Growing Pains: Expansion Win in Santa Barbara Wine Area Ruffles Feathers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/8/16

Pence Ranch
The expansion of one of Santa Barbara’s most famous grape growing areas has upset many in the local wine community.  But for Blair Pence, it’s a major victory.

“We felt pretty confident that we’d ultimately prevail,” says vintner Blair Pence, who spearheaded the effort to expand the eastern boundary of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA near Lompoc.  The decision by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB), which took three years to achieve and which adds 2300 acres to the 33,000-acre region, becomes official on September 21.

Sta. Rita Hills is one of six American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in Santa Barbara County.  These zones get official federal recognition for unique characteristics – geology, weather, even history – that allow them to grow quality wine grapes.  Sta. Rita Hills, known now around the world for producing supreme pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, received AVA status in 2001.

Blair Pence
When Blair Pence, a successful real estate developer, bought a 200-acre property in2005 with the ultimate goal to grow grapes, it was situated right outside the Sta. Rita Hills’ eastern border.  And as his Pence Ranch label began to gain acclaim, defining the origin of his wines “became a real pain,” he says.

“People would ask, ‘Where are you?’

“And I’d say, ‘Santa Barbara County.’


“‘Between Lompoc and Buellton.’

“‘Where exactly?’

“Just telling people where we were always required a lot of explanation,” says Mr. Pence, so pushing to have Pence Ranch included within the AVA “was really a matter of clarification,” he says.

More importantly, he insists that the TTB decision – what he calls “a totally impartial move” – was based on “relevant data points” that prove that his land is a natural extension of Sta. Rita Hills, or SRH.

“The east [boundary] used to be defined by an arbitrary point-to-point between peaks, it was out of whack,” he says.  “What the TTB decision has done is taken the rationale applied to the west [boundary] and applied it to the east:  a 320-foot elevation line that wraps around the foothills.”

He calls it, “topographical continuity.”

The newly defined border now includes Pence Ranch in its entirety, as well as portions of neighboring John Sebastiano and Rio Vista Vineyards that were previously excluded.

The grapevines at Pence Ranch
Elevation variation helps define Pence Ranch
Mr. Pence’s thoroughly studied arguments, and the fact the federal government agreed, is not enough to quell the letdown of many of his neighbors, though.  The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance, comprised of many of Santa Barbara’s best-known winemakers, voiced unified opposition to the expansion from the get-go, citing the integrity of borders that were carefully studied for years before approval.  The TTB decision to push out the eastern border, which is a rare occurrence in the wine industry, disappointed many in the group.

“It’s ill-founded,” says Richard Sanford, a pioneer winemaker who planted the first pinot noir vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills in 1971, long before the area was officially defined.  “It reduces the meaningfulness of appellations.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” says Richard Longoria, who’s been making wine locally since the early 1980s and who planted his Fe Ciega Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  “What stops the ranch adjacent to Pence from applying for an expansion? Where does it stop?”

Truly legendary places and institutions are built upon strong foundations,” winemaker Chad Melville writes in his Notebook blog, which is published on Melville Winery website.  “If a foundation is ever-shifting, how can permanence and true greatness ever emerge there?”

But a more conciliatory tone is coming from J. Wilkes Wines winemaker Wes Hagen, the man who led the charge to have the Sta. Rita Hills officially green-lighted in 2001.  “I’m glad we’re moving forward after this decision’s been made so we can continue to elevate the region as the United States’ premier cool-climate region for growing great pinot noir and chardonnay,” he told me.  “The decision is what it is, and what we need to focus on is what we do best in the wine industry: putting delicious wine on the table and getting people back together.  I love that there was passion on both sides.  To me, the main issue is that the Sta. Rita Hills is now valuable enough to elicit this type of passion, and that’s a win no matter how this thing came down.”

The ruling now allows Pence Ranch to print the lucrative Sta. Rita Hills name on its labels, a potential boon with consumers.  But he doesn’t plan on bumping up the prices of his grapes; the lion’s share of the Pence Ranch crop stays with the proprietary label (with wines made by Sashi Moorman and priced between $40 and $56), while some fruit is earmarked for two other labels only, Whitcraft and Bonaccorsi.  And his focus is on business as usual.

“I’m keeping emotion out of this,” Mr. Pence says.  “We’re just out to grow the very best grapes and make the very best wines.”


A Sparkling Industry: New Maps Showcase Quick Growth of Central Coast Bubbly

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/15/16

Marketing pro Liz Dodder gets a sparkle in her eye when she talks about the Central California wineries that make bubbly.  “Bubbles are my favorite,” she says with enthusiasm, “and I was always keeping a personal list of who was making it.”  That led her, in 2014, to produce a Central Coast sparkling wine map for her popular blog, Cali Coast Wine Country.  There were 45 stops on that map, already a testament to a burgeoning industry.

But something remarkable happened when she updated her map for release last month: the number of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County sparkling wine makers now tops 70.

“And the percentage is much higher in Santa Barbara,” she says.  “With somewhere between 100 and 150 wineries, 40 are making sparkling wine here.” In SLO County, 30 out of more than 300 wineries make bubbly on an annual basis.

No matter how the numbers fall, it’s clear that California’s Central Coast has quickly become a hotbed of effervescence.  Much of that is driven by the creative juices of the winemakers themselves.  “They have a love for doing this,” Ms. Dodder says.

And certainly, making sparklers takes the mechanics of winemaking to another level.  “It takes several years to do it right, and a lot of effort,” she says.  “And when you add up what goes into each bottle – add up all the man hours and time – the prices they sell for doesn’t even cover it.”

In Santa Barbara County -- where pinot and chardonnay, Champagne's main ingredients, flourish -- many of the top tier producers sell their bubbles from about $20 to $50 a bottle, with a few commanding prices above $60.  Many of them, like Lucas & Lewellen, produce the still wine locally and then truck the juice to an outside facility – a place called Rack & Riddle in Napa, mostly – to be further fermented into bubbly.  But a growing number, including Flying Goat Cellars and Fess Parker Winery, produce their sparklers entirely in-house, emulating Champagne’s classic methode traditionelle.

Winemaker Dave Potter is among them.  He appears on Ms. Dodder’s new map three times, actually: his upscale Potek label, which produces a Blanc de Blancs and a Blanc de Noirs ($60), pops up in Santa Barbara’s eastside while his Municipal Winemakers brand, which makes an “Aussie-style” sparkling syrah ($45), appears with tasting rooms in both Los Alamos and Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.

“Everybody loves it,” says Mr. Potter of his Muni sparkly.  “We blow it out – we sell it out in just one email.”

The fun associated with bubbles makes producing them tempting, according to Ms. Dodder, because it allows wineries to cast a wider net.  “It gives them something new” to put on their portfolio, she says, “and allows them to extend their brand.”

Winemaker Megan McGrath, who produces 1200 cases of four unique bottlings a year Lucas & Lewellen, agrees.  “Our distributors have placed these wines nationwide and they are poured by the glass in many restaurants,” she says.  “Our sparkling wine program has become emblematic of the variety and quality of wines that can be produced in Santa Barbara County wine country.”

Ms. Dodder has several personal favorites on the map, like Buellton’s Mosby Winery, whose prosecco-style Stelline de Cortese for $20 “is one of the great bargains” in Santa Barbara.  She also likes the sparkling Vermentino at Tessa Marie Wines in Los Olivos and the sparkling wine-by-the-glass at Drake Wines in the Funk Zone – chardonnay that’s carbonated to order.

Ms. Dodder produced 5000 copies of the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Sparkling Wine Maps, available for free at each of the wineries they feature and at the offices of several local visitors’ groups.  You can also download the maps off Liz Dodder’s blog

And proof that this trend continues to fizz: at least four wineries have begun producing bubbly since the maps went to print, including Kalyra’s new sister label, Helix, and the new Lou Bud brand from Sanford assistant winemaker Laura Roach.


Wines with Legs: Drinking Whites After Labor Day

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/8/16

Fashionistas might thumb their noses at my proclivity for wearing white after Labor Day.  But no matter.  My bleach white slacks are pressed and ready for the weekend!

For reasons driven more by the seasons than style sticklers, drinking white loses favor after Labor Day, too.  As the weather cools, the foods we eat get heartier and red wines simply fit the dinner bill better.  But not so fast.  Santa Barbara’s weather will stay idyllic for weeks to come.  And it produces whites with enough character to challenge any trend.

The whites that follow are all made by three of our area’s premier female winemakers.  They’ll be joining me on stage, actually, on October 8th, when I lead a seminar titled, “Women in Wine in Santa Barbara County.”  Part of Santa Barbara Vintners’ Celebration of Harvest weekend, this powerhouse tasting and conversation will take place from 10am to 11:30am at Hotel Corque in Solvang.  Tickets are limited and cost just $35, available through Santa Barbara Vintners. The ladies mentioned below will be joined by Sanford assistant winemaker Laura Roach, Casa Dumetz winemaker Sonja Magdevski and Runway Vineyards’ Erika Maldonado.  Don’t miss it!

Kita'sTara Gomez (photo by Jeremy Ball)
Fiddlehead Cellars Gruner Veltliner 2014, Sta. Rita Hills ($28): The inaugural release of this dry, clean, vibrant wine by Kathy Joseph is lovely.  Youthful and brisk, it also delivers a supple mouth feel, flavors of orange zest and flowers, and a lengthy finish.  Joseph tends to about three acres of gruner veltliner on her Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  One component was fermented in stainless steel tanks, the other in neutral French oak barrel, before being blended for bottling. 
Kita Wines T’AYA, Camp 4 Vineyard ($22): Tara Gomez’s star is rising quickly among Santa Barbara winemakers.  A member of the Chumash, she sources her grapes almost exclusively from the tribe’s Camp 4 Vineyard in the newly minted Los Olivos District AVA, including the marsanne, roussanne and grenache blanc that are blended together for this bracing wine.  Fresh minerality enhances white stone fruit flavors and spicy notes.  T’AYA means “abalone shell” in the tribe’s native Samala language. 

Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay 2014, Santa Maria Valley ($22): Denise Shurtleff has spent nearly two decades on the Cambria estate, making her intimately familiar with the fruit that flourishes there.  That includes the 15 different blocks of chardonnay fruit that were farmed individually and blended to make this fruit-forward wine.  Citrus and pineapple flavors race across the palate and lead to a clean, refreshing finish.


Back on the Menu: Parker Family Returning to Los Olivos Food Scene

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

The bar at Petros
The Parker family is planning on taking over operations of the eatery inside their luxe Fess Parker Wine Country Inn.  For the last eight years, the Los Olivos property in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country has been leased to Petros Restaurant, a Greek bistro owned by restaurateur Petros Benekos.

“We’ve had a great run with Petros and have enjoyed the diversity and energy he brought to the food scene in Los Olivos,” said Eli Parker, Fess Parker’s son and CEO of Fess Parker Vineyards and Winery.  “We wish him continued success.”

Petros, which has sister restaurants in downtown Santa Barbara, Manhattan Beach and El Segundo, will be moving to another location in the Santa Ynez Valley, potentially to Solvang.

The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn
The restaurant will close for refurbishment right after the new year and will reopen in March 2017.  The Parker family is remaining tight-lipped about the concept for their new venture, but this will be, in many ways, a return to familiar territory.  Before Petros, the Parkers ran the establishment themselves, as Restaurant Marcella, named for the Parker family matriarch.  The late Fess Parker, a TV icon who was also a longtime Santa Barbara vintner and developer, bought the boutique AAA 4-Diamond inn in 1998.

The Parker family is also 50-50 owners with Hilton of the Fess Parker Doubletree Hotel in downtown Santa Barbara, which is home to multiple restaurants, including the popular steakhouse Rodney’s Grill.


Zaca Mesa's Newest Wine is 30 Years in the Making

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Zaca Mesa Winery is celebrating three decades since the release of its very first syrah with a very special commemorative bottling.  

The 30th Anniversary Syrah is actually a blend – 85% syrah and 15% cabernet – and is based on archives recently revisited by the winery’s marketing head, Dane Campbell, that show the breakdown of the original 1983 estate release.  The 2013 anniversary wine is a mix of six syrah blocks from the Zaca Mesa property along Foxen Canyon Road along with cabernet from Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara County’s easternmost and warmest growing region. 

“There’s always been this philosophy that syrah and cab work really well together, and I agree,” says Zaca Mesa’s Director of Winemaking, Eric Mohseni.  “Cabernet brings out some tobacco notes and different, more refined tannins that help fill the mid-palate and give a nice texture to the wine.”

Zaca Mesa's Black Bear Block, home to Santa Barbara County's oldest syrah vines. The syrah component of Zaca's original 1983 Estate Syrah release (85% syrah, 15% cabernet) featured the juice of grapes from these vines 
Only 419 bottles – all magnums – of the 30th Anniversary Syrah were produced.  They retail for $165, exclusively through the tasting room.

Zaca Mesa Winery was founded in 1972, making it only the third winery in Santa Barbara County.  It planted the county’s very first syrah in 1978 and its legendary Black Bear Block remains home to the area’s oldest syrah vines to this day.  The 750-acre property – including 150 acres of vineyards and a 24,000-square-foot winery – was put on the market late last year, with a price tag of $32 million.

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