Sold! Legendary Wine Auction Moves Into Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/28/16

CCWC founder Archie McLaren
The Central Coast Wine Classic has been one of the most spectacular wine events in the country for more than 30 years.  The charitable focus of this multi-day affair has certainly been a boon for the Central Coast: from 2004 to 2014, it gifted more than $2.5 million to more than 125 non-profit groups throughout Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.  And then there’s the enviable lineup of wine-centric experiences, from auctions to seminars to that legendary feast at Hearst Castle.

Throughout its lifetime, CCWC has drawn wine aficionados mainly to San Luis Obispo, holding its events in coastal towns like Avila Beach and Pismo Beach and raising the lion’s share of its funds for non-profit radio station KCBX.   But the five-day extravaganza moves down the coast this year: many of its best events – including the signature live auction of spectacular wine and lifestyle items – will be held in Santa Barbara.

The Heasrt Castle dinner
“It’s a combination of experience and intuition,” founder Archie McLaren tells me about this decision to bring his event south.  “We have always had a huge number of supporters from Santa Barbara, and this seemed like an appropriate time to expand.”

McLaren’s accomplishments have always been built on his relationships.  The camaraderie of this well-known bon vivant with some of the great winemakers of the Central Coast helps explain the success of CCWC for decades, as well as the success of the highly regarded WOPN event, or World of Pinot Noir, which he founded with vintner Brian Talley in 2000.  The fact he’s now spending more time at home in Santa Barbara helped pivot the spotlight of CCWC toward a town where people are “increasingly sophisticated, ” according to McLaren, and where they are “more and more interested these days in the symbiotic relationship between fine wine and fine cuisine.”

The 2016 Central Coast Wine Classic will run August 10-14.  The experiences begin up north on Wednesday, with a barrel tasting and auction at San Luis Obispo’s Greengate Ranch followed by a pair of wine dinner options.  Thursday afternoon will see the option of a vineyard tour and luncheon at legendary Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles ($75) or a Bordeaux seminar and lunch at nearby Eberle Vineyard ($115).  That evening beings the spectacular Dinner at Hearst Castle ($1250), where only the historic luxury setting rivals the world-class wine and gourmet food prepped by a bevy of local chefs, including James Sly of Sly’s Restaurant in Carpinteria, James Siao of Finch & Fork at Santa Barbara’s Canary Hotel and private chef Michael Hutchings.

Chef James Sly
On Friday, a tour and tasting event of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande properties ($75) includes breakfast and visits to vineyards like Saucelito Canyon, Talley and Tolosa.

And then the events cross the county line.

Friday afternoon, iconic vintner Richard Sanford will host a tour of his Alma Rosa Winery in Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills, along with tastings and lunch ($75).  Later, a chardonnay and pinot noir seminar at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in the downtown Funk Zone ($75) will feature wines by Babcock and Fess Parker while a pinot noir symposium at the newly-renovated Santa Barbara Inn on the waterfront ($75) will showcase wines by Au Bon Climat and Longoria, among others.  That evening, there will be three dinners to choose from: a Rare Wine Dinner with exclusive French wines at the Santa Barbara Club ($750), a Winemaker Dinner aboard the Channel Cat catamaran in the Santa Barbara Harbor ($150) and a special feast in the stunning Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse ($150), with wines from Fred Brander and Qupé’s Bob Lindquist.

Double-fisted bidding is encouraged
Saturday will see a morning cabernet sauvignon seminar ($95) and Champagne-and-caviar symposium ($95).  But the climax of CCWC may well be the Saturday afternoon Rare & Fine Wine & Lifestyle Auction and Luncheon ($175), held this year at real estate tycoon Pat Nesbitt’s sprawling Bella Vista Ranch in Summerland.  The 70-acre ocean view estate is a draw all its own, complete with polo field and butterfly garden.  But the oohs-and-aahs are most likely to come from the dozens of spectacular lifestyle lots, including a 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Z51, a five-star trip for two through France – Paris, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone and Champagne – and luxury excursions to China and Bhutan.  There are several deluxe dinner experiences up for grabs, as well as original artwork by several high-profile Central Coast artists.  And a slew of local winemakers have donated one-of-a-kind salmanazars of wine – huge nine-liter bottles that are the equivalent of 12 regular bottles.  The event will also feature an exotic car showcase and cuisine by Chefs Frank Ostini (of Hitching Post II fame) and Rick Manson.

For a peek at all 52 live auction lots in the Central Coast Wine Classic auction, click here.

CCWC ends Sunday with an Australian wine roundtable at the Santa Barbara Inn ($75) and a VIP Departure Brunch at Stella Mare’s Restaurant ($95).

This is a spectacle to be sure: 18 events, spread across two counties, and featuring world class wine and food served up by a veritable who’s who of the culinary world in one stunning location after the other.  Most events are close to being sold out.  For more information, check out


Rob DaFoe’s Next Chapter: Cabernet Phenom Now Taming Burgundy

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/14/16

“You’re bottling Sybil when you’re bottling pinot noir,” winemaker Rob DaFoe tells me as we sip. “And you’re constantly asking yourself, ‘When will she surrender?!”

DaFoe is talking about a wine grape he loves, of course, all while candidly comparing it to the psychiatry patient whose bout with multiple personalities famously became a 1970s TV miniseries starring Sally Field.  It’s a newfound realization for DaFoe: that pinot noir undergoes myriad transmutations in its infancy.  “And if you taste all the time to see what’s happening, you’ll go mad,” he says.

Rob DaFoe at the Easy Street Wine Collective, 90 Easy Street, Buellton
Those changes in young pinot – during fermentation and barrel aging and even in bottle – can happen day to day, and they're what DaFoe has come to understand as the wine’s intrinsic evolution.

As winemaker, “you have to trust what you’ve done, that’s the bottom line,” he adds.

I say that these are newfound discoveries for DaFoe because working with Burgundian grapes – pinot and chardonnay – is indeed a new venture for him.  It’s his new label, called Rake, as in a ne’er-do-well scoundrel.  The name was inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song that’s “hauntingly poetic and terrifying at the same time,” according to DaFoe.

But DaFoe has already made an indelible mark on the Santa Barbara winemaking scene with Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon in particular.  I first met DaFoe about 10 years ago, when the pro snowboarder-turned-photographer-turned-filmmaker won acclaim with a movie about making wine, called Ground to Glass.  That intimate documentary, which featured on-camera sit-downs with more than 30 wine industry stars and which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006, was also a creative seed for the man behind the lens.  By 2009, DaFoe had launched the Tanner DaFoe label with friend Jeff Tanner and the wines –a fascinating blend of intuition, knack and good fortune, for sure – were knockouts.  The 2011 cabernet blew my socks off – “a remarkably luscious, rich, elegant wine where flavors and tannins converge in harmony,” I wrote last year.  And four vintages of Tanner DaFoe wines – 2009 through 2012 – have garnered between 90 and 93 points from Wine Spectator, among the highest for any Bordeaux wines from Santa Barbara. (The 2013s are currently in barrel.)

Then, one day, DaFoe became intrigued by rosé.  “It wasn’t really a fit,” for the Tanner DaFoe label, he says.  So Rake was born.

DaFoe is still making cabernet and cab-based blends under Tanner DaFoe; priced between $75 and $110, they’re sourced from a secret vineyard on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Similarly, the magic behind Rake is driven by location.  In 2013, DaFoe got access to the four-acre Destiny Vineyard in Los Alamos, a 50-50 planting of pinot and chard.  “The soils are very clay-like, with a fair amount of sea fossils – perfectly suited for Burgundian grapes,” says the winemaker.

Indeed, if rosé was the genesis for his new project, DaFoe has heeded the call well.  The 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($20) is bracing, lively and fresh.  The acidity is vivid, while the fruity nuances of the pinot grape shine through.  He pours next a sample of his yet-to-be-bottled 2015 rosé, which smacks of Provence, with watermelon and raspberry aromas, a clean roundness on the tongue and spicy pop mid-sip.  Delicious.  And because it’s what sipping rosé tends to inspire, our conversation soon drifts from wine to heady ideas about history, women and life.

I am sipping with DaFoe at the Easy Street Wine Collective in Buellton, a small tasting room that Rake shares with the Cordon label, by DaFoe’s winemaker friend, Etienne Terlinden.  Both men, along with a handful of other boutique producers, work out of the winery that abuts the intimate tasting space.

We taste the 2014 Rake Chardonnay ($30) next, which is bouncy and animated, with limestone and grapefruit notes on the palate, and with a subtle nuttiness in the finish.

And we end with the 2013 Rake Pinot Noir ($35), with a perfumed nose – black cherries and dark berries – and a clean, supple mouth feel.  The wine was bottled only in February, but balance is predominant.  “Every time I taste this, different parts are more dominant and others are more subdued,” DaFoe tells me, harkening back to his Sybil reference.  But “I’m finding that pinot develops way better in bottle anyway,” he adds.  So, certainly, the future for Rake looks bright.

Rake Wines are currently available through the Easy Street Wine Collective tasting room, which is open for public tastings on weekends, as well as Wine + Beer at the Santa Barbara Public Market, Corks 'n Crowns in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone and Pierre Lafond Market in Montecito's Upper Village.

Find out more at


Taking it in Stride: Santa Barbara Restaurateur Walks for Wine

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Spring 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Magazine
photos provided by Tom Dolan

Tom Dolan has long loved taking walking vacations throughout Europe.  “They have an incredible network of trails there that connect beautiful villages,” says the Santa Barbara resident, 58.  But his long-distance treks – exploratory week-long travels on foot on which Mr. Dolan covers 20 miles a day – have taken special meaning ever since he became a restaurateur.

For 20 years, Mr. Dolan worked at Emilio’s in Santa Barbara, a popular Italian bistro where he went from waiting tables to managing.  He’d worked restaurants before, including the Four Seasons Biltmore for 16 years and stints in Seattle, Park City, Los Angeles, even cruise ships.  But it was when Emilio’s closed that Mr. Dolan saw an opening.  With his wife Vicki, a 33-year management veteran of the Four Seasons Biltmore, Mr. Dolan opened Toma Restaurant in 2013.

Suddenly, his walking trips offered something new: a chance to enhance his restaurant’s wine list.

Last year, for example, Mr. Dolan walked 120 miles across Barolo, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont.  He started in truffle-laden Alba and visited tiny historic towns like Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d' Alba before giving his soles a rest in Dogliani.  “The landscape is breathtaking – we’re walking through forests and vineyards most of the day – and you meet people you just wouldn’t if you were driving,” says Dolan.  “It’s also extremely hospitable.  The only danger you encounter is overeating and over-drinking!”

That’s what the nights are about – slow, multi-course meals and mingling with locals ‘til late.  But the days, aside from the sweeping vistas, are about discovering wine.  Mr. Dolan meets with artisanal winemakers – some by appointment, some by chance – and sips through their wares with the goal of finding special bottles to bring back home.  After last year’s Barolo trip, Mr. Dolan placed nine boutique wineries on his wine list.  Names like Damilano, Vietti, Sadrone, Rinaldi and Pio Cesare.  “They’re rare labels or special blends that you might not see anywhere else,” he says.

With Toma, Italy is a clear focus.  Umbria and Chianti have been covered, and Veneto is a serious possibility for 2016.  “I usually travel in September, when the weather’s still good and the crowds are a lot smaller,” says Mr. Dolan, who researches his trajectories on his own, with the help of online topographical maps.

The annual expeditions have also become boys’ trips.  Mr. Dolan’s pedestrian partner these days is Dr. Barnard George Valeska, a Santa Barbara dentist.  “With 17-pound packs on our backs and 20 miles a day, for both of our wives, it’s, ‘No, thank you!’”

Toma Restaurant, 324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara.  805-962-0777.

Quenching Quaffers: New Whites to Beat the Summer Heat

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/30/16

As summer temps continue to climb these days, even the most ardent red wine drinkers are going lighter to quench their thirst.  Santa Barbara rosé wines are clearly getting renewed attention and – with fresh flavors that match their pretty colors – for good reason.  But I’ve been exploring a newly released batch of refreshing whites, and here are some of my favorites. 

Lucas & Lewellen 2014 Viognier ($22): With more than two dozen grape varieties under his watch, Louie Lucas remains one of Santa Barbara County’s most prolific growers.  This delicious viognier, made by Megan McGrath Gates, was sourced from his sustainable vineyards near the town of Los Alamos.  Peaches and tropical notes on the nose are followed by bright flavors of melon and citrus.  In a sale that ends today, Lucas & Lewellen is offering a six-pack of white wines – this viognier, along with sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, dry riesling and two chardonnays – for an awesome $59 (UPDATE: this offer has been extended through July 15th).

Palmina 2014 Malvasia Bianca, Larner Vineyard ($26): The aromas of this wine are enchanting: flowers, honey, grapefruit.  The palate experience is bracing and fresh, brimming with flavors of tangerines and a super clean finish.  These grapes were sourced from Michael Larner’s celebrated vineyards in Ballard Canyon, “where the climate is quite similar to its Fruili-Venezia roots – maritime fog, warm sunny days and cool, crisp nights,” according to Palmina winemaker Steve Clifton.  This wine is a winner with spicy Asian dishes or fresh crab legs.

Alma Rosa 2014 Chardonnay, El Jabali Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills ($30): Winemaker Richard Sanford delivers another spectacular chardonnay here, complete with pretty straw hues, clean minerality and racy flavors of white stone fruits and lemongrass.  A subtle creaminess on the palate enhances the sipping experience.  The fact these grapes are 34 years old – sourced from the historic El Jabali Vineyard along Santa Rosa Road that Richard and Thekla Sanford planted in the early 1980s and that they continue to farm organically – enhances the wine’s distinguished structure.

Cambria 2014 Benchbreak Chardonnay ($22): Much of the chardonnay fruit that grows on the Cambria estate in the Santa Maria Valley dates back to the 1970s and, since 2009, has been cultivated sustainably.  This brilliant wine is teeming with green apple and ripe tropical flavors, like pineapple.  Generous acidity and a lovely spicy thread add character.  Fresh fish off the grill or a bevy of aperitif cheeses will make a perfect match.  Another standout chardonnay by longtime winemaker Denise Shurtleff.

Babcock 2014 Chardonnay Top Cream ($45): The search for the perfect dinner table chardonnay ends with this spectacular release by Bryan Babcock.  Drawn by his spectacular pinot noirs to the Babcock tasting room along Highway 246 this past weekend, this remarkably textured estate wine – alive with bright acidity and stone fruit and citrus flavors – blew me away.  There’s a delicious creaminess here, with a flavor-rich finish that doesn’t give up.  This is what you drink during an al fresco meal of chicken fajitas and grilled veggies at the end of a warm summer day spent mostly outdoors.  Top Cream refers to the lean, gravelly, loamy top soil that blankets sandstone on the Babcock ranch which, according to the winemaker, “definitely governs the vigor and morphology of the vines that grow in it.”  

Liquid Farm 2014 Chardonnay La Hermana ($40): When Nikki and Jeff Nelson treated us to a homemade wine country lunch at their Santa Ynez home this week, we met their kids.  It was their lineup of chardonnays, actually, which they presented and described in terms of personality and character.  The five boutique bottlings of chard we sipped, imagined by the Nelsons and crafted James Sparks, are all made to impress and, more importantly, to capture the unique character if their vintage and vineyard source.  The La Hermana wows with its zesty character, freshness and subtle suppleness.  A nod to the FOUR Chardonnay ($74), too, which combines the best four barrels of the 2014 vintage and delivers an amazingly complex and structured drinking experience.  Keep in mind that, due to super low production, most of the Liquid Farm wines go by allocation to wine club members.

La Crema 2015 Pinot Gris Monterey ($20): This is my one out-of-town choice, a just-released white from cool-climate vineyards in Monterey.  This wine is juicy and refreshing, especially if you’re trying to cool off during a toasty summer afternoon spent by the pool – full of grassy notes and flavors of peaches, apricots and lemons.  “Pinot gris expresses itself best when handled gently, so we pressed the grapes without de-stemming and fermented the wine slowly in 100% stainless steel to preserve with vibrant fruit flavors,” says winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas.  This wine drinks really well on its own; a spread of fresh fruits, nuts and semi-soft cheeses, though, won’t hurt.