Community Memorial for Winemaker Chris Whitcraft Set for Sunday

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos courtesy of the Whitcraft family
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Pres on 6/28/14)

Chris Whitcraft at Mayfare Wines & Spirits
The Santa Barbara community is invited to a celebration of life for winemaker Chris Whitcraft this Sunday, June 29th, from noon to 6pm at Skofield Park, 1819 Las Canoas Rd. in Santa Barbara.. 

Mr. Whitcraft died from cardiac arrest and complications related to diabetes on May 24th.  He was 64.

Born in 1950 on an Air Force base in upstate New York, Mr. Whitcraft’s military family moved frequently before settling in Orange County in the 1960s.  After a brief stint in San Jose, he moved to Santa Barbara in 1974 and married his college sweetheart, local real estate agent Kathleen Barnato.  They were together for 25 years and had two children, Drake, 32, who now runs Whitcraft Winery, and Alyssa, 28, who earned a PhD in geography this year.

     Chris Whitcraft with friend Antonio Gardella   
The community knew Mr. Whitcraft best as one of the area’s most prominent winemakers.  The man who turned Mayfare Wine & Spirits in Montecito into a wine buff’s mecca in the mid 1970s helped establish the Santa Barbara Wine Festival in 1978 and released his first vintage under the Whitcraft Winery label in 1985.  His natural, hands-off approach to making pinot noir and chardonnay, especially – he sorted grapes by hand and stomped them by foot – made him a phenom among peers and consumers.

37th District Assemblyman Das Williams authored a California State Resolution earlier this month to memorialize Chris Whitcraft as “a pioneer in the Santa Barbara County winemaking industry.”

Chris Whitcraft on guitar as winemaker Fred Brander sips
His friends and family also knew Mr. Whitcraft as an extremely intelligent man with a passion for guitars and music and a wit that was as raw as it was hilarious. 

“He lived life like he made his wines – unfiltered,” says longtime friend Jim Fiolek. 

Friend Antonio Gardella says, “Chris lived up to his name: he really was a crafter of wit.” 

And Ms. Barnato remembers, “He really did have a heart of gold.”

Whitcraft and Kathleen Barnato
Mr. Whitcraft’s passing, of course, has been hardest on his children.  “I still can’t be at the winery by myself without breaking down,” admits Drake.  But remembering his dad as a “fun, loving, carefree, talented person who did whatever the hell he wanted” makes him smile.

Alyssa, who got engaged to be married the same day Mr. Whitcraft passed away, plans on making a quilt for her future children with her dad’s old t-shirts.  “He always played dress-up with me and let me put curlers in his hair when I was little,” she recalls.  “And when I got older, I realized everything he said to me came from a place of love.”

The family has established the “Chris Whitcraft Memorial Fund” to support local students interested in winemaking.  Donations can be sent to the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, P.O. Box 3620, Santa Barbara, CA 93130. Donations can also be made online at with the memo "Chris Whitcraft Memorial Fund".

Chris Whitcraft with Alyssa and Drake
Attendees to Sunday’s potluck event are encouraged to bring a special bottle of wine and personal stories about Mr. Whitcraft to share.

Find out more about Whitcraft Winery at and visit its downtown Santa Barbara winery and tasting room at 36-A S.Calle Cesar Chavez, just a few steps from the beach.  Call 805-730-1680 and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.


Feast for the Senses: Santa Barbara Wine Festival Returns

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey,
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/19/14)

The wine festival takes over the beautiful SB Museum of Natural History
No doubt: these days, the city of Santa Barbara plays host to an amazing number of wine-centric events.  No one goes thirsty here.  But only one wine fest bears this beautiful city’s name, and lives up to it through and through.

This weekend – on Saturday, June 28th from 2-5pm – the Santa Barbara Wine Festival makes its anticipated return to the beautiful Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.  The sprawling setting is only part of the story, but a significant part.  The 17-acre property is any outdoor buff’s dream, with Mission Creek meandering through a woodland setting of towering oaks, looping paths and a bevy of critters (the annual Butterflies Alive! Exhibit is back!).  For the festival, the lushness and the openness makes meandering from one wine station to the next an adventure.

Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo
The Santa Barbara Wine Festival has been luring wine aficionados for almost three decades.  It was started by three key players in Santa Barbara’s own wine history: Jim Fiolek, who, until recently, led the county’s vintners association for many years, wine connoisseur Ralph Auf der Heide and the late great Chris Whitcraft.  Those of us who are still reeling from Whitcraft’s recent, unexpected passing will likely find his absence especially palpable this year, but I’m looking forward to sharing a few sips with his son, Drake, who’s now helming the winery with the same philosophy and focus.

This organic gathering of Santa Barbara winemakers started, actually, on the grounds of the Museum.  By the early 2000s, it was having trouble turning a profit, so it left for the lush grounds of the Music Academy of the West; this is where I attended the Festival for the first time.  But when expansion efforts at the Montecito-based school began in earnest some seven years ago, the Festival found itself moving back to the Natural History Museum and today, under the direction of events manager Meridith Moore, the annual wine feast remains one of the most important fundraisers of the year.  The funds help drive kids’ programs.

Flying Goat Cellars winemaker Norm Yost
“We bring in 40,000 children a year to the museum,” says Moore.  “And when they’re here, they spend six hours with scientists, curators and docents learning about natural history.”  The kids are local, mostly, but many are brought here from throughout the state, as well.

This type of outreach, of course, is what helps many of the area’s top winemakers   -- with no shortage of opportunities to pour their wines for a thirsty public – to make attending the Santa Barbara Wine Festival, specifically, a priority.  “As a father of three kids, I love the outdoors and I love natural history,” says Tercero winemaker Larry Schaffer, who’s been showcasing his wines at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival for several years.  He’s earmarking his “Outlier” gewürztraminer for this year’s event, as well as his 2013 Rosé of Mourvedre, a wine made from Happy Canyon fruit that’s been getting a lot of media buzz lately. 

“The setting at this event cannot be beat, and the vibe cannot be beat either,” Schaffer tells me.  It’s one of the most low-key events that I do – it definitely has a subdued feel, unlike a lot of other events that are louder and are more of a party.”

The Carr Winery table is always popular
And that boils down to the intimacy that this festival creates.  I have seen more winemakers in person at this event than at any other in the city; famous local wine guys like Fred Brander, Jim Clendenen, Richard Sanford, Greg Brewer and Blair Fox are almost always there, doing the pouring.  Locally, that’s a winemaker-to-consumer ratio that’s tough to beat (aside from maybe the two annual festivals put on by Santa Barbara Vintners, in North County).

This is a feast for the senses, certainly, so it’s important to mention that aside from the wine – and we’re talking more than 50 labels – the food is top notch, too.  Here, you get to taste culinary creations that are generating the latest foodie buzz in Santa Barbara – the popsicles from Frozen Monkey, the chocolates from Jessica Foster, the baked treats from Renaud’s Patisserie and gourmet designs by chefs from the likes of Via Maestra 42, Finch & Fork Restaurant and Stone House Restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch.

And did I mention the breathtaking setting?

Tickets to this year’s Santa Barbara Wine Festival are $70 for museum members and $95 for non-members (or $105 at the door for everyone).  Buy yours at  And I’ll see you there!

In my chat with Tercero’s Larry Schaffer for this piece, I discovered that he quadrupled his Rosé of Mourvedre ($20) production from 2011 to 2013.  Wow!  Production is leveling off now, though.  Schaffer admits that, despite the recent surge in demand, “The rosé market is challenging.”  Want to taste it before you buy a case?  Visit the Tercero tasting room in Los Olivos.


Auction Action: Los Olivos to Draw Wine Buffs with Cellar Classic

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/19/14)

Star power – on multiple fronts – will likely make this year’s Cellar Classic one for the record books.

The fifth annual auction of rare wines will take place in Los Olivos on June 28th, from 4 to 7pm.  This is the fundraiser of record for St. Mark’s in the Valley, an Episcopal church by name but the quintessential community center by design.  Aside from serving as a parish for its congregation, this is where more than 60 local groups come to access space – at no cost to them – for gatherings and events.  The area’s Jewish community, in the absence of a synagogue, meets here, as do a variety of 12-step recovery groups and theater ensembles.  Concerts and pre-school education is offered here to all, regardless of faith.  Cooking classes for low-income families are presented here throughout the year.  Even simple things – clean restrooms, filled water bowls for your dog – are always available here to everyone.

Bidders at the 2013 Cellar Classic (photo by Mike Mesikep)
“Once you start telling the story of St. Mark’s, you don’t have to do all that much to promote this auction,” says vintner Steve Pepe, of Clos Pepe Vineyards in Sta. Rita Hills, who launched the Cellar Classic with fellow parishioner Brooks Firestone in 2010.

The event takes place on the lovely grounds of St. Mark’s and serves up delicious wines and gourmet homemade fare.  A silent auction featuring one-of-a-kind wine lots leads to a rousing live auction outdoors, where cult wines that rival the lineup at any fancy Napa and New York City auction kick the tally higher and higher.  Last year alone, the Cellar Classic netted $225,000 and donations of $10,000 to $20,000 were made to its associate groups, including Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital, Lompoc Valley Medical Center and St. Vincent de Paul.

This year, the Classic is extending its giving, with donations also earmarked for the Marian Regional Medical Center of Santa Maria and the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

All the wines up for auction are donated, of course, with many parishioners digging into their own private cellars.  But about half the donations – as well as half of the actual bidding – comes from non-churchgoers who have simply come to love the St. Mark’s story.

Paddle battle at the 2013 Cellar Classic (photo by Mike Mesikep)

This year, that includes the event’s celebrity Honorary Chair, Steven Spurrier, who donated three 1977 vintage ports and who’s flying in for this from London.  The British wine expert and author is the man who famously organized the 1976 tasting that would come to be known as the Judgment of Paris, in which California wines bested French wines – gasp! – in blind tastings.  Actor Alan Rickman portrayed him in the 2008 film Bottle Shock.

Spurrier also stars in a live auction lot inspired by the upcoming Judgment of Paris film.  Hollywood heavyweight and vintner Robert Mark Kamen (The Karate Kid, Lethal Weapon 3, A Walk in the Clouds) wrote and produced it and is auctioning off a package that includes a signed copy of the screenplay (by him and Spurrier), an extra role in the film and four tickets to the movie’s U.S. premiere.

One of seven 100-point wines up for auction at the 2014 Cellar Classic
The rest of the Cellar Classic’s stars are the cult wines themselves, of course, which comprise more than 60 one-of-a-kind lots: Blandy's 1880 Verdelho Solera Madeira, Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1961 Pauillac, Chateau Margaux 1953 Margaux, Maison Leroy 1949 Musigny, Chateau Lafite 1970 Pauillac, and many more.

Local wines in the spotlight include Foxen and Liquid Farm; Curtis Winery is donating an entire barrel of its 2012 “Semper Fi” Bordeaux Blend.

Lifestyle lots range from vineyard-inspired originals by local artists like James Paul Brown and a Sunstone Villa getaway for 10 to a paella party for 12 in Napa and the ultimate Yankees experience in New York City (complete with VIP tickets to a game at Yankees Stadium, field passes to meet First Base Coach Mick Kelleher, airfare, hotel and a Broadway show).

The list goes on and on, and it’s so sensational that even if you’re not an avid bidder, this is the one summer wine event not to miss.

For tickets – or to make a donation – contact Steve Pepe directly at 805-735-7867 or

And new this year: a lavish reception the night before, on Friday, at Mattei's Tavern in Los Olivos, featuring Mr. Spurrier.  Click here for more information.


New Foxen Rosé Raises Funds for Breast Cancer Research

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/18/14)

Last week, I sat down with the Foxen Boys – Dick Doré and winemaker Bill Wathen – to share a bottle of their just-released 2013 Rosé of Mourvedre ($25).  Made with fruit sourced from Vogelzang Vineyard in the Happy Canyon AVA and crushed in their solar winery the old-fashioned way (by foot), it marks their fifth rosé production.  This is idyllic summer sipping, with strawberries on the nose and refreshing watermelon on the palate.  For every bottle you buy during the month of June, Foxen will donate $1 to the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Resource Center.  A $1 gift will also be made for each sale of their pink-on-grey “Real Men Drink Pink” and "Real Women Drink Pink" t-shirts.  Find all three at

Want more? Click here to listen to the Foxen Boys talk about this rosé and much more on the Dirt Don't Lie podcast, part of the multimedia Vintage 2014 project in Santa Barbara wine country.  And be sure to download the free app for iPhone and Android -- search "Dirt Don't Lie."