Tasting Tomorrow: Les Marchands’ Wine Futures Experience Continues Online

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/24/14)

I have tasted the future of Santa Barbara wine, and the future tastes good.

This past Saturday’s Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting at Les Marchands was a buzzing outdoor fete that liaised ready-to-buy-now consumers with yet-to-be-released wines.  It was, above all, a lesson on how to taste wines young; guests sipped barrel samples from Santa Barbara’s 2012 and 2013 vintages, mainly, while discussing with the women and men who made them how their wines are likely to evolve.  It was also win-win retailing; consumers enjoyed 20% savings while winemakers secured cash flow many months before their wines hit store shelves.

If you missed it, not to worry.  The owners at the popular Funk Zone wine bar and shop are making the catalog available for purchase through the end of May.  “The online campaign is afoot,” co-owner and Master Sommelier Brian McClintic tells me.  Tasting and discussing the wines in person is a major plus, of course.  But if you weren’t there, the catalog’s detailed notes and anecdotes – the product of numerous visits to vineyards and wineries by McClintic and his business partner, Eric Railsback – are a thorough, entertaining guide.  Download it by visiting www.lesmarchandswine.com.

These are my own favorite takeaways.

Stephanie Varner pours Alta Maria and Native9
Alta Maria and Native9: the effervescent Stephanie Varner, manager at Alta Maria's Los Olivos tasting room, poured wines from these two wonderful projects by viticulturalist James Ontiveros and winemaker Paul Wilkins.  The 2013 Alta Maria Sauvignon Blanc ($13) is currently being aged in stainless steel and is brilliant and crisp; this awesome value will be bottled in August. The 2013 Native9 Pinot Noir ($48) won’t be bottled until 2015 – it’s being aged in 30% new French oak barrels for 23 months – but is already a plush wine with rich flavors that never end.

Kunin and The Valley Project: Seth Kunin’s 2012 Larner Vineyard Syrah ($32) was one of this tasting’s great finds for me; this wonderfully integrated wine (even now) displayed rich aromas, a supple mouth feel and delicious blackberry and blueberry flavors.  He also poured a 2011 “Block 19” Chardonnay ($34) from a newly-named effort, The Valley Project; as he poured this layered Los Alamos-sourced wine, he told me, “I bottle early to trap in the terroir, and that makes for good bottle aging.”

Winemaker Chuck Carlson
Carlson: This was my first chance to taste a very personal project from Chuck Carlson, the talented guy who recently left Curtis Winery, which he shepherded for 25 years.  His Carlson wines are deliciously refined, like his 2013 Blanc “Trois Fleurs” ($19), a refreshing gewürztraminer-based white blend with a tropical nose, bright flavors and dry finish.  The 2013 Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($33) displays a flowery nose and a mouth feel that shows off both richness and finesse.
Winemaker Dave Potter

Municipal Winemakers and Goodland: Dave Potter just needed two reds to draw a steady crowd.  His 2013 Municipal Fox Family Vineyard Grenache ($33) is a juicy, bright, fresh red wine – “Super popping,” Potter described it; the balance of fruit and spice is totally on point.  The 2012 Happy Canyon Red ($36) is a joint project by four winemakers, including Potter and Jonata’s Matt Dees, who brought his “tannin management skills,” according to Potter, to help craft a supple, silky, textured wine.  Only about 50 cases of each of these wines were made.

Winemaker Drake Whitcraft

Whitcraft and Mes Amis: Drake Whitcraft’s hands-off and honest approach to winemaking leads to beautiful wines each year, including the heavyweight 2013 vintage.  He poured two pinots side by side: the Pence Vineyard pinot noir ($60), grown in limestone soils just outside Sta. Rita Hills, has a rhubarb nose and luscious texture while the Kick-On Ranch pinot ($45), grown on far sandier earth in Los Alamos, is leaner and racier.  Whitcraft also showcased one of the best white wines of the day – a 2013 Alabrino ($21) on the Mes Ami label; this joint project with Jaffurs’ Matt Brady, was quintessential sipping on a sunny spring afternoon, with animated fruit flavors and a crisp mouth feel.
Winemaker Joshua Klapper
La Fenetre: The energy was high at Joshua Klapper’s table, where the droll winemaker poured a handful of wonderful wines.  His 2013 A Coté Rosé ($12) is pink wine at its finest, downright pretty to gaze at and brimming with fresh berry flavors.  The 2013 A Coté Pinot Noir ($18) is Klapper’s concerted effort to produce “a really well made but inexpensive pinot noir,” he told me; minimal oak aging has led to a light, delicate wine with bouncy fruit flavors.

Ojai Vineyard: assistant winemaker Fabien Castel was on hand to showcase one of the afternoon’s very best white wines, the 2012 Puerta Del Mar Chardonnay ($28), sourced just west of Sta. Rita Hills, with minerality and vibrancy that makes it an ideal match for sunshine-inspired fare.

Brian McClintic sips as winemaker Blake Sillix pours
Sillix: This was a totally new find for me.  Blake Sillix launched his label in 2010, after stints at Beckmen and Tyler wineries, and with a focus on Rhone wines.  His approach to the 2012 Sillix Grenache ($32) is totally refreshing: very light, lively mouth feel with rich red fruit flavors and a subtly spicy edge.  Sourced from Camp 4 Vineyard, only 75 cases of this wine were made.

Cebada: this very personal project by horticulturalist Sandra Newman includes about 5.5 acres of grapes on her Route 246 property near Lompoc.  And in 2013, she made the wines, herself.  The 2013 Estate Chardonnay ($39), which will be bottle sometime after August “depending on how it’s drinking,” she mentions, features brilliant acid and a mouth feel that is very much alive, as well as a neat peppery edge.  Newman also grows blueberries and green tea on her land.
Winemaker Ernst Storm, left
Storm: Ernst Storm’s winemaking hinges on the vineyards he sources.  “Each site has its own personality” he tells me as he pours, “so you have to find the right vineyard that’ll give you the right balance.”  The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) is a remarkable value for the way it captures the essence of the Santa Ynez Valley; it sources from four vineyards, stretching from Happy Canyon in the east to Curtis Vineyard to the west and delivers tropical, grassy notes, a delicious pungency and textured succulence that, simply, makes me sad not to have some in my glass right now.  The John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($36), which saw whole cluster fermentation, exhibits a rich nose, dark berry flavors and a wonderfully lithe mouth feel; these 175 cases will go fast.
Keep in mind: some of these wines see such small production, they’ll only be available for purchase until they sell out.  And mark your calendars: Les Marchands’ next Futures tasting will take place sometime after tax season, 2015.  See you there!


Sampling the Future at Les Marchands

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/17/14)

Santa Barbara’s newest wine event of record is being hosted by a popular newcomer that, in a few short months, has already become a mainstay.

Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant is transforming its Funk Zone parking lot into the ultimate wine tasting room this Saturday, April 19th, as it hosts the Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting.  The event will be a boon for wine consumers, who’ll be able to taste dozens of wines well before retail release, and to buy them in advance at a 20% discount.  The marquee winemakers – more than 40 of Santa Barbara’s most buzzed-about producers – will benefit by securing cash flow early and expanding their clientele.  (Tickets are $70 in advance and $80 at the door; buy them here.)

“It’s fun because people don’t usually get the opportunity to taste barrel samples and young wines like this,” says winemaker Dave Potter, 35.  “It’s fun for me to talk to them about where the wine is at this particular stage, and where it’s going.”

Mr. Potter will be pouring from his two labels, Municipal Winemakers and the collaborative project, Goodland Wines.  Samples of a Los Olivos-grown Grenache and a just-bottled cabernet sauvignon from Grassini Vineyards in Happy Canyon will show attendees that the extra warmth of the 2012 and 2013 grape vintages in Santa Barbara made for “luscious wines that are alive, have nice fruit and are pretty expressive right out of the gate,” he says.

Brian McClintic, a Master Sommelier who co-owns Les Marchands, agrees.  “The cabernets [in 2012 and 2013] got ripe and they have good flavors,” he says, “and fruit overall was far more delineated.”  Mr. McClintock and his business partner, Eric Railsback, spent months visiting winemakers individually to taste and select the wines featured in Saturday’s tasting.  Among the other labels to be featured are Jaffurs, Kunin, Tatomer, Storm and Star Lane.

Of special note: the 2010 Cent’Anni, a limited edition reserve sangiovese made by Doug Margerum and sourced from Jamie and Julie Kellner’s Los Olivos ranch that much of the Santa Barbara wine drinking community has been awaiting for years.  It will be poured for the public for the very first time.

And Mr. McClintic is especially excited about showcasing the latest in Santa Barbara County syrah, a wine he says “is not underrated, just underestimated.”

(For the complete catalog of wines to be poured, click here.)

The Les Marchands wine bar
This weekend’s event is, really, just the latest feather in the caps of Les Marchands’ two esteemed owners.  They hosted their first futures tasting in August, when their wine bar and wine retail shop opened its doors.  It’s been an unexpected thrill ride ever since.

“We totally underestimated how busy we’d be,” admits Mr. McClintic, 38.  “Our business is already 300% above what we’d planned and, on a busy night, we’ll need to put four or five guys pouring behind the bar.”

The success of Les Marchands has been rooted on several factors, not the least of which is its location.  In short order, after all, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone has exploded into the region’s hottest culinary destinations, marked by a bevy of eclectic tasting rooms – from wine to beer to spirits – and a growing number, even still, of places to enjoy a good meal.  The beach and State Street, both just a couple of blocks away, continue to feed the area with foot traffic.

And Mr. McClintic’s own celebrity has been a benefit, too.  The urbane sommelier was one of the stars of SOMM, the 2012 documentary that followed four wine experts as they prepared for the arduous Master Sommelier exam, well known as having one of the lowest pass rates in the world.  Mr. McClintic passed and, even today, “three of four people a day come up to me and mention the film,” he says.

But the Les Marchands formula for success really stems from the way that its owners treat it as the hub for various wine-fueled enterprises.

The Les Marchands wine shop
The wine bar experience, for one, revolves around a regularly changing list of wines by the glass.  The featured wines are an assorted cross-section of brands from around the world; recently, the reds lineup featured a merlot from France, a barbera from Italy and a pinot noir from Oregon side by side.  A regular favorite is the Vallin label, a Rhone-focused project out of the Santa Ynez Valley by Mr. McClintic, Mr. Railsback and winemaker phenom Justin Willett.

The food – a small but seasonally-driven and share-friendly selection of cheeses, cured meats, salads, sandwiches and fresh entrees – is crafted onsite daily.  “On Mondays, when The Lark next door is closed, this place is packed, and that’s a really good thing to see,” says Mr. McClintic.

At the adjacent wine store, the selection is unique.  The original lineup, when Les Marchands opened, was a 50-50 mix of local and international bottles.  “But then our regulars called it,” says Mr. McClintic, “especially that 25-to-44 demographic, mostly locals, who told us they wanted to buy Old World wines.”  Today, the shop is heavier-handed on special European labels – increasingly popular whites like gruner-veltliner from Austria and Riesling from Germany, for example. 

Les Marchands also features six wine clubs – regular shipments of varying price points aimed to satisfy a variety of wine tastes.  The Daily Drinkers Club features two bottles in a monthly $49 shipment, for example, while the Stelvio Monument Club delivers a 12-bottle case for $599, four times a year.  Membership signups can be done in-store or online.

Cozy nook, barside, at Les Marchands
Les Marchands also offers at-home wine classes, wine list creation for restaurants and private cellar management, acquisition, liquidation and appraisals.

And then there are the now-annual futures tastings.

“It’s what Eric and I wanted to do when we opened,” says Mr. McClintic.  “We wanted to sell everything we love to drink and to be ambassadors to the wine world.”


Don’t Hold the Sauce: Georgia's Smokehouse Bottles Its Flavors

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/17/14)

The newest thing on the Georgia’s Smokehouse to-go menu: its sauces.

As part of its one-year anniversary celebration, the popular food truck enterprise just launched a line of bottled sauces – a tomato-and-vinegar based Sweet BBQ and a Spicy BBQ, made with dried chilies.  “We’ve been getting a lot of requests for them,” admits owner and Chef Brian Parks.  “So these are perfect for people who can’t get to our trucks or who are just craving barbecue.”

The launch also includes an herbs-and-spices Dry Rub.

Chef Parks’ proprietary sauces and rubs have been part and parcel to the success of Georgia’s Smokehouse ever since he and his wife, Alissa, turned the engine on their first food truck in March, 2013.  A second truck hit local streets – from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara to Santa Ynez – six months later.  Today, the business employs seven people and runs a steady schedule of private parties, special events and weekly scheduled stops.

Chef Parks decided to bottle his flavors a few weeks ago, when the owners of Santa Barbara Gift Baskets approached him, looking for unique adds to their locally-themed custom gifts.  The sauces and rub can now be found at a handful of local retail stores, too, including Isabelle Gourmet Foods, Tri-County Produce and Lane Farms.  The two Georgia’s Smokehouse food trucks feature them for $7.99.

And the chef’s recommendations?  The Sweet BBQ, which the trucks feature on the popular Pulled Pork Sammies, “has a real high acid level, so it cuts through fattier foods really well,” says Chef Parks.  He uses the Spicy BBQ on leaner items, like “chicken and, on a limited basis, fish.”

Check out Georgia’s Smokehouse on social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – and on its website, www.georgias-smokehouse.com.


Santa Barbara Vintners' Reinvented Spring Weekend Begins Today

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/10/14

(For exclusive 50% discount tickets to Spring Weekend 2014, click here.)

Vintners Fest 2012 (credit: Jeremy Ball)
Santa Barbara’s wine growers have been putting on a spring fete for decades.  But this year, they took it up several notches, having hired a third party event planner for the very first time to help design a wine affair to remember.  Welcome to Spring Weekend 2014, produced by Santa Barbara Vintners and Santa Barbara-based Relevé Unlimited.

The feast – which has effectively transformed an afternoon tasting into a four-day extravaganza – begins today, with a golf tournament at Sandpiper Golf Course featuring several media and sports celebrities and Sideways author Rex Pickett.  The action doesn’t stop until Sunday afternoon. 

The production has been ambitious from the beginning, creating multiple big-ticket items aimed at more than doubling weekend attendance to some 5000 wine aficionados.  Some of the originally scheduled events have had to be pulled – a comprehensive education seminar, a barrel toasting seminar and a high-end vineyard dinner experience.

But a slew of other wonderful opportunities to expand the palate remain, and the following five should be on every wine fan’s radar.

Cabernet Seminar: Friday, April 11th, 11:30am-3pm
Brander Vineyard in Los Olivos will shed the spotlight on the grape variety many dub the King of Grapes.  This seminar was a late add to the weekend roster and features two Masters of Wine – Peter Koff and Patrick Farrell – leading a powerhouse cabernet sauvignon tasting and discussion.  Attendees will taste wines blindly and will get a chance to taste premier renditions of this grape from around the world, including classic growing regions like Bordeaux, Tuscany, Australia, Chile and California.   Local cabs, including Brander’s own award-winning bottlings, will also be featured.  Chef David Cecchini of Solvang’s Cecco Ristorante will cater a Mediterranean-style lunch.  Seating is extremely limited – 22 people.  Contact Fred Brander: fred@brander.com and (805) 688-2455.  Tickets are $125.

Vineyard Hikes: Friday, April 11th, 1-3pm
Several of the area’s most treasured grape growing sites will offer the public a rare treat: winemaker-led hikes through the vines.  Steve Beckmen, for example, will lead a moderately strenuous trek through the acclaimed Purisima Mountain Vineyard, the first and largest biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, located inside the brand new Ballard Canyon AVA.  Over in Sta. Rita Hills, vintner John Hilliard will introduce folks to his gorgeous, 21-acre Hilliard Bruce Vineyard, producer of stellar pinot noir and chardonnay.   And vintner Kevin Gleason will head an easy-to-moderate excursion through Refugio Ranch in Santa Ynez, with a focus on syrah.  All three hikes will feature wine tasting and myriad food stations.  Tickets cost $80. 

90+ Wine and Dine Event: Friday, April 11th, 6-9pm
This is the event that brings the vineyard to the beach and pops the cork on the very best.  Set in the beautiful ocean view Plaza at the Fess Parker Doubletree Resort, this event focuses on wines that have been crowned with ratings of 90 points and above, as determined by respected critics like Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer and popular publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.  It’s a unique chance to taste what the experts say are truly remarkable representations of Santa Barbara winemaking.  What’s more, the men and women who made them will be doing the pouring themselves, from labels like Blair Fox Cellars, Fess Parker Winery, Larner Vineyard and Winery, Margerum Wine Co., Au Bon Climat, Tercero, Pali Wine Co., Zotovich Cellars and Longoria Wines.  Plenty of great food from the likes of Global Gardens and Bacara’s Miro Restaurant, as well, along with live entertainment and free parking.  Tickets are $150 (or $175 with a pre-event sparkling wine reception).

Fiddlehead Vineyard

Vintner John Dragonette at Volgenzang Vineyard

Grand Tasting, Saturday April 12th, 1-4pm
Winemaker Ryan Carr at Vintners Festival 2013 (credit: Bob Dickey)
This is the weekend’s signature event, of course – one of only two times in the entire year that all 120-or-so members of Santa Barbara Vintners pour in unison.  It’s an exclusive chance to taste new releases and special bottles while mingling and chatting with the winemakers, themselves.  The setting, River View Park in Buellton, isn’t the only thing that’s new this year; the event will also feature an art walk, a farmers’ market pavilion, barrel cooper demonstrations and live cooking demos by some of the area’s best chefs.  The biggest consumer boon of all (and a major plus for wineries) will be the chance to buy wine on the spot – another first for this event.  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.   
Tickets are $95 (or $125 for admission an hour earlier, at noon).  There’s also a Connoisseurs Club option for $200, giving you access to a posh living room setting where exclusive wines will be poured and guests will get special access to winemakers.  Don’t want to drive?  Roundtrip bus rides from Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Solvang are available for $25.  And designated drivers pay just $25.

Farm-to-Table Picnic and Concert, Sunday April 13th, 11am-2pm
The weekend’s official (and rousing) closer will feature a live concert by Jamestown Revival, the much buzzed-about band that’s appeared on shows like Conan O’Brian and Last Call with Carson Daily with its high-energy mix of folk, Americana, Texas twang and back-porch rock-&-roll.  Set on the sweeping grounds of Fess Parker Winery off Foxen Canyon Road, guests receive a farm-to-table style picnic lunch and tastings of wines by Fess Parker, Fiddlehead and Fontes-&-Phillips, among others.  Grab a seat at a communal picnic table or bring your own blanket to stretch across the lawn.  Tickets cost $95 and benefit Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People.

And there’s more, from open houses to library tastings to winemaker dinners.  For tickets and more information, check out www.sbvintnersweekend.com and join the social media conversation at #sbvintnersfest.