Champagne-Inspired: Riverbench Growing Santa Barbara’s Only Pinot Meunier

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
vineyard photos by Laura Booras
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/23/15

When it comes to Santa Barbara County sparkling wine, two grapes reign supreme: pinot noir and chardonnay.  The quality, acidity and flavor of these sister Burgundian grapes, which flourish in growing zones like the Santa Maria Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills near Lompoc, make world-class bubbles.  But now, three’s company.

Pinot meunier grows at Riverbench
Earlier this month, and by all accounts, Riverbench became the first vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country to grow pinot meunier.  This red grape variety flourishes in Champagne, France, where it is readily blended in with pinot and chard to add a bit of richness to the world’s best sparklers.  But the focus in Santa Barbara, where more than 30 producers are now making at least one sparkling wine a year, has never included this silent partner.  Until now.

“This shows how seriously we’re taking our sparkling wine program,” Riverbench GM Laura Booras told me this week.  “We’re not trying to imitate Champagne, but we’re inspired it.  We’re taking cues from the experts and applying them to what we’re already doing.”

Riverbench's Santa Maria tasting room (Bob Dickey,
Riverbench has been growing top-notch wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley since 1973, and they launched their sparkling wine program in 2008.  Today, they produce 1000 cases of four bubbly bottlings a year, including a blanc de blancs and a demi-sec, both chardonnay-based, and a blanc de noirs and brut rosé, both pinot-based.  Riverbench’s winemaker is Clarissa Nagy.

“Clarissa and I absolutely love Champagne – it’s a big part of our lives and we’re inspired by it, “ Booras insists.  Seeking out pinot meunier stemmed from their mutual desire “to get experimental.”

A grafted pinot meunier vine
The closest source vines they could find were at a nursery in northern California.  They grafted them with existing pinot gris vines – the pinot gris trunks were removed and the new vines were fused right onto the older root system – to produce three rows of pinot meunier.  Their first fruits will be harvested in the fall of 2016.

Booras says, “Grafting was a lower-risk way to start.  If we like the results, we’ll invest more and can look at planting it outright.”

The results are promising, at least.   “We’ve got ripening conditions that seem to be very similar to Champagne,” adds Booras.  The new pinot meunier would then be added to select sparklers “to add an interesting austerity to the wine.  Chardonnay in Santa Maria tends to have really bright citrus fruit character, so pinot meunier might help tone that down some, for the sake of achieving a truly balanced, flavorful wine.”

Clearly, this is a step forward for Riverbench and their very focused sparkling wine program.  But this moves all of Santa Barbara County wine country forward, too, by tapping what has always been part and parcel to local winemaking: pioneering, experimenting and pushing the envelope.  The results are delicious every time.

For more information on Riverbench, including its tasting rooms both in the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara's Funk Zone, check out


More Suds: Santa Barbara's Flying Goat Has a New Bubbly

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/23/15

Norm Yost (by Bob Dickey,
Few will dispute that, if one man launched the modern sparkling wine movement in Santa Barbara County, it was Norm Yost.  A few others had added bubbles to wine sporadically in the past, including the late great Chris Whitcraft.  But Yost, who’d already gained fame for the pinot noir he was making under his Flying Goat Cellars label, turned bubbly into a serious operation in 2005.

To celebrate 10 years as a sparkling wine producer, Yost has just added a Brut Cuvée to a lineup that already includes 4 bubblies: a cremant, rosé, a blanc de blancs and a blanc de noirs.  While his previous sparklers have been varietal- and vineyard-specific, the new cuvée marks his first blend, an 80-20 combo of pinot noir from Sta. Rita Hills’ Rio Vista Vineyard and chardonnay from Santa Maria’s Sierra Madre Vineyard.  “Blending offers another expression for us, as well as synergy, balance and uniqueness,” Yost told me this week.

The 2013 wine underwent re-fermentation in bottle to create flavors of tangerines, white peaches and apricots.  Only members of Yost’s Club Celebrate have had access to it; retail availability begins next month.  Soon, it'll be poured alongside its four older siblings at the Bubbles Bar inside the Flying Goat tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.

Very much a one-man band a decade ago, Yost is in much bigger company now, with dozens of Santa Barbara producers now dabbling in bubbles.  “Emulation is always the best form of flattery,” he tells me, with a humble laugh.  “It’s actually exciting to see, since we’re now utilizing these wonderful Santa Barbara County grapes in another form.”


The Wine Saloon: Kurt Russell Wants You to Belly Up to the Bar

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/9/16

The vibe in the Wine Saloon is a real throwback: old-fashioned swinging doors, wooden stools at a wooden bar and dim lighting on rustic décor.  A huge moose head keeps watch from above.  The hundreds of dollar bills tacked up high on the ceiling are calling cards from thirsty patrons who’ve ponied up for a drink in the past.

This watering hole feels right at home in The 1880 Union Hotel, a 14-room landmark that’s hosted everyone from gunslingers of yesteryear to newlyweds of today.  And it’s also right at home in Los Alamos, a one-exit rural township in northern Santa Barbara County, on the way up to Santa Maria.  This country enclave is still very much a snapshot of slower, quieter days.  But it’s also becoming a foodie haven now, with a slow proliferation of bakeries, eateries and tasting rooms that are helping Los Alamos dust off its image, even if just a little bit.

As I step up to the bar, I’m greeted by Jami Way.  The younger sister of actor Kurt Russell is chatty and charming.  With references to “Kurt, “Goldie” and “Kate,” she happily engages the patrons and looky-loos who pop in after me – the word is out that the wines of Russell and actress Kate Hudson are poured here.  But she has no need to let on that she’s part of their family.

“This is actually the perfect place to feature Kurt’s wines,” Jami tells me, referencing her sibling’s love for Western American history.  This setting’s unassuming air, she adds, mirrors his wine project’s “genuine” approach.

Kurt Russell’s GoGi label, inspired by his childhood nickname (and pronounced GO-Ghee), launched in 2008, the culmination of the actor’s own decades-long love for fine wine.  After many visits to vineyards in Europe, the elegant, delicate, balanced wines of Burgundy had become his own palate’s holy grail.  So when opportunity knocked a decade ago to turn appreciation into vocation, he took the challenge.  Russell partnered with Peter and Rebecca Work of Ampelos Cellars in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills, which had recently become the first vineyard in the country to be triple-certified organic, biodynamic and sustainable.

Russell was drawn by “their old school way of making pinot” and a “mindset that takes you back to a time when making wine was hands on, with as little machinery as possible.”  The actor, who spoke with me from the Colorado set of director Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight, has called himself the Works’ “apprentice” ever since.

While Work makes the GoGi wines, Russell’s personal stamp, especially on the pinot, is indisputable.  “He prunes and works harvest, he does punch downs, he works the bottling line, he even waxes the tops of the bottles,” Jami tells me.  “He’s obsessed.”

The Wine Saloon, a partnership between Russell and the hotel’s owners, pours only three labels: GoGi, Ampelos and Hudson Bellamy.  The latter is the pet project of actress Kate Hudson, the daughter of actress and longtime Russell love interest Goldie Hawn (Russell calls Hudson “my daughter”), who was inspired by GoGi to start her own wine.  Work crafts these, too.

Jami Way, the business manager for her family’s labels and the head barkeep at the Saloon, calls the tasting flight, “La Familia.”  Very apropos.  The lineup costs $15, with wines by the glass ($8-$15) and bottle ($25-$75) available for purchase, too.  The Saloon is open Friday from Noon to 10pm and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5pm.

I begin with the Hudson Bellamy sauvignon blanc, made from Crown Point Vineyard fruit in the Happy Canyon AVA.  Aged in stainless steel, it’s lively and fruit-driven, with a mid-palate richness and a clean and lingering finish.  Proceeds from this wine go to a children’s charity established by Goldie Hawn.

The 2013 Hudson Bellamy Rosé of Syrah, also all-stainless-steel fermented, features a strawberry nose and classic syrah character on the tongue.

Russell’s 2012 GoGi Chardonnay is dubbed “Goldie,” an homage to his sweetheart.  Oak aged, it displays a vibrant color, a butterscotch nose and a silky supple mouth feel.  A variation from the recent onslaught of today’s crisper, unoaked chards, this wine is delicious.

The 2011 GoGi Pinot Noir is Russell’s baby, the product of meticulous blending by the actor, himself, of myriad pinot barrels crafted by Work.  “I’ve been able to formulate my own taste,” Russell told me, “and it’s blending that is the most challenging and yet the most rewarding.”  His sister adds, as she pours for me, “Kurt always had a great nose, even as a small kid.”  The aroma on this wine screams berries, and flavors of earth and raspberry give way to a spice rack mid-palate and a delightful sour cherry aftertaste.  Plenty of acidity keeps flavors bright.  This wine is a wonderful tip of the hat to its Burgundian inspirations.

The name on the pinot label changes with each vintage but is always a tribute to one of Russell’s family members.  He called the 2011 “Angelbaby,” the playful nickname he uses for Jami.  Earlier vintages, with names like Bosty Boy for son Boston and Jillybean for sister Jill, are sold out.

Work’s own 2011 Ampelos Syrache is a 72-28 blend of the Rhone grapes, syrah and grenache.  Dubbed “Sigma,” it exudes both the dark fruit earthiness of its primary ingredient and the bounciness of its sister blender.  The 2011 Ampelos Syrah, labeled “Gamma,” is rich, intense and exotic, with chocolate and dark berry overtones and a white cracked pepper backbone.  Both wines are made entirely from grapes off the 82-acre Ampelos Vineyard.

To finish off, the Ameplos 2010 Late Harvest Viognier is a treat.  It’s called “Epsilon,” and the bees’ wax that coats the top of the bottle is actually a clue: the wine inside, with 5% residual sugar, is deliciously honeyed.

Hungry tasters at the bar can order right off the hotel’s four-page menu.  “The Argentinian empanadas are fantastic,” Jami tells a pair of sisters from Goleta who’ve escaped to Los Alamos for the day and who’ve ponied up to the bar, too.  “And the chili here is great."

Kurt Russell is known to make regular appearances behind the Wine Saloon bar.  “Their schedule is crazy, but he might be here tomorrow,” Jami tells me as I get up from the bar.  And I can’t help but tip my invisible cowboy hat her way as I take my leave through the swinging doors.

The Wine Saloon experience comes to Bacara Resort & Spa next week as Kurt Russell headlines the 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend.  A four-day affair that includes classes, tastings, and a comprehensive array of other foodie experiences, it features a Grand Dinner Saturday night, April 18th, with wines by Gogi, Hudson Bellamy and Ampelos.  Check out

For more on Gogi, go to


Calling All Taste Buds: Bacara Brings Back Santa Barbara Culinary Fete

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Foodie alert: the 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend returns to Santa Barbara's Bacara Resort & Spa on April 16-19.  This year, the four-day affair is headlined by actor/vintner Kurt Russell and culminates with a Saturday night Grand Dinner featuring Mr. Russell’s GoGi label, the Hudson-Bellamy label by his step-daughter, actress Kate Hudson, and the Ampelos label from Santa Barbara's Sta. Rita Hills AVA.

Kurt Russell (credit Justin Melnick)
“This is going to be fun, because it’s serious food and serious wine,” Mr. Russell told me during a recent interview from the Colorado set of his latest film, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.  “It’s high-end, which is where I want to be and where I want my wine to be used, perceived and drunk.”  

Along with the Hudson Bellamy sauvignon blanc and the Ampelos 2011 Syrah, the marquee dinner will feature three GoGi wines: the 2012 Chardonnay dubbed "Goldie" (an homage to Mr. Russell's longtime love interest, actress Goldie Hawn) and the 2011 Angelbaby Pinot Noir (a tribute to his younger sister, Jami Way).  The GoGi "Lulu" Viognier, which is made exclusively for Mr. Russell's mother, Louise, and which is not available commercially, will also be poured.

Bacara Resort & Spa is a AAA 4-Diamond resort
The 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Wine & Food Weekend features a cavalcade of other gourmet events:

April 17 at 10am, Winemaker for a Day ($225)
This offsite event takes guests one a five-hour excursion into the Santa Ynez Valley for private tours and tastings with the winemakers at Lincourt, Firestone and Foley Estates, all part of Foley Family Wines.  Transportation from Bacara and lunch included

April 18 at 10am, The Scoop About Julia’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian (Free)
A personal conversation about the installation of Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian, as well as topics on food history.  Paula Johnson, curator at the National Museum of American history in Washington, DC, is among the speakers.

April 18 at 12:30pm, California Seafood Lunch ($59)
Celeb restaurateurs Suzanne Goin and David Lentz of Lucques, Tavern and Hungry Cat fame present a locally-inspired lunch of cod ceviche, slow-roasted salmon and more.  Paired with local purveyors, including Crazy Good Bread Co., McConnell’s Ice Cream and Alma Rosa Wine.

April 18 at 8pm, A Year in Champagne ($25)
A documentary showing in Bacara’s 211-seat state-of-the-art Screening Room, highlighting Champagne’s history and how its sparkling wine is made.  Glass of bubbly and tastings of chocolates by Chocolate Maya included.

April 19 at 11am, Neighborhood Tasting & Market ($50 adults, $20 kids)
Bacara’s courtyard becomes a snapshot of Santa Barbara top culinary neighborhoods, with food and wine samplings from the Funk Zone, the Presidio, the Arts District, the Santa Barbara Public Market, old Town Goleta and the Santa Ynez Valley. 

Myriad seminar options include a panel discussion on local beekeeping and honey making, a guided tasting of Foley Family Wines, classes on chocolate truffle- and tamale-making and a cooking demo of famed chef Julia Child’s favorite recipes.  The four-day event benefits the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and Culinary Arts, which was launched by the late Ms. Child in 1995 to fund culinary research and to provide culinary scholarships throughout the country.

“Some of Julia’s relatives are also hosting a chat,” says Bacara GM Kathleen Cochran.  “I think that if Julia were still alive, she’d attend every single one of these events!”

Bacara has sold 60 all-access VIP passes ($599) thus far, up from the one they sold last year, and they’ve booked more than 200 room nights over the event weekend.

“That tells you something,” adds Mrs. Cochran.

Click here for the full lineup of events.

For tickets to the Food & Wine Weekend, go to  For more on GoGi, check out