Old But New: Wine Collection Opens in Santa Barbara's El Paseo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/23/14
photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com, snapped during the Wine Collection's Grand Opening on 10/20/14

Santa Barbara’s newest wine tasting destination has actually been here all along.

One of El Paseo's charming winding paths
The Wine Collection of El Paseo brings together six dynamic wine projects – some well-established, some brand new—that aim to leverage the romantic, upscale appeal of Santa Barbara’s historic Presidio neighborhood. 

“This area is so cool,” winemaker Doug Margerum told me this week, after I bumped into him along one of El Paseo’s meandering cobblestone pathways.  “But I don’t know if everyone walking this area realizes just how much we’ve got going on here, just off State.”

This stylish destination is, in fact, classic Santa Barbara.  Flanked by the busy 800 block of State Street, as well as De La Guerra and Anacapa Streets, it’s anchored by a stone fountain at the heart of an airy courtyard.  It’s defined by Spanish-style white stucco buildings, curving walls and snaking walkways.  And it’s accented by windows sheathed by wrought iron grills, handrails cloaked in coiling vines and red roof tiles made by hand. 

There are several high-end boutique shops here, and a handful of popular restaurants.  But this new collection of tasting rooms may be what finally makes this cultural epicenter a bona fide destination for people seeking a premium consumer experience.

Doug Margerum, Wine Cask Chef David Rosner, Mitchell Sjerven
Margerum is actually a big part of this endeavor.  The Wine Cask Restaurant, which he co-owns with restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven, is already well-known.  (Although, the recent addition of Executive Chef David Rosner has definitely revived the gourmet food focus here.)  And the Margerum Wine Company tasting room, located next door to the Wine Cask’s sister Intermezzo Café, has been drawing a clientele for several years with its lineup of sauvignon blanc, syrah, grenache and the popular M5 blend of Rhone grapes.

But this past summer, just down one of El Paseo’s Moorish-inspired paths, Margerum also opened MWC 32.  This is where his reserve and library wines are poured, including the Barden label of small-lot syrah, pinot noir and chardonnay wines from the Sta. Rita Hills AVA.  Visitors also get to experience the Cent’Anni wines here, a much buzzed-about project almost 15 years in the making that includes estate wines made from grapes like sangiovese and pinot grigio.

Happy Canyon Vineyards' Sean Pitts, left
Right next door is the newly-opened tasting room for Happy Canyon Vineyards, owned by the Barrack family, which produces Bordeaux wines off the Piocho Ranch in Santa Barbara’s Happy Canyon AVA, which is also home to two regulation polo fields.  Margerum makes these wines alongside executive winemaker Sean Pitts, including cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and proprietary red blends.  Equestrian gear is up for sale here, too.

Down another rustic passageway – a path marked by a “Street in Spain” sign and topped with a row of flags – is the tasting room for Jamie Slone Wines, which opened four weeks ago right next to Casa De La Guerra.  I found Jamie and Kim Slone there this week, welcoming guests (as well as a Korean reporter working on a feature on El Paseo for the Asian press).  “I’ve been here everyday since we opened, and we’re open seven days a week!” Mrs. Slone told me.  That’s another appeal of this collection: the owners run the show.

The flag-topped "Street in Spain" (Gabe Saglie photo)
“I’ve really focused on the interiors, and bringing that historic Spanish feel indoors,” Mr. Slone, a former radio station executive, told me.  He was pointing out the many wonderful hand-crafted touches that give his tasting room an elegant, yet relaxed, vibe.  Doug Margerum makes these wines, too, which run the gamut from Italian to Burgundian to Bordeaux varietals made in ultra-premium, limited production fashion.

Fans flank vintner Jamie Slone
The two tasting rooms that round out this Wine Collection are labels that are already considered among the area’s very best.  Au Bon Climat, the handiwork of celebrated winemaker Jim Clendenen, features large windows that look out on Anacapa Street.  The wine bar here pours the pinot noirs and chardonnays that have made ABC a brand of distinction for more than 30 years, as well as lesser-known varieties – aligote, tocai friulano, petite verdot – made under the Clendenen Family Vineyards label.

Grassini Family Vineyards’ tasting room, located across from the Wine Cask courtyard, is rustic and stylish.  This family-run winery is boutique at its core, using estate grapes grown in the Happy Canyon AVA to produce some of the best sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon I’ve tasted out of Santa Barbara County. 

The Grassini Vineyards tasting room
The Wine Collection of El Paseo is officially part of downtown Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, which groups together dozens of tasting bars and working wineries, most of them in the electric Funk Zone.  But the feel of this sub-group of six is decidedly distinct.  It’s inspired by the history that is unique to these few blocks in the heart of town and yet driven by an energy that is refreshingly new.

The tasting rooms are all open Noon to 6pm daily and have a growing collective social media presence on Facebook (search WineCollectionofElPaseo) and Twitter (@ElPaseoWine).


Harvest in 4-D: Multisensory Event Showcases "Vintage 2014"

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Wil Fernandez has been obsessed with the 2014 wine grape harvest in Santa Barbara County.  So much so, he’s captured every moment of it.  And, Wednesday night, he’s showing it off.

Wil Fernandez, photographer (credit: Jeremy Ball)
Fernandez’ approach has been ambitious and motivated from the get-go.  It’s been a multimedia endeavor that has included multiple cameras at key vineyard spots that captured 2014 from bud break - -literally, from the moment grape leaves emerged from their buds – to harvest.  It’s included professional photography and public events – including several under-the-radar culinary gatherings and pop-up wine tastings countrywide – that have put grape growers and winemakers face-to-face with consumers.

This project – Vintage 2014, it’s called, and it’s taken myriad social media channels by storm – has included podcasts, too.  And that’s how I got to know Fernandez.  When I saw the passion and energy behind his vision, I gladly volunteered to host several podcast interviews with top players in this year’s Santa Barbara wine grape harvest: Dick Dore and Bill Wathen from Foxen, Michael Larner, Ryan Carr, Karen Steinwachs from Buttonwood, Jonathan Nagy from Byron,  Laura Booras from Riverbench and Wes Hagen from Clos Pepe Vineyards.  The off-the-cuff and insightful conversations, dubbed “Dirt Don’t Lie" and recorded in Buellton at one of the coolest recording studios I’ve ever seen, are available at www.dirtdontlie.com.

Vintage 2014 is not for the faint of heart.  It’s been grueling, all-consuming.  It is, in fact, a fascinating form of marketing, under an umbrella Fernandez calls Central Coast Wine & Food. Fernandez once told me that the only way for Santa Barbara to emerge from the shadows cast by Napa and Sonoma is to get creative and innovative, to break ground.  So, yes, this has bucked the way the local establishment has been accustomed to promoting itself; it’s made some uneasy, even, about embracing this type of multimedia promotion platform.  But therein may lay Vintage 2014's greatest endorsement.

Fernandez uses a camera mounted on a drone helicopter to film a vineyard (credit: Jeremy Ball)

Fernandez is a former, very successful advertising executive from L.A.  Past clients who’ve entrusted him with multi-million dollar campaigns include BMW, Sit ‘n Sleep and several banks and pharmaceutical companies.  But when, five years ago, his creative energy craved something fresher, he took the wheel of a Winnebago and hit the road.  No permanent address for years, as he traversed the country.  And then, one day, he drove through the canyon pass that separates downtown Santa Barbara from the vines.

“When I first went over the hill and saw the Santa Ynez Valley, I got all tingly.  I just found something special.  I was blown away,” he told me earlier this year.  “Stress melts away when I go over that mountain.  It’s a little paradise.  And it’s like a yo-yo.  No matter where I’ve been… I keep finding myself back here."
This year, Fernandez’ Winnebago has been parked at a mobile home park in Buellton as he’s driven Vintage 2014 from beginning to end.  He’s managed to capture moments – in intimate fashion and from the perspective of the most significant of players – that define a challenging, very early, robust vintage.  And the fruits of his labor, in all their multimedia glory, are now available for the public to experience.

“Vintage 2014: An Evening of Wine, Food and Film” takes place Wednesday night, October 29th, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, from 6:30-8:30pm. Some of Santa Barbara’s top winemaking talent will be there, and bites and sips will be interspersed with intimate clips from this year’s harvest, captured like never before.  For tickets, go to www.vintage2014sb.eventbrite.com.

See you there!


Harvest Party: Vintners’ Fall Fete Marks Change

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey, wineguydotcom@yahoo.com
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/9/14)

Celebration of Harvest 2013, Old Mission Santa Ines
Santa Barbara Vintners – the dues-based association that represents the vast majority of wineries in Santa Barbara County – is undergoing a metamorphosis.  Its public outreach is getting a facelift.  And this weekend’s Celebration of Harvest puts it in full view.

For years, this fete has attracted thousands of aficionados to mingle with winemakers in the throes of harvest.  The main event?  Saturday’s Grand Tasting, which brings together more than 100 wineries, along with top chefs and several live bands.  This year, it takes place from 1-4pm on the pastoral grounds of Old Mission Santa Ines in Solvang.  Tickets are $75.  Parking is free.

Delights for the taste buds aside, special focus is being placed this year on the Tasting’s Silent Auction because of the unprecedented quality of wine items up for grabs, most of them coming from local vintners’ own cellars.  Included are more than 40 large format bottles, like magnums of vineyard-designate Foxen pinot noir and double magnums of Babcock pinot noir, as well as a 12-bottle collection of wines all made by different labels – like Hitching Post and Dragonette – and all from Fiddlestix Vineyard fruit.  Produced by the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation, proceeds are earmarked for Foodbank of Santa Barbara County.

Chase Carhartt pours for a thirsty fan (2013)
For many years, this autumn affair has also included a Vintners Visa ($50, or $40 if bought in conjunction with the Grand Tasting).  The special pass gives you access to a dozen wineries throughout the festival weekend – Friday through Monday – and a slew of exclusive tastings, pairing and discounts. Wineries from Buellton to Los Olivos to downtown Santa Barbara are participating.

But wait, there’s more.

This year’s Celebration of Harvest is part of the vintners’ brand new collaboration with Relevé Unlimited, a local destination management company.  This year launched a five-year contract that puts Relevé in charge of producing specialty wine events aimed at elevating consumer experience, expanding offerings and adding wow factor.  We got our first glimpse at this partnership last spring, at the annual Vintners Festival in Lompoc, where the longstanding annual event exploded into a slew of activities, including live concerts, intimate seminars and rare tastings.  It was an ambitious experiment, to be sure; in fact, a handful of offerings were canceled last minute, due to slow ticket sales.  But there’s no denying that it kicked that festival up a few notches.
Louisa and Bob Lindquist of the Qupe and Verdad labels

For this weekend’s soiree, the new experiences are more streamlined, better synchronized, and at better price points.
There’s an opening night feast Friday night – the first-ever La Paulee de Santa Barbara Dinner ($90).  Consumers will mingle with growers and winemakers as each guest shares one special bottle from their private cellar, and as Chef Pink of Bacon & Brine in Solvang doles out food.  The dinner takes place at the Veterans Hall, right across from Old Mission Santa Ines, and mingling from table to table is encouraged.

A Saturday morning seminar ($30) will feature top notch Santa Barbara wine talent – the likes of Richard Sanford and Andrew Murray – telling personal stories.  And Saturday night, after the Grand Tasting, the popular band Toad the Wet Sprocket will descend on the Solvang Festival Theater; the concert ($65, or $150 with VIP great-and-mingle reception) will feature a tasting of Santa Barbara County wines.

It’s an impressive roster of wine-fueled action – priced right and accessible – and proof that the made-over Celebration of Harvest is ready for its close-up.

Get info and tickets at www.celebrationofharvest.com.

My pal and KEYT Senior Rerpoter John Palminteri covering the 2013 Celebration of Harvest