Miles and Jack do London: Play Version of SIDEWAYS Takes the Stage

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos of London rehearsals of Sideways, The Play by Pamela Raith
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/20/16

At London’s St. James Theater, the curtains are about to part sideways.

“The story and the characters and the dialogue and the humor live on!” proclaims Rex Picket, the man who wrote the book Sideways and who’s since adapted the very personal tale into a play.

Sideways, The Play premieres in London on May 26th.  The story is the same one that inspired the Oscar-winning movie from 2004: two thirsty bachelors leaving their mark (and sewing their oats) in Santa Barbara wine country.  The movie, with a punch in the nose to merlot and a gushing embrace for pinot noir, was filmed primarily in the Santa Ynez Valley and, arguably, made pinot everybody’s new favorite red wine.

Rex Pickett in Sta. Rita Hills (photo by Jock MacDonald)
“The play was based on my book,” Mr. Pickett told me during a phone interview from London.  “I couldn’t use any material from the movie that wasn’t in my novel.”  Any changes from the page to the screen – the adaptation by director Alexander Payne that garnered him the Academy Award – were minimal, admits the novelist.  But his statement is a reminder that he still feels a bit squeezed out of the Sideways silver screen spotlight.

“When the dust settled, I sort of felt I’d gotten my pocket picked,” he says, though he follows it up quickly with compliments for Mr. Payne and the film’s stars for bringing his characters to life, and to such high acclaim.  “But there’s no denying that they had their business hats on,” Mr. Pickett continues, adding to his reference the many Santa Barbara wineries and restaurants that are still riding the wave of Sideways’ Tinsel Town triumph today.  “They leveraged its currency and probably saw it as a brand better than I did.”

Mr. Pickett went on to write two sequels to Sideways, “Vertical” and “Sideways 3: Chile.”  But he may have figured out the best way to leverage his own story himself by adapting the original into a play.  The stage version saw its first run at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica in 2012 – six months that broke box office records there.  And it went on to a highly acclaimed production, and seven sell-out weeks, at the Potiker Theater in La Jolla in 2013.

Sideways’ success on stage has to do with a story that is “iconic and timeless,” asserts Mr. Pickett, and one that’s “full of raw honesty.”  The plot is personal, indeed.  The pinot-loving protagonist, Miles, is based on Mr. Pickett’s own experiences in Santa Barbara County, from a marriage beyond rescue to many nights spent at The Hitching Post, sipping at its bar and wooing its waitress.  “I put a lot of truth on the page,” he says.  So cathartically, in fact, that “it sucked the marrow from my brain.”

After La Jolla, there was buzz about Broadway, until a pair of producers from London came calling.

Mr. Pickett, who directed independent films before turning novelist, calls his London experience “the most rewarding creative experience of my life, ever.”  He says he’ been treated “with more respect than ever before in my career,” and adds, “It feels redemptive.”  That has a lot to do with the collaborative role he’s been able to play as playwright.  He hired director David Grindley, he was included in the selection of the cast and, when rehearsals started in London on April 23rd, “I spent 10 straight days breaking down every single scene with the actors.”

The London cast, from left: Daniel Weyman (Miles), Simon Harrison (Jack), Beth Cordingly (Terra), Ellie Piercy (Maya)

Director David Grindley, left, and Pickett work with the cast
On May 23rd, the cast and crew will move from a rehearsal room to the St. James Theater in central London’s Victoria neighborhood.  The venue seats 312, and its design is a testament to a thriving theater scene where watching a play goes hand in hand with mixing.  “There’s a cabaret downstairs, a restaurant upstairs and, in the lobby, a huge zinc bar that’s manned by four people and easily fits 150 people,” says Mr. Pickett.  “It’s much more of a social scene here, where actors come out after a play and get a drink and mingle.”

Imbibing will certainly be part of the Sideways experience.  Fully manned bar aside, drinks carts will welcome guests as they exit.  “These are people who are going to want a glass of wine!” says Mr. Pickett.  And the St. James Theater is selling VIP seating with wine tasting: for £45 (about $65) guests sample pinot noir from Lompoc’s Sanford Winery and Chile’s Viña Montes after select performances.

Sideways, The Play has serious production demands.  It requires a whopping 22 scene changes and Miles, who will be played in London by Daniel Weyman, appears in every one.  “That guy’s got a lot of dialogue,” says Mr. Pickett, with a laugh.  A London wine critic has also come in to give the cast a crash course on etiquette.  “They didn’t really know about wine but they wanted to get all the details right,” adds Mr. Pickett, “like how to hold the glass.”  And the program gives the audience fair warning of the same bawdy moments that made certain scenes in the book and in the movie unforgettable: “Contains strong language, nudity and scenes of a sexual nature.”

Mr. Pickett, who expects to remain in London through the play’s first few performances before coming home to Southern California, is hopeful that London opens more doors.  “London is really a staging ground for the rest of Europe,” he says.  Even after all these years, “people all over the world are still thirsty for this story and the play is the only way to experience it again with a live audience.”

Sideways is slated to run in London through July 9th, which happens to be Mr. Pickett’s birthday.


On the Road: Santa Barbara Vintners Descend on L.A.

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Allison Levine
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/19/16

Santa Barbara wines are hitting the road. 

Actually, it’s one of the most comprehensive reach-out campaigns I’ve seen from our local wine industry in a long time.  Santa Barbara Vintners, which represents the vast majority of the region’s wineries (about 110), is spending the entire month of May in L.A.  The goal is to connect with consumers, media and trade in hopes of making the message stick: California wine country is just up the road.

“It can be surprising how little L.A. people know about Santa Barbara wine country,” says wine marketing whiz Allison Levine.  “But it’s also important to understand – people often don’t know as much about the region as they think they do.”  Santa Barbara is so nearby and familiar, in other words, that the diversity in all it has to offer can be easy to underestimate.

Levine lives in West L.A. but has been covering Santa Barbara County wines for a long time.  She’s a communications expert, an event planner and the creative mind behind the popular wine and food newsletter, Please the Palate.  Santa Barbara Vintners partnered with Levine to produce “Road Trip Los Angeles.”

“We’ve put together no less than 22 events,” Levine told me this week, just hours before putting on a wine dinner at Commissary at the LINE Hotel in L.A.’s Koreatown.  The intimate meal, limited to about 20 consumers, would highlight unusual grape varieties grown in Santa Barbara County and feature wines by Palmina, Municipal Winemakers, Toccata, Tessa Marie and Lieu Dit.

Municipal Winemakers' Dave Potter speaks at the intimate dinner at L.A.'s LINE Hotel on May 15th
“The goal with the wine dinners is to connect people,” Levine says, “because so much about wine is making connections, meeting the winemakers and having small group experiences.  It’s enjoyable, tangible, and once you know their story and who they are, it’s easier to fall in love with their wines.”

A dinner earlier this month at trendy Redbird in Downtown L.A. had a “Mentor & Mentees” theme and starred the likes of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen and Qupe’s Bob Lindquist alongside men they’ve trained, including the much buzzed-about Gavin Chanin of LUTUM Wines.  And a dinner last week at Messhall Kitchen in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood, with a “Big Reds” theme, spotlighted the wines and principal players of Zaca Mesa, Westerly and Grassini.  Upcoming dinners will be staged at high-profile restaurants all over L.A., including The Rose Café in Venice (May 21), Upstairs 2 at the Wine House in West L.A. (May 25), Maison Giraud in Pacific Palisades (May 26) and Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak L.A. in Glendale (June 2).

There are several wine shop tastings on the calendar, too.  And, like the wine dinners, they target wine buffs all over L.A.; upcoming retailer tastings are scheduled at Vendome in Toluca Lake (May 24), K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood (May 25) and Monopole in Pasadena (May 28).  More than 50 Santa Barbara County labels are participating.

Road Trip Los Angeles also has trade and media as its target.  For them, “it’s all about breaking it down,” Levine says.  “If you’re a pinot noir drinker, you go to Santa Maria or Sta. Rita Hills, but if you like syrah, you explore Ballard Canyon.  If you know what it is you like, then you can make a B-line toward the wineries that specialize in that.”

Invite-only events designed for industry insiders have been taking place all this week, in fact, with each day dedicated to a specific variety.  Monday spotlighted chardonnay, Tuesday pinot, Wednesday syrah and Rhone varieties and, today, cabernet and Bordeaux grapes.  The events, held at hip Republique on La Brea Ave., have featured 90-minute seminars followed by three hours of walk-around tastings and one-on-one with winemakers.

Santa Barbara Vintners Executive Director Morgen McLaughlin, left, speaks during the pinot noir trade event at L.A.'s Republique as winemakers like Palmina's Steve Clifton, Fess Parker's  Blair Fox and Alma Rosa's Richard Sanford look on
The Rhone wines trade event at Republique featured powerhouses like Steve Beckmen (left), Kaena's Mikael Sigouin, Tercero's Larry Schaffer and Qupe's Bob Lindquist
I’ve always believed that the Santa Barbara wine region’s greatest asset – its diversity and a unique ability to grow a wide array of grapes really well – is also its biggest challenge.  Napa does cabernet, Sonoma does pinot, but Santa Barbara does it all.  It’s a bigger, tougher message to deliver in just one sitting.  So therein lays the genius of Road Trip Los Angeles.  Industrious?  Yes.  A slew of creative events over many weeks.  But that’s how you start the process.  That’s how you begin to tell a story about a place teeming with personality and oozing promise.  Those willing to slow down and listen, and to sip, are bound to want more, hence becoming the visitors and customers.  And that, over time, will allow this very important agricultural and creative endeavor to continue to flourish in our own backyard.

For more information on Road Trip Los Angeles, go to the Santa Barbara Vintners website and use the social media hashtag #sbcwinela.


J. Wilkes Goes to Washington: State Department Pours Santa Maria Valley Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/9/16

UPDATE 5/23/16: J. Wilkes is offering a "diplomatic" discount: enter code "WilkesDC5416" at and get the 3-pack of wines poured at recent U.S. State Department events  -- Santa Maria Valley pinot blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir -- at a discounted price of $60.

The J. Wilkes Chardonnay is a big value at $24
“Regardless of who’s in the White House, I’m a patriot and I love this country,” says Wes Hagen.  “So to know that wines I’ve had a hand in are being poured there feels really good.”

Mr. Hagen has been brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines since last year and, just last week, was promoted to winemaker.  The label produces a variety of region-specific wines, with a focus on the Santa Maria Valley.  The fact the wines are now being poured for Washington dignitaries and international heads of state was the product of a “beautifully organic moment,” he says.

Soon after the J. Wilkes label partnered with a new East Coast distributor, Country Vintner, Mr. Hagen and Sales Manager Michael Phillips joined a trade tasting in Alexandria, Virginia.  At any tasting event, “you treat everyone you meet like they could be the guy who buys wine for the President,” says Mr. Hagen.  At this event, one guest actually was.

“I was telling him all about J. Wilkes and the classes on food and wine pairing I’d taught at Alan Hancock College, and he was digging it,” recalls Mr. Hagen about his encounter with Jason L. Larkin.  “When I was done, I asked him for his business card.”

The May 4th Energy Summit Luncheon
Mr. Larkin is the Executive Chef and Events Manager for the Office of the Chief of Protocol at the U.S. Department of State.  That means he’s responsible for purveying and pairing food and wine for any meal that involves political figureheads like the Secretary of State, the Vice President and even the President, himself.

The rest is political culinary history.  Last week, on May 4th, the 2012 J. Wilkes Santa Maria Chardonnay was poured at a luncheon hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, as part of the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit.  It was paired with a grilled breast of chicken served alongside haricorts verts, stewed tomatoes, red bliss potatoes and a mango-cilantro salsa.  The J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir was served upon request.

A strawberry-hibiscus iced tea was also poured, and a praline cookie with fudge sauce and crème-anglaise was doled out for dessert.

The chardonnay, which was made by outgoing J. Wilkes winemaker Vidal Perez, showcases “linear stone fruit and beautiful acidity and minerality,” says Mr. Hagen.  And 18 months in 25% new French oak barrels imparts “amazing creaminess.”  The wine is currently sold out but the 2013 J. Wilkes Santa Maria Valley chardonnay is currently in the marketplace and on the J. Wilkes website for $24. The 2012 pinot is also sold out; the ’13 vintage is available for $30.

The Energy Summit Luncheon menu

Wes Hagen
The State Department nod is a big break for J. Wilkes, true.  But Mr. Hagen calls it a boon for all of Santa Barbara County, too.  “I hope these leaders will go home tracing the deliciousness of California back to the Santa Maria Valley,” he says.  “And I hope they realize that wine country goes far beyond Napa and Sonoma, because we’re making wines with lots of food friendliness and elegance here.”

The message certainly seems to have reached Chef Larkin.  He’s tapped another J. Wilkes white wine, the 2014 Pinot Blanc ($18), as well as the 2012 J. Wilkes Pinot Noir for a luncheon hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry this Friday, May 13th.  The meal is part of a summit between President Barack Obama and leaders of five Nordic countries and will feature guest celebrity Chef Marcus Samuelsson.

The J. Wilkes brand was launched by local wine industry veteran Jeff Wilkes in 2001.  After his passing in 2010, the label was taken over by The Thornhill Companies, owned by Santa Barbara’s Miller family, who also own the storied Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley.  Before J. Wilkes, Wes Hagen was the award-winning winemaker for Clos Pepe Vineyards in Lompoc.


Pearls of Wisdom: Pico Iyer Sheds Light on Life, Travel & Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara and Danielle Methmann

A toast to Santa Barbara tourism
At Visit Santa Barbara's latest Annual Tourism Luncheon, the numbers wowed.  Some 6.1 million tourists visited Santa Barbara's South Coast in 2015.  And the local tourism industry's impressive economic impact continues: $1.5 billion in annual traveler spending, $45 million in yearly tax revenues and 12,000 jobs along Santa Barbara County's South Coast.  Nationally, tourism's economic impact is $2.1 trillion.

The upscale luncheon event, held May 4, 2016, at the seaside Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club in Montecito, also starred The Rivvies.  These Annual Destination Awards honor community members who've made a positive impact on the local tourism industry.  The '16 Rivvies went to Morgen McLaughlin, Executive Director of Santa Barbara Vintners, and Susan Jang-Bardick, special events supervisor for Santa Barbara's Parks & Rec Department.

The star attraction at this year's luncheon, however, was keynote speaker Pico Ayer, the admired travel writer known as much for his unattached lifestyle -- he doesn't own a cell phone and lives part-time in rural Japan, car-free, and a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur -- as for his accomplishments. The prolific essayist and author has been traveling full-time since the mid-80s and is well-known for his inspirational TED Talks.

Mr. Iyer signed copies of his book, "The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere"
Mr. Iyer, it turns out, also has strong roots in Santa Barbara.  "This marks the 50th year since I first arrived in Santa Barbara with my parents," the British-born world traveler told the crowd.  And what followed were a series of poignant, even humorous pearls of wisdom that succeeded in opening the eyes, and perhaps even the hearts, of the Santa Barbara tourism leaders and politicians gathered before him.

Among the quotes that inspired me most:

·      "Santa Barbara suffers from Charlize Theron Syndrome: it's so gorgeous, it's easy to underestimate its depth, talent and sophistication."

·      "Every time I come back to Santa Barbara, I feel as if I'm seeing things with fresh eyes. Aside from being home to world-class vineyards... Santa Barbara is home to remarkable people."

·      "A destination is much less important than the eyes we bring to it.”

·      "More important than the sights is what's between the sights, and between the lines."

·      "In Santa Barbara, even the everyday things take you to places of such beauty."

·      "If there's one place for which the notion of the staycation should have been invented, it's Santa Barbara."

·      "One of the great riches of Santa Barbara are the tourists, who open the eyes of the locals, who in turn open the eyes of their neighbors."

·      "When you live in a place, you notice what may not be quite perfect... But if you're attentive, you notice the new developments that are making that place even more special."

·      "It takes someone visiting our town to remind us of the treasure we're sitting on."

·      "These days, people are so bombarded by information that what they're aching for is liberation."

·      "Luxury is a function of scarcity.  Nowadays, that's simply having a lot of time... and being able to let one's mind off the leash."

·      "These days, you have to go to the ends of the earth to do nothing at all."

·      "We travel not to leave our homes but to leave our habits.  It's about what I call the three 'trans:' transport, transcendence, transformation."

If it's not in a Shelby Sim selfie, it probably didn't happen
The luncheon also welcomed Visit Santa Barbara's incoming board members, including chair Matthew La Vine, GM at The Fess Parker -- A Doubletree by Hilton Resort.  It also screened "Thank You, Santa Barbara," a fun video thanking the community for creating a welcoming environment for visitors.

Guests were treated to a lovely spring meal, a sparkling wine toast, a fun doling out of gifts (from sunglasses to complimentary attraction passes) and copies of Mr. Iyer's book, "The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere," which he signed.

For more on Pico Iyer, click here.

Follow Visit Santa Barbara on social media: @SantaBarbara.


Vineyard Lunch: Fess Parker Adds Culinary Elements to Wine Tasting

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/5/16

Fess Parker Winery is elevating the wine tasting experience by going gourmet.

This month, the winery’s launching its Spring Family Lunches, an intimate series of midday meals that treat visitors to great food, plenty of wine and a behind-the-scenes looks at winemaking.  The chance to mingle one-on-one with members of the Parker family is a bonus.  Two of the lunches – the ones scheduled for this Friday, May 6th, and June 7th – are already sold out, though seats remain for the May 20th event. (UPDATE 5/7: all Spring Family Lunches are sold out!)

Fess Parker's Spring Family Lunches are held in the winery's new, airy outdoor terrace
An intimate setting for Fess Parker's Spring Family Lunches
I visited the sweeping estate along Foxen Canyon Road during the 2015 harvest season, when this culinary endeavor was launched.  I loved the lunch experience, as much for the abundance of premium wine and fabulous food as for the setting.  These lunches are held outside, adjacent to the main tasting room, in the winery’s open-air terrace that opened just a year ago this month.  We sat around a long white-clothed table, under a matching canopy, with a fireplace and a raised bed organic garden nearby and rows and rows of vines just a stone’s throw away.  The space is airy, with plenty of seating, but it’s also intimate. 

Our small group broke bread and chatted with Eli Parker, Fess Parker's son and the winery's CEO, head winemaker Blair Fox, and winery President (and husband to Fess Parker's daughter, Ashley) Tim Snider.  We sipped on award-winning wines – like the 2013 Bien Nacido Vineyard pinot noir poured from magnums, the Rodney's Vineyard viognier and syrah and Ashley's Vineyard chardonnay.  And we savored a menu prepped exclusively for our gathering: a hearty cassoulet of white beans, sausage and breadcrumbs, an autumn salad of frisée, apples, walnuts and dried cherries, and plenty of fresh baked breads.

Winemaker Blair Fox leads a post-lunch winery tour and barrel tasting
This spring, the lunches feature the gastronomic handiwork of Chef Ashley Williams, who joined the Fess Parker team in January.  She’s a graduate of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California in San Bernardino, and she worked for four years in the kitchens of the Chumash Casino.  She’s prepping a unique menu to pair with each of the selected wines to be poured at each of this season’s Spring Family Lunches.

Lunch will be followed by a discussion on wine grape farming and a winery tour complete with barrel tastings.

This offering by the Fess Parker folks is brilliant.  Tasting wine at Fess Parker Winery is always a treat, and that tasting room is easily one of Santa Barbara wine country’s most popular stops for curious consumers any day of the week.  But adding the food element, and creating a special space in which visitors can experience the marriage of great wine and great food, strikes a real chord.  I’m more liable to fall in love with a wine if there’s food on my plate, too, and I’m more apt to buy a wine if I understand the nuances behind the way it was made and if I’m introduced to the personalities responsible for making it.  What’s more, how much coaxing does anyone need for a seat to a wine country meal?

Fess Parker Winery President Tim Snider is a generous pourer
The Spring Family Lunches cost $70, or $48 for wine club members, and are limited to just 20 people.

This move toward culinary appreciation also includes other new offerings at Fess Parker Winery.  Saturdays and Sundays now feature food and wine pairing opportunities, where seasonal dishes – like a chicken pot pie made with locally sourced chanterelle mushrooms, sage and acorn squash – are paired with select wines.  Throughout the week, there are also enhanced, outdoor, tableside tastings – like single vineyard flights – led by one of five Fess Parker team members who’ve completed the prestigious Master Court of Sommeliers introductory certification.  Reservations are recommended, and these are also available by appointment.

For more information on all these opportunities, as well as the extensive portfolio of Fess Parker wines, check out the Fess Parker website.