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. www.tomarestaurant.com.

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