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



  1. Wow! What a beautiful blog post. I wish I could have been there. Everything looks perfect.

  2. I appreciate you and I would like to read your next post.
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