History Served by the Glass: Winemaker Opens Tasting Room in Santa Barbara's Casa de la Guerra

story and photos by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/17/15

Standing Sun's John Wright
Santa Barbara’s newest wine tasting room is, in fact, a link to its past.

“I love this space,” winemaker John Wright told me during a conversation last week.  “It’s original, and it’s rustic in an organic and natural way.”

Mr. Wright, 46, has transformed a small room inside Case de la Guerra into a wine venue.  He calls it, “The Bodega,” which is Spanish for “winery.”  For years, this quaint 400-square-foot space, with undulating adobe walls and waning patches of paint, was used as a storage room.  But Mr. Wright’s goal is to return it to its 19th century roots, when Jose de la Guerra, the fifth comandante of the Presidio, used it as a wine cellar.

Casa de la Guerra was built between 1818 and 1828.  It became the social epicenter of Santa Barbara at the time, and de la Guerra’s descendants actually used it as a residence all the way into the 1940s.  Today, it’s part of the picturesque El Paseo complex, just off State Street, and is under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which runs it as a museum.
Pictures hang from pre-existing holes in the old adobe walls
The corners are cozy inside the Bodega
The Trust tasked Mr. Wright with the modern day use of the former wine cellar as much for his knack as a winemaker as for his expertise as a preservation architect.  The group’s goal was to find a creative and deferential way to increase visitor foot traffic to the historic Casa.  “I spent many years restoring farmhouses and barns on the East Coast, throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” says Mr. Wright, who earned myriad degrees in historic preservation from the University of Maryland, and who now lives in Santa Ynez.  “I have an understanding of a structure like this, and [a respect] and excitement about how to use this space.”

Mr. Wright's approach is hands-off.  "This is not a renovation," he insists.  "I'm working with what's already here and just adding pieces that are free-standing."

A couple of bar stools, a few barrels-turned-tables and a leather couch adorn the room.  Comfy white cushions line bench-like seating built into the walls.  And the paintings throughout the room hang from holes that already existed on the walls.  They’re original works by Ojai artist Gino Hollander – pop art-inspired pieces whose brown, gray and white tones, curiously, match perfectly the muted, fractured hues that have been gracing these walls for decades.  Mr. Hollander passed away at the age of 92 last week.

Mr. Wright is pouring his Standing Sun wines here.  He founded the label in 2007 with his wife, Emmy-winning soap opera actress Laura Wright, after the couple’s move to California.  Mr. Wright shifted careers from architect to winemaker under the tutelage of well-known local vintner Joey Tensley and, with a focus on Rhone wines like syrah, grenache and viognier, has grown the brand to more than 2000 cases a year.  Standing Sun operates a tasting room in Buellton that doubles as both a concert venue for various high-profile groups and an art gallery.

For his Casa de la Guerra location specifically, Mr. Wright plans to introduce a second label sometime in 2016.  He’s also working on intimate seating in the open-air courtyard that overlooks both The Bodega and De la Guerra Plaza across the street.  For now, Mr. Wright is offering a tasting of six wines for $15, and he’s selling wines by the glass.  

“We’ll have wines by the carafe soon, as well as food components, like cheese and charcuterie plates,” he says.  “I’m trying to create a cool, laid back place for locals to walk in, kick back and just enjoy some wine.”

And to get a little taste of Santa Barbara history, too.

Standing Sun’s The Bodega, 15 E. De la Guerra St., Santa Barbara. Thursday-Sunday, Noon-5pm.  805-904-8072. www.standingsunwines.com.


1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I can ever go back to any other place, after an experience like this. This Chicago event space is appropriate in a space that lends so much gravitas to events. The design is sharp and environment is unbelievably good.