Insider Tasting: Monterey Bay Wine Co. Shows Off Portfolio

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey,
posted March 3, 2015

Our view from the Santa Barbara Yacht Club (my pic)
Every year, Drea O’Connell from Monterey Bay Wine Co. (and her own wine distribution company, O’Connell Wines) invites Santa Barbara restaurateurs to taste.  She helps represent dozens of boutique producers from throughout California and invites these food industry decision makers – the ones charged with selecting bottles for their restaurant wine lists – to sip and mingle with winemakers they might otherwise overlook.  Some of us media types often get an invitation, too.

This week, the wine spread at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club – including labels like Larner, La Fenetre and Rombauer – was awesome.  And so was the view: rain that had sputtered through town for hours had finally subsided, giving us sweeping vistas of a glistening coastline.  Here’s my take on five producers who impressed.

Larry Schaffer doesn’t just make wine – he’s a budding baker, too.  A slice of his truffle cheese bread, with a firm texture and subtle flavors, was a great opener.  And then his white wines knocked my socks off.  His 2013 Albarino, his first, was delicious, brimming with white peach and dried apricot flavors; he’s bottling it this week and releasing it within days.  He served his 2013 Rousanne at room temperature “to preserve its texture”, and it was silky, almost creamy, with intense aromas.  His 2013 Viognier and his Verbiage, a white Rhone blend, were balanced and bright.  And his 100% mourvedre rosé was aromatic and super clean.  With every vintage, Schaffer manages to up his game and crank out wines that are both sophisticated and approachable.  Check out and visit the Tercero tasting room in Los Olivos.

Hilliard Bruce
This upscale husband-and-wife project premiered a state-of-the-art winery in Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills last year, although the real stars here are the grapevines on their property along Highway 246.  He makes the pinots, she makes the chards.  And, thanks to technical guidance from well-known winemaker Paul Lato early on, the wines by John Hilliard and Christine Bruce are remarkable.  Hilliard’s pinots are compelling; the one dubbed “Sky” showcased intense fruit and a subtly spicy edge.  What impressed me most was Bruce’s 2012 Chardonnay for its driven balance of flavor and acidity, as well as velvety mouth feel.  Go to

Gray Hartley shows off the 2013 "Pinks" by Hartley-Ostini
It’s always a treat to chat it up with Gray Hartley, a talented winemaker with an impossible-to-stifle poetic slant; to hear him speak of pinot noir is almost like listening to a reading from a barely-naughty romance novel.  The Hartley-Ostini label's new Quinta del Mar pinot, made alongside Frank Ostini with fruit from a friend’s vineyard in Nipomo, was feminine and big on flavor.  The ever-fantastic 2012 Highliner pinot was deliciously earthy.  The St. Rita’s Earth pinot had a spicy streak.  And the 2011 Merlot – yes, these pinot masters made famous by Sideways actually make a remarkable merlot – showcased ripe berry flavors and medium, though supple, tannins.  Visit them online at and taste these wines by the glass at the Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton.

Municipal Winemakers
David Potter’s stuff is always delicious, easy and remarkably affordable.  The 2013 Bright Red, Rhone-inspired and grenache-based, is big on red fruit; the aftertaste reminded me of a juicy cherry Now-&-Later.  The 2014 Bright White, an all-riesling wine from Kick On Ranch near Vandenberg AFB, was brilliant and intense on flavor.  Both wines retail for about $25 at

Lucky Rock
This new find for me is a family project based in Sonoma.  Brothers Jesse and Aaron Inman are second generation winemakers and named this label in honor of their dad, an army veteran who once ran a mining company that was also called Lucky Rock.  Their 2013 pinot noir was balanced, complex and, with a finish that smacks of cherry cola, classic Sonoma.  At $19.99 retail, this is a phenomenal value.  Lucky Rock, and an even more affordable sister label dubbed Pinot Patch, will have a tasting room in Santa Rosa soon; for now, Lucky Rock is available locally at Grapes and Hops in Ventura while Pinot Patch is available at Tri County Produce in Santa Barbara.

Monterey Bay Wine Company will host four more trade tastings in Northern California – Santa Cruz, Carmel, Tahoe City and San Francisco – in May and June.


1 comment:

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