Out of This World: Area 5.1 Winery Makes Cosmic Splash in Funk Zone

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/30/14)

Just a few years ago, when word spread that space was coming available in downtown Santa Barbara’s new Anacapa Project, Martin Brown wanted in.

“I didn’t necessarily need another winery to run, but I knew I couldn’t miss out on what was going on down here,” he says.

This folder contains the Area 5.1 tasting list
Brown is the marketing whiz behind Kalyra, the feel-good winery that set roots in the Santa Ynez Valley in the late 90s and enjoyed a starring role in the film Sideways before it launched its lower State Street tasting room in 2007.  The renaissance of the Funk Zone, right around the corner, began in earnest soon after – a rebirth that, today, is anchored by the property that houses The Lark, Les Marchands, Lucky Penny and a handful of libation ventures, including Brown’s Area 5.1.

Today, Brown marvels at what the Funk Zone has quickly become: “It’s cleaned up and is a fun destination now,” he says.  “It’s relaxed, and everybody’s really cool.  Not the older drinking crowd, not the college crowd, but something in between.”

And in that sweet spot somewhere in between, Area 5.1 has found the perfect launching pad.

The notion behind this new wine venture is quirky by design – it’s riddled with intergalactic motifs – and born from the fact that Brown and his winemaker brother, Mike, are foreigners themselves. 

Inside Area 5.1
“It was a stupid concept, actually, that we came up with years ago after several glasses of red wine,” jests Brown, an Australian native.  “Several glasses,” he insists.

“We were looking at our new green cards, and they said we were now resident aliens.  And soon we started thinking that the concept could be really cool.  That Area 51, and aliens, could actually be a great name for a winery.  And after we mocked up some labels, we thought that this could really happen.”

The official name is Area 5.1 – five-point-one – though local wine fans are more likely to go with Area 51.   “But we didn’t want to get into trouble with other businesses that have the Area 51 name,” says Brown.  “Or the government.” 

As you enter Area 5.1, look up
Area 51, of course, is the heavily-guarded remote zone in the Arizona desert that’s been at the center of UFO conspiracy theories for decades.  That out-of-this-world motif is pervasive at the Anacapa Street tasting room, from the tasting list presented in a manila folder stamped “Confidential” to the nomenclature on the labels – wines with names like “Close Encounter” and “Conspiracy Red.”  When I visited the tasting room earlier this week, I admired the underside of the entrance awning, which pays homage to the early days of America’s space program, the stark blue wall inside – like a vast night sky – and the tiny spaceship behind the bar.

Behind the bar at Area 5.1
“We’re bottling not just wines, but wine concepts,” Chad Nassif tells me as he starts my pours; he’s the tasting room manager, though his business card ID’s him as “Squadron Leader.”

And therein lays the vast space for creativity that Mike Brown and his crew of winemakers – including Kalyra assistant winemaker Matt Kowalczyk – have to work with.  The Area 5.1 lineup is driven by blends.  Ecclectic blends.  Unusual combinations of grapes.  But permutations that work.

“I go to Mike and tell him what we need,” says Brown, “and he goes out and makes it.”  It’s a combination of winemaking expertise and marketing knack that serves this label well.

On the white front, the 2012 Close Encounter ($22) combines Grenache blanc and rousanne – grapes native to northern Rhone in France – with little-known loureiro, a grape native to northern Spain and grown in very limited quantity in Santa Barbara County.  Big fruit and a round mouth feel give way to a clean finish.

The 2012 Equinox ($24) is heavy on viognier, but the addition of rousanne, marsanne and albarino helps deliver a floral nose, guava flavors on the tongue and a refreshing finish.

A third white – White Light – is in barrel and slated for release soon.

The reds all exhibit both drinkability and a wonderful potential to age.  The 2012 Majestic  ($28) – 25% each of sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo and tempranillo – balances tart fruit and a buxom body beautifully.  And it illustrates the Area 5.1 vibe perfectly.  Fact is, creative blending means that bending the rules of winemaking is embraced here.  “Each wine is like a canvas,” Brown tells me.  So when the original Majestic release sold out – it was much heavier on the sangiovese – a totally new version was divined and released.  And for the consumer, the drinking experience remains new and fresh.

The 2011 Conspiracy Red ($28), which blends 50% syrah with equal parts merlot and cabernet, is rounded and supple, with a very pretty candied cherry nose.  And the 2012 Collusion – syrah-driven with splashes of mourvedre and Grenache sourced in Happy Canyon – is rich and meaty, with an herbal streak and blueberry tones.

The tasting roster – you pay $10 for five wines – doesn’t usually include a taste of the 2010 Declassified ($20, 375 ml.), the winery’s port-style dessert wine.  But Nassif treated a trio of tasters down the bar – visitors from Chicago – to a few sips, and they raved.  “And I am not a dessert wine person,” I heard one of them say.  Indeed, this wine, made with mostly-locally grown Portuguese grapes like Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional, was delicious and, most importantly for me, wonderfully balanced.  At close to 19% alcohol, and with more than 12% residual sugar, it’s made to satisfy and impress.

Area 5.1 has two wine club tiers – two 6-pack deliveries a year for about $100-$150 each and two case deliveries annually for $200-$250.

And the tasting room, even through its deliberately quirky façade, hits on all the right points: ambiance, service, wine.  It stays open till 7pm weekdays and 8pm weekends, which draws many to enjoy wine by the glass here -- $6 for white and $8 for red.  The bar also sells a cheese plate for $15.  And they’ll premiere a chocolate tasting menu for $10 with a special event on Valentine’s Day, featuring the truffles of Santa Barbara’s Zuzu Candies.  Several private parties have been helped here, too, since its September opening; it can handle about 40 people.

Squadron Leader Chad Nassif at the controls

“We want people to think of us as non-traditional, fun and not stuffy at all,” Nassif tells me.  Sure enough, the Browns have managed to create another unique experience here.  And once you take off, you won’t want to touch down any time soon.

 Area 5.1 Winery,  137 Anacapa St., Unit B, Santa Barbara. 805-770-7251. www.a51wine.com


Avelina Winery to Move: Funk Zone Loses High Profile Tenant

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara  News-Press on 1/30/14)

After just four months in business, one of the Funk Zone’s most high profile wineries is moving out.

Avelina Winery, which opened its doors on September 20th, closed abruptly this week.  But “it’s a good thing,” owner and winemaker Christian Garvin, 39, says.  “I’m taking the Avelina concept to North County,” he adds, potentially Lompoc or Buellton, where he plans to set up a winemaking facility and store under sole ownership.

The Avelina tasting room featured a farm truck-turned-wine bar
Avelina’s departure leaves an empty 3000-square-foot space in the Anacapa Project, the thriving downtown Santa Barbara complex that includes The Lark Restaurant, Les Marchands wine bar, Guitar Bar and a handful of brewery, winery and distillery businesses.  But Garvin says a new retail business is already in line to take over “within the next 45 days.” 

Avelina quickly became a trendy wine tasting venue, but it doubled as a winery.  The facility filled the winery’s own production needs – it makes 9000 cases of wine a year – as well as Mr. Garvin’s other wine ventures, including making and bottling private label wines.  “We got to the point where we were making too much wine for the space” he says.  “There were times when 75% of the room was taken up by pallets, stacked high.  Customers could barely get in.  The rent didn’t justify using the space that way.  That space was made for humans, not for boxes.”

While he insists he’s “happy” with the move, Mr. Garvin admits that it speaks to an adjustment in the Funk Zone persona.  “Five years ago, this was an industrial space, and now it’s a retail and entertainment space,” he says.  “It’s like all the artists who used to have studios here.  I’m moving my studio to make room for retail.”

Mr. Garvin has been making, selling and promoting wines in Santa Barbara County since the late 1990s, when he worked at Fess Parker Winery and joined a fellow UCSB grad to found Kahn Winery.  He launched Oreana Winery in the Funk Zone 10 years ago, in a former tire shop, with a similar setup to Avelina’s.  “But we had a big parking lot there,” he says, which eliminated overcrowding.  Mr. Garvin sold Oreana to winemaker Danny Miles last summer, ahead of Avelina’s grand opening.

Avelina will continue to focus on Santa Barbara County-grown Italian wines, including pinot grigio, sangiovese and nebbiolo. 

Mr. Garvin will update the progress of his move to North County on the Avelina website.


Chinese Tradition: Mattei’s Tavern Features One-Night-Only Menu Inspired by Its History

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 23, 2014)

The upcoming Chinese New Year will shed light on what may be a little known fact at Mattei’s Tavern: Chinese tradition plays a big role here.

When Felix Mattei ran this historic Los Olivos property in the late 1800s – a haven for weary travelers trekking up and down Central California by stagecoach and rail – a Chinese cook by the name of Gin Lung Gin was his right hand man.

Gin Lung Gin's visage graces the butcher block inside Mattei's kitchen
“Gin was regarded as part of the Mattei family, and he’s buried on the family plot,” says Emily Perry Wilson, who co-owns and runs Mattei’s Tavern today alongside her husband, Chef Robbie Wilson.  “He was the property cook – prepared breakfast, lunch dinner – and was known for his sugar cookies.”

Mr. Gin lived on the restaurant grounds, even, in a small building to the rear of the restaurant, right next to where the Wilsons installed their pizza oven.

In fact, when they took over the property – the Wilsons partnered with entrepreneur Charles Banks to rebrand and relaunch Mattei’s in July – they kept the outpost’s original chef in mind.  The butcher station inside the exhibition kitchen, for example, is adorned with a mural depicting his visage.  And the menu is sprinkled with Asian-fusion dishes.  The “Crunchy Sea Creatures” starter, for example, features tempura seafood served with an uni tartar sauce; the short rib roast entrée comes with heirloom carrots and maitake mushrooms, and is served in a tasty ramen broth; and the rotisserie chicken – cooked long and slow over an open wood-burning pit – features a homemade sweet chili sauce.

Chef Robbie Wilson
On January 29th, Chef Wilson is celebrating Mr. Gin’s birthday by cranking up the heat on a Chinese-inspired, one-night-only, seven-course menu; the culinary feast coincides nicely with the Chinese New Year, which, this year, lands on January 31.

The best way I can pay tribute to the true history and heritage of Mattei’s Tavern is by honoring its first chef with our pristine local product, and a Chinese New Year's-inspired evening,” says Chef Wilson.  “Gin would have wanted it that way!”

The chef’s vision: a pickles appetizer gives way to a fried rice course, featuring aged ham.  Shrimp toast follows, with ridgeback shrimp and black “sriracha” hot sauce presented on toasted homemade brioche.  The third course is a pretzel bun, featuring fried chicken wings, mint and spicy chiles.  The beef short ribs that come next are accompanied by traditional noodles, peanuts, Thai chile and an egg served sunny-side up.  And the Chinese long beans that follow are treated with rock sugar, plum and soy sauces and cognac.  An Arnold Palmer mocha cake brings the birthday dinner to an end.

This special meal – priced at $53 per person – will be served family-style for parties of two, four or six.  Drinks are extra, but Mattei’s selection of signature and classic cocktails, and a comprehensive international lineup of wines, should leave no one at the table thirsty.

“We’re looking forward to hosting this event on an annual basis,” says Mrs. Perry Wilson.

For reservations, call Mattei’s Tavern at 805-688-3550.

This sign outside Mattei's Tavern recounts its early days