Pinot-Palooza: Major Wine Event Makes Move to Santa Barbara

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey, 
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press 2/13/14)

One of the most significant wine events in the state has just made a strategic move: it’s coming to the South Coast.

The World of Pinot Noir – or WOPN for short – has been drawing an impressive roster of wine experts, and a growing number of consumers, for the last 13 years.  But drawing them to Shell Beach, a lovely coastal stretch in San Luis Obispo County.  And while the region is well known for producing world class wines, including pinot noir, “it was time for a change,” says winemaker Norm Yost.

Yost is this year’s elected President of the WOPN Board, and a remarkable pinot producer in his own right.  His Flying Goat Cellars label, based in Lompoc, produces some 2500 cases of sell-out pinot noir a year; pinot from the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills also feature prominently in some of his sparkling wines, like the Goat Bubbles Rosé and the Goat Bubbles Blanc de Noir. 

The thirsty crowd at WOPN
Like hundreds of people from Santa Barbara County, and from counties to the south, Yost has always made the yearly pinot pilgrimage to Shell Beach eagerly.  But 2014 required WOPN, which represents producers in both SLO and Santa Barbara Counties, to be “new and different,” Yost told me this week.  “There are multiple events we need to compete with now, which means we needed to shake things up a bit.  Plus, our demographic is further south, so being closer to L.A., and being closer to a bigger airport, made sense.  And hey: it’s the 10-year anniversary of Sideways, so we thought, ‘Let’s take it to Santa Barbara!’”

WOPN descends on the deluxe Bacara Resort & Spa in just over two weeks – February 28th and March 1st – with the intent to highlight pinot noir’s personality and potential through seminars, tastings and exclusive dinners. The Bacara pick was strategic and smart; it is, easily, one of the most desirable event venues in the county, with its ample space, modern amenities and sweeping ocean views (something that’s already become synonymous with the WOPN wine tasting experience).  It also allows a critical customer base from markets like Santa Barbara and Los Angeles to make the logistical decision to attend much more easily.

To be sure, the Bacara move paid off quickly.  “For the first time, we offered a few VIP packages early on – with full access, like the Platinum Pass at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival -- and they went over huge, sold out right away,” says Yost. 

Legendary pinot noir maker Richard Sanford at WOPN
Many of the weekend’s high-profile events are already sold out, too, like a seminar dubbed “Parallels of the 47th Parallel,” comparing pinots from two regions that share a latitude – Oregon and Burgundy – but that are made a world apart.  Tickets to a pair of VIP dinners inside Bacara’s Miro Restaurant wine cellar – one pouring stars from Burgundy and one showcasing Santa Barbara County’s cultish Sea Smoke Cellars – are also gone.

But a handful of experiences still have openings, including the Grand Tastings on Friday and Saturday, which are a must for any WOPN newbie.  These sprawling affairs will feature more than 100 pinot producers from around the world, and a totally different lineup of pourers each day.  This is an unprecedented chance to taste some of the very best pinots in the world – celebrated renditions from our own backyard, of course – wineries like Presqu’ile, Sawyer-Lindquist, Bien Nacido, Au Bon Climat, Hitching Post, Paul Lato, Foxen – as well as from regions like British Columbia, New York’s Finger Lakes, New Zealand, Spain and Chile.  Both afternoon tastings will take over Bacara’s Grand Ballroom and sea-view terraces, and tickets are $110; an extra $15 gets you early admission, which does allow for better one-on-one with the winemakers.

There are also a few seats left for the “Hollywood & the Vine” Seminar, a four-hour experience slated for 10am Saturday that will explore pinot’s starring role on the silver screen.  High-profile industry hits like Oscar-winning Sideways and the recent SOMM documentary will be discussed by panelists led by Sunset Magazine wine editor Sara Schneider.  A multi-course luncheon by Chef (and renowned pinot noir maker) Frank Ostini from Buellton’s Hitching Post II  -- a veritable set for many memorable Sideways scenes – will follow.  Ticket are $130.

(By the way: guests of either Grand Tasting will have free access to Bacara’s high-tech, 211-seat Screening Room, which will be playing Sideways and SOMM back to back throughout the weekend – a chance to step back from the crowd for all or just a few minutes of each film.)

The seminars usually sell out at WOPN

For an expert take on the marriage between pinot noir and food, the Gala Dinner on Saturday night will kick off with a bounty of pinot-driven sparkling wine producers and then feature myriad gourmet food stations paired with classic pinot noir from around the world.  Guests will mingle with local chefs and winemakers from producers like Babcock Winery, Miner Wines, Saintsbury, Hahn Estate and New Zealand Winegrowers.  This feast starts at 7pm and tickets are $165.

Of course, WOPN’s new venue this year will allow a lot of us – for the first time – to make the decision to attend just one, or a couple, or all of the featured events.  And transportation to and from Bacara has gotten extra attention this year, too, with a handful of Goleta hotels offering shuttle service and the new app-based car pickup service, Uber, offering a $25 discount on your first ride (you’ll need to register with the promo code “pinot” at uber.

For more information, a full lineup of participants and tickets, log on to WOPN.


Vintners Score: Auction Sets $1 Million Record

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Amy Graves, Getty Images

The numbers just came in and the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation has done it: they’ve met their ambitious $1 million fundraising goal -- and set a brand new event record -- at the 2014 Santa Barbara Wine Auction.

The Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, hosted the extravaganza on February 22nd at Bacara Resort & Spa, which offered a spectacular backdrop for a night attended by the industry’s who’s who and marked by once-in-a-lifetime lifestyle packages that generated thrilling bidder battles.

Emcee (and The Bachelor host) Chris Harrison and Santa Barbara vintner (and former Bachelor) Andrew Firestone

Emcee Chris Harrison and my lovely wife, Renee (credit: Me)
Winemaker Sonja Magdevski and actor Emilio Estevez
Actress Jane Lynch

Lisa Babcock and winemaker Brian Babcock
Presqu'ile vintners Amanda and Matt Murphy

Firestone, Me, Harrison (credit: my lovely wife)
Rick and Diana Longoria of Longoria Wines were honored as Pioneer Vintners and Barbara Banke of Jackson Family Wines (including local vineyards Byron and Cambria) was recognized as a Distinguished Vintner.   

Chris Harrison, host of ABC’s The Bachelor, emceed and celeb attendees included actors Jane Lynch, Emilio Estevez, Shiri Appleby, Joanna Kerns and Susan Sullivan, as well as former Bachelor and Santa Barbara vintner Andrew Firestone.  

The biennial auction started in 2000 and has now raised well more than $3 million for Goleta-based Direct Relief, which famously leverages its partner network to turn every donated dollar into $30 of medicines and medical supplies.  Outreach is global, earmarked for needy families from Santa Barbara County and each of the 50 states to disaster-ravaged communities around the world.  Learn more at at 

The next Santa Barbara Wine Auction will take place in 2016.

The red carpet at the 2014 Santa Barbara Wine Auction

Sold! High-Profile Wine Auction to Benefit Direct Relief

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/15/14)

The bar’s been raised as high as the stakes: a record-setting $1 million.

Organizers of the upcoming Santa Barbara Wine Auction say a sell-out crowd should help them reach an ambitious goal at what’s become one of the country’s premier culinary fundraisers.  “It’s definitely one of the most prestigious parties in town,” admits Frank Ostini, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation, the fete’s organizer and the philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association.  “There’s a strong urge to hang out with the vintners, but it’s also about Direct Relief.”

Set for Saturday, February 22nd, from 5pm at Bacara Resort, this now eight biennial event has benefitted the Goleta-based charity since day one.  In fact, when the Foundation hosted the premier auction in 2000, the $125,000 raised that year allowed the nonprofit to meet a six-figure fiscal shortfall, and to remain solvent.  Direct Relief’s portfolio of giving is legendary within the charities industry, notably leveraging relationships with pharmaceutical and shipping companies to translate every donated dollar to approximately $30 in medicines and services that are distributed locally, domestically and around the world. 

“Do the math,” says Mr. Ostini.  “We’ve raised $2 million with our auctions so far and are hoping to raise another million this year.  That’s $90 million worth of goods and services distributed all over the world.  It just makes us feel good.”

Winemaking duo Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer at the 2012 Santa Barbara Wine Auction (credit: Isaac Hernandez)
Famously, the Santa Barbara Wine Auction has done that – it has met and even surpassed monetary goals every time – by focusing on the wow factor.  The dial is cranked up to spectacular.  And the energy among the bidders is fierce, thanks to auction lots that are, really, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Among the star attractions on this year’s live auction roster:
  • The Sideways 10-Year Reunion: On the 10th anniversary of the Oscar-winning film that helped put Santa Barbara pinot noir on the map, Chef Frank Ostini is hosting a multi-course dinner at his famous Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton, which was featured prominently in the movie.  Wines featured in the film (and mostly unavailable now), like the 2001 Hitching Post pinot noir, will be poured.  Key players from the movie will be there to share moviemaking memories, including director Alexander Payne and actress Virginia Madsen.  And guests take home a limited-edition commemorative Sideways Reunion wine, a joint effort by Mr. Ostini and Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen.  Tables of 10 to this dinner will go to the five highest bidders.
  • A Blending Weekend with Beckmen and Qupe: These two Santa Barbara wine powerhouses farm their wine grapes biodynamically and are offering this unique lot as a weekend to remember for four.  Two nights at the Beckmen Vineyard Estate Cottage in the Santa Ynez Valley includes meals at Bell Street Farms, the gourmet Qupe/Au Bon Climat winery kitchen and the Hitching Post II.  But the clincher here is the opportunity to blend your own barrel of wine – 264 bottles.  And mastering the blend makes the winner an instant star, since the wine will then be featured at the 2016 Santa Barbara Wine Auction.
  • VIP Catalina Island Getaway: Ballard Canyon’s Rusack wine label has stirred up quite the buzz with its ambitious winemaking project on Santa Catalina Island.  This lot whisks four people to Long Beach to board a private helicopter for the famous island 26 miles across the sea.  Two nights’ deluxe accommodations come with most meals, a zip line experience and a private Hummer tour of the exclusive Rusack Santa Catalina Vineyards.  The parting gift is a case of the chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel made under this coveted label. 
  • Luxury Mexican Escape: The award-winning Esperanza Resort is, easily, one of the most desirable properties in Cabo San Lucas.  This auction item locks in a week-long getaway here for eight, with accommodations in a magnificent four-bedroom, 5000-square-foot Ocean View Villa, complete with full-time butler service and access to the resort’s private beach, infinity pool and daily yoga classes.

And the awe-inspiring list goes on, with options to win Skybox seats to an April bout between the Lakers and the Clippers at Staples Center, a week-long culinary extravaganza in Nantucket and VIP seats to the Project Runway Season 13 Finale, live at New York’s Lincoln Center (an experience that includes airfare, hotel stays, makeup and hairstyling sessions before the event and a meet-and-greet with show star Heidi Klum).

Bidders need not be present to wine, actually.  Absentee bidding forms can be downloaded from the event’s web site -- -- and are due February 19th.

Dozens of silent auction items – also one-of-a-kind wine- and lifestyle-driven experiences – will also be up for grabs.

And the brio continues on the floor, with Chris Harrison, host of TV’s popular The Bachelor, taking on emcee duties (local vintner Andrew Firestone, one of the original bachelors on the show, will also be there) and star chefs Vinny Totolo and Jon Shook, the celebrated duo behind hot L.A. eats like Animal and Son of a Gun, matching Santa Barbara’s best wines throughout the night.

The event’s move to Bacara Resort this year allows for a bigger capacity crowd – close to 600 people; the 2012 Auction took place at Four Seasons The Biltmore Resort’s Coral Casino and was emceed by actor and Montecito resident Billy Baldwin.

Thomas Tighe, President and CEO of Direct Relief (left) with "Glee" actress Jane Lynch and Billy Baldwin, actor and emcee of the 2012 Santa Barbara Wine Auction (credit: Mark Semegen)

“This is the biggest event that we put on, and we’re thrilled with the auction items this year,” says Hannah Rael, media relations associate at Direct Relief.  The group was established locally in 1948 and has done outreach in the form of medical supplies and services to need people in 70 countries.  Its biggest international project currently is a response to Typhoon Haiyan, which struck The Philippines in early November and left more than 6200 people dead and millions homeless.  Three months in, Direct Relief has made 20 deliveries – 120 tons of medicines worth more than $10 million.

Its domestic efforts have grown dramatically, too, especially recently.  So much so, that the organization tinkered with its name last year – Direct Relief International became Direct Relief – to better mirror its locally-driven efforts.  The group is currently the only nonprofit in the United States licensed to distribute pharmaceuticals in all 50 states.  And when Ms. Rael spoke with me last Friday, volunteer teams inside the S. La Patera Lane warehouse were shipping out dental kits for families in need throughout Santa Barbara County.

Proceeds from this year’s auction are specifically earmarked for maternal and child health projects around the world, “to pay for safe births, emergency obstetric care and midwives,” says Ms. Rael.  “It costs $25 to help ensure a safe birth [in third world countries], so raising a million dollars will equal quite a few healthy moms and babies.”

And “that’s why our work with this auction is so important,” adds Mr. Ostini.  “Leveraging relationships with their partners, and in the intelligent way that Direct Relief does it – they’ve done so well with the money we raise.”


Santa Maria Wine Association Dissolves... Think Tank is Born

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/12/14)

A group committed to promoting the wines and vineyards of the Santa Maria Valley has fallen from the vine, announcing this week that it will dissolve.

Chardonnay at Byron Vineyard (credit: Gabe Saglie)
The Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association was founded 10 years ago to supplement the attention the region was getting from the local wine industry’s overarching body – the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, or SBCVA.  The group collected dues from Santa Maria-based growers and winemakers to produce Santa Maria-focused tastings and events.  Its biggest claim to fame was the annual Chardonnay Symposium, launched in 2010, which drew hundreds of consumers to a comprehensive three-day affair celebrating Santa Maria’s white wine darling.

But new leadership at the SBCVA led the Santa Maria group to rethink its strategy.

“The decision was made almost entirely because of the new leadership,” says Matt Murphy, whose family owns Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria and who was elected president of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association last year.  He’s referencing Morgen McLaughlin, who left New York’s Finger Lakes region to assume the executive director’s role at the SBCVA last April.

“There’s excitement from us on the board, seeing what Morgen has been able to do in a short amount of time,” says Mr. Murphy, who’s especially excited about the “new and unique spin” that Ms. Laughlin has put on the annual spring and fall tasting events produced by the SBCVA.

“We see that now there’s potential for Santa Maria Valley to be even-handedly represented among all of Santa Barbara’s AVAs,” he adds.

Cambria Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley (credit: Gabe Saglie)
Santa Maria is, in fact, one of five AVAs, or federally-designated American Viticulture Areas, within Santa Barbara County.  Established in 1981, it’s also its oldest, building a reputation over the decades for pinot noir and chardonnay, mainly, and becoming home to such high-profile labels as Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Foxen, Cambria, Byron, Bien Nacido and Riverbench. 

While the SBCVA is tasked with promoting the wine region as a whole, each individual AVA – including Sta. Rita Hills, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon – has found it necessary to form its own marketing organization to bolster visibility.  These sub-groups collect dues above and beyond what members may also be paying into the SBCVA.  The dissolution of the Santa Maria Valley body stems from the board’s new perception that “we can now go further as a unified association rather than as a splintered group with limited funding,” according to Mr. Murphy, who joined the SBCVA Board of Directors just two months ago.

Many of the former members of the Santa Maria Valley Wine Country Association are banding under a new moniker: the Santa Maria Valley Wine Think Tank.  This dues-free and all-volunteer group of winemakers and farmers will aim to conceive new ways to promote tourism to the Santa Maria Valley and to bolster its image.

Cambria Chardonnay prepped for shipping (credit: Gabe Saglie)
In a Tuesday press release, Ms. McLaughlin said, “The Santa Maria Valley is a jewel in the crown of the Santa Barbara County wine region.  As the SBCVA continues to work towards its strategic mission of raising the visibility of Santa Barbara County and its five AVAs, the ideas and input from this new think tank will be vital in assisting our efforts.”

The Chardonnay Symposium will continue, although it will now be produced and promoted by the Dolphin Bay Resort in Shell Beach, in San Luis Obispo County.  “It’s becoming a hallmark event,” admits Mr. Murphy.  “But putting it on was starting to control what our Board was doing year-round, and it was in our best interest to pass it on.”  The fifth annual Symposium is scheduled for the weekend of May 16th. 

For more information on the SBCVA, click here.