Star Quality: Vintner Kurt Russell to Headline Bacara Fete

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/29/15

Actor/Vintner Kurt Russell
Actor Kurt Russell thinks making wine is a lot like making movies.

“You put all your heart and soul into it,” he says.  “It ‘aint easy, but it’s fun and exciting to see other people enjoy something you’ve put so much time and effort into.”

On the acting, of course, Mr. Russell, 64, is a pro.  He was a child TV star, and he was a golden boy for Disney for many years, before he went on to star in films like Overboard, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone and, more recently, The Art of the Steal.  Then there’s his 30-plus-year relationship with fellow actor Goldie Hawn, which has Hollywood royalty written all over it.

But when Mr. Russell headlines the 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend at Bacara Resort next month, the public will see the curtains pull back on his newest endeavor: making wine.  The four-day culinary fete, which runs April16-19, will feature seminars, demos and tastings.  It culminates with a Saturday night wine dinner featuring Mr. Russell’s GoGi label and the Hudson-Bellamy label by his step-daughter, actress Kate Hudson.

Kurt Russell in the vineyard (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
The seeds for Mr. Russell’s passion project were actually planted in the late 1980s, “when Goldie and the family and I started taking bike trips through France and Italy,” remembers Mr. Russell, who spoke with me from the Colorado set of Oscar-winning director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight.

“Biking through all those vineyards, I discovered I loved drinking wine well before getting the inclination to make wine,” he adds.  “But it was visiting Burgundy – that’s when I realized how much I love those wines.”  In fact, Burgundian reds – lighter, more delicate and balanced pinot noir wines – would become the gold standard for Mr. Russell.  And it would be serendipity – biking through the vineyards of Santa Barbara County, this time – that would allow those seeds planted long before to bloom.

Back in 2007, “I was driving through the Sta. Rita Hills and discovered that a lot of pinot was being grown there.  I kept coming back to this same spot on Highway 246, and I’d just park there.  And when I tasted their wines, I started to pick up on this regional taste, a lot like what I’d tasted in Burgundy.  As luck would have it, my friend (and celebrity photographer) Greg Gorman, when he saw I was really get into this, said to me over dinner one night, ‘You should meet Peter and Rebecca Work at Ampelos.’

“And you know what?  Theirs was the vineyard I’d been parked next to all those times!  Weird.”

The Works, actually, had just recently established Ampelos, an 82-acre sprawling estate in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills wine growing region, near Lompoc.  Vines of pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and viognier grapes flourish here.  It has since become the first vineyard in the U.S. to be certified organic, biodynamic and sustainable.

Ampelos Vineyard (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
“That’s what I liked – their old school way of making pinot,” Mr. Russell recalls.  “Serious farming, and that mindset that takes you back to a time when making wine was hands on, with as little machinery as possible.  It stops you from cutting corners.”

Russell thieves (credit: Joe Mozdzen) 
The Works don’t dabble in private labels, and they’ve never taken on partnerships.  So when they agreed to work with Mr. Russell to develop a wine label, “it was so amazing to me that they took me on,” the actor says.  To this day, Mr. Russell described himself as the Works’ “apprentice."

“I guess Kurt was speaking with [a fellow actor] recently, talking about how things are going, and he actually called me his winemaking mentor,” says Peter Work, humbly.  “Truth is, we are happy working with Kurt because he’s a really cool guy and we’re helping him on a real journey.  It’s his engagement, and seeing how dedicated he is.”

Russell measures
GoGi Wines was founded in 2008, a nod to Mr. Russell’s childhood nickname (pronounced GO-Ghee).  “I wasn’t interested in just slapping my name on a label,” he says, recognizing that celebrity can quickly turn a wine label into a marquee.  “I’m interested in [consumers] who want to know they are drinking a wine that’s painstakingly created in an old school fashion.  That’s where there’s integrity in this wine.”

Mr. Work, who makes the wines for his own Ampelos label, is the winemaker for GoGi, too.  But that has not precluded Mr. Russell from intimate involvement, both out in the vineyard and inside the winery.  His pinot noir is made entirely from Ampelos estate fruit and, every year, “he prunes and works harvest, he does punch downs, he works the bottling line, he even waxes the tops of the bottles,” says Jami Way, Mr. Russell’s younger sister, and the business mastermind behind GoGi.  “He’s obsessed.”

Russell blends
The part of the process that appeals to Mr. Russell most is blending: tasting through wines made from different pinot noir clones grown at Ampelos – they have names like Clone 777, Clone 115 and Pommard 4 – and determining the winning formula that’ll go into the bottle each vintage. 

“We’ll spend at least two days with Kurt, and we’ll go barrel to barrel, before he does the blendings,” says Mr. Work.  “He’s very good at differentiating the wines from different clones, and he’s a very picky guy who knows exactly what he wants and doesn’t want.”

“I’ve been able to formulate my own taste,” adds Mr. Russell, “and it’s blending that is the most challenging and yet the most rewarding.  I want to make a wine that has world-class aspects about it, but I also want it to be my own signature – my wine.”

Kurt & Jami (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
For Mr. Russell, it’s important that his GoGi project be all about family, too.  “Seeing how much fun her dad was having,” says Mr. Work, actress Kate Hudson launched her own wine label, Hudson Bellamy, with former fiancé and musician Matt Bellamy.  The wines are made by Mr. Work, too.

Aside from managing the business, Ms. Way also runs the Wine Saloon inside The 1880 Union Hotel in Los Alamos.  The rustic wine bar, open Friday through Sunday, pours the wines of GoGi, Hudson Bellamy and Ampelos, exclusively.  The tasting flight poured at the bar is called “La Familia.”

“They always say you shouldn’t mix business with family,” Ms. Way says, with a laugh, “but we’re not your typical family.”

With a yearly production of just a few hundred cases, the GoGi wines, themselves, pay homage to Mr. Russell’s family, too.  The name on the pinot label, for example, changes with each vintage.  The 2011 Pinot Noir ($75), currently in the marketplace, is dubbed Angelbaby, after Ms. Way’s childhood nickname.  Previous vintages, with designations like Bosty Boy for son Boston, Jillybean for sister Jill and Forbaz for sister Jody (whose nickname is Baz), have already sold out.

The 2011 Gogi Angelbaby Pinot, and its namesake
The appellation on the GoGi chardonnay remains the same with each release – Goldie – and is a tip of the hat to Mr. Russell’s longtime partner.  The 2012 Chardonnay ($50) blends fruit from three vineyards – Huber, Turner and Zotovich – all in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Mr. Russell also produces a Viognier, named Lulu, in honor of his mother, Louise.  “Viognier is her absolute favorite wine,” says Ms. Way.  The wine is made solely for its namesake and is not available commercially, although it will make a rare appearance during the April 18th wine dinner, starring Mr. Russell, at Bacara Resort.

“This is going to be fun, because it’s serious food and serious wine,” says Mr. Russell of his taking center stage at the upcoming culinary showcase.  “It’s high-end, which is where I want to be and where I want my wine to be used, perceived and drunk.”

The Saturday evening dinner ($199) will feature wines by GoGi, Hudson Bellamy and Ampelos.  The 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend features a cavalcade of other gourmet events, including a Saturday lunch with celebrity chef Suzanne Goin ($59) and a variety of seminars, workshops and intimate foodie conversations.  VIP all-access passes cost $599.

For tickets to the Food & Wine Weekend at Bacara, go to

For more on GoGi, check out


Being Small is a Big Deal: Annual Wine Festival Celebrates the Little Guy

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/26/15

Angela Soleno and fan, at Garagistes, LA's Union Station


Winemaker Angela Soleno proudly considers herself one of the little guys. 

“To keep the wine at a high level, I have to keep it small,” she tells me of her annual production, which hovers around just 200 cases.  The Lompoc-based entrepreneur loves “aging wines forever, “ so while she launched her Turiya label in 2008, the wines weren’t released to the public until 2013.

She’s been after a clientele ever since, of course, mainly via social media and an allocation list.  But Soleno doesn’t run a tasting room, and wide distribution would be a luxury.  So the Garagiste Festival, and the wine consumers it attracts, has quickly become an important part of her business.

“These are my kind of people – people seeking out really small producers,” she says, having participated in Garagiste Festival events in Paso Robles, Los Angeles and Solvang.  “It’s generated thousands of dollars in sales for me.”

For Cris Carter, an L.A.-based commercial brewer by day who launched his Weatherborne label in 2012, it’s also all about connecting with focused consumers.  His pinot noir, which he blends from multiple vineyard sources in the Sta. Rita Hills, was one of the best wines I tasted at last year’s event in Solvang.  With a production of less than 400 cases a year, the connections he’s made at Garagiste have been key to brand recognition.

After last year, “we saw several people reach out to us, including a few stores in Santa Ynez, and we saw a nice little bump in our Google analytics,” he told me.  “The crowd is great because they’re looking for smaller guys who are new and who are about to become something, rather than wines that have already gotten the scores and attention.  And they like interacting directly with winemakers.”

The success of the Garagiste Festival, which has become a major destination event, hinges on access.  For the curious consumer, this is one-stop shopping for winemakers and wines that rarely make public appearances.  These are productions so small, you’re unlikely to find these wines at any other event, or on a store shelf, or on a restaurant wine list.  But their smallness – in production and in approach – doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of knack here, or even expertise.  With a penchant for pushing the envelope and creating something that stand out, this really is the leading edge of what’s new and exciting in the world of wine.

Kaena's Mikael Sigouin pours at the 2014 Garagiste Festival in Solvang
And the French word “garagiste” references exactly that; we’ve all heard plenty of stories about innovative people creating something special in their garage, right?

For Doug Minnick, the appeal of the festival he co-founded three years ago has a lot to do with location, too.  From Paso Robles to Santa Ynez, “you can do any grape, any variety, in any style,” he says.  “You can’t say that about any other wine region in the world.  It really can be a claim to fame for the Central Coast.” 

It’s certainly enough to lure all types of pioneering winemakers.

When the Garagiste Festival rolls into Solvang this weekend, it’ll feature two Grand Tasting events.  Thirty producers will pour on Saturday (including Soleno and Carter) and a totally new batch of 30 will pour their wines on Sunday.  The quaint Veterans Memorial Hall in downtown Solvang provides easy access to hundreds of wines.

Tasters are all smiles at Garagiste
Guests will also have access to several seminars.  Friday includes a Winemaker Symposium, ideal for budding vintners who want insights into fermentation, and a Winemaker Mixer with rare and limited-edition wines.  Saturday’s one-hour morning seminar will explore the diversity of Sta. Rita Hills with panelists Peter Work (Ampelos Cellars), Chad Melville (SamSARA) and Dan Kessler (Kessler-Hawk Vineyards).  Sunday’s session tackles the great alcohol-in-wine debate with Norm Yost (Flying Goat Cellars), Keith Saarloos (Saarloos & Sons) and Stillman Brown (Zeppelin Winery in Paso Robles).

Committed consumers will want the All-Access VIP Pass ($195), which gets you into both grand tastings an hour earlier and includes all seminars and lunch all day (Georgia’s Smokehouse is preparing lunch on Sunday).  All events can also be purchased separately, with Grand Tasting tickets prices at $55.  Go to

Turiya Wines will also be opening its winery doors for complimentary tastings – a rare treat – on Sunday from 11am to 5pm, 316 N. F Street, Lompoc.


The End of the Rainbow: Why Ireland Beckons

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/13/15

Sheer numbers help explain Ireland’s travel appeal: more than 40 million Americans claim some degree of Irish heritage.  Genealogy travel, in fact, helped lure 1.2 million of them to the Emerald Isle just last year.  And, on the heels of a steadily improving economy, Ireland expects to set a new visitor record in 2015 – more than 7.7 million guests from around the world.

Spotted on the road from Dublin to Western Ireland
Travelers to Ireland will find that the rumors are true: the people here are remarkably friendly, the culture is fascinating, the scenery is spectacular and craic – that’s the word Irish use to describe a good time – is pervasive.

This is also a country where tradition reigns supreme, from Irish music, which is vibrant and personal, to Ireland’s pubs, where locals gather for conversation as much as a pint.  Tradition may be at its most glorious during St. Patrick’s Festival – a week-long fete here, not just a day – where wearing green is mandatory.  In Dublin, the feast culminates on March 17th with a mardi gras-style parade through city streets that easily draws a green waft of 700,000 revelers.

Travel to Ireland has become increasingly easier, with direct flights from all major U.S. cities.  Out of L.A., outbound travel will likely include an east coast stopover before an overnight flight across the Atlantic.  AerLingus flies nonstop to out of SFO.  And direct flights are easy to nab from New York, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, DC, Orlando, Philadelphia and Charlotte.  Three international airports to choose from allow for strategic arrivals: Dublin to the east, Shannon to the west and newly expanded Belfast to the north.

Driving is the best way to see Ireland
(once you figure out how to drive on the left)
Getting around by bus or train is easy, but the best way to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of Ireland is from behind the wheel.  Roads are well maintained (have change handy for the occasional toll) and signs abound.  It’s the willingness to drive off the grid, though, and to make unexpected turns that often reveals the landscape’s best gems, from castle ruins to rolling farms to sweeping shores.  Anywhere you want to go is usually no more than two hours away; from Dublin, a two-hour drive will put you as far north as Belfast.  The left side of the road is for driving, the right lane is for passing.  Seatbelts are the law.  And distances are shown in kilometers (except for Northern Ireland, which measures in miles).

The 5-Star Adare Manor
Ireland is home to hotels that fit all budgets.  But this is the land of B&Bs.  More than 1000 certified bed-and-breakfasts throughout Ireland offer guests a uniquely affordable option and innkeepers provide insider perspectives on local things to see and do.  There are also hundreds of castles and historic houses here, many of which have been transformed into 5-star hotels where sprawling grounds match a white-glove approach to hospitality.  The 19th century Adare Manor in County Limerick, cradled by a championship golf course and family-friendly villas, and the Ashford Castle in County Mayo, with a history that stretches back 700 years, are traveler favorites.

Here’s a quick geographic look at some of Ireland’s traveler treasures.

The rich history of the Republic of Ireland’s capital city, located on the eastern coast, is buoyed by contemporary flare. 

The River Liffey flows through downtown Dublin, and its bridges offer perfect vantage points.   Shoppers delight in hot spots like Temple Bar, on the river’s south banks, and lively O’Connell Street.  Nearby, the Grafton Street promenade is a retail haven and a hub for spontaneous music-making; U2’s Irish-born Bono has held impromptu acoustic sets here.

The River Liffey flows through Dublin
Imbibing is a favorite pastime here, and a tourist draw.  The Guinness Storehouse, where the legendary dark and frothy beer has been brewed since the 1750s, is a seven-story interactive attraction where visitors learn to pour the perfect pint, savor Guinness-infused cuisine and enjoy sweeping views from the top-floor Gravity Bar.  At the Old Jameson Distillery, side-by-side comparative tastings against Scotch and Bourbon reveal why Ireland’s triple-distilled approach generates such a beautifully smooth spirit.

The Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin Bay, spotted on the ferry ride to Howth
The evening pub crawl is a multisensory history lesson.  Actors lead travelers through famous pubs where native sons like Oscar Wilde and James Joyce once sipped for inspiration.  Song, storytelling and reenactments, along with stops at intellectual hangouts like Trinity College, create a literary lesson unlike any other.  Works by William Butler Yeats will likely feature prominently in 2015, as Ireland celebrates what would have been the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s 150th birthday. Be ready to share a pint at every stop.

Landmarks like St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle are not to be missed.  And for an easy day trip, visit the quaint fishing village of Howth; set on a sweeping bay and easily accessible by bus or rail, sea-to-table dining here is superb.

The North
Though mostly seamless, a visit to Northern Ireland is a trip across the border into the United Kingdom.  Pay with British sterling here, not Euros, and notice myriad cultural differences.  But classic Irish hospitality is very much alive and well here, too, as well as quintessential countryside imagery.

The new Titanic Belfast intercative museum is spectacular
Belfast, the capital, is in throes of a renaissance, with visitor numbers climbing quickly.  This ship-building epicenter pays homage to its most famous vessel with Titanic Belfast, a brand new interactive museum that brings visitors on board and takes them through dining halls, first class quarters and, in dramatic fashion, even the Titanic’s final underwater resting place.

Fans of the hit HBO show Game of Thrones are now flocking here, too.  Many of the show’s interiors, like the Throne Room and the Sept of Baelor, are filmed at Belfast’s Titanic Studios.  But it’s the dramatic natural setting along the dreamy Causeway Coastal Route that brings the show’s magical worlds to life, including the Cushendun Caves, Cairncastle and Ballintroy Harbour.  The Dark Hedges, in County Antrim, is a striking, brooding avenue of arched beech trees that becomes the treacherous King’s Road in Westeros.

Continue the drive to the Giants Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the tens of thousands of interlocking rock columns that jut from the ocean’s edge stem from ancient volcanic eruptions and create an awe-inspiring panorama.

St. Patrick founded one of his first churches at this site in Armagh
Northern Ireland’s County Down is home to some of Europe’s greatest golf courses, including Hollywood Golf Club, which served as the early training ground for world superstar Rory McElroy, and Ardglass, with holes set on the edges of towering cliffs.

The tiny town of Armagh is where St. Patrick established one of his very first churches and where the Public Library keeps the original copy of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, complete with notes handwritten by the author.

The West
The Wild Atlantic Way, along the stunning western shores of Ireland, is the longest designated driving route in the world.  Getting lost while driving should be a goal, for the untouched geological wonders it has to offer.  Breathtaking visuals abound here, from the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal to Kinsale in County Cork.  The crowning jewels here are the Cliffs of Moher, chiseled crags that tower 400 feet above the sea.  Hike along the edge with care, but do venture forth for some of the most spectacular coastal visuals on Earth.
The views from atop the Cliffs of Moher are breathtaking
The villages that dot the west are boutique snapshots of this land’s historic past.  Adare Village wows with its curvy streets and pastel-façade homes; Market Place Adare for breakfast and 1826 Adare Restaurant for dinner are a must.  In Limerick, along the River Shannon, the 13th century King John’s Castle welcomes visitors into its historic halls, as well as a brand new 3-D interactive experience.
King John's Castle in Limerick dates back to the 13th century
In Galway, where labyrinth cobblestone streets ooze medieval character, it’s the festivals that beckon year-round, from the Early Music Festival in May to the International Oyster and Seafood Festival in September.

The South
Festivals and fairs are part of the cultural experience in southern Ireland, too.  In the historic fishing town of Kinsale, the annual Gourmet Festival draws thousands of foodies every October. 

In Waterford, the world-famous namesake crystal factory offers tours.  The former Viking town of Wexford is home to a popular horse racetrack.  And in the southwestern city of Killarney, visitors can visit a 15th century Friscan friary and catch a match of Gaelic football.

Cork City is the third biggest city in Ireland, a bustling epicenter full of cathedrals, landmarks and breweries.  There’s a museum dedicated to Cork’s history in butter production and export.  The English Market is one-stop shopping of totally local fare, from produce to cheeses to meats. 

And for the adventurous, Wicklow Mountains National Park offers several hiking trails; this is also a perfect spot to unplug amidst beautiful lakes and serene landscapes.

For more information on travel to Ireland, visit, and for a comprehensive online list of exclusive Ireland deals and tips, go to


Some Luck, Mostly Knack: Melville Sibling Brings Lucky Dogg to Solvang

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/12/15

Brent Melville is well aware that his name brings a fair share of pedigree to his winemaking.  His father, Ron, established Melville Vineyards in 1996, one of the most celebrated properties in the Sta. Rita Hills.  And his brother Chad’s own label, Samsara, generates big industry buzz.

In fact, “everything I learned about growing grapes and making and selling wine, I learned at Melville,” Brent says, referring to the two decades he, himself, spent managing his family’s namesake vineyard.

But Brent Melville is on his own now.  He’s emerging, actually, from a defining year – 2013 – which saw big changes to his life, personally and professionally.  And his new wine label, Lucky Dogg, helps mark what is, in many ways, a fresh start.

The Lucky Dogg tasting room
The name was inspired by one fortuitous day on the golf course.  After a series of great shots, “My buddy turned to me and said, ‘Boy, you’re a lucky dog,” Melville recalls.  Lucky is also the name of his vineyard dog, a three-month Siberian Husky-pit bull mix.

The Lucky Dogg tasting room opened its doors on July 4th of last year.  It enjoys a prominent spot in the heart of tourist-friendly Solvang -- right on the corner of Mission and Atterdag -- so foot traffic has been critical to its growth.  And the vibe is decidedly laid back and hip.  Tasters can bring their dogs, in fact.  It’s also kid-friendly.  And some of Brent’s favorite music, from classic rock to reggae, plays throughout the day.

“I love talking and teaching ‘Wine 101,” Brent tells me as I step up to the bar to taste, pointing to a marketing approach that’s hands-on and user-friendly.

Lucky Dogg’s inaugural release includes five wines, all sourced from Verna’s Vineyard, a 100-acre plot in Los Alamos’ Cat Canyon.  Interestingly, the property, half of which is planted to wine grapes, was actually owned by the Melville family for many years.  An L.A-based investor bought it in 2013 for just under $3 million and brought Brent Melville on board to run it.

The 2013 Viognier ($25) is named for Brent’s 13-year-old daughter, Ryann, and has a tropical slant, with apricot flavors and a clean finish.  The 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($22) pays homage to Brent’s 11-year-old daughter, Pressley, and is a refreshing mix of citrus and watermelon flavors, and a top tasting room seller.  Brady, Brent’s 8-year-old son, gets label recognition on the 2013 Syrah ($35), with a layered, almost meaty mouth feel, a dash of white pepper and an acid-driven finish.

The 2013 Pinot Noir ($38), aged in neutral oak, is soft in the mouth with cranberry and pomegranate notes, while the 2013 Reserve Syrah ($42) is textured and lush, with a spice-touched finish.

Production for all wines is right around 100 cases a year.  “I want to keep this small enough so I can control everything,” says this grower-winemaker-business owner.  The portfolio, though, will increase this year, and two brand new wines have already hit the tasting room, including the lip-smacking Honey Badger late harvest viognier.  The Risqué is a lovely, clean stainless steel chardonnay that even comes with tongue-and-cheek opening instructions on the back label; the fifth step reads, “Rinse and repeat.”

A new richer, buttery chardonnay is in the works for later this year, too, and there’s a social media contest afoot to name it.  A tried and true marketing method, actually: Lucky Dogg adopted its horseshoe-inspired logo after an online contest.  The label has a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

Brent Melville makes his wines at his own custom crush facility, a growing co-op space in Buellton called Le Crush; he makes house wines for a handful of Southern California restaurants there, as well, and labels like Artiste and Barbieri are produced here, too.

Lucky Dogg tasting room, 1607 Mission Drive, Suite 102, Solvang.  805-331-3698.