Small Wineries, Big Crowds: Garagiste Festival Focuses on Santa Ynez Valley Labels

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/31/14)

With a projected 800 visitors, this past weekend’s Garagiste Festival in Solvang proved its staying power.

“Garagiste” is a French word long used to refer to rogue, small-lot winemakers who, often working out of their garage, made wine by often bending traditional rules.

Winemaker Clarissa Nagy welcomes tasters
This young wine tasting festival, which took over the Veteran’s Memorial Hall Saturday and Sunday (3/29-3/30), is up-and-coming in more ways than one.  It started just in 2011, with a focus on small-production winemakers in San Luis Obispo County.  Today, it’s a twice-a-year event, with this weekend’s pouring – dubbed “Southern Exposure” – giving a stage to boutique wine producers based mainly in the Santa Ynez Valley.

But the festival’s marquee pourers – 62 wineries in all over the two-day fete – are relative newcomers, too, aiming to parlay the attending public into a repeat clientele.

“We’re like matchmakers,” Doug Minnick, one of the festival’s co-founders, said during the Sunday grand tasting event.  “At least 75% of those pouring are small operations – they make less than 1500 cases a year and have no tasting rooms.  And we deliver a highly targeted audience that likes new things and seeks out wines that are under the radar.”

That’s a boon for winemakers like Chris Carter, who poured his very first wine, the 2012 Weatherborne Pinot Noir, on Sunday.  “This festival is a perfect spot for people like me, who are just starting to sell their stuff,” he says.  The 34-year-old worked for Santa Barbara Winery before spending much of the last decade honing his skills in Oregon and New Zealand.  He only makes a pinot noir – 220 cases total – which he sources from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.

One case of wine contains twelve 750-ml. bottles.

David Bradley, age 64, also makes just one wine: a mere 64 cases of Bradley Family Wines sauvignon blanc, sourced from the Adobe Canyon Vineyard, off Ballard Canyon, which he planted for a client, himself.  The Garagiste Festival marked his inaugural pour for the public and shows, Mr. Bradley says, “that people are seeking out wines that they can’t find in supermarkets because – with productions so small – they are only sold direct.”

Among the other small producers drawing steady crowds Sunday were Fontes & Phillips, producer of the wildly popular Rhone-inspired Panky rosé; C. Nagy Wines, whose owner, Clarissa Nagy, also makes wine full-time for Riverbench Vineyards and Baehner-Fournier, with a lineup of Bordeaux wines grown on an estate vineyard in Santa Ynez.

The Garagiste Festival’s 2nd Annual Southern Exposure kick-started with a pizza-and-wine pairing event at Solvang’s Cecco Restaurant on Friday (3/28), featured Georgia's Smokehouse's delectable food truck grub and presented winemaker-led seminars Saturday and Sunday.  Proceeds benefit the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program.  

The next Garagiste Festival will take place in Paso Robles in November.  For more information, go to CaliforniaGaragistes.


All For One: A Dozen Santa Barbara Vintners Unite for Singular Wine

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/27/14)

As I saunter from room to room, I’m following a distant hum.  All is quiet inside the Sunstone Villa on this overcast February morning.  But the buzz of conversation coming from the kitchen is growing.

I’m sort of taking my time, though.  The Villa at Sunstone is one of those buzzed-about properties in the Santa Ynez Valley that’s rarely open to the public.  Set off Refugio Road and flanked by vineyards, this is the home of Sunstone and Artiste winemaker Bion Rice and his young family; the spectacular property is also being marketed these days as a sophisticated vacation rental.  Completed 10 years ago, it was made from materials reclaimed in France – from quarries in Burgundy and Normandy – and hand-picked by Sunstone founders (and Bion’s parents) Linda and Fred Rice.  The tiles on the roof, in fact, once graced a 19th century lavender factory owned by Queen Victoria.  Some 8500 square feet of living space, five suites, eight fireplaces, a billiard room and a bevy of terraces capitalizing on sweeping wine country views.  An old world-inspired gem.

The four winemakers prepare to blend
I finally amble into the kitchen – rustic and airy – and find four men engrossed in analysis and surrounded by beakers, funnels and calculators.  And surrounded by a lot of wine.  The Legacy II Cuveé is about to be born.

For the second year in a row, a band of celebrated Santa Barbara winemakers is collaborating to create a singular wine.  This year, it’s a Rhone-style blend that’ll be comprised of no less than 13 individual wines.  And when it sells – and these winemakers expect that their cuveé will sell out over the course of just a weekend next month – the proceeds will go to The Family School in Los Olivos.

“This wine is a testimonial for the passion we have for this school,” Rice tells me.

School fundraisers are nothing new in Santa Barbara County, of course, and neither are wonderful schools and passionate parents.  But in wine country, a large contingency of moms and dads are well-known makers of wine, naturally, and that can make for a pretty special collaborative creation that, if leveraged right, can inspire consumer demand and help fill the coffers of their children’s schools.  In fact, all the men and women contributing to the Legacy II Cuveé have, or have had, children enrolled at this 40-year-old school, with about 85 students enrolled in a preschool-through-5th curriculum.

The men around the kitchen table this particular morning are Rice, whose two kids attend, as well as Tercero Wines' Larry Schaffer and Crawford Family Wines’ Mark Horvath, each with one child enrolled.  The man tasked with directing the entire blending project is Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, who’s had two children graduate.

Among a sea of glasses, they’re tasting the 13 individual components first – spanning the 2011 and 2012 vintages, mainly – and discussing their particular merits.  Gut impressions go flying.  The Tercero Grenache is “perfumy.”    The Sunstone syrah, made from estate vines planted in 1990, has a “violet nose” and is “pretty tannic.”  A syrah donated by Andrew Murray has “complexity” and “a long finish.”  A grenache offered up by Standing Sun Wines' John Wright has “an almost sweet finish.”  The Artiste blend includes malbec.  And there’s a merlot from The Hitching Post’s Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini (a funny irony that won’t be lost on Sideways fans).

Also earmarked for the blend are a viognier by Cold Heaven Cellars' Morgan Clendenen and reds by Qupe’s Bob Lindquist, Tensley Wines' Joey Tensley, Ken Brown Wines’ Ken Brown and Beckmen Vineyards’ Steve Beckmen.

Jim Clendenen’s contribution is a mix of syrah and viognier that he picked and fermented together.  “When you’re blending these two, you’ve got to co-ferment,” he insists to his colleagues.  “There’s an enzyme on viognier that, when fermented together with syrah, brings out more color and more fruit!”

Rice types notes into his laptop as the computing now begins – about 25 to 30 ml. of each wine measured into an oversize beaker until it’s just about full.  A nascent version of the blend-to-be.

And then, the communal sampling and sharing of first impressions.  Schaffer declares the Legacy II Cuveé – in its most primal state – is “aromatically pretty.”  Horvath, too, likes the “floral influences” on the nose, and the “decent oak influence.”  Rice, after several minutes of swirling, points out that “it’s really blossoming.”

As the token fly on the wall, I’m given a taste, too, and admire the wine’s deep ruby hue, lovely aromatics, spicy edge, rich finish and integrated structure.

“Some key elements come out when wines are combined,” Schaffer tells me.  “The sum is always better than its individual parts.”

Clendenen makes the call that most components will remain unfiltered before they’re blended together to create the final wine.  “That way, you’re not stripping out aromas and flavors,” he says.

That final bottling, I’m happy to report, took place two weeks ago – about 125 cases and 20 specially earmarked magnums of a rare and historic wine, to be sure, representing the talents of a dozen of Santa Barbara’s best vintners.  The Legacy II Cuvée will make its public debut at the Bounty of the Valley fundraiser on Saturday, April 26, at 5pm at the Sunstone Villa.  Cases (12 bottles) of the wine will sell for $500.  Also, a slider competition will feature local chefs like The Ballard Inn’s Budi Kazali, Mattei’s Tavern’s Robbie Wilson and Cecco Ristorante’s David Cecchini.  And wineries including Falcone Family Vineyards, Kaena, Martian and Pence Ranch will pour.  Tickets to the event are $75.

For a more intimate and exclusive experience, Sunstone is hosting a dinner inside its famous underground cave the night before, on Friday, April 25th; priced at $1000, it’ll feature most every one of the contributing winemakers.  A select few wishing to spend that night in one of the Villa’s five suites  (and willing to spend $5000 a couple) will be treated to a private wine country excursion the next day, as well as tickets to the Bounty of the Valley event and a case of the Legacy II Cuveé.

The Legacy II Cuvee at its most nascent
For more information and for tickets, go to


Vintners Festival 2.0: Wineries to Host New and Improved Weekend Event

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey and Kirk Irwin
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/27/14)

This is not your grandfather’s Vintners Festival.

The annual springtime, wine-fueled weekend has been drawing thousands of consumers for more than 30 years.  It’s sponsored by the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, which recently rebranded itself as Santa Barbara Vintners.  And, to acknowledge a changing demographic and an inevitable need to reinvent as a means to stay fresh, it’s getting a dramatic makeover. 

“Our goal was to take it beyond a three-hour consumer tasting and, instead, create four days of unique wine country events,” says Morgen McLaughlin, the Vintners’ executive director.  “We wanted to present programs that capture the essence of Santa Barbara, as well.”

Hitching Post II's Frank and Bob Ostini, Vintners Fest 2013 (Kirk Irwin)
This year’s “Spring Weekend” is scheduled for April 10-13 at various locations throughout the county.  The landmark Saturday afternoon tasting will take place at a new location – the sprawling River View Park in Buellton – and will feature more than 120 wineries and food purveyors.  But the new ancillary events on surrounding dates are designed with wow factor in mind, too, including a golf tournament with Sideways author Rex Pickett, a high-profile educational seminar series and a closing wine picnic and concert.

Much of what’s new and exciting about this historic wine affair has to do with the Vintners’ new partnership with Relevé Unlimited.  The locally based, full-service destination management company beat out several other professional event planners to land a five-year contract that includes production of myriad consumer-focused wine events, including the newly-imagined Spring Weekend.  This is the first time the vintners group has brought on a third party event producer.

“I realized that if we’re going to continue to be successful, we needed to partner with a company that specializes in event management and execution,” says McLaughlin, whose first day on the job as head of the local vintners group was last year’s Vintners Festival tasting.  “It’s a way to position ourselves to be successful for the next 20 years.”

Relevé, owned by Diane and Fleet Hamilton, has been in event planning business for more than 20 years.  With a physical office inside Bacara Resort, it works with many local properties to design unique experiences for consumers attending meetings and incentive programs in the Santa Barbara area.  This year, it’s putting its money where its mouth is, by funding all of the events that surround Saturday’s main tasting event.

“We love to see all the enthusiasm that’s building in the community,” says Mrs. Hamilton, who admits early sales are outpacing last year, thus far.  “But now we have the uphill road to make sure all tickets sell.”

Winemaker Ryan Carr and wife Jessica, Vintners Fest 2013 (Bob Dickey)
The four-day fete begins Thursday, April 10th, with an all-day golf tournament ($190) at Sandpiper in Goleta, hosted by Sideways author Rex Pickett (2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Oscar-winning film based on the book).  Popular food trucks like Georgia’s Smokehouse and the Burger Bus will fuel players as local wineries quench their thirst throughout the course.  That evening, consumers have two opening night dining event options: a sunset sail wine dinner from the Santa Barbara Harbor aboard the famous Channel Cat catamaran ($200) or a Sta. Rita Hills wine dinner at Industrial Eats in Buellton ($175).

Friday, April 11th, will see the premiere Wine Education Seminar Series ($250), a group of vintner-led classes that focus on sparkling wine, a comparison of Santa Barbara County’s five AVAs, a vertical wine tasting and a comparison of wines produced by different winemakers but from the same source – the legendary Bien Nacido Vineyard.  The 9am-3pm event at Hotel Corque in Solvang will be moderated by Clos Pepe winemaker Wes Hagen and include a wine luncheon prepared by Root 246 Restaurant.

The Qupe table, Vintners Fest 2013 (Bob Dickey)
Five properties, including Hilliard Bruce and Refugio Ranch, will be hosting vintner-led vineyard hikes Friday (all from 1-3pm and $80) with food and wine stations throughout the trek.  And Friday night will offer consumers a pair of choices, too: Buellton Bodegas, a custom production facility that houses popular labels like Casa Dumetz and Dragonette, will host a barrel toasting and barrel tasting event ($100) while the waterfront Rotunda at the Fess Parker DoubleTree Hotel in Santa Barbara will host a multi-course dinner featuring only 90+-point Santa Barbara wines ($150, $175 with Champagne reception).

Naturally, the signature event on Saturday, April 12th, will be the three-hour consumer event at River View Park ($85).  It’s been re-branded the “Grand Tasting” this year, to quell the party vibe it may have developed over the last few years and to better highlight the rare opportunity this is to taste wines by every one of the Vintners’ 100-plus members.  It’s been expanded to include an Art Walk and a Farmers Market Pavilion.  And for the first time ever – and this is huge for consumers – wines will be available for purchase on the spot. 

The Carhartt Vineyards table, Vintners Fest 2013 (Bob Dickey)
“This has been taboo for a long time,” admits Mr. Hamilton, who worked closely with the state’s department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to get special retail licensing.  “But now consumers can taste and buy what they like all day long.”  Volunteers armed with iPads will take virtual orders throughout the afternoon, which will then be packaged at an onsite warehouse and even loaded into cars as visitors leave.  A major convenience for consumers doubles as a major financial boon for wineries.

Saturday will also see special events at wineries like Zaca Mesa, Brander and Lucas & Lewellen.  The Ballard Inn will host a dinner with winemaker Rick Longoria ($125).  And Grassini Vineyards in Happy Canyon will host the weekend’s signature culinary event: a lakeside feast among the vines featuring some of Santa Barbara’s more cultish labels, including the event’s only chance to taste through the very limited-production Sea Smoke wines ($275).

The weekend’s closer takes place Sunday, April 13th at Fess Parker Winery – a farm to table picnic on the sprawling grounds along Foxen Canyon Road and live music by Jamestown Revival, the buzzed-about folk- and blues-music ensemble that played Conan O’Brien’s late night TV show just last month. 

Au Bon Climat and Kalyra will also host special open house and tour events on Sunday.

Through already heightened media outreach this year, organizers expect the weekend to draw 5000 visitors from all over the country, especially the coveted consumer market of L.A.

For tickets and more information on what is poised to become one of the very best wine events in the industry, check out  

Appetizers, Vintners Fest 2013 (Bob Dickey)