The Magnificent Seven: Local Stars Reminisce About Santa Barbara’s Oldest Wine Festival

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Saglie and Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/4/15


On a day that was quintessentially Santa Barbara – it was 70-something and sunshine sparkled through the swaying leaves of the towering oak trees lining Mission Creek – the Magnificent Seven reminisced.
 
Bob Lindquist, Ken Brown, Richard Sanford, Jim Clendenen, Doug Margerum, Drake Whitcraft, Fred Brander (Saglie)
Meridith Moore had casually thrown the title out there, and it fit.  The events manager at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History had invited these seven winemakers to visit and to share memories of what is Santa Barbara’s oldest wine fete.  The 28th Santa Barbara Wine Festival will take place Saturday, June 27th, from 2-5pm, and all these men, all of whom poured at the inaugural event, will be there.  (To be accurate, Drake Whitcraft didn’t actually pour at the original fete since, at age 14 months, he was there in diapers, as his parents poured; but ever since he came of age, he's been manning the Whitcraft table each year.)
 
“My kids have all slept on that rock while I poured,” says Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen with a laugh, pointing to an oversize stone that has marked his spot at the event for years.  “They’re 15 and 20 now.”
 
“I remember playing in that creek, until I was old enough to pour,” adds Whitcraft Winery's Drake Whitcraft, pointing to the meandering cleft in the earth nearby.  His father, the late Chris Whitcraft, was among the founding fathers of the festival, and his son continues his tradition today.
 
“That first year, I remember pouring wines from bottles that didn’t have labels on them yet,” recalls Alma Rosa Winery’s Richard Sanford, a legend in the Santa Barbara wine industry who planted the first pinot noir vines in the Sta. Rita Hills near Lompoc in 1971.  “And of course, a lot of these trees were much smaller then!”
 
The very natural setting at this museum, in fact, has always been a draw for Mr. Sanford, and a big reason why he pours here in person.  The schedules of winemakers of this repute – Ken Brown, Doug Margerum, Fred Brander and Qupe’s Bob Lindquist have also gathered here – can be demanding, and winery reps often pour at wine events in the winemaker’s place.  But “I love being in nature,” he says, “and I love connecting with the season here.”
 
“Yeah, this is the prettiest tasting I do,” Mr. Clendenen adds.  “It’s the pride of Santa Barbara.”
 
And then, almost as if on cue, a band of young children frolics past; they climb on the rocks nearby and burst into a quick game of tag before they run down the dirt path.  The winemakers take a break from sipping the wines they’ve brought to share with each other, and watch.  The kids’ visit is a daily occurrence here, as more than 40,000 students a year come spend the day with docents, scientists and curators who engage them in natural history.  The money raised by the Santa Barbara Wine Festival – about $75,000 last year – is what pays for this type of outreach, which touches students from throughout the state.
 
“And that’s why we love this museum and this wine festival,” Mr. Sanford remarks, as the group turns back to their glasses.
 
Jim Clendenen at the 2014 Festival (Dickey)
“Plus, it’s the best attended festival in the Santa Barbara community,” adds Mr. Margerum.  “And that’s important, because these people end up being your best advocates.”
 
“And then there are all those frilly summer dresses!” Mr. Clendenen interjects, to laughter and nods from the rest.

Indeed, the annual feast that always takes place in early summer gets consistently high marks for its relaxed and jovial feel.  The weather is idyllic, the setting is bucolic and the crowd of about 1000 is good-humored and all-smiles.  The wineries that pour are there by invitation only – 50-or-so of the area’s best-loved labels, spanning Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties.  “They are innovative, embrace sustainability, put quality above quantity and, in my opinion, can match up against wines from around the world,” says Ms. Moore.  
 

Richard Sanford at the 2014 Festival (Dickey)

Aside from the Magnificent Seven, wineries like Babcock, Larner, Cambria, Foxen and Tercero will pour once again this year.  A couple of new projects, like Jamie Sloane Wines, will join them.  And top area restaurants and chefs, like Finch & Fork, Bob’s Well Bread, Barbareño, Via Maestra 42, and Renaud’s Patisserie will dole out gourmet bites.
 
There’s no auction at this festival.  Instead, the museum holds its Every Cork Wins! raffle.  Corks cost $30, with each one a winner, and with prizes ranging from $30 to $250 or more.
 
Drake Whitcraft at the 2014 Festival (Dickey)
The Santa Barbara Wine Festival was actually preceded by a small gathering of winemakers on the museum’s grounds in 1978.  That event was the brainchild of local poet Lisl Auf der Heide, who recruited the help of her husband, the late wine connoisseur Ralph Auf der Heide, as well as late winemaker Chris Whitcraft and wine industry long timer Jim Fiolek.  It benefitted Friendship House in Montecito.
 
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History took over production of that small festival in 1983, launching the official Santa Barbara Wine Festival.  Early on, proceeds were earmarked for the oceanic charity, Save Our Seas.  But when profitability waned, the festival moved to the Music Academy of the West in Montecito where, for years, it was a spectacular culinary feast.  It wasn’t until 10 years ago, in a deal with the city that would allow the Academy to renovate in exchange for giving up hosting special events, that the Museum brought the Wine Festival back home.  Ms. Moore has helmed it ever since.
 
As they discuss the Festival’s past, the Magnificent Seven begin to recall their own histories in the local wine industry.
 
“I don’t think we had high expectations back then, because there was nothing to emulate,” says Fred Brander, who planted Santa Barbara County’s first commercial sauvignon blanc vineyard in 1975; he would quickly become a veritable benchmark for Bordeaux wine production in this area.
 
“I started to make wine to support a habit,” jokes Bob Lindquist, who started his career in the early 1980s alongside Mr. Clendenen; he’d actually go on to produce some of the most celebrated syrah in California.
 
Mr. Lindquist’s first boss, Ken Brown, planted Santa Barbara County’s first syrah grapes in 1977, at Zaca Mesa Winery.  But he engages his colleagues in a chat about Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir now.  “That was always my first love,” he says of the grape that, today, has become his eponymous label’s main focus.
 
As the glasses begin to empty, Mr. Sanford brings the conversation back to the Festival, and he connects past with future.  “Here we are again, 28 years later, and half the people who’ll be at the Festival weren’t even old enough to drink when we started,” he says.  “So we can’t forget – this is also about awareness and education, which will always be important.”
 
Less than 200 tickets for this year’s Santa Barbara Wine Festival remain.  For information, contact the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History at www.sbnature.org.
 
 
 
 
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