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 RelevĂ© 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.”

RelevĂ©, 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 www.sbvintnersweekend.com.  

Appetizers, Vintners Fest 2013 (Bob Dickey)

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