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.
“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.
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.
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 BacaraCulinaryWeekend.com.
For more on Gogi, go to GoGiwines.com.