Feast for the Senses: Santa Barbara Wine Festival Returns

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
Photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com
(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 www.sbnature.org.  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.


1 comment:

  1. Nice article, Gabe. I do believe, however, it was the late Ralph Auf der Heide, founder of The Wine Cask (he sold it to the Margerums in the early '80s) who started what is now called The Santa Barbara Wine Festival, with Chris Whitcraft and Jim Fiolek.

    Keep 'em comin'.