Urban Experience: Downtown Santa Barbara Tasting Rooms Host Wine Weekend

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/22/14)

Suddenly, there are a lot more stops on the Urban Wine Trail.

Riverbench is one of the 23 stops on the Urban Wine Trail
There’s no denying that this decidedly hip group of wineries – an exciting offshoot of downtown Santa Barbara that offers a firsthand peak into the art of making and enjoying wine – has wowed simply with its growth.  It was made of just five labels when it banded in 2007 -- Whitcraft, Carr, Jaffurs, Oreana and Santa Barbara Winery; it was Bob Dickey -- the well known wine country photographer with a knack for cartography -- who created the original map. But it had grown to 18 by the time it launched its first tourist map as an official association just two years ago.  And today, the Urban Wine Trail features – impressively – 23 of Santa Barbara County’s most celebrated producers, and with at least two new tasting rooms currently applying for membership, the growth continues.

“It’s a really good story,” says Kathy Janega-Dykes, President and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, which finds itself touting the Trail more and more these days as a significant tourist attraction.  “It introduces visitors to our wine industry who may not be familiar with Santa Barbara wine country,” she adds.  “And it encourages them to extend their stay, or return, to enjoy wine tasting and see vineyards and production facilities in places like the Santa Ynez Valley and Lompoc.”

Next weekend – May 30th through June 1st – the Urban Wine Trail aims to build on that caché by hosting its second annual Summer Celebration, a three-day experience where passport event meets seminar meets wine party.

For passport holders, $50 will grant them access to tastings and retail discounts at all 23 Trail members.  Over the three days, they’ll meander through the Funk Zone to visit the bar at places like Riverbench, Area 5.1, Municipal Winemakers, Kunin and Pali.  They’ll mosey toward Santa Barbara’s industrially-inspired eastside, where the likes of Sanguis, Carr and Jaffurs pour.  They’ll get to taste with an ocean view at Summerland.  And they’ll venture north to midtown wine havens like Grassini and Au Bon Climat.  No one goes thirsty when they’re on the Trail.

For the wine curious, a seminar scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Wine Cask Restaurant is bound to be a sellout.  With a cap of just 50 seats here, this is an insider, comparative look at the AVAs (or American Viticultural Areas) that make up Santa Barbara County.  These federally recognized growing regions – Happy Canyon, Ballard Canyon, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley and Sta. Rita Hills – yield grapes with distinction, thanks to their unique soils and growing conditions.

The Urban Wine Trail includes Pali Wine Co.'s corner tasting room
Understanding the nuances of each growing region “can help consumers considerably,” says winemaker Ryan Carr, who’s also the Chair of Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail.  “When they walk into a wall of wine at the grocery store, they don’t have many tools other than labels to help them pick a wine.  So learning what you like, and where it came from, is important.”

The seminar will begin a flight of whites – a comparison of sauvignon blancs from Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon, and a matchup of chardonnays from Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills – while the red flight will contrast pinot noir wines and syrahs.  Consumers won’t be on their own, though.  Restaurateur Mitch Sjerven (of Wine Cask and bouchon fame) will moderate as eight winemakers, including Clarissa Nagy of Riverbench, Aaron Walker of Pali and Steve Fennell of Sanford, share their expertise.

Seminar tickets are $60.

The Trail’s Summer Celebration will climax Saturday night, when all 23 member wineries descend on the Carrillo Ballroom.  Priced at $75, there will be plenty of tasting here, of course, plus a chance to buy limited wine at a discount.  But there’s a neat charitable component to this night, as well, along with a wonderful reminder that the arts are part of the Santa Barbara’s urban experience, too.

A silent auction will feature creations by members of Youth Interactive, the after school program that helps Santa Barbara students pursue artistic and entrepreneurial aspirations.  “There are 23 paintings depicting each of the Urban Trail wineries.” says Carr.  “I’ve seen some of them and they are very unique, very expressive.”  Proceeds from the silent auction will benefit this thriving non-profit group.

A live auction will feature a bevy of high-stakes lifestyle items, with earnings earmarked for Santa Barbara’s Unity Shoppe.  Professional auctioneer Matt Chung, of locally-based MCC Wine Advisory and formerly of Zachy’s Wine Auctions, will yield the gavel.

There are incentives for experiencing this Summer Celebration in more ways than one.  A combo ticket to the Grand Tasting and three-day passport, or the Grand Tasting and the seminar, is $100.  Better still, go VIP and get access to everything for $150.  Get your tickets early at www.urbanwinetrailsb.com

Yanonali Street, off State St., leads the way to Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail


Winemaker Chris Whitcraft Passes Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/14)

Chris Whitcraft, considered one of Santa Barbara County’s pioneer winemakers, and a household name among pinot noir and chardonnay aficionados around the world, passed away late last week in Santa Barbara.  He was 64.

Chris Whitcraft, in what he once said was his favorite photo of himself
Mr. Whitcraft’s foray into the Santa Barbara wine scene dates back to 1975, when he joined the celebrated Mayfare Wines retail shop along Coast Village Road in Montecito.  He began making wine in the late 1970s – a time when the winemaking industry in Santa Barbara County was in its nascency – and launched his eponymous brand in 1985 with his former spouse, Kathleen Barnato.  By then, pinot noir and chardonnay had become his calling card.  His unabashed commitment to a natural, hands-off approach to winemaking – no filtering, no pumping, no electricity, bottling by gravity, stomping by foot – created wines with character and finesse.  

“Wine should not be f*&%ed with,” he said, in classic Chris Whitcraft style, in a 2012 interview.

Starting in the late 1970s, Mr. Whitcraft also spent more than 10 years on the radio hosting a popular wine show on KTMS-AM 1250, which that was heard up and down the California coast.

In 2006, Mr. Whitcraft opened a winery and tasting room along Calle Cesar Chavez, a few steps from the beach.  It was one of the original five founding members of the popular Urban Wine Trail in downtown Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.   The facility is currently run by his son, Drake, 32, who formally took over winemaking duties for Whitcraft Winery in 2008.  The younger Whitcraft has championed his father’s winemaking philosophies and has expanded the label’s portfolio to include wines like syrah, grenache and nebbiolo.

Chris Whitcraft is also survived by his daughter, Alyssa.

Funeral plans are pending.


Mom Loves Pink: Six Santa Barbara Rosés for Mother’s Day

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/8/14)

Here we are again, faced with the daunting task of finding just the right gift for Mom.  Daunting, that is, until you find that perfect bottle of wine.

By most accounts – conversations with local men and women who make and sell wine – rosé continues to see its stock rise.  In all its perky pink glory, this is the little wine that could, having survived years of negative PR for being too sweet and not serious enough to – finally – enjoying burgeoning appeal among the masses.  The Santa Barbara wine scene is increasingly awash in rosé, and as the local choices increase, it’s tough to make a choice that’s wrong.

The pink comes from carefully calculated communion between grape skin and grape juice; the longer that tryst, the darker the hue.  And the flavor comes from the fruit the winemaker chooses; certain red grapes make rosé’s flavors sing.  But the experience – and that’s the most important part, no? – hinges on how it’s enjoyed, and it’s tough to beat enjoying a few glasses with Mom.

So if you’re still in the market for a gift to bring a smile to any mother’s lips, these six local rosés are a shoe-in.  Heck, buy her two of each.  That’s a dozen rosés! 

Tasting bubbles with Norm Yost at his Lompoc tasting room
Flying Goat’s Goat Bubbles 2012 Sparkling Rosé ($40)
Mother’s Day is a celebration, right?  So popping the cork on a wine from one of Santa Barbara’s foremost sparkling wine producers is a must.  Winemaker Norm Yost takes on the oft-grueling task of turning still wine into bubbly by hand, employing the same classic Champagne methods that have led to some of the world’s most dashing wines; aging alone on a wine like this takes well more than a year.  When Yost began courting his now-wife, Kathleen, in 2006, he used his very first Goat Bubbles Rosé to score points.  “Goat Bubbles Rosé will always be special to me for the romantic memory of him disgorging that first bottle in my backyard to show off his secret project,” she recalls.  “Of course, he lost about half of it due to lack of experience in hand disgorging!”  The 2011 Goat Bubbles Rosé, which Yost once poured for me at the sparkling wine bar inside his Lompoc Ghetto tasting room, was made from pinot noir harvested at Solomon Hills Vineyard in Santa Maria; beautiful dark berry flavors led to a clean, refreshing finish.  That wine is sold out.  But the 2012 rendition went on sale in the tasting room this week!  In Santa Barbara, bouchon Restaurant is already pouring it by the glass.

Municipal Winemakers 2013 Pale Pink ($22)
Winemaker Dave Potter gets it right, again.  This sprightly wine is fresh and youthful – a Rhone-inspired blend featuring Santa Barbara County grenache, mainly, as well as cinsault and counoise; it features delightful strawberry and raspberry flavors with a very subtle spicy edge.  Skin contact was carefully limited to four hours before the juice was drained and fermented inside French oak barrels.  The color is on the lighter end – like a glistening steak of the freshest possible salmon.  And on a warm afternoon (as Mother’ Day is forecast to be), it’ll sip fast.  Potter has been making rosé since he launched his label in 2007; he recently doubled yearly production to 100 cases, and it still sells out every time.  This Sunday will be Mrs. Potter’s very first Mother’s Day (Baby Potter is 10 months old) and Dad tells me he’ll be pouring this wine for her throughout the afternoon.

My wife really likes Haylee's Rose
Blair Fox Cellars 2013 Haylee’s Rose ($21)
Potter’s buddy (and former co-worker at Fess Parker Winery), Blair Fox, does his own magic on this rosé, a vibrant blend of grenache, syrah and zinfandel.  The color on this one is downright sexy – a crimson-pink hue that comes from cold soaking the grapes for a full 24 hours before being fermented inside French oak barrels for a month.  The acidity here shines and the flavors are layered and refined – raspberry, strawberry jam, cranberry.  This winemaking endeavor is a full-fledged family affair – wife Sarah has winemaking credits under their new label, Fox Wine Co., and each of their daughters is a label inspiration.  This wine is named after 7-year-old Haylee Rose, who’s certain to pour this wine generously (and proudly) for Mom on Sunday.

Riverbench 2013 Rosé ($22)
This wine is a brand new release by winemaker (and proud mother) Clarissa Nagy.  This one’s made from whole clusters of pinot noir – estate fruit from those beautiful Riverbench vines in the heart of the Santa Maria Valley.  This ruddy pink sipper captures the vibrancy of the pinot fruit beautifully to create a frisky, flirtatious wine that is downright seductive.  Its aromas smack of red rose petals suspended in water; its pretty berry flavors create a bracing mouth feel and dry finish.  “The wine is pink gorgeousness that belongs on every summertime table,” declares Riverbench GM Laura Booras.  “Complex but approachable, sophisticated but fun!”  I’d describe a few moms I know the same way.
Fontes & Phillips 2011 Panky ($15)
I’ve had this wine a couple of times in the last few weeks and I’m blown away by how alive this three-year-old rosé can be.  It’s a 2011, so it’s a bit older than many of the rosés you’ll find on the wine shop shelf.  But it’s still refreshingly brilliant and bouncy, and it remains one of Santa Barbara’s premiere renditions of this type of wine.  Winemaker Alan Phillips was inspired by the greatest of dry French rosés when he blended grenache, cinsault and syrah from Camp 4 Vineyard in Santa Ynez; he fermented the wine in stainless steel tanks and bottled it just a few months after harvest.  The 2012 Panky will be released on Mother’s Day.

Carhartt 2013 Chase the Blue Away Rosé ($21)
Recently, I sipped this vivacious wine alongside Mike Carhartt inside his Los Olivos tasting room; drinking pink was never manlier.  The wine was expertly crafted by his wife, Brooke, and plays on the name of their son, Chase, a 20-something ball of energy that’s joined the family business.  Grenache is the star here, and the explosion of flavor is awesome – watermelon, pomegranate, strawberry and a tangy sweetness that reminded me of one of those mouthwatering Now-&-Later candies.  This wine and Sunday brunch are a match made in Heaven, and a match worthy of Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day!