Breaking Ground: Couple Plans New Santa Barbara Wine Experience

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/11/14)

Jason Djang is no stranger to connecting with people.  During Barack Obama’s original campaign for President in 2008, and for the first 18 months of his first White House stint, Djang was his videographer and helped mold his outreach to the public via video and online messages.  Politics aside, that linear ability to reach people while circumventing media was revolutionary in its own way, and effective.
“It was all about transparency,” he says, “and about making a direct connection with an audience.”
Today, Djang helps run the YouTube production facility in Los Angeles, which provides creative resources for individuals who put on some of the Internet channel’s top rated video shows.  And he’s a vintner.
The Brave & Maiden estate is located in Santa Ynez
I met Djang and his wife, Holly, a partner at an L.A.-based public health research firm, among the vines in Santa Ynez.  They’re part of a small group of investors who bought the Harmon Family Vineyard along Refugio Rd. four years ago.  And now, with a green light from the county and a clear vision, they’re embarking on a viticultural and experiential endeavor that will soon give Santa Barbara wine country its newest high-profile hospitality center.
“Our idea is to bring the outside in,” Holly says, as she describes the 17,000-square-foot, tri-structure complex they have been approved to build adjacent to their vineyard.  Shaped like a horseshoe, they envision a fermentation building, a barrel room and a tasting room accented by oversize barn doors and an open courtyard enveloped by olive trees.  They’ve hired Howard Backen, the principal architect at Oakville-based Backen-Gillam-Kroeger, whose portfolio includes some of the state’s most luxurious wineries and hospitality centers.
Groundbreaking should take place by mid-2015, with a grand opening sometime in 2016.  And they intend the visitor experience to be personal and intimate.   “A direct type of experience,” Djang says.  “Hands-on and unhurried, so that it’s memorable.  We want to make a human connection, not just have our guests read a tech sheet.  That’s how people remember your name.”
The Brave & Maiden estate grows syrah, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc
This ambitious endeavor stems from what the Djangs find frustrating, and even baffling.  In so many ways, the L.A.-based consumer is the holy grail for Santa Barbara wine country.  Savvy consumers with money to spend, who live about a two-hour drive away.  “But L.A. is not as connected to this area as it could be, or should be,” Jason says.
Holly adds, “They may know where this area is, but they still don’t realize the value and the quality that exist here.  They still think Napa.”
So the Djangs’ goal is to bridge that gulf.  “And how do you do it?”  They are speaking almost in unison at this point.  “One, you make quality wine,” says Jason.  “And two, you create a destination.”
The onsite wine experience will accomplish the second mission, in a few years.  The first task, though, is already underway.
Union is a blend of syrah, merlot and cabernet franc
The Djangs have released their first wine under the stylish Brave & Maiden label.  The name was inspired by an indigenous local story – an urban legend, of sorts, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet.  Apparently written a century ago by a Presbyterian minister, it tells of two misunderstood, star-crossed paramours – a brave and a maiden from rival clans – ending their love-fueled retreat with a plunge at Nojoqui Falls.
“A beautiful story that captures the notion of disparate traditions,” they tell me.  It’s a theme they’re embracing.
The label on the bottle, in fact, is accented by an embossed silver waterfall.  Simple and classic.  And the wine itself, a 2011 blend dubbed Union, is a Rhone-and-Bordeaux amalgamation, bringing together syrah, merlot and cabernet franc.  Aromas of dark stone fruit and oak prevail, matched by a lithe mouth feel and flavors of dark berries and vanilla.  It retails for $30 – a great value – but is most easily found by the glass at spots like Lucky’s Steakhouse, Santa Barbara Public Market and the Los Olivos Café.
The grapes for this wine,  sustainably grown by well-known Ruben Solorzano of Coastal Vineyard Care, come exclusively from the estate – 46 acres that also include cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc.  The wine, along with others from the 2011 and 2012 vintages that are still being aged, was made by Nick Morello.  Winemaker Joshua Klapper, of La Fenetre Wines fame, took over through the 2014s.  A permanent winemaker will be announced soon.
As we walk through the vineyard, Jason and Holly point to a towering oak nestled in the grapes.  “We were married underneath that tree two years ago,” she tells me.  And I realize that this place holds promise in more ways than one.
For more information, check out


Sideways Goes Social: Film’s 10th Anniversary Inspires Twitter and Instagram Campaign

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(pubilshed in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/6/14)

Miles and Jack are back in Santa Barbara County.
An entire decade after the two bachelors left their oft-pleasing, oft-distasteful mark throughout Santa Barbara’s wine country – as the two protagonists in the Oscar-winning movie, Sideways – a brand new social media promotion is leveraging their unrelenting allure.

Signs like this, which are featured at 100 businesses
throughout Santa Barbara County, will stay up through Sep. 14 
Some 100 signs have gone up all over Santa Barbara County that invite the public to strike a pose, take a shot and enter a contest for a chance to win myriad prizes.  The signs, which stand six feet tall, feature the cartoon likenesses of actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who portrayed Miles and Jack, respectively, squeezed side by side inside a wine bottle.  “Take Your Picture With Us,” the signs declare, prompting posers to upload their photographs to the social networking service Twitter and the photo-sharing app Instagram, using the hashtag #Sideways10.
Pictures can also be uploaded manually to  Participants must be 21 or older.
Each day through September 14th, one entry will take home a copy of the movie on Blu-ray + Digital HD.  Fox Searchlight, which produced the flick, is launching the commemorative edition this fall.  And one Grand Prize winner will win a comprehensive five-day Santa Barbara wine country vacation, including accommodations, wine tasting adventures, gourmet dining and several land and sea excursions.
Why all the hoopla?
The promotion is part of the local 10th anniversary celebration of Sideways' wildly successful release.  The movie, even today, is credited with not only lifting public fervor for pinot noir wine but also with putting Santa Barbara, a prime growing region for the red grape, on a veritable global marquee.  The movie won an Oscar for director Alexander Payne’s screenplay adaptation of the novel by Rex Pickett, several Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Awards statuettes and the title of “2004 Film of the Year” from the American Film Institute.
“We are thrilled to be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the global phenomenon which is Sideways,” Santa Barbara Film Commissioner Geoff Alexander told the News-Press.  “Beyond being a great movie, Sideways helped to launch the Santa Barbara County wine industry on a massively successful scale, building businesses in our area, creating jobs and continuing to attract visitors from around the world to our destination.”

Several Santa Barbara County vineyards served as backdrops for the film "Sideways"
(courtesy: Fox Searchlight and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)

The signs can be found at high-traffic locations throughout the county, as well as businesses that served as sets and backdrops for the film, which was shot over 10 weeks during the fall of 2003.  In downtown Santa Barbara, they include Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara Public Market and the wine tasting rooms of Grassini, Kalyra, Kunin, Pali Wine Co. and Margerum Wine Co.  In Buellton, Ostrich Land, Pea Soup Andersen’s Inn, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and Hitching Post II (a significant setting in the Sideways storyline) are featuring the sign.  And in Solvang, 16 sign display spots include the Alisal Guest Ranch, the Elverjoh Museum and Solvang Library.
Winemaker Angela Soleno is featuring the Sideways10 social
media campaign sign in her Turiya Wines tasting room in Lompoc
Sideways “put wine appreciation at the forefront of many people’s minds,” says winemaker Angela Soleno, who entered the wine biz shortly after the movie’s release and who’s featuring the bright green social media invitation in her Turiya Wines tasting room, one of 15 Lompoc locations participating (which also include Ampelos Cellars and Flying Goat Cellars).  “I am glad Santa Barbara County is getting behind the movie’s anniversary and continuously promoting the area.”
In Los Olivos, where 17 businesses are taking part (including Epiphany Wines, Zaca Mesa Winery and Andrew Murray Vineyards), the promotion will help the public “relive some of the magic from the film,” says Jenni Schierman, retail sales and marketing manager for the Sanger Family of Wines. “We have customers in our tasting room that quote lines at least weekly. [This promotion] is a fun way to bring people together.”  As a perk, the company is also selling a "Not Merlot" Grab-and-Go wine bag – a Tre Anelli Dolcetto and Barbera and a Consilience Rodney Schull Grenache – for $59.99 (regular retail $109).  (Merlot, as an unintentional foil to pinot noir, is dealt a big blow by the movie.)
Businesses in Santa Maria (like Foxen Winery), Los Alamos, Santa Ynez (like Sunstone Winery) and Ballard (like the Ballard Inn) are also participating.
Spearheaded by Visit Santa Barbara, the city’s primary tourism nexus, the Sideways 10th Anniversary Sign Promotion also features the collaboration of the Santa Barbara County Film Commission, Visit the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara Vintners, Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau, Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, the Los Olivos Business Organization and the Buellton Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce.


One Grape’s Revenge: Sideways Anniversary Inspires Merlot Tasting

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/28/14)

It took just one line.  Granted, it was delivered dramatically, and with angst.  But just one infamous line is all it took.

“I am not drinking any [expletive] merlot!”

In Sideways, Miles (played by Paul Giamatti, left) prefers pinot noir and
won't drink "any [expletive] merlot!"
(courtesy: Fox Searchlight and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment)
In the Oscar-winning film Sideways, the main character, Miles, delivers the sentence in a frenzy along the alleyway outside the Los Olivos Café.  He’s on a wine-fueled double date with his friend, Jack.  To be fair, the outburst by Miles, played by actor Paul Giamatti, is more about the expletive than the wine; merlot is his ex-wife’s favorite red, and he’s not handling their breakup well.  Ordering merlot now would be nothing short of a self-inflicted emotional flogging.  To fan the irony, the wine Miles famously drinks in self-medication toward the end of the movie – a fancy 1961 Cheval Blanc from Bordeaux – is comprised, in large part, of merlot.

But all this didn’t really matter to the American wine buyer, of course.  Miles’ defiant refusal to drink merlot in one of the movie’s most complex scenes was enough for the once-reigning wine to take a hit with consumers – a sting that still hurts today.  Data from Nielsen, the statistics collection company, suggests merlot has a 10% share of the U.S. wine marketplace today, compared to 15% in 2004.

But now, “merlot wants to get even,” jests Louie Lucas, who’s been growing a wide range of wine grapes in Santa Barbara County for four decades.  And many of his colleagues agree.

Inspired by this year’s 10th anniversary of Sideways’ rollout onto theaters, more than a dozen local producers of merlot are hosting a “Merlot Taste-Off!”  The event, sponsored by the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, takes place Saturday, September 13th, from 3-6pm, in the garden courtyard of the Solvang Theater.  This is a fundraiser for the popular open-air performing arts venue, which opened its doors in downtown Solvang 40 years ago.  Tickets – priced at $65 through August 31 and $75 for purchases September 1 through the event date – can be purchased online at

Lucas & Lewellen grows its estate merlot in Los Alamos
Mr. Lucas, who owns more than 400 acres of vineyards in Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez, is quick to tout the merits of the merlot he and winemaker Megan McGrath produce for his Lucas & Lewellen label.  “There’s a lot of flavor there, and some really nice fruitiness,” he says.  The wine retails for $20.

But Mr. Lucas doesn’t coat the fact that the movie --  about two bachelors who stumble their way through Santa Barbara wine country, extolling the virtues of pinot noir while, even if inadvertently, dulling merlot’s luster – has led him to do things differently in the last 10 years.

Louie Lucas, right, and Royce Lewellen inspect
grapes before harvest
“After the movie, I took out two merlot plots – a total of about 12 acres – and grafted them over to pinot noir,” he admits.  “And because spacing was wide – 12 feet between vines – I inter-planted and put another row of pinot noir down the middle, tripling my pinot vines per acre.”

Data from the California Agricultural Statistics Service, provided to the News-Press by Santa Barbara Vintners, which represents most of the county’s wineries, concur.  Between 2003 and 2013, the amount of California acreage planted to merlot fell by half, while the amount of land dedicated to pinot noir doubled.  “It’s staggering,” says Mr. Lucas, who adds that pinot noir remains, in fact, their top seller.

But these days, a decade after Sideways’ jab, many growers like Mr. Lucas are revisiting merlot by focusing on optimum planting sites.  For the man behind two Solvang-based tasting rooms and three top-selling wine brands – Lucas & Lewellen, Toccata and Queen of Hearts – the answer is in Los Alamos.  “It’s an in-between place,” he says,” where it’s not too cold and not too hot.  When merlot is grown in a place that’s too warm, it makes a good red wine, but it loses classic merlot character.”  If the industry’s focus returns to the nuances that once made quality merlot a consumer favorite, believes Mr. Lucas, its renaissance in the marketplace may be inevitable.

Bob and Vickie Baehner, who live in the warmer eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, are counting on it.  The couple – he’s a former doctor, she’s a travel agent – planted five acres of their backyard to grapevines, including merlot, in 2001.  Their first Baehner Fournier Vineyards wines hit the marketplace in 2005, right when the hoopla over Sideways, which had just won an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, seven Independent Spirit Awards and the title of the American Film Institute’s “2014 Film of the Year,” was at its peak.

The Baehner-Fournier Vineyards in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley include about 1.5 acres of merlot

“We were a little nervous, sure,” admits Mrs. Baehner, adding, undaunted, “But merlot is my favorite wine.  In fact, we planted it mainly on my insistence.”

The Baehner-Fournier 2010 Merlot  
The Baehners planted carefully – Louie Lucas was among their early consultants – and their boutique approach has kept production manageably small.  They’ve also picked winemaking talent wisely – Nick DeLuca early on, Steve Clifton now, both highly-regarded players.  Last year, their 2010 Merlot took gold in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

“The nose is particularly nice,” says Mr. Baehner.  Blended with a bit of cabernet sauvignon, “you get dark cherry, you pick up plum on the mid-palate, nice balanced acidity and a finish that’s long and smooth.”

Yes, people still reference Miles when the Baehners discuss their estate merlot. “They joke about it,” admits Mrs. Baehner.  “But then they taste it, they love it, they ask for a second taste, and they buy it.”

The Baehners made 151 cases of their 2010 merlot, and less than a quarter of the production remains.  It will be poured at the upcoming Merlot Taste-Off!

Other wineries taking part in the September 13th event include Sunstone, Buttonwood, Carivintas, Core, Dascomb, Happy Canyon Vineyard, J. Ludlow, Lions Peak, Point Concepcion, Sagebrush Annie’s and Sevtap.

For upcoming events commemorating Sideways’ 10th anniversary, check out social media: #Sideways10.


Italian-Inspired: Bacara Dinner to Feature Opera and Nobility

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/4/14)

The next chapter in Bacara Resort’s popular “Meet the Masters” dinner series will feature Italian nobility.

Armando Fumanelli will be the guest of honor at the September 18th affair, which begins at 6pm with a wine reception in Bacara’s Rotunda terrace.  The celebrated winemaker hails from Italy’s Valpolicella, a famous wine growing region near the city of Verona.  And, with the title of Marchesi and as a descendant of Italian nobles dating back hundreds of years, he’s also royalty.

The historic Squarano Estate in Valpolicella
Bacara is theming the evening inspired by his visit as “A Taste of Verona.”  Guests will be treated to rare wines that have earned Mr. Fumanelli top reviews back home.  They’ll represent vintages stretching from 2006 through 2010 and highlight the native Italian grapes that grow particularly well in Valpolicella’s hilly terrain – grapes with names like corvina, corvinone and rondinella.  The vines, most of them 40 years old, grow on an historic 17th century villa, dubbed Squarano.  And some of the wines they make, like the classic Amarone, are often aged more than three years before their public release.

“The Fumanelli family has been cultivating grapes and producing prestigious wines for more than 600 years,” says Kathleen Cochran, Bacara’s general manager.  “We are honored to offer guests the rare opportunity to dine with a winemaker of this magnitude.”

Some Marchesi Fumanelli wines are aged 3 years before release
The kitchen staff at the luxury seaside resort is cooking to match, doling out a four-course menu designed by Executive Chef David Reardon.  The opening reception will include Yukon Gold potato blini with smoked salmon Ostera caviar and a white truffle and goat cheese mousse.

Starter courses will feature the classic agnolotti pasta, from Piedmont, stuffed with local spiny lobster and drizzled in vanilla cream, and pan roasted local sea bass dressed with a fall vegetable terrine.  The feature course, paired with the Marchesi Fumanelli 2008 Amarone Della Valpolicella, presents a pistachio-crusted lamb rib eye served with Swiss chard, a puree of baby carrots and an essence of Medjool dates.

Dessert is a sweet treat medley, including espresso chocolate cake, coconut rum custard and chocolate mousse.

This is meant to be a multisensory experience, though.  Enter professional singers from Opera Santa Barbara.  Between courses, diners will be treated to a bevy of Italian arias.

Natural light fills the Rotunda at Bacara, located above the lobby and offering 360-degree views

Tickets are $150 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity.  Call 877-496-9877 or visit  An overnight package, which includes two event tickets and valet parking, is available from $549.

Bacara Resort’s “Meet the Masters” dinner series debuted in January.  Previous high-profile culinary guests have included Master Sommelier Fred Dame and Japanese sake expert Yuji Matsumoto.  Currently, the series takes place the third Wednesday of every month.