Small Matters: Festival Returns to Highlight Boutique Wine Producers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/28/16

Karen Steinwachs (Bob Dickey photo)
For winemakers like Karen Steinwachs, being small is a big deal.  “I’m definitely a garagiste,” she tells me.  “Actually, more like a micro-garagiste,” since her Seagrape label puts out a mere 300 cases of wine a year.

The word, garagiste, was once used derogatorily.  Established French producers would use it to insult the little guy – the small-lot producer who did his own thing, pushed the envelope and bent the rules of the trade – and who often worked out of his garage.

Today, for a growing movement of winemakers around the world, the term is worn like a badge of honor.  Yes, their size is almost always a product of necessity.  These personal passions are largely self-funded – people entering an industry notorious for both its prohibitive costs and its very crowded field.  Starting small is cheaper.

But in that creative winemaking arena – in that world of wines that are hand-crafted, hand-held and hand-sold – ideas tend to flow more freely, creativity tends to fester and experimentation tends to reign supreme.  As such, being a garagiste becomes a lot less about size and more about the idea that even the oldest of traditions – making wine – can see new and exciting interpretations.

That premise gave birth to the Garagiste Festival four years ago, creating a platform where small-lot California winemakers and curious consumers can meet and mingle.  Today, the tasting takes place three times a year, in Paso Robles, Los Angeles and Solvang.   The 2016 “Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure” event comes to Solvang’s Veterans Memorial Hall next month, on Valentine’s Weekend, February 13 and 14.

Solvang's Veterans Memorial Hall hosts Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure

The majority of the labels that pour at Garagiste don’t have tasting rooms, many don’t have distributors.  So a focused tasting event with the right crowd can do a lot to boost visibility and sell wine.  But the consumer may be the bigger winner here.  These wines are tough to find, either at wine shop shelves or even other events.  The organizers do a nice job of making things intimate and approachable: only 25 wineries pour each day, so you can visit them all.  Each day features a different set of wines.  And since only the owner or winemaker, herself, is doing the pouring, it’s easy to engage them and to speak one-on-one.  This is the best way to learn about new trends, and fresh approaches.

“I take more chances with mine,” says Steinwachs.  She’s comparing her own Seagrape label, with its 300 cases, to her job as head winemaker for the award-winning Buttonwood label.  She produces 8000 cases of wine a year there.

“Like stem inclusion, which is sort of a geeky thing and not everybody likes it.  If I’m making a Buttonwood wine, I might do 20% stem inclusion, for a style that’s more palate-pleasing, but I might go 80% for Seagrape, a bit bigger.  And our chardonnay has a little bit of oak in it, because I like oaked chardonnay.   So with Seagrape I can dabble more.”

Steinwachs, who launched Seagrape in 2007 with her late husband, Dave Robinson, is pouring yet-unreleased wines at next month’s Garagiste.

Larry Schaffer (Bob Dickey photo)
Winemaker Larry Schaffer’s project has certainly grown since 2006, when the Tercero label hit the market with a whopping 100 cases.  At somewhere above 2000 cases now, he’s one of the largest Garagiste participants.  The event actually requires members make 1500 cases a year or less; Schaffer has been sort of grandfathered in.  “I still have the mindset of a garagiste,” he insists.  In fact, one of his best wines, a fragrant and bouncy gewürztraminer, is called The Outlier.

On Saturday, Schaffer will be heading a seminar on mourvedre, a Rhone grape that he loves for its potential as a blending agent, a rosé or a stand-alone wine.  “It can be made into a multitude of styles, and it can really show sense of place,” he says.  A warmer climate can yield fruit-forward mourvedre wines, he adds, while a cooler clime can make them earthier.   The seminar, which will also focus on the history of mourvedre, will also feature Zaca Mesa winemaker Eric Mohseni and Atla Colina’s Bob Tillman.  It runs from 11:30am-12:30pm.  The Grand Tasting goes from 2pm (1pm for Early Access) to 5pm. 

A VIP All-Day Access ticket, which includes the seminar, lunch and tasting, costs $95.  The tasting alone costs $55 ($75 for 1pm Early Access).  Two-day passes reflect a 20% discount.

The times are the same on Sunday, which is Valentine’s Day; that day’s seminar is on sparkling wine and will feature Flying Goat’s Norm Yost, Kessler-Haak’s Dan Kessler and Halcyon Wine’s Tyler Elwell, a buzzed-about up-and-comer.

But no matter which day you go – go both! – Schaffer insists this is a boon for consumers.  “These winemakers are stretching their wings, starting off in new adventures, possibly doing things differently, working with different vineyards,” he tells me.  “More experimentation doesn’t mean the wine is better or worse.  But you don’t know until you try it, and this event affords consumers that.  And they are very likely to find something they really like.”

For more information on “Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure,” including a couples’ discount for Valentine’s Day and overnight stay options, go to


Santa Barbara Wine Country's Newest AVA -- Los Olivos District -- Becomes Official Today

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
original story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/22/16

Story update:
Monday, February 22, 2016

Fred Brander
Santa Ynez Valley vintners are celebrating today, as the Los Olivos District becomes Santa Barbara wine country's 6th American Viticultural Area, or AVA.

This milestone, which was green-lighted by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, was more than a decade in the making.

The AVA distinction recognizes the district’s unique ability to grow wine grapes and highlights its unique climate and soil conditions, distinctive topography and historical relevance.  It’s a big win, especially, for Fred Brander, who founded his Brander Vineyard in Los Olivos in the mid 1970s.  He submitted the AVA petition in 2013, along with data from research he launched in 2005. 

The feds agreed, among other things, that the geology in the region is special.  “We have broad alluvial sand that goes from north to south, with gentle slopes, not canyons or steep hills, and the soils are consistent throughout,” Mr. Brander said.

Mr. Brander will be hosting an AVA celebration for industry colleagues at his winery this afternoon.

The Brander Vineyard
The Los Olivos District covers close to 23,000 acres, about 1100 of which are planted to wine grapes.  It contains 13 bonded wineries – including legacy labels like Brander, Buttonwood and Gainey.  And there are 47 vineyards here that grow Bordeaux varieties, mainly -- merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc -- as well as Rhone, Italian and Spanish grapes. 

There are also four towns inside the new AVA, which is unique: Ballard, Solvang, Santa Ynez and Los Olivos.

The AVA designation creates a potential marketing tool for wineries that source fruit from within its borders: the right to use the phrase, “Los Olivos District,” directly on their wine labels.  Until now, they were limited to broader identifiers, like “Santa Ynez Valley” or “Santa Barbara County.”  No doubt, the caché and recognizability of the Santa Barbara name is tough to beat.  But many winemakers see this more defined ID as a way to both denote pedigree as well as better inform the consumer.

Karen Steinwachs leading a vineyard tour through Buttonwoood
“We’ll definitely use it, because it unifies this area,” says vintner Bob Baehner, whose five-acre vineyard lies within the new AVA and whose elevation, at 1000 feet, marks the district’s highest point.  The Baehner Fournier 2015 Rosé of Merlot, made by winemaker Steve Clifton and set for release this spring, will carry the Los Olivos District AVA name.

At Buttonwood, winemaker Karen Steinwachs says no decision’s been made about label language.  But “it’s awesome to see the AVA finally happen,” she says, “because it certainly completes the jigsaw puzzle.”

Los Olivos District joins Santa Barbara County’s five previous AVAs: Santa Maria Valley (established in 1981), Santa Ynez Valley (1983), Sta. Rita Hills (2001), Happy Canyon (2009) and Ballard Canyon (2013). 

For more information, check out


Ambassador in a Bottle: Santa Barbara Wine Becomes Important Marketing Tool During Awards Season

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/16/16

As TV and movie stars mingled and schmoozed during a slew of events leading up to last weekend’s Golden Globes, one particular bottle of Santa Barbara wine caught their eye.

“We were the only vendor serving wine, or any other beverage, in the gifting suite, and that made us very popular,” says Shelby Sim, executive director of Visit Santa Ynez Valley.  The suite he’s referring to, produced by Secret Room Events, is one of the many VIP opportunities afforded Hollywood A-listers during awards season.  Mr. Sim was part of a tourism contingency that traveled to Hollywood over the weekend to promote travel to Santa Barbara County to Tinsel Town’s elite.

“Our presence – but also the wine – went along way to encourage a repeat or first time visit to our area,” adds Mr. Sim.

While others filled swag bags with face creams and gadgets, Santa Barbara’s tourism leaders handed out a bottle of a 2013 pinot noir dubbed, appropriately, Red Carper Red.  The wine was made by Peter Work of Ameplos Cellars, and it had been bottled just the week before.  But any wine aficionado will tell you: this wine, sourced in the lucrative Sta. Rita Hills region near Lompoc and crafted by what is the country’s first-ever winery designated organic, biodynamic and sustainable, was definitely meant to impress.

Winemaker Peter Work
The goal was to make a wine that would be the perfect cocktail wine for an actor hanging out an award reception, looking for a ‘wow’ wine,” says Mr. Work.  Red Carpet Red “shows the signature of Sta. Rita Hills with cherry cola, warm earthy notes and layers and complexity.  As we say at Ampelos, it has the perfect handshake:  what the nose promises, the palate delivers.

Sure, Santa Barbara’s knack for world-class pinot noir is well-known.  But a pinot from Ampelos adds an extra layer of Hollywood mystique.  Mr. Work is the winemaker behind actor Kurt Russell’s personal wine project, GoGi, and actress Kate Hudson’s label, Hudson Bellamy, both of which have received plenty of both consumer and industry acclaim.  Ampelos’ own pinot noirs retail for $35 to $45 a bottle.

This commemorative wine was the brainchild of Visit Santa Barbara, whose mission is to promote travel to Santa Barbara, both city and county, and which works closely with regional tourism groups like Visit SYV.  “We wanted to give celebrities something unique, high-end and special, and this wine fits the bill,” says Karna Hughes,   Director of Communications at Visit SB.  After all, “wine tourism is a big part of our region.”

The wine, which features a label by L.A.-based artist Eric Junker that looks a lot like a vintage travel poster, was meant to pique Hollywood’s interest in Santa Barbara.  “Many guests told us they’d been, and some said they hadn’t,” says Ms. Hughes.  “But they were all very excited to hear that there are 36 tasting rooms in the city of Santa Barbara alone, and more than 200 wineries in the county.”

Guests also received gift certificates to a slew of local tasting rooms.

“Most of the stars had been to Santa Barbara, but were unfamiliar with our wine region just a few miles north in the Santa Ynez Valley,” adds Mr. Sim, who hobnobbed with the likes of The Incredible Hulk TV icon Lou Ferrigno, The Deer Hunter actor John Savage and La Bamba star Lou Diamond Phillips.  “The foreign press was actually more familiar with Solvang then Santa Barbara.”

Visit SYV's Shelby Sim and Visit SB's Jennifer Walker rubbing shoulders with actor Lou Ferrigno, 2016 Golden Globes
Visit SB's Jennifer Walker, left, and Noelle Buben mingling with actor John Savage, 2016 Golden Globes

Sim with "Blackish" star Anthony Anderson (a Shelby selfie)
There isn’t all that much of Red Carpet Red to go around: only two barrels were produced, which equates to about 600 bottles.  But the public will still get a chance to sip like a celeb and try this special offering next month, and only for a limited time: February 3rd through the 13th.  Coinciding with this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Visit Santa Barbara’s “Film Feast” promotion, which aims to encourage film goers to stay, eat and play locally, will see several local businesses sharing Red Carpet Red with consumers.  Eateries like Opal Restaurant and C’est Cheese, for example, will pour it by the glass.  And the Santa Barbara Hotel Group, which runs properties like the Brisas del Mar and Lavender Inn by the Sea, will feature packages that include a bottle with every stay.  For information, check out and

A genuine taste of Santa Barbara?  Yes, by design.  “In the tasting notes for the wine, we compare it to quintessential Santa Barbara,” adds Ms. Hughes.  “Down to earth and sophisticated.”

For a glimpse at some of the star-studded action tat Red Carpet Red inspired at the Golden Globes, check out this 30-second video.

For a peek at Visit Santa Barbara's promo for the upcoming Film Feast, watch this 30-second video.


"SOMM: Into the Bottle": Pre-Launch Screenings Include Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/10/16

The buzz is building over “SOMM: Into the Bottle.”  And it’s no wonder.  Its 2013 cinematic predecessor, the documentary “SOMM,” garnered wide acclaim for its intimate peek at four men studying to pass the nearly-impossible-to-pass Master Sommelier exam.  It pulled back the curtain on this very lucrative test (there are only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world) and gained unprecedented access to the guild that governs it.

The new follow-up won’t be released until February 2nd, although it’s already doing gangbusters on pre-order, through i-Tunes.  And the documentary is already sizzling on the circuit: it was the sell-out opening night screener at November’s Napa Valley Film Festival and currently has its stars on a media tour that includes showings in Seattle, New York City, San Francisco and Austin.  Locally, Bacara Resort & Spa will host a screening of “SOMM: Into the Bottle” on Saturday, January 16, at 2:30pm, followed by a Q-&-A with cast members and a wine-and-food reception.

The key players in both films are quick to point to out, though, that the two docs are very different.

“The first SOMM is a human story – a David-and-Goliath story,” says Brian McClintic, 39, the Santa Barbara resident who’s one of those hopeful four.  He ends up passing the exam on the first try – only two of them do – and went on to help found the popular Les Marchands wine bar in the Funk Zone.  He’s now focused on Viticole, an innovative online wine retail venture launching this spring.

In an interview this week, he adds, “This new SOMM is a more intellectual documentary than the first one, more educational than personal. “

“The first film is really not about wine,” says director Jason Wise, 35.  “Now, it’s a story all about wine, which is a daunting task, but told from the perspectives of sommeliers.”

Mr. McClintic, in fact, returns as one of several sommeliers (including major players like Fred Dame and Rajat Parr) who offer industry insight into things like point scores, wine prices and restaurant wine lists.  His scenes were shot over two days in late 2014 and early 2015 at both the Les Marchands store and Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.  That’s a big change from the first film, which followed his exam prep over four years, with a reality show-style focus on the two weeks that led up to test day.

Brian McClintic on location at Bien Nacido Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley
Brian McClintic on location at Santa Barbara's Les Marchands
“SOMM: Into the Bottle,” though, succeeds on its own creative and artistic merits, which make this a meaningful movie.

The 90-minute film is broken down into 10 chapters, which enhances pacing and makes the subject matter easy to digest.  “A restaurant wine list can be so confusing, it’s such a chaos thing, that it’s really a storybook that only certain people know how to read,” says Mr. Wise, referring to sommeliers.  “So that’s how we approached the movie – like a storybook with chapters.”

SOMM director Jason Wise
The sections tackle practical consumer topics and offer myriad perspectives.  For example, in Chapter 6, “The Cost,” Mr. McClintic calls the $20-to-$50 price point a sweet spot for wine.  “You know it’s hand crafted and that a lot of work and effort went into it,” he says in the film.

In Chapter 8, “The Point Scores,” Mr. McClintic breaks with many fellow experts who bash the popular system of judging wines on a 100-point scale; he credits publications like Wine Spectator and critics like Robert Parker with stoking his curiosity and being “a huge part of my beginning” in the wine industry.

Other chapters explore the critical roles played by winemakers and the weather.  Among the film’s biggest merits is its look at wine’s role throughout history, from Caesar’s requirement that his soldiers prepare for battle by drinking three liters of wine per day to the fascinating impact that back-and-forth border battles between France and Germany have had on winemaking just in the last century.  “History naturally forges the great wines of the world,” says Mr. McClintic in the film.

DRC's Aubert de Villaine
California’s own fresh take on winemaking is explored, although much of the film delves into the Old World wines of Europe, introducing the viewer to wineries that stretch back many generations and diving deep into centuries-old cellars.  Mr. Wise succeeds, once again, in giving the viewer unprecedented access.  Several minutes are spent with legendary vintner Aubert de Villaine at Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti, which Mr. McClintic describes in the doc as the best expression of pinot noir in the world and “the holy grail of winery appointments.” 

Mr. Wise also manages several rare, if not anxious, moments in which rare bottles that are coveted within the industry – like a 1969 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage from France’s Northern Rhone and a 100-point 1962 Bin 60A Penfolds Cabernet-Shiraz blend from Australia – are popped open for the first time on camera.

The viewer’s vicarious enjoyment is enhanced even further by sweeping cinematography that was shot using a prototype of Sony’s high-end 35mm 4K Camcorder, described by Mr. Wise as “one of the best cameras in the world.” 

Filming on location in Alsace, France
In the end, Mr. Wise’s new film delivers what the title promises: it takes viewers deep “into the bottle” for an up-close look at the layers – the many people, places and circumstances – that influence wine, and at the nuanced rubrics that dictate how we enjoy it.

The January 16th Santa Barbara screening of “SOMM: Into the Bottle” will take place from 2:30 to 6pm at Bacara Resort’s 211-seat surround-sound screening room.  Mr. Wise and Mr. McClintic will both take part in the audience Q-&-A that follows.  The event will conclude with a gourmet food reception by Executive Chef Vincent Lesage and tastings of several Santa Barbara area wines, including Palmina, Silver, Pence, Presqu’ile and Lucas & Lewellen.  Tickets are $80 and can be purchased through this link to the Bacara website.

To view the "SOMM: Into the Bottle" trailer, click here.

To pre-order "SOMM: Into the Bottle" through iTunes ahead of its Feb. 2 release, click here.

To join the mailing list for Brian McClintic's upcoming Viticole project, click here.