Last Vintage: Winemaker Greg Brewer to Leave Melville

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/28/15

Greg Brewer
One of Santa Barbara County’s premier wineries is parting ways with its star winemaker.

“There’s evolution at Melville and there’s evolution in my own life,” says Greg Brewer, 45, who this week inked a deal to leave Lompoc-based Melville Vineyards & Winery by December.

Mr. Brewer is one of the most celebrated winemakers in California, having garnered industry accolades and a loyal consumer following ever since he launched his wine career at Santa Barbara Winery in 1991.  After a stint at Sunstone Winery, and after launching the cult-status Brewer-Clifton brand with fellow winemaker Steve Clifton, he met businessman and vintner Ron Melville in 1997.

“We got to work right away,” recalls Mr. Brewer.  “I designed the winery, oversaw construction, and 1999 was our first harvest.”

A popular stop for wine country visitors, the Melville estate is located along E. Highway 246, in the celebrated Sta. Rita Hills appellation.  The property spans more than 80 acres and grows premium-quality pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.  The fruit is used primarily for the Melville label, though some of it is also contracted to other wine producers.

Melville Vineyards & Winery
“Greg has been an integral team member and we wish him all the best,” says Chad Melville, 45, who’s also been part of his father’s viticultural project from the beginning.  He’s found success with his own boutique label, Samsara, which specializes in pinot noir, syrah and grenache.  With Mr. Brewer’s departure from Melville Winery, Chad Melville will assume head winemaker duties and oversee an annual production of about 25,000 cases.

“We’ll see what happens,” says Mr. Brewer about his immediate future, though this father of three will continue his work with the Brewer-Clifton wines and will remain in Santa Barbara County.  “I’ll never leave Sta. Rita Hills.  I’ve dedicated 25 years of my life to this eight-mile stretch of land, and I love the purity of molding one’s style to one place like that.”


Rhones on the Range: Santa Barbara Producers Prep for Crucial L.A. Visit

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/22/15

Larry Schaffer
Larry Schaffer isn’t shy about his enthusiasm for grenache.

“It’s a beauty pageant wine – and sometimes I hate to say that, because it may sound chauvinistic.  But grenache really is pure beauty in a bottle,” says the man behind Santa Barbara’s Tercero wine label.  “It’s nuances of earth and fruit and acid and aromatics, all in one.”

It makes sense, then, that Schaffer is set to star on a winemaker panel touting Grenache’s merits at an upcoming gathering of the Rhone Rangers in L.A.  The non-profit educational group aims to raise awareness of domestically produced Rhone wines – 22 grapes ranging from the better-known syrah, viognier and grenache to the more obscure cinsault, counoise and picpoul.  Their fifth annual consumer affair in downtown L.A. will take place November 6th and 7th and will feature winemaker dinners, retail in-store tastings and a Saturday grand tasting.  “Grenache on the Rise,” a seminar set at The Atelier Room at the Reef in downtown Los Angeles and moderated by Wine & Spirits Magazine senior editor Patrick Comiskey, will take place at 10:30am on Saturday.

Andrew Murray
“I’m looking forward to being there not just to promote Rhone wines but also because, we can’t have Paso Robles outshine us,” says winemaker Andrew Murray, who’ll be joining Schaffer on the panel and pouring throughout the weekend.  Murray, who’s been focused on Rhone varieties from the Santa Ynez Valley for more than 20 years and who’s won cult status as a syrah maker, admits that the Rhone efforts of Santa Barbara’s viticultural neighbor to the north has the lion’s share of consumer attention.

This writer believes that our area’s love affair with Rhone wines is bittersweet.  On the one hand, those who make it can’t tout its merits enough.  It grows well everywhere – in the sweet spot that is Ballard Canyon, for sure, but also in cooler areas like Los Alamos and Sta. Rita Hills and hotter zones like Happy Canyon and Los Olivos.  And the wines they create are, inarguably, delicious.  “The hallmark of any great wine variety is that wonderful balance of fruit and funk,” asserts Murray,” and syrah has it in spades.”

Schaffer points to grenache as the quintessential holiday wine.  “That appearance of sweetness in the aromatics, because of its fruity character, and that great herbaceous quality – they go with a lot of different aspects of a Thanksgiving meal.”

At last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A., Murray poured wines from the 2010 and 2011 vintages
But Rhones face an uphill battle in the marketplace, where consumers continue to turn in far larger numbers to counterparts like pinot noir and cabernet.  In Santa Barbara County in particular, “the area will continue to be known for pinot noir and chardonnay, at least in the near future,” admits Schaffer.

Michael Larner poured at last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A.
Marketing has a lot to do with the Rhones’ woes.  Let’s be frank: Paso Robles has out-marketed Santa Barbara when it comes to pushing itself as a bona fide producer of syrah, grenache, viognier and Rhone blends.  And the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, whose mission is to promote all local wines, has yet to find a cohesive, clear voice to promote this area’s Rhone efforts.

There are singular achievements of note, to be sure: Zaca Mesa, Fess Parker, Qupe, Margerum, Larner, Jaffurs.  But Santa Barbara’s shining Rhone stars “are still far and few between,” says Schaffer.

The key to Rhone success for now, then, hinges on education.  The Tercero tasting room in Los Olivos, for example, is one-stop shopping for curious consumers who want to taste wines like grenache blanc and single-vineyard mourvedre.

Craig Jaffurs poured at last year's Rhone Rangers tasting in L.A.
Murray admits, “I have no problem selling syrah” – a success story that has almost everything to do with luring consumers to his Los Olivos tasting room and sleek new visitor center in Foxen Canyon to sip and discover.  “The key is getting them to visit, to taste the wine in a fun environment with a little bit of entertainment and a little bit of education, and they enjoy it,” says Murray. 

So while grueling and slow and potentially tedious, Santa Barbara’s Rhone producers cannot underestimate the power of the hand sell.

That makes next month’s Rhone Rangers events all the more relevant, of course.  The SoCal locale is key, since the L.A. market remains the bread and butter of Santa Barbara and Central Coast wines.  And the personal stories that will inevitably emerge – about the quality of the wines and about the personalities behind them – is the best PR this movement can get.

More than 50 Rhone winemakers will be featured throughout the weekend.  Along with Tercero and Andrew Murray, Santa Barbara producers participating include Bernat, Epiphany, Fess Parker, Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Kita Wines, Margerum Wine Co. and Qupe.  For more information and for tickets, check out the Rhone Rangers website.

At Fess Parker, Lunch in the Vineyard is a Lesson in Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

At Fess Parker Winery, lunch is served.

During the throes of the 2015 wine grape harvest, the popular winery, set along Santa Barbara wine country's Foxen Canyon, introduced the Harvest Lunch series.  These intimate gatherings -- four in all -- featured a delicious sit-down lunch prepared by the winery's full-time chef, Barrett Crandall.  And they included a behind-the-scenes peek at harvest time activity with winemaker Blair Fox.

In mid-October, I got to attend the final harvest lunch, where the setting was an attraction all its own.  We sat around a long white-clothed table, under a matching canopy, on the winery's brand new terrace.  Opened in May, and adjacent to the tasting room that hosts hundreds of tasters each weekend, it's an open, airy, yet intimate space that creates a truly special tasting experience.

Each lunch featured an exclusive menu.  The theme for our gathering was "Cassoulet," and Chef Barrett's hearty dish of white beans, sausage and breadcrumb topping, was delicious.  It was paired with an autumn salad of frisee, apples, walnuts and dried cherries, and plenty of fresh baked breads. 

As we ate, Eli Parker, Fess Parker's son and the winery's CEO, and head winemaker Blair Fox, engaged us in conversation and offered insight into their business.  Winery President Tim Snider (and husband to Fess Parker's daughter, Ashley), poured the 2013 Bien Nacido Vineyard pinot noir from magnums.  And bottles of other award-winning Fess Parker wines -- Rodney's Vineyard viognier, Ashley's chardonnay and Rodney's vineyard syrah -- were spread across the table.

On this sunny afternoon, and surrounded by a garden that supplied fresh produce for our lunch and by vines that have graced this property for more than 25 years, this really was an idyllic vineyard meal.

After lunch, we followed Fox into the winery, where we witnessed wines being pumped from tanks to barrels, and then into the barrel room, where we learned about things like cooperage and fermentation.  An insider peek that enhanced our appreciation of the wines in our glasses.

And as we ended our tour, a telling observation: the license plate on Fox's dusty truck reads "SYRAHHH."  And I thought to myself, "Fess would be proud."

I'm told the Harvest Lunch series will pick up once again during the spring and will include walks through the vineyard.  Winery club members get first dibs on these limited-seating gatherings, but they're open to the public, too.  For more information, check out the Fess Parker website.

The garden adjacent to the new terrace was the source for much of our harvest lunch

This pinot offers pretty red berry aromatics, cherry-spice flavors and a silky mouth feel

Tim Snider made friends pouring the '13 Bien Nacido pinot from a magnum

Winemaker Blair Fox walked us through the winery

Head winemaker Blair Fox joined the Fess Parker team in 2003

Fox demonstrated punchdowns and showed us bins of fermenting wine
Fess Parker Winery, 6200 Foxen Canyon Road, Los Olivos, CA 93441. 805-688-1545.

Giving up the Wheel: Popular Food Truck Business Goes On the Block

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/12/15

Georgia’s Smokehouse, which in less than three years became one of Santa Barbara’s most high-profile food truck businesses, is up for sale.
“We have put a lot into the business and have a great reputation,” admits Chef Brian Parks, 42, who launched Georgia’s Smokehouse with his wife, Alissa, in March 2013.  “I think it deserves to continue, so we are looking for a buyer with the energy and enthusiasm to take it forward.”
The sale is being handled by Santa Barbara-based brokerage firm Compass First, which has listed Georgia’s Smokehouse for $190,000.  Claiming an annual cash flow of more than $100,000, the sale includes one fully-licensed mobile food truck (valued at $120,000), a calendar of pre-booked events and a commissary kitchen at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
For most of its run, Georgia’s Smokehouse has operated two trucks.  Their red-on-black fa├žades, featuring a pony-tailed gal showing off a midriff and a flirty smile, have become a familiar sight on city streets.  And a busy weekly schedule has included daily lunch stops and myriad catered events, from weddings to festivals.
The food trucks’ success has hinged on Chef Parks, himself, who had previously shored up cred as the executive chef of the upscale Canary Hotel, downtown.  His Southern-inspired and affordable menus for Georgia’s include well-seasoned crowd pleasers that are slow-cooked over oak, hickory and Applewood: a Pulled Pork Sammy doused with a slaw of green cabbage and Granny Smith apples, a third-pound burger served with whiskey-caramelized onions and a Brisket Sandwich that’s smoked for 12 hours.  Most items, including several vegetarian options, feature the chef’s proprietary BBQ sauces and dry rubs.
The Parks’, who have a one-year-old son, say their decision to sell is personal, stemming from the strain of balancing business demands with family needs.  “I felt I needed to focus all my energy on the baby and on my husband and just didn’t have anything left for the business.” says Mrs. Parks, 35, who runs Georgia’s marketing and social media campaigns.
The business “has me spend way more time away from my family than I want to,” says Mr. Parks, who plans to leverage his fine dining, catering and hotel experience into a new professional venture soon.  “It just stopped being as much fun. I love the trucks, but I love my family more.”
Sale inquiries should be directed to Compass First’s Matt Olufs at 805-886-2919.

Wine 101: Santa Barbara Learning Center Focuses on Lifestyle Education

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/8/15

Ferran Contell imports Spanish wines into the U.S.
Ferran Contell just got back from Spain.  It’s familiar territory for him: he was born in Barcelona and grew up in Valencia.  And, ever since he and his wife moved to Santa Barbara last year, his life’s work has taken him back often.

Contell is a certified sommelier and owns Darsena Selections, a Santa Barbara-based import and distribution company focused on bringing hard-to-find Spanish wines to the U.S.  Spain’s famous Rioja, and the region’s signature Tempranillo grape, are in his purview often, of course.  “The Rioja wine region has been pursuing the elaboration of high quality wines for decades,” he told me this week, between vineyard visits in Spain.  “Its style of long-aged wines has become their hallmark, showing that Tempranillo is a top class varietal.  When I smell it, it takes me back to Spain.”

But through his business, and through consumer classes he’s teaching at Santa Barbara City College’s Center for Lifelong Learning, he’s shedding the spotlight on other Spanish wine growing havens.  “Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat are regions with impressive propositions already recognized by the most important wine publications in the U.S.” Contell admits.  “The pursuit of quality wines is more common than ever before” in other regions, too, though.

Contell visited Requena, in Valencia, during his recent trip to Spain
“In my last trip, I had the opportunity to explore the Valencia region, discovering surprising projects that I’m looking forward to seeing how they develop in the following years. Some of the varietals used are Muscat or Bobal, which are traditional grapes of the area, complemented with some international varietals.”

To share his findings, Contell is teaching a course titled “Discover the Truth About Spanish Wine.”  Students will meet two Friday nights – October 23 and 30 from 6:30 to 9pm – at SBCC’s Schott Campus, at 310 W. Padre St. in Santa Barbara.  The classes and materials cost $87.

Contell’s ultimate goal is to eliminate wine consumers’ intimidation.  Although “people and wine are close than ever before,” he says, “the wine world is very complex and rich, with so much to offer, that it remains overwhelming for the beginners. No matter how much you learn, there is something else to discover.”

Contell is also teaching a class called “A Few Good Noses: Wine Tasting and Selection for the Novice” over two nights, October 9 and 16.  “Aroma is really important because it constitutes 80% of the taste,” he insists.  “Aromas in wine can tell you if the wine is clean or has a defect… and it will help to find the right match (or contrast) to any dish.”

Contell’s courses are a sampling of an impressive lineup of approachable culinary classes put on by the SBCC Center for Lifelong Learning (or CLL).  This program was re-launched in 2013; a shift in state funding made it necessary to retool what was once the college’s popular Continuing Education program for adults.  I took my very first wine class through that program – my first focused foray into wine enjoyment – with the late Cork Millner.

Contell inspects barrels during his recent trip to Spain
Today, the CLL offers hundreds of classes each term, across myriad specialty areas.  It also produces one- and two-minute educational “Look and Learn” videos, and shares them on their website; Contell’s got one called “The Proper Way to Hold a Wine Glass.” 

The food and wine classes are especially popular, of course.   They’re affordable, and because they’re offered as one- or two-class sessions on weekdays, evening and even Saturdays, they’re accessible.  Discovering the joys of wonderful wines, and being able to pair them with yummy food, is a perfect fit for our approach, as promoting knowledge of healthy living styles is part of the CLL mission,” says executive director Andy Harper.  Some of the upcoming class titles include, “Chocolate and Cheese: A Luxurious Pairing,” “Foods that Complement Great Wines,” “Fast and Fabulous Hors d’Oeuvres” and “Craft Beer and Food Pairing – What’s Not to Like?”

All classes are also taught by locally-based experts in their field, and Harper admits that “as the reputation of our classes has increased, so has the number of applications from new teachers interested in offering classes.”

For Contell, teaching what he knows is buoyed by his own sense of discovery in his new home.  In Santa Barbara wine country, “the best is still to come,” he says.  “All that’s necessary is in place: climate, soils, vines, and knowledgeable winemakers with boundless ideas. I am looking forward to tasting and learning more from this wonderful region.

For more information and to sign up for Contell’s or any of CLL’s classes, go to