true.  But I see winemaking as starting in the vineyard: 80% of wine is made in the vineyard. So it’s up to us to make sure everyone else starts with a good product.  We figured out Grenache really early on in our farming careers – before 2004 – and we’ve dialed it in and perfected it ever since as best we can.”

Larner makes 75 to 100 cases of premium 100% estate Grenache every year.  And what makes him champion, he says, is his classier style.

“I go for more refined, more elegant, a velvety style,” he tells me.  “I’m trying to find balance, and balance is achieved when you don’t pick fruit super ripe, when it still has natural acidity, so that it shows fruit characteristics as well as darker fruits, and some of those bramble qualities.  I want it to be expressive, not to hit you over the head.  Like Mike, who picks late, has higher alcohols, goes bigger, and has more forward fruit expression.”

Trash talking?  Sure.

But what is clear in my conversations with both Sigouin and Larner is that Grenache is special, malleable, capable of manifestation in myriad ways.  And, regardless of the style that two friends decide to showcase in the bottle, it’s always approachable, and always delicious.

Is bigger, better?  Or should finesse reign supreme?  You decide.

The ultimate “Grenache Face Off” takes place this Saturday, November 15th, from 4-7pm at the Buellton Bodegas, 65 Los Padres Way in Buellton.  Tickets are $50, with food by Bello Forno Catering and live music by Luke Sundquist & Friends.  And the two Grenache gladiators – Mikael and Michael – pouring their 2009, 2010 and 2011 Grenache wines, made exclusively from Larner Vineyard fruit, side by side.

Larner Vineyard in Santa Barbara Co.'s Ballard Canyon AVA
Whose Grenache will take home the title?  If you ask me, the only losers are the no-shows.  Team Kaena, RSVP to  Team Larner, RSVP to

Need more proof that this is a serious smackdown?  Both winemakers have called each other out via 45-second YouTube messages.  View Larner's trash-talking by clicking here and Sigouin’s rebuttal by clicking here.

The gloves are also off on social media: #MikaelVSMichael.


By Marines, For Marines: Firestones Release New “Jarhead” Wines Amidst Son’s Return from Deployment

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

The Firestone family is celebrating a homecoming: 1st Lt. Nick Firestone has just returned from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan.  The 26-year-old Marine arrived home in the Santa Ynez Valley on November 8th.  This was the second deployment for the young member of the well-known Santa Barbara County family, who ended his first tour, in the South Pacific, early last year.

1st Lt. Nick Firestone returns home from Afghanistan
“For me, it’s half excitement and anticipation, and the other side is parental nerves,” his dad, Adam Firestone, told me last year, right before his (and wife Kate's) son left for the Middle East.  “But I understand the tradition.”

And he should.  Adam Firestone is, himself, a former Marine, having joined in 1984.  He was promoted to Captain in 1988, ahead of his deployment to the Persian Gulf, and ended his service in 1991.  Mr. Firestone, 52, son of Kate and former 35th District State Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, has since gone on to spearhead the family’s business ventures in wine grape growing and craft beer making.

The Firestones' connection to the U.S. Marines has, in fact, inspired one of their ongoing winemaking ventures: the Jarhead label.  Adam Firestone admits that “jarhead” is a double-edged term.  “It’s a complicated name, because it’s pejorative on the one hand,” he says.  But because it’s also used as a friendly nickname among U.S. Marines, “it’s also a term of endearment.”

Jarhead is now on its 13th vintage, with two wines released just this fall.  The 2011 Jarhead Red ($15) is a Bordeaux-inspired blend of merlot from Paso Robles and petit verdot from Santa Ynez.  The 2011 Jarhead Reserve ($24) is a limited-edition wine composed primarily of cabernet franc from the Firestone family's Curtis Estate vineyard in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, along with some petit verdot; only 326 cases were produced.

The Jarhead wines are fruit-driven and approachable by design – “We want them to shoot right through the middle of the target,” Firestone told me – and, at their price points, remain some of the best wine values out of the Central Coast.

Proceeds benefit the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides education assistance to children of Marines, with special emphasis on families of fallen Marines.  “In the charity world, there are a lot of transitory causes,” says Firestone.  “But I wanted to back something that, at its core, was really pure and where the whole thing was completely authentic.  I had really studied these guys – they started in 1962, they’re really lean and all dollars go to the target.  And the fact it’s education-based – that funding is for a specific purpose – it sets a continuum.”

Firestone runs Jarhead with fellow former Marine Ruben Dominguez, a Texas native who served five years and who started his wine industry career at Firestone Vineyard in the mid-90s; today, he’s the lead foreman for grape maintenance experts, Coastal Vineyard Care.  The wines sell through a membership club (which ships out twice a year, around Veteran’s Day and around Memorial Day) and online, at


Winemaker's Milestone: Jaffurs Wine Cellars Celebrates 20 Years

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/6/14

When Craig Jaffurs pressed off the final grapes of the 2014 harvest this week, it marked a special milestone: 20 years of making wine (really good wine, actually) in Santa Barbara County.
Craig Jaffurs at the winery
Today, industry insiders and consumers alike will agree that Jaffurs is one of the premier producers of Rhone wines –syrah, especially – in Santa Barbara County.  But his road here was far from conventional.
It’s true that one of his first jobs, in the late 1970s, was in the tasting room, at Santa Barbara Winery.  “A fun, really cool gig,” he recalls, but one that only lasted a few months.  Jaffurs would go on, actually, to crunch numbers for the U.S. government, at Goleta-based Tecolote Research, where “we did cost analysis for several branches of the Department of Defense.”  It was a very successful career.
But, sometimes, Bacchus has a way of bringing some of his star acolytes back into the fold.
More than a decade later, through mutual friends, Jaffurs befriended Bruce McGuire who, coincidentally, had since become head winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery.  During backpacking treks into the High Sierras, the conversation naturally turned to wine.  He also helped McGuire with harvest a few years in a row, just for fun.  And then, one fateful vintage, he asked to take a few grapes home, just to dabble.

Jaffurs, right, with friend and Jaffurs Cellars GM Dave Yates: their first harvest, 1994
For four years, Jaffurs was high-stakes analyst by day and burgeoning winemaker by night.  The stuff he was making, though, was getting high marks.  And industry insiders, like wine distributor and fellow home winemaker (of Companeros fame) Antonio Gardella, were encouraging him to make the leap.
In 1994, Jaffurs got bonded and made 400 cases of wine – syrah, mostly, and a little chardonnay – at co-op winery Central Coast Wine Services, in Santa Maria.  “I was in my mid-30s and my wife had just given birth to our son.  What better time to totally change your life?” he jokes.
If one were to break down Jaffurs’ formula for success ever since, it might go something like this:
For one, it's been his focus on syrah.  “Being a cost analyst, I had to analyze this whole project to death and come up with a plan, of course,” he told me.  “I looked around and saw great winemakers making a lot of great pinot noir and chardonnay.  But there was virtually no syrah.  It was different, a really cool thing, an up and coming grape.”  It was a calculated move that paid off.  Today, syrah accounts for most of the 5000 cases Jaffurs produces each year, along with other Rhone varieties like grenache, viognier, roussanne and a mourvedre-based blend called High Tide (a nod to his passion for surfing spots like Rincon and Gaviota).
Like other wine folks, Jaffurs admits that syrah has yet to become a breakout star in the marketplace.  “Syrah is a chameleon.  It makes good wine in a variety of different ways.  But I don’t think people know what syrah is supposed to taste like and maybe that hurts peoples’ understanding of it,” he says.  “But they like ours!”
Indeed, through wide domestic distribution and brisk sales through the tasting room and wine club, Jaffurs’ wines sell out regularly.

Thompson Vineyard
The second element to Jaffurs’ success has been his focus on fruit.  He made the call early on not to own his own vineyard, so sourcing grapes from quality vineyards has always been a priority.  “You can’t make great syrah unless you have great grapes,” he insists.  “A great vineyard that’s farmed well – that determines everything.”  This year, he’s making four vineyard-designate syrahs: Thompson, Bien Nacido, Larner and Kimsey.  The vintage’s best six barrels will go into his premium Upslope Syrah while a larger-scale blend will become his more affordable Santa Barbara County syrah.
Bien Nacido Vineyard
Grapes aside, success has also hinged on Jaffurs’ own winemaking techniques – what he calls “an insurance policy that helps you reach that high bar.”  He admits to being “very fastidious” and to having “high standards in the winery.”  Sanitation and hygiene reign supreme.  And then, it’s all about “minimally handling grapes” – no crushing and nominal pumping.  “We just coddle them along,” he says, “because that preserves the freshness of the wine and makes it last a long time.”
The Jaffurs Wine Cellars brand is no one-man-band, of course.  Longtime friend Dave Yates, who also left Tecolote 20 years ago to help launch the label, manages the business and spearheads marketing.  And Matt Brady, a talent-to-watch who joined Jaffurs right after he graduated from UCSB in 2005, holds the title of co-winemaker.  The team works out of a working winery on E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara; opened in 2001, it was one of the very first stops in the now-buzzing Urban Wine Trail.  “The real deal,” Jaffurs calls it, where “we like meeting people, talking to them and showing them how we make our wine.”
And what about the next 20 years?  “I’m struggling with that now,” admits Jaffurs, now 58.  His son, Patterson, just left for college and he and his wife of 31 years, Lee, are contending with that rather ubiquitous empty nest syndrome.  “Continue making better wine, that’s one thing,” he says.  But while the temptation to open another tasting room does exist, there’s one thing that this winemaker has learned after two decades in the business: “Being bigger is not necessarily the answer to everything."
Find out more at
A few other anniversaries of note this year: Bryan Babcock, maker of some of the best estate pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, hosted a party last month to celebrate 30 years in the biz.  Ryan Carr, with tasting rooms in both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, celebrates 15 years of making wine this year.  And Blair and Sarah Fox launched their second label, a joint project dubbed Fox Wine Co., one year ago this month; they’re throwing an anniversary bash at their Funk Zone tasting room on November 28th.

Old But New: Wine Collection Opens in Santa Barbara's El Paseo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/23/14
photos by Bob Dickey,, snapped during the Wine Collection's Grand Opening on 10/20/14

Santa Barbara’s newest wine tasting destination has actually been here all along.

One of El Paseo's charming winding paths
The Wine Collection of El Paseo brings together six dynamic wine projects – some well-established, some brand new—that aim to leverage the romantic, upscale appeal of Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood. 

“This area is so cool,” winemaker Doug Margerum told me this week, after I bumped into him along one of El Paseo’s meandering cobblestone pathways.  “But I don’t know if everyone walking this area realizes just how much we’ve got going on here, just off State.”

This stylish destination is, in fact, classic Santa Barbara.  Flanked by the busy 800 block of State Street, as well as De La Guerra and Anacapa Streets, it’s anchored by a stone fountain at the heart of an airy courtyard.  It’s defined by Spanish-style white stucco buildings, curving walls and snaking walkways.  And it’s accented by windows sheathed by wrought iron grills, handrails cloaked in coiling vines and red roof tiles made by hand. 

There are several high-end boutique shops here, and a handful of popular restaurants.  But this new collection of tasting rooms may be what finally makes this cultural epicenter a bona fide destination for people seeking a premium consumer experience.

Doug Margerum, Wine Cask Chef David Rosner, Mitchell Sjerven
Margerum is actually a big part of this endeavor.  The Wine Cask Restaurant, which he co-owns with restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven, is already well-known.  (Although, the recent addition of Executive Chef David Rosner has definitely revived the gourmet food focus here.)  And the Margerum Wine Company tasting room, located next door to the Wine Cask’s sister Intermezzo Café, has been drawing a clientele for several years with its lineup of sauvignon blanc, syrah, grenache and the popular M5 blend of Rhone grapes.

But this past summer, just down one of El Paseo’s Moorish-inspired paths, Margerum also opened MWC 32.  This is where his reserve and library wines are poured, including the Barden label of small-lot syrah, pinot noir and chardonnay wines from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.  Visitors also get to experience the Cent’Anni wines here, a much buzzed-about project almost 15 years in the making that includes estate wines made from grapes like sangiovese and pinot grigio.

Happy Canyon Vineyards' Sean Pitts, left
Right next door is the newly-opened tasting room for Happy Canyon Vineyards, owned by the Barrack family, which produces Bordeaux wines off the Piocho Ranch in Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon AVA, which is also home to two regulation polo fields.  Margerum makes these wines alongside executive winemaker Sean Pitts, including cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and proprietary red blends.  Equestrian gear is up for sale here, too.

Down another rustic passageway – a path marked by a “Street in Spain” sign and topped with a row of flags – is the tasting room for Jamie Slone Wines, which opened four weeks ago right next to Casa De La Guerra.  I found Jamie and Kim Slone there this week, welcoming guests (as well as a Korean reporter working on a feature on El Paseo for the Asian press).  “I’ve been here everyday since we opened, and we’re open seven days a week!” Mrs. Slone told me.  That’s another appeal of this collection: the owners run the show.

The flag-topped "Street in Spain" (Gabe Saglie photo)
“I’ve really focused on the interiors, and bringing that historic Spanish feel indoors,” Mr. Slone, a former radio station executive, told me.  He was pointing out the many wonderful hand-crafted touches that give his tasting room an elegant, yet relaxed, vibe.  Doug Margerum makes these wines, too, which run the gamut from Italian to Burgundian to Bordeaux varietals made in ultra-premium, limited production fashion.

Fans flank vintner Jamie Slone
The two tasting rooms that round out this Wine Collection are labels that are already considered among the area’s very best.  Au Bon Climat, the handiwork of celebrated winemaker Jim Clendenen, features large windows that look out on Anacapa Street.  The wine bar here pours the pinot noirs and chardonnays that have made ABC a brand of distinction for more than 30 years, as well as lesser-known varieties – aligote, tocai friulano, petite verdot – made under the Clendenen Family Vineyards label.

Grassini Family Vineyards’ tasting room, located across from the Wine Cask courtyard, is rustic and stylish.  This family-run winery is boutique at its core, using estate grapes grown in the Happy Canyon AVA to produce some of the best sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon I’ve tasted out of Santa Barbara County. 

The Grassini Vineyards tasting room
The Wine Collection of El Paseo is officially part of downtown Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, which groups together dozens of tasting bars and working wineries, most of them in the electric Funk Zone.  But the feel of this sub-group of six is decidedly distinct.  It’s inspired by the history that is unique to these few blocks in the heart of town and yet driven by an energy that is refreshingly new.

The tasting rooms are all open Noon to 6pm daily and have a growing collective social media presence on Facebook (search WineCollectionofElPaseo) and Twitter (@ElPaseoWine).


Harvest in 4-D: Multisensory Event Showcases "Vintage 2014"

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Wil Fernandez has been obsessed with the 2014 wine grape harvest in Santa Barbara County.  So much so, he’s captured every moment of it.  And, Wednesday night, he’s showing it off.

Wil Fernandez, photographer (credit: Jeremy Ball)
Fernandez’ approach has been ambitious and motivated from the get-go.  It’s been a multimedia endeavor that has included multiple cameras at key vineyard spots that captured 2014 from bud break - -literally, from the moment grape leaves emerged from their buds – to harvest.  It’s included professional photography and public events – including several under-the-radar culinary gatherings and pop-up wine tastings countrywide – that have put grape growers and winemakers face-to-face with consumers.

This project – Vintage 2014, it’s called, and it’s taken myriad social media channels by storm – has included podcasts, too.  And that’s how I got to know Fernandez.  When I saw the passion and energy behind his vision, I gladly volunteered to host several podcast interviews with top players in this year’s Santa Barbara wine grape harvest: Dick Dore and Bill Wathen from Foxen, Michael Larner, Ryan Carr, Karen Steinwachs from Buttonwood, Jonathan Nagy from Byron,  Laura Booras from Riverbench and Wes Hagen from Clos Pepe Vineyards.  The off-the-cuff and insightful conversations, dubbed “Dirt Don’t Lie" and recorded in Buellton at one of the coolest recording studios I’ve ever seen, are available at

Vintage 2014 is not for the faint of heart.  It’s been grueling, all-consuming.  It is, in fact, a fascinating form of marketing, under an umbrella Fernandez calls Central Coast Wine & Food. Fernandez once told me that the only way for Santa Barbara to emerge from the shadows cast by Napa and Sonoma is to get creative and innovative, to break ground.  So, yes, this has bucked the way the local establishment has been accustomed to promoting itself; it’s made some uneasy, even, about embracing this type of multimedia promotion platform.  But therein may lay Vintage 2014's greatest endorsement.

Fernandez uses a camera mounted on a drone helicopter to film a vineyard (credit: Jeremy Ball)

Fernandez is a former, very successful advertising executive from L.A.  Past clients who’ve entrusted him with multi-million dollar campaigns include BMW, Sit ‘n Sleep and several banks and pharmaceutical companies.  But when, five years ago, his creative energy craved something fresher, he took the wheel of a Winnebago and hit the road.  No permanent address for years, as he traversed the country.  And then, one day, he drove through the canyon pass that separates downtown Santa Barbara from the vines.

“When I first went over the hill and saw the Santa Ynez Valley, I got all tingly.  I just found something special.  I was blown away,” he told me earlier this year.  “Stress melts away when I go over that mountain.  It’s a little paradise.  And it’s like a yo-yo.  No matter where I’ve been… I keep finding myself back here."
This year, Fernandez’ Winnebago has been parked at a mobile home park in Buellton as he’s driven Vintage 2014 from beginning to end.  He’s managed to capture moments – in intimate fashion and from the perspective of the most significant of players – that define a challenging, very early, robust vintage.  And the fruits of his labor, in all their multimedia glory, are now available for the public to experience.

“Vintage 2014: An Evening of Wine, Food and Film” takes place Wednesday night, October 29th, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, from 6:30-8:30pm. Some of Santa Barbara’s top winemaking talent will be there, and bites and sips will be interspersed with intimate clips from this year’s harvest, captured like never before.  For tickets, go to

See you there!


Harvest Party: Vintners’ Fall Fete Marks Change

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey,
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/9/14)

Celebration of Harvest 2013, Old Mission Santa Ines
Santa Barbara Vintners – the dues-based association that represents the vast majority of wineries in Santa Barbara County – is undergoing a metamorphosis.  Its public outreach is getting a facelift.  And this weekend’s Celebration of Harvest puts it in full view.

For years, this fete has attracted thousands of aficionados to mingle with winemakers in the throes of harvest.  The main event?  Saturday’s Grand Tasting, which brings together more than 100 wineries, along with top chefs and several live bands.  This year, it takes place from 1-4pm on the pastoral grounds of Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang.  Tickets are $75.  Parking is free.

Delights for the taste buds aside, special focus is being placed this year on the Tasting’s Silent Auction because of the unprecedented quality of wine items up for grabs, most of them coming from local vintners’ own cellars.  Included are more than 40 large format bottles, like magnums of vineyard-designate Foxen pinot noir and double magnums of Babcock pinot noir, as well as a 12-bottle collection of wines all made by different labels – like Hitching Post and Dragonette – and all from Fiddlestix Vineyard fruit.  Produced by the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation, proceeds are earmarked for Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.

Chase Carhartt pours for a thirsty fan (2013)
For many years, this autumn affair has also included a Vintners Visa ($50, or $40 if bought in conjunction with the Grand Tasting).  The special pass gives you access to a dozen wineries throughout the festival weekend – Friday through Monday – and a slew of exclusive tastings, pairing and discounts. Wineries from Buellton to Los Olivos to downtown Santa Barbara are participating.

But wait, there’s more.

This year’s Celebration of Harvest is part of the vintners’ brand new collaboration with Relevé Unlimited, a local destination management company.  This year launched a five-year contract that puts Relevé in charge of producing specialty wine events aimed at elevating consumer experience, expanding offerings and adding wow factor.  We got our first glimpse at this partnership last spring, at the annual Vintners Festival in Lompoc, where the longstanding annual event exploded into a slew of activities, including live concerts, intimate seminars and rare tastings.  It was an ambitious experiment, to be sure; in fact, a handful of offerings were canceled last minute, due to slow ticket sales.  But there’s no denying that it kicked that festival up a few notches.
Louisa and Bob Lindquist of the Qupe and Verdad labels

For this weekend’s soiree, the new experiences are more streamlined, better synchronized, and at better price points.
There’s an opening night feast Friday night – the first-ever La Paulee de Santa Barbara Dinner ($90).  Consumers will mingle with growers and winemakers as each guest shares one special bottle from their private cellar, and as Chef Pink of Bacon & Brine in Solvang doles out food.  The dinner takes place at the Veterans Hall, right across from Old Mission Santa Ines, and mingling from table to table is encouraged.

A Saturday morning seminar ($30) will feature top notch Santa Barbara wine talent – the likes of Richard Sanford and Andrew Murray – telling personal stories.  And Saturday night, after the Grand Tasting, the popular band Toad the Wet Sprocket will descend on the Solvang Festival Theater; the concert ($65, or $150 with VIP great-and-mingle reception) will feature a tasting of Santa Barbara County wines.

It’s an impressive roster of wine-fueled action – priced right and accessible – and proof that the made-over Celebration of Harvest is ready for its close-up.

Get info and tickets at

My pal and KEYT Senior Rerpoter John Palminteri covering the 2013 Celebration of Harvest


Breaking Ground: Couple Plans New Santa Barbara Wine Experience

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/11/14)

Jason Djang is no stranger to connecting with people.  During Barack Obama’s original campaign for President in 2008, and for the first 18 months of his first White House stint, Djang was his videographer and helped mold his outreach to the public via video and online messages.  Politics aside, that linear ability to reach people while circumventing media was revolutionary in its own way, and effective.
“It was all about transparency,” he says, “and about making a direct connection with an audience.”
Today, Djang helps run the YouTube production facility in Los Angeles, which provides creative resources for individuals who put on some of the Internet channel’s top rated video shows.  And he’s a vintner.
The Brave & Maiden estate is located in Santa Ynez
I met Djang and his wife, Holly, a partner at an L.A.-based public health research firm, among the vines in Santa Ynez.  They’re part of a small group of investors who bought the Harmon Family Vineyard along Refugio Rd. four years ago.  And now, with a green light from the county and a clear vision, they’re embarking on a viticultural and experiential endeavor that will soon give Santa Barbara wine country its newest high-profile hospitality center.
“Our idea is to bring the outside in,” Holly says, as she describes the 17,000-square-foot, tri-structure complex they have been approved to build adjacent to their vineyard.  Shaped like a horseshoe, they envision a fermentation building, a barrel room and a tasting room accented by oversize barn doors and an open courtyard enveloped by olive trees.  They’ve hired Howard Backen, the principal architect at Oakville-based Backen-Gillam-Kroeger, whose portfolio includes some of the state’s most luxurious wineries and hospitality centers.
Groundbreaking should take place by mid-2015, with a grand opening sometime in 2016.  And they intend the visitor experience to be personal and intimate.   “A direct type of experience,” Djang says.  “Hands-on and unhurried, so that it’s memorable.  We want to make a human connection, not just have our guests read a tech sheet.  That’s how people remember your name.”
The Brave & Maiden estate grows syrah, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc
This ambitious endeavor stems from what the Djangs find frustrating, and even baffling.  In so many ways, the L.A.-based consumer is the holy grail for Santa Barbara wine country.  Savvy consumers with money to spend, who live about a two-hour drive away.  “But L.A. is not as connected to this area as it could be, or should be,” Jason says.
Holly adds, “They may know where this area is, but they still don’t realize the value and the quality that exist here.  They still think Napa.”
So the Djangs’ goal is to bridge that gulf.  “And how do you do it?”  They are speaking almost in unison at this point.  “One, you make quality wine,” says Jason.  “And two, you create a destination.”
The onsite wine experience will accomplish the second mission, in a few years.  The first task, though, is already underway.
Union is a blend of syrah, merlot and cabernet franc
The Djangs have released their first wine under the stylish Brave & Maiden label.  The name was inspired by an indigenous local story – an urban legend, of sorts, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.  Apparently written a century ago by a Presbyterian minister, it tells of two misunderstood, star-crossed paramours – a brave and a maiden from rival clans – ending their love-fueled retreat with a plunge at Nojoqui Falls.
“A beautiful story that captures the notion of disparate traditions,” they tell me.  It’s a theme they’re embracing.
The label on the bottle, in fact, is accented by an embossed silver waterfall.  Simple and classic.  And the wine itself, a 2011 blend dubbed Union, is a Rhone-and-Bordeaux amalgamation, bringing together syrah, merlot and cabernet franc.  Aromas of dark stone fruit and oak prevail, matched by a lithe mouth feel and flavors of dark berries and vanilla.  It retails for $30 – a great value – but is most easily found by the glass at spots like Lucky’s Steakhouse, Santa Barbara Public Market and the Los Olivos Café.
The grapes for this wine,  sustainably grown by well-known Ruben Solorzano of Coastal Vineyard Care, come exclusively from the estate – 46 acres that also include cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc.  The wine, along with others from the 2011 and 2012 vintages that are still being aged, was made by Nick Morello.  Winemaker Joshua Klapper, of La Fenetre Wines fame, took over through the 2014s.  A permanent winemaker will be announced soon.
As we walk through the vineyard, Jason and Holly point to a towering oak nestled in the grapes.  “We were married underneath that tree two years ago,” she tells me.  And I realize that this place holds promise in more ways than one.
For more information, check out


Sideways Goes Social: Film’s 10th Anniversary Inspires Twitter and Instagram Campaign

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(pubilshed in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/6/14)

Miles and Jack are back in Santa Barbara County.
An entire decade after the two bachelors left their oft-pleasing, oft-distasteful mark throughout Santa Barbara’s wine country – as the two protagonists in the Oscar-winning movie, Sideways – a brand new social media promotion is leveraging their unrelenting allure.

Signs like this, which are featured at 100 businesses
throughout Santa Barbara County, will stay up through Sep. 14 
Some 100 signs have gone up all over Santa Barbara County that invite the public to strike a pose, take a shot and enter a contest for a chance to win myriad prizes.  The signs, which stand six feet tall, feature the cartoon likenesses of actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who portrayed Miles and Jack, respectively, squeezed side by side inside a wine bottle.  “Take Your Picture With Us,” the signs declare, prompting posers to upload their photographs to the social networking service Twitter and the photo-sharing app Instagram, using the hashtag #Sideways10.
Pictures can also be uploaded manually to  Participants must be 21 or older.
Each day through September 14th, one entry will take home a copy of the movie on Blu-ray + Digital HD.  Fox Searchlight, which produced the flick, is launching the commemorative edition this fall.  And one Grand Prize winner will win a comprehensive five-day Santa Barbara wine country vacation, including accommodations, wine tasting adventures, gourmet dining and several land and sea excursions.
Why all the hoopla?
The promotion is part of the local 10th anniversary celebration of Sideways' wildly successful release.  The movie, even today, is credited with not only lifting public fervor for pinot noir wine but also with putting Santa Barbara, a prime growing region for the red grape, on a veritable global marquee.  The movie won an Oscar for director Alexander Payne’s screenplay adaptation of the novel by Rex Pickett, several Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Awards statuettes and the title of “2004 Film of the Year” from the American Film Institute.
“We are thrilled to be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the global phenomenon which is Sideways,” Santa Barbara Film Commissioner Geoff Alexander told the News-Press.  “Beyond being a great movie, Sideways helped to launch the Santa Barbara County wine industry on a massively successful scale, building businesses in our area, creating jobs and continuing to attract visitors from around the world to our destination.”

Several Santa Barbara County vineyards served as backdrops for the film "Sideways"
(courtesy: Fox Searchlight and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

The signs can be found at high-traffic locations throughout the county, as well as businesses that served as sets and backdrops for the film, which was shot over 10 weeks during the fall of 2003.  In downtown Santa Barbara, they include Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara Public Market and the wine tasting rooms of Grassini, Kalyra, Kunin, Pali Wine Co. and Margerum Wine Co.  In Buellton, Ostrich Land, Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and Hitching Post II (a significant setting in the Sideways storyline) are featuring the sign.  And in Solvang, 16 sign display spots include the Alisal Guest Ranch, the Elverjoh Museum and Solvang Library.
Winemaker Angela Soleno is featuring the Sideways10 social
media campaign sign in her Turiya Wines tasting room in Lompoc
Sideways “put wine appreciation at the forefront of many people’s minds,” says winemaker Angela Soleno, who entered the wine biz shortly after the movie’s release and who’s featuring the bright green social media invitation in her Turiya Wines tasting room, one of 15 Lompoc locations participating (which also include Ampelos Cellars and Flying Goat Cellars).  “I am glad Santa Barbara County is getting behind the movie’s anniversary and continuously promoting the area.”
In Los Olivos, where 17 businesses are taking part (including Epiphany Wines, Zaca Mesa Winery and Andrew Murray Vineyards), the promotion will help the public “relive some of the magic from the film,” says Jenni Schierman, retail sales and marketing manager for the Sanger Family of Wines. “We have customers in our tasting room that quote lines at least weekly. [This promotion] is a fun way to bring people together.”  As a perk, the company is also selling a "Not Merlot" Grab-and-Go wine bag – a Tre Anelli Dolcetto and Barbera and a Consilience Rodney Schull Grenache – for $59.99 (regular retail $109).  (Merlot, as an unintentional foil to pinot noir, is dealt a big blow by the movie.)
Businesses in Santa Maria (like Foxen Winery), Los Alamos, Santa Ynez (like Sunstone Winery) and Ballard (like the Ballard Inn) are also participating.
Spearheaded by Visit Santa Barbara, the city’s primary tourism nexus, the Sideways 10th Anniversary Sign Promotion also features the collaboration of the Santa Barbara County Film Commission, Visit the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara Vintners, Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau, Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, the Los Olivos Business Organization and the Buellton Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.