Last-Minute GIft Ideas? Wines to Stuff Your Stocking

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/18/14

Red may well be the greatest of holiday hues, weather hanging from my Christmas tree or swimming in my glass.  Even the most avid white wine drinker is likely to turn to reds this time of year, to better enjoy both longer nights as well as the richer foods the season inspires.  Here are a few top finds.
Byron 2013 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($19)
This was a year of many wins for Byron winemaker Jonathan Nagy.  His release of the 2012 Monument pinot ($60) and the 2012 Julia’s Vineyard pinot ($45) showcase a knack for extrapolating nuances from every vineyard site he taps.  The 2013 Santa Barbara County release is an awesome value; a fresh and bouncy mouth feel, a floral nose and abundant flavors of cherries and berries make it the perfect holiday table topper.
Presqu’ile 2012 Pinot Noir, Presqu’ile Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($60)
This thriving family project is proof the Santa Maria Valley has world-class written all over it; the deluxe Presqu’ile visitor center is a destination all its own.  The Murphys, along with winemaker Dieter Cronje and vineyard manager Jim Stollberg, farm their 70-plus acres of estate grapes sustainably and favor an earlier harvest to keep alcohols low and acidity bright.  This estate pinot noir spent close to a year and a half in French oak and is a wonderfully elegant, smooth, balanced wine full of spicy notes and cherry flavors.
Edmeades 2012 Zinfandel, Piffero Vineyard ($31)
Nestled in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, this labels focus is squarely on zinfandel; they released six this year.  A trend emerges from their refreshingly natural and hands-on approach: all these wines have balance, a supple texture and solid integration.  But my favorite is from Piffero Vineyard, where grapes struggle in tough, rocky red soil to produce powerful flavors.  This wine is rich and jammy, yet velvety, and delicious red berry flavors are enhanced by spice rack touches.
Brander 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Ynez Valley ($28)
Fred Brander helms one of our area’s top cabernet programs; his reserve cabs are tougher to find but worth nabbing whenever you can.  This Bordeaux-inspired wine, helmed by winemaker Fabian Bravo, is made entirely from estate grapes, in Los Olivos, and from 100% cabernet sauvignon grapes.  It shines for its fruit-forward approach and incredible approachability; blue and red berries, cherry and vanilla notes prevail.
Rusack 2012 Pinot Noir, Catalina Island Vineyards ($72)
This is my pick for the year’s ultimate stocking stuffer.  For one, what a story!  The Rusack label, based in Ballard Canyon and already well-known for winemaker Steve Gerbac’s sophisticated Rhones, is developing a world-class wine program on Catalina Island.  For Mrs. Alison Rusack, a member of the famous Wrigley family, this is personal; her great-grandfather bought it in 1919 and would go on to revamp its infrastructure.  Today, a ranch he founded in 1930 – El Rancho Escondido – is the epicenter of a project by Alison and Geoff Rusack that will include a winery and visitor center.  Chardonnay, pinot and zin grow here, under oft-challenging ocean-driven conditions that have required extra investment and extra ingenuity.  But, neat story aside, these wines are unique and remarkable.  The 2012 pinot noir is big on acidity and layered aromatics, with a supple mouth feel, a tangy essence and bright cranberry flavors.  Only 98 cases were made. 

Merry Christmas!


Tasting Bubbles: Santa Barbara Public Market Hosts Champagne Event

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey,
(story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/4/14)

Even if you haven’t bought a bottle of bubbly all year, odds are you will now.
Strong Champagne sales “begin in October and November, and they  really pick up for New Year’s Eve,” says Sam Doernte, the buyer for the wine and beer retail shop – Wine + Beer – inside the Santa Barbara Public Market.  “I expect to see a big jump in sales in the next month."
Some of the fine Champagne to be featured at Wine+ Beer this Saturday
Indeed, ‘tis the season for suds, for bottled effervescence, and, yes, even for that occasional cork streaking at high speeds across the room.
No doubt, many of you avid Champagne fans have already earmarked your turn-of-the-calendar bottle while; for the rest of us, though, this will be a once-a-year buy, and a potentially intimidating one.
No matter what camp you’re in, though, this weekend’s Champagne tasting at Santa Barbara Public Market may be one of the best wine investments you make this year.
On Saturday, in two separate sessions, Wine + Beer will showcase 11 top-shelf Champagnes.  These are the real deal – some of the best producers grown and made in France’s legendary bubbles mecca.  Many are recognizable labels: Dom Perignon, Krug, Ruinart.  But several are boutique producers – low-profile labels and best-kept-secret sparklers.
“It’s actually a very small number of producers [in Champagne] who grow their own fruit, make their own wine, bottle it in their own cellars and then sell it,” says Doernte, who moved out from Palm Springs just six weeks ago to help stock the shelves at Wine + Beer.  “But the people who do it are always pretty high quality, and you get a lot of value out of them.”
Wine + Beer features several bubblies by the glass
Champagnes up for tasting include Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve N/V, Chartogne-Taillet "Sainte-Anne" Brut N/V, Henriot Brut Souverain N/V, Krug "Grande Cuvee" Brut N/V and Dom Perignon Brut 2004.
In a move that highlights the bevy of offerings at this buzzing culinary epicenter, guests will cleanse palates between sips with gourmet pairings from other Market merchants: oysters and caviar from Santa Monica Seafood, cheese and charcuterie from Culture Counter and duck confit from Belcampo Meat Company.
And since first-hand sipping always makes buying smarter and easier, 20% discounts will be offered on purchases of six or more bottles.
“How much will a solidly good Champagne cost me?” I asked Doernte during our chat this week.
“You can find great ones between $40 and $70,” he said, reminding me that Wine + Beer always  features two to three Champagnes by the glass and 30 sparkling wine selections by the bottle, about half of which are genuine Champagnes.
Saturday’s events – an early session at 4:30pm and an evening session at 7pm – will last two hours and take place in The Kitchen, the Santa Barbara Public Market’s commercial cooking facility that regularly hosts demos, classes and private events.  Tickets are $60 and attendance for each is capped at 40 – cocktail attire requested.  For tickets, go to or call 805-770-7702.