Sauvignon Blanc's Santa Barbara Debut: May Marks 40th Anniversary of Brander Brand

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/21/15

The Brander Vineyard
In May of 1975 – 40 years ago this month – Fred Brander wasted little time.  The 24-year-old, who had just earned his Master’s Degree in food science from UC Davis, began putting grapevines in the ground.  And those grapes – the classic white Bordeaux grape known as sauvignon blanc – would go on to make history.

That vineyard, planted in Los Olivos on land that Brander’s parents had bought the year before, would become the very first commercial sauvignon blanc vineyard in Santa Barbara County.  Today, it’s the county’s most widely planted white wine variety, after chardonnay.  But four decades ago, Brander’s decision really was agricultural entrepreneurship – a bit of a maverick move – based on a little data and a big hunch.

Fred Brander
Small amounts of cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux’s premier red variety, had been planted nearby in 1969 and 1970, “so we already had a good indication that cabernet would do pretty well,” Brander recalls.  “The data showed the soil and the climate were right.”  In fact, some cabernet sauvignon, along with small amounts of cabernet franc and semillon, were part of the original Brander Vineyard.  But his own personal exposure to the white wines of Bordeaux inspired Brander to make sauvignon blanc his new vineyard’s biggest player. 

“I enjoyed sauv blanc more than the California chardonnays of the time, because it had more complexity,” Brander says.  “Plus, you didn’t have a lot of choice back then.  Today, you have other whites to choose from to plant, like albariño, viognier, marsanne, roussane.  It was either Burgundy or Bordeaux for me.  And with our suitable conditions, I picked sauvignon blanc.”

Brander didn’t have to wait long to see if his instinct was right.  The first harvest from those initial vines came in 1977.  The following year, at the prestigious wine competition at the L.A. County Fair, the 1977 Brander Sauvignon Blanc took home a gold medal – the first gold medal win at a major competition for any Santa Barbara County wine.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes growing on Brander Vineyard
“I still have two or three bottles of that wine, but the corks aren’t in very good shape, so there’s probably a lot of oxidation,” Brander admits.  “But every so often you’ll find an ’82, ’83 or ’84 vintage that’s still pretty drinkable.”

Fabian Bravo
Over the years, the reigning traits of Brander’s sauvignon blanc wines – they’re zesty and brilliant, refreshing and bright, with racy minerality and crisp, clean flavors – have been best savored in their youth.  With little exception, his style has never wavered – he ferments and ages his sauvignon blanc in stainless steel tanks, with zero influence from oak.

“That keeps the spotlight shining on the fruit itself,” says Brander winemaker Fabian Bravo, “and on the place they came from.”  Bravo, 37, joined the winery in 2007 and was promoted to winemaker last year, as Brander expanded his own supervisorial role to Director of Winemaking.

Today, the sauvignon blanc focus not only continues at Brander, it’s growing.  The 52-acre estate off Highway 154, which features its own winery and a hugely popular tasting room, features 44 acres of grapevines, 30 of which are sauvignon blanc.  Periodic replanting has been taking place over the last decade, and less than three of those original 1975 sauvignon blanc vines remain.

Five years ago, farming at Brander also turned totally biodynamic, so no pesticides and no fertilizers.

Of the label’s 15,000-case annual production, 13,000 cases are sauvignon blanc.  The vast majority of that – more than 10,000 cases – is Brander’s Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which blends estate grapes with fruit from a handful of other nearby vineyards.  At under $15, many will say it’s the best wine value in all of Santa Barbara County.

A handful of other yearly sauv blanc bottlings have always been Brander favorites.  His all-estate “Au Naturel” is treated with 24 hours of skin contact for added depth.  Two wines are named for Brander’s twins: the Cuvee Natalie, an homage to his late daughter, is blended with pinot gris and riesling for enhanced aromatics while the Cuvee Nicolas, a tribute to his son (a lacrosse phenom of sorts who also works at the winery and for the brand), is enhanced with semillon and made in a riper style.

Last year, Brander stretched out his lineup by adding a whopping seven vineyard-designate sauvignon blancs.  Source selection was meticulous and, aside from the well-known Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, they’re all celebrated Los Olivos neighbors, like Mesa Verde and Coquelicot.

That brings the total number of Brand sauvignon blancs for the 2014 vintage to 11.

Forty years later, Brander is modest about his pioneering role in Santa Barbara winemaking and focuses, instead, on “continuing to perfect sauvignon blanc.”  Crafting more world class cabernet sauvignon remains his other pet project.

And his decades-old hunch is finally about to get industry credit: the Los Olivos District AVA, a petition Brander authored and recognition of the area’s unique ability to grow specific grapes like sauvignon blanc and cabernet, is expected to get federal approval in a few weeks.

For more information, go to
The Brander Vineyard st sunset


It Takes a Tribe: Chumash Make Splash with Wine Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photo by Miha Maheil & Jeremy Ball
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/7/15

The significance of her role is not lost on Tara Gomez:  she heads the only Native American wine label in the country whose winemaker is, herself, a tribal member.

Kita corks (Maheil)
“The tribe – they’re the ones who helped me with my wine education early on,” she tells me, referring to their financial backing.  “So I see it as paying it forward, because now I’m introducing many of them to wine and many members of the tribe are also involved in the process.”

The Chumash tribe’s foray into winemaking didn’t unfold without controversy.  It was soon after Fess Parker passed away in 2010 that it was announced that the vintner, developer and TV star had sold his Camp 4 property to the Chumash.  The tribe, whose reservation abuts Santa Ynez and whose enterprises include an eponymous casino resort along Highway 246, already had a challenging relationship with its neighbors.

Winemaker Tara Gomez at Camp 4 Vineyard (Ball)
But as some balked, Gomez started making wine.  While the Chumash are eyeing to develop part of Camp 4 for housing –- “With the new generations, we are outgrowing our reservation,” Gomez says –- the winemaker gets dibs on the vines.  Just over 200 of Camp 4’s 1400 acres are planted to 19 different varieties of wine grapes.  The Fess Parker label still has contractual access to several acres, along with more than 60 other buyers from Ventura to Napa.  But Gomez is earmarking more and more of those grapes for the Chumash’s own label, Kita Wines.  The wines hit the marketplace in May of 2013.

“Kita means ‘Our Valley Oak” in our native Samala language,” Gomez tells me, a point that’s driven home by the gold-edged oak leaf drawn on the label.  “It pays homage to all the beautiful oak trees on Camp 4 and to our own connection to the land.”

Kita Grenache Blanc (my pic)
I’d met Gomez for lunch; the seafood options at Sly’s Restaurant in Carpinteria are fitting for the pair of white wines we’re about to share, especially on this sun -drenched afternoon.

Kita's T'Aya blend (my pic)
The Grenache Blanc ($22), which we sip alongside linguine with clams, is vibrant and clean.  There are flowers on the nose and the flavors lean toward peaches, pears and lemon peels.

The white Rhone blend is labeled T’Aya ($22), which means abalone shell, so Chef James Sly’s famous local abalone dish, served with a tomato herb sauce and mixed green salad, fits.  The wine is marsanne-based, with a 39% roussanne and just a splash of grenache blanc.  A bouncy minerality makes this is a great summer food wine.

During harvest, Gomez picks early “to preserve the freshness and natural character of the grape, and to retain natural acidity,” she tells me.

Kita reds (Matei)
She also labels herself “a purist.”  Her single varietal bottlings – sauvignon blanc ($24), grenache ($30), syrah ($30), cabernet sauvignon ($40) and pinot noir ($60) – contain no blenders.  They are 100% the varietal on the label (wineries are allowed to identify a wine by a grape variety as long as it contains 75% or more of that variety).  “It’s how you show a grape’s true colors,” she says.  All of the wines are sourced at Camp 4 except for the pinot, which comes from Hilliard Bruce Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  The label’s best seller thus far is the cabernet.  “We’re five or six miles from the Happy Canyon AVA,” she says, referencing the sunny eastern stretch of the Santa Ynez Valley where warm-weather grapes reign supreme.  “So our cab needs to hang a little longer to ripen during the growing season,” she adds, for sugars and flavors to mature well.

But she admits that blends are her creative outlet, since they allow her to best pay homage to the four phases of life: water, land, air and fire.  The T’Aya we’re still sipping represents water.  The Spe’y ($30) is a red Rhone blend that represents land; the Samala word for “flower” highlights the floral character of grenache.  The Bordeaux blend, “S’alapay, which means “from up above” represents air.  “And fire is the natural sunlight, which is involved in everything,” Gomez says.

Kita is just the latest viitcultural chapter for Gomez, 42.  And “it’s like coming full circle for me,” she says.  Fess Parker Winery, it turns out, was her first wine internship back in the 90s, while as she earned an enology degree at Cal State Fresno.  She was also their enologist for a year before running the red wine program at J. Lohr in Paso Robles.  And yearly working trips to vineyards in Europe – Spain, France, Germany – have given her an appreciation for “Old World flavors and techniques.”

She brings the conversation back to sustainability often.  During crush, she tells me, she trucks grapes from the vineyard in Los Olivos to the winery she’s leasing in Lompoc as often as she drives skins and pomace back to be used as compost.  “It’s trying to give back to the land for everything we take.”  Her dad’s usually the one behind the wheel; until he retired last month, he was one of the 132 elders of the Chumash tribe.

Camp 4 Vineyard (Ball)
Kita wines are poured at the tribe’s properties – Root 246 and Hadsten House in Solvang and the Willows Restaurant inside the Chumash casino (which is reopening toward year’s end after a revamp).  They’re sol through Kita’s three-tier wine club and its website.

Learn more at


Star-Studded: Larner Winery Hosts Its First Estate Dinner

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Tenley Fohl, Tenley Fohl Photography

For their very first estate wine dinner, Larner Winery picked the theme, “Under the Stars.”  And on this crisp and beautiful evening in Ballard Canyon – when 21 of us sat at a decked out communal table under a string of lights and a wide open sky – plenty of stars shone brightly.

There was the star in the kitchen, for one – Vanessa Craig, the Santa Barbara private chef whose appearance on the finale of Food Network’s “All-Star Academy” just a few days before had already created big local buzz.  The cutthroat kitchen reality show had placed Craig on celeb Chef Michael Symon’s team, and although her first-runner-up finish was a high-profile coup all its own, the consensus among those of us dining together this evening was that she really should have nabbed the trophy.
Vanessa Craig leads her star crew in the Larner kitchen
Actually, to see Craig prepare each course was a lot like watching a cooking show unfold live, right before our eyes.  From my seat at the courtyard table, and through the double doors that led into the airy country kitchen, I could see Craig and her two-person crew working fast and focused.  There were two appetizers and four courses on the dinner menu, after all.

That's me in the center, in great company!
The other star on tonight’s culinary marquee was the Larner label, which, since its launch in 2009, has quickly become one of the lead champions of the newly minted Ballard Canyon AVA.  Some 34 acres of grapevines abut the beautiful Tuscan-inspired estate, which is the home of the very affable family matriarch, Christine.  Rhone is in the spotlight here, with plantings of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and viognier, as well as a few rows of malvasia bianca.  Going up the driveway, I also noticed another 30 acres or so of land, adjacent to Ballard Canyon Road, which the family has earmarked for more vines in the near future.

The Sweet Corn Fritter Salad w/Spice-Rubbed Chicken
Our evening began in Christine Larner’s beautifully manicured gardens, and with gourmet tray-passed hors d’oeuvres.  Craig’s ceviche featured grouper caught in Santa Barbara waters just the day before; it was fresh and bright, just like the 2014 Malvasia Bianca it matched.  And the marinated strawberry-&-goat cheese crostini were a wonderful ying-yang balance of flavors; the 2014 Rosé, made of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, was racy and bright.

At the table, our meal began with a Sweet Corn Fritter Salad with Spice-Rubbed Chicken, a delicious execution by Craig.  Winemaker Michael Larner, who greeted each course with a story about the wine to come, matched this opener with his 2013 Viognier.  The wine showed off a lovely floral nose, complexity and vanilla notes.

Vanessa Craig smiles at her fans
Vanessa Craig & Michael Larner

I thought the Black Pepper Beef Stew with Morel Mushrooms was a culinary triumph for Craig.  A hearty, flavorful stew wonderfully deconstructed so that the flavor of each individual ingredient was allowed to shine.  Together, delectable.  Larner’s 2010 Elemental was impressive – Old World in its depth and flavors and yet approachable and lithe in its mouth feel.  This wine has a beautiful nose and jamminess on the tongue.

"The Perfect Dish"
The Veal Tenderloin with Figs and Grapes was restaurant-quality: succulent and a wonderful balance of flavors.  Craig calls this her signature dish, and for good reason.  When she made this very dish on All-Star Academy, celeb chef judge Robert Irvine called it, “The perfect dish.”  Its match, the 2010 Larner syrah, was rich and balanced, and it exuded a spice rack quality that lifted the dark berry flavors beautifully.  The wine was aged for two years in 30% new oak.

The 2010 Larner Syrah (my pic)

For this sweet tooth sufferer, dessert was amazing: a Greek yogurt panna cotta decked out with a wine-marinated apricot compote.  The 2014 Solamer, with a honeyed mouth feel and brilliant flavors, is a new Larner experiment.  Malvasia-bianca at its core, it was made in the classic vin santo style, with ripe grapes set out to dry in the sun to concentrate sugars and allow flavors to burst.

What was especially neat to witness during this intimate evening was the Larner dynamic.  This is, first and foremost, a family endeavor, and stories about the Larners’ hands-on approach abounded.  Michael recalled one night when, while on a work trip in Italy, a text alerted him that frost alarms back home had gone off in the wee hours of the morning; he had to call and rouse his mother out of bed so she could head into the night and turn sprinklers on to protect the grapes.  Christine, herself, recalled helping to make that Solamer nectar, hand-sorting the malvasia grapes onto drying racks by hand, and one by one.  And Michael’s wife, Christina, expressed to me how excited she was to finally be able to rejoin her husband in the winery, now that their youngest toddler is old enough to give Mom some free time.  Michael and Christina Larner have two children: Stevan, 4, and Sienna, 1.5.

It was a treat to be part of a guest list that included a real who’s who of influencers, including wine writers Wendy Thies Sell, Allison Levine and Louis Villard, wine blogger Shawn Burgert, Santa Barbara news anchor Shirin Rajaee, photographer Tenley Fohl and Larner tasting room and wine club manager Emily Dixon.

For more on Vanessa Craig and her catering business, check out

For more information on Larner, go to


The Mad Crush: New Book Explores Central California Vineyard’s Effects on the Men Who Tamed It

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/1/15

In viticulture, winemakers hang their hat on terroir.  The French word refers to the relevance of place and to the way that the unique aspects of a vineyard – soil, climate, elevation – affect the fruit that grows there.  Terroir is what defines the pedigree of wine grapes.

In his inaugural tome, author Sean Christopher Weir explores the notion that terroir can affect people, too, and that it can be transformative.

The Mad Crush, which Mr. Weir self-published in March, is a memoir.  The actual timeline is narrow: a couple of months in 1995 when a serendipitous phone call puts the author to work on a rugged vineyard on California’s Central Coast.  The grape growing season of 1995 will lead to a balmy Indian summer and then, quickly, to one nail biter of a harvest season.

But the journey through which Mr. Weir leads the reader lasts far longer than a few weeks – it spans some 130 years, in fact – and is powerful.

Today, Saucelito Canyon is one of the great vineyards in San Luis Obispo County; the 10 acres of zinfandel grapes it grows create complex wines that earn consistent critical acclaim.  Remarkably, the vines on the property date back to 1880, when a British sheepherder tried his luck at growing grapes and making wine.  Early on, the vines planted by Henry Ditmas thrived.  But Mr. Ditmas’ eventual unhappy departure from the area, and the years of lackluster upkeep that followed, saw the luster of their appeal fade.  “The vineyard became a mirage of its once vibrant self,” the author writes.

Of the 10 acres of wine grapes at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard, three acres are zinfandel planted in 1880
Nearly a century later, the same harsh terrain that had drawn a shepherd with a whim lured a Santa Barbara adventurer with an itch for a change.  In 1974, Bill Greenough, fresh off life on Santa Barbara’s storied Mountain Drive, was looking to buy a vineyard.  The land he discovered turned others away: the landscape was rough and remote, and the old vines had been choked by decades of wild overgrowth.  But to Mr. Greenough, blessed, as the author writer, with “viticutural intuition,” Saucelito Canyon was an inspiration.

“To Bill, the vineyard wasn’t a plot of land,” Mr. Weir writes.  “It was a jigsaw puzzle, a mosaic of little pieces, each with its own bevels and quirks.  He approached these pieces with respect and discernment.”

Two decades later, by the time the author is called to help with the grape harvest of 1995, grit and hard work had brought the promise of Saucelito Canyon back to life.

Mr. Weir’s exploration of the parallels between these two men – Ditmas and Greenough – is fascinating; although apparently different, they are directly linked by what they bring to Saucelito Canyon.  And when the author joins their ranks – playing the lead in a wacky but charming cast of characters striving to harvest grapes amidst a slew of obstacles – he leaves his own mark on the vineyard.  And the vineyard changes him, too.

Vintner Bill Greenough, left, and author Sean Christopher Weir at Saucelito Canyon VIneyard
“What I do, where I am, what my family is like – it’s all rooted in that strange and unlikely season that I didn’t see coming,” Mr. Weir told me during a phone interview from his home in Paso Robles.  Mr. Weir, 47, runs the marketing and branding firm Mooncatcher with his wife, Malei, and has a 9-year-old son named Easton.  “It all came from a random phone call and, looking back, it’s fascinating to see how things played out.”  Mr. Weir had worked briefly for Mr. Greenough in 1992, three years before the chance phone call that brought him back for the harvest of 1995.

Mr. Weir’s catharsis was born as much from the raw experience of taming any wine grape crush as it does from his relationship with Mr. Greenough.  The vintner, 71, who recently passed winemaking duties over to his son Tom, is a man of few words. But his ethos is rooted in an attitude of no-holds-barred perseverance.

“Attempt not, but achieve,” was the motto of Tony Dunn, the man who founded the Dunn School in Los Olivos, which Mr. Greenough attended.  And this, the author asserts, is what helped fuel Mr. Greenough’s own drive.  “Bill had proven that he could make remarkable wine in the canyon – not in spite of the circumstances, but rather because of them,” Mr. Weir writes.

The 1995 Saucelito Canyon Zinfandel that Mr. Weir and Mr. Greenough worked on together went on to garner 92 points from Wine Spectator, an industry coup.

This book will easily appeal to the wine curious.  In accessible language woven throughout his story, Mr. Weir does a wonderful job of explaining the semantics of winemaking and defining basic terms -- filtration, fermentation, punchdowns – that any budding aficionado will appreciate learning.

The Mad Crush is also infused with plenty of Central Coast flavor.  For example, the reader’s peek into life along Santa Barbara’s Mountain Drive – the eclectic Bohemian community of the mid-20th century where inhibitions went to die – is fascinating.  Winemaking was part and parcel to the lifestyle when Mr. Greenough moved there in 1968.  “The first time Bill made wine, he was buck naked,” Mr. Weir writes.  “Clothing wasn’t optional at the communal grape stompings… It was forbidden.”

The 1880 zinfandel block at Saucelito Canyon Vineyard
During his interview, Mr. Weir said that life on Mountain Drive, before his move to Saucelito Canyon, was “a pivotal part” of the man Mr. Greenough became.  “It was a privilege to layer in one more aspect of the oral history of that experience up there,” he continues.  “I didn’t set out to tell the whole story but to lay down just one more chapter before it’s all forgotten.”

But, beyond wine and beyond the charm of regional lore, The Mad Crush appeals for its multilayered story about the human experience.  Success is often rooted in perseverance. But submission to serendipity – the willingness to be moved by time and place – can be powerful, too.

The Mad Crush ($11.95, 151 pages) is available at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and The Book Loft in Solvang.  For more information, go to