Holy Spirit: SoCal Winery is Major Sacramental Wine Producer

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/22/16
images courtesy of San Antonio Winery

When Father Lawrence Seyer led a wine tasting last month, he was on a mission.

The parish council at Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, tasked with choosing a new sacramental wine, sipped through options from three producers.  Some were too sweet.  “More like a sherry,” says Father Seyer, who, for practical reasons, was actually leaning toward a rosé.  “I’ve always thought a lighter wine makes it easier to clean the purificator.”  That’s the white linen cloth used to wipe down the wine chalice during and after a Catholic service.

But in the end, “San Antonio Winery won,” says the parish’s new reverend, “and the council went with the red, because the color best resembles the blood of Christ.”

The relevance of wine for the Catholic Church, as well as for several other Christian denominations, is well known.  “We can look at it in two dimensions,” Father Seyer explains.  “The ritual of sacrifice, for one, as well as a reminder of the last supper Christ had with his apostles.”  During a Catholic service, it’s with a priest’s blessing, known as the consecration, that wine is symbolically transformed to represent the blood shed by Jesus during His crucifixion.

This iconic sacrament dates back 2000 years, of course.  And for San Antonio Winery, it has been an important element in its portfolio from the beginning.

“Making sacramental wine is what allowed us to survive Prohibition,” says Anthony Riboli, fourth generation winemaker at San Antonio, whose great-great uncle, Santo Cambianica, an Italian immigrant and devout Catholic, founded the winery in downtown L.A. in 1917.  Saint Anthony of Padua was his patron saint.

A frightening Prohibition sight: lawmen ordering wine be dumped!
Prohibition, the constitutional sanction on the production and sale of alcohol that stayed in place from 1920 to 1933, decimated Los Angeles’ flourishing wine industry.  “About 100 wineries existed here before the ban, but there were only about 10 after,” Riboli tells me.  Thanks to Cambianica’s strong ties to the Church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles exempted San Antonio and allowed it to continue to make altar wine during the ban.  The winery not only survived Prohibition, it emerged from the restrictive injunction as a prominent California winemaker.

A century after its launch, what is L.A.‘s oldest winery remains a major player.  The original downtown winemaking facility, a designated cultural monument, remains at its original Lamar Street location.  There’s a tasting room in Ontario, too, and a state-of-the-art production facility and visitor center in Paso Robles.  The company’s estate vineyards stretch from Napa to Monterey to Paso.  Its brands – more than a dozen labels – include Italian imports, popular products like Stella Rosa and upscale bottlings like San Simeon and Riboli Family Wine Estates.  Anthony Riboli, a UCSB grad who joined the family business in 1998, is one of three lead winemakers.  And even his grandfather Stefano, who emigrated from Italy in 1936 to ultimately take over the family business, and who just turned 94, is still calling the shots.

San Antonio Winery's original downtown L.A. façade
On the sacramental front, San Antonio Winery remains an industry leader.  The pious products sell to various denominations, including Lutheran and Episcopalian, although Catholics remain its biggest buyers around the world.

“The key to altar wine is consistency – they’re typically slightly sweet,” Riboli tells me.  “But a priest can use any wine he wishes and they’ll typically find a style that fits their comfort zone, or that their parishioners like.”

San Antonio Winery's downtown L.A. façade today
To that end, San Antonio offers four options: a light muscat, a rosé and a red, all around 12% alcohol, as well as a fortified 18% alcohol wine called Angelica.  The wines carry a California appellation; grapes are sourced from Central Valley vineyards near Fresno and Bakersfield, mainly, because warmer weather yields natural sweetness.  And the wines are non-vintage, “allowing us to do blends from year to year to guarantee a consistent style.”

Riboli admits that sacramental wines are distinct from their higher-end counterparts geared toward serious drinkers and collectors.  The lighter, fresher, fruitier style does have a secular audience, though; the wines are often sold over-the-counter at the downtown L.A. tasting room.  And the wines remain “a very important part of what we do,” Riboli adds.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the 305 churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, orders of sacramental wine are placed by the case on a quarterly basis.  Though many churches serve it at every mass, the Montecito church only offers it on Sundays, during the 10am mass.  And while most every parishioner accepts the Eucharist during Communion, many opt out of sipping from the shared chalice.

Demand for the wine is likely to go up this Sunday, though; after all, we pretty good Catholics always become really good Catholics on Christmas.

For more information on San Antonio Winery, including on the various events to celebrate its centennial throughout 2017, check out www.sanantoniowinery.com.


Italian Inspired: Santa Barbara's Four Seasons Resort Announces New Chef and New Menus

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/15/16

"That view – it reminds me of home,” says Marco Fossati, the new executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.  He’s sitting inside the Montecito hotel’s Bella Vista dining room, gazing out at Butterfly Beach, as the afternoon sun bounces off the water.  A lot like the Italian Riviera.

Chef Marco Fossati in the kitchen
Chef Fossati’s childhood culinary influences, in fact, stretch back to the shores of Italy’s Liguria region – home to Portofino, the Cinque Terre and Genoa – where “I was always next to my grandma in the kitchen,” he recalls.  He still uses a tomato sauce recipe she taught him.  As a teen, summers were spent working at local restaurants, “doing everything from cooking to cleaning.”

The gastronomic path he’s followed ever since has been as diverse as it’s been impressive.  He moved to Milan in the mid-1980s, where he worked alongside another up-and-coming chef, Alessandro Cartumini.  The fellow Italian gourmand preceded Mr. Fossati at the Biltmore – he spent seven years in Santa Barbara’s flourishing food scene – and is now Food & Beverage Director at Four Seasons’ deluxe resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In London, Chef Fossati cooked for royalty.  In Paris, he was chef at the first Italian restaurant to ever earn a Michelin star.  And in Egypt, he catered to a well-heeled international clientele.  Most recently, he helmed the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley in Palo Alto.

Santa Barbara became home for the Fossati family – Chef Marco, his wife and their 2-1/2 year old daughter – this past May.  His influence on the Biltmore kitchen – and the four restaurants it feeds – has been evident ever since.

“My push is to make changes,” he says, in a distinctly rich Italian accent.  “If we stay comfortable, there can be problems.”

The marinara sauce Chef Fossati learned from Grandma makes a great bread dipper
To that end, his push for change is ongoing, driven as much by the seasons as Chef Fossati’s own imagination.  “If I get an idea, I’ll put it on the menu right away as a daily special,” he says.  If feedback from both his staff and clientele is positive, the item may well become a regular selection.  “The menu builds itself and is open to evolution at all time,” he says, adding that guests can expect to see three to five items rotated on and off the menu each month.  That’s how Bella Vista diners recently found a new offering –a handmade tagliatelle pasta tossed with a charcuterie-inspired sauce of salami, coppa and bresaola, served with a poached egg and pecorino cheese.  Fifteen orders sold on its introductory night, making it a menu item the next day.  And when diners raved about a bass “crudo” special – a locally sourced tartare topped with a salad of fennel and blood orange and served with a savory cream of russet potato, kefir and lemongrass – it was printed on the appetizer menu soon after.

Chef Fossati finishing off his Ravioli del Plin
Bella Vista, the hotel’s al fresco waterfront restaurant, remains a major focus for Chef Fossati, who’s planning a more substantial overhaul after the holiday season.  But he’s already taken several changes for a test drive, even during the property’s landmark brunch.  Like a build-your-own breakfast bowl, avocado toast (45 sold in the first two days) and a revamped Eggs Benedict.  “When hotels have it out, it’s a disgrace – the egg gets old and dry and the bread gets soggy,” he says.  Instead, he’s fashioned several Eggs Benedict preparations served to order directly from the kitchen.

Local fish, salads and paninis feature prominently on the lunch menu now.  And dinner features California- and Italy-inspired pastas and pizzas, as well as several meat, poultry and seafood preparations.  A new favorite is “Ravioli del Plin.”  Plush pasta pockets are stuffed with certified black Angus short rib that’s cooked for 17 hours in its own juices, ground, then seasoned with marjoram and salt; its served with spinach, sage, brown butter and aged pecorino cheese.

Ravioli del Plin
Charcuterie features more prominently now, driven by the fact that Bella Vista is one of only 12 restaurants in California – and the only one in Santa Barbara – licensed to cure its own meats.  And that slow-cooked, naturally sweet, naturally thick childhood marinara sauce – the one a young Marco learned from Grandma – is showing up in everything from pasta and cioppino specials to roasted bread dippers.

In the Ty Lounge, a cocktail haven just off the resort’s lobby, Chef Fossati is aiming to attract the millennial crowd with a focus on tapas-style plates meant for sharing.  Charcuterie features prominently here, too, and menu items – like empanadas de carne and smaller-portion paellas – showcase a Spanish and Moroccan slant.  The all-new Mussel Madness menu is offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays and offers six preparations, each served in cast iron bowls and with grilled country bread.  In The Belgium, for example, mussels are steamed in Belgian ale, Dijon mustard, shallots and herbs.  The menu will end when mussel season ends, around March or April.

At the Coral Casino, Tydes Restaurant and the Coral Café & Bar are open exclusively to members and overnight guests of the resort.  Chef Fossati is focusing on fresh Mediterranean flavors and locally-sourced ingredients here: Pacific Gold Oysters, Scallop & Foie Gras, Spot Prawns, Lamb Loin, Wagyu Tenderloin.  The popular Halibut and Squid Ink Pasta Carbonara features Santa Barbara uni.

Chef Marco and sou chef Chris Shertzer are expanding the resort's charcuterie program
For Chef Fossati, catering to four restaurants is a source for inspiration all its own.  For example, “We’ll soon be making four different burgers – one for each restaurant and each one with different pairings,” he says.  “That way they can compete against each other and we can see which one our guests like best.”

The Santa Barbara sea bass "Crudo"
The “we” he’s referring to is his staff of 80 cooks.  It’s a culinary team that “I don’t want to micromanage,” Chef says.  “But I do like to challenge people to see their capabilities.”  It’s one of the reasons for having menus that are dynamic, menus that evolve with what’s regionally and seasonally available.  “It gives guests incentive to keep coming back but it also keeps the staff learning and expanding their knowledge,” Chef Fossati says.

On a recent Saturday morning, Chef Fossati took several members of his kitchen crew to the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, where local boats sell fresh catches of the day right off their decks.  When they got their hands on a limited batch of black bass, Chef Fossati created a special on the spot and took to social media.  “Just enough for 15 portions,” he tweeted, along with pictures.   That night, in a unique learning lesson for guests and cooks alike, they sold out.

“We all have to be swimming in the same direction,” says Chef Fossati, “so that we can all grow together.”

For more information or to make reservations, visit fourseasons.com/santabarbara or call 805-969-2261.


No Wrong Answer: Tips for Bringing Wine to a Holiday Party

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo 
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/8/16

‘Tis the season for holiday parties.  And while picking out just the right ugly sweater to wear is important, for many, what bottle of wine to bring is even more so.  People float a lot of etiquette rules.  But as with any rule, they’re meant to be broken, especially since wine, and the experience around wine, is so personal.  So here are some rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, in the event they help you this holiday season.  And if they don’t, hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

What to Bring
Holiday parties and holiday dinner tables are defined by their eclecticism – there’s a lot going on.  Lots of flavors, lots of textures, lots of colors.  So I say go with bubbles.  Sparkling wine is safe because it’s what you open to get a party started, but great bubbles can also flow easily throughout a meal and well into the night.  Sparklers also denote revelry, which is what this time of year is all about: we should all hope that the effervescence in the glass spills into the lives of all around us!  That said, you can make an argument for red, since a pinot or a merlot or a zinfandel matches the hues all around.  And you can make an argument for white, especially if you know that’s what your hostess prefers.  What’s more, don’t we all dream of a white Christmas?  So the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Many to Bring
Any other time of year, my wife Renee and I feel totally comfortable showing up with just one bottle.  When we’re talking holiday parties, though, we like to up that to two.  One white and one red is a nice way to mix things up, though it’s less about colors and more about making sure there’s enough to go around.  It’s amazing how quickly wine can flow during a feast (and how wide smiles get when they see you walk in the door double-fisted)!  That said, no one is going to show you the door if you bring just one bottle of your favorite cabernet, nor if it’s a six-pack.  So, again, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

How Much to Spend
My wife’s favorite wine these days is a Santa Barbara County pinot noir that I’ve been finding on sale lately for under $15.  Thank you, God!  But an etiquette rule stickler once told me I should spend between $30 and $40 on a bottle to bring to a Christmas fete.  Pshaw!  Sure, that’s a very dependable sweet spot – you can find a ton of great wines, especially local ones, in that price range.  But why would I not share with my friends that great, delicious $15 bottle that happens to be a bargain?  More than price tag, focus on the story: tell your host about who made it, about the time you first sipped it, about how it (just like the invitation to this party) always brings a smile to your face.  Even better: track down the winemaker (easier to do than you’d think in a small, informal wine region like Santa Barbara) and have them sign the bottle.  That turns a $15 gift into a valuable and memorable gesture.  Of course, you’re always welcome to bring that winemaker's more limited-production $60 bottle.  SO, once more, the short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Open or Not to Open
Etiquette experts will tell you never to expect your host to open the bottle of wine you bring.  It’s a gift, that’s it.  Fie, I say. I will admit that I’m expecting my wine contribution to be opened.  A little has to do with me wanting to ensure that there will be at least one wine at this party I’ll enjoy drinking.  But much more has to do with the notion of sharing, a very holiday season-friendly notion, no?  If the wine is meant to be a special gift, meant to be stored away for a later special occasion, meant for that trip I know you’re taking next month, well then I’ll say so.  Otherwise, imagine a shiny new corkscrew hanging around the bottle I’ve brought.  Indelicate?  Yes, for some.  But I’ll remind you of my favorite short answer: there’s no wrong answer.

To Regift or Not to Regift
When a winemaker gifts me a bottle he’s made, I never regift.  When anyone gifts me a bottle that comes with a sentimental meaning, or a special story, I never regift.  When I’m gifted a bottle that’s got my name written right on it with ink I can’t erase, I never regift.  Otherwise, the beauty of wine is that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Even if you brought it over because you were running late and it was the closest thing to the door as you rushed out, I’m going to be happy with it.  I will enjoy it with a smile.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll regift it, too.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s no coincidence, after all, that a bottle of wine fits almost perfectly into a stocking.

If you disagree, of course, I fall back on what a wise man once said: there’s no wrong answer.  Because, like I said at the beginning: hey – it’s wine.  Just drink it.

Merry Christmas!


Catch of the Day: Popular Bluewater Grill Expands into Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/1/16

Bluewater Grill, a Southern California-based and family-run restaurant group, is casting its nets on Santa Barbara.  The company is taking over the landmark Keeper’s Lighthouse along the city’s waterfront, and the building is already undergoing structural enhancements to accommodate its new tenant.  The new restaurant is a partnership between the group’s co-owners, Richard Staunton and Jimmy Ulcickas, and local beer magnates Adam Firestone, Andrew Firestone and David Walker.

The grand opening of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is slated for July 2017.

Acquiring the very visible building along Cabrillo Blvd., right at the foot of Stearns Wharf and at the threshold of the buzzy Funk Zone, was no small task.  “We’ve been chasing Santa Barbara and been knocking on people’s doors for the better part of 20 years,” says Mr. Ulcickas (his friends call him Jimmy U).  “This one came up last year and we jumped right on it.”

 The building at 15 E. Cabrillo Blvd. has a notable culinary history.  Most recently, it housed a Rusty’s Pizza.  But longtime locals remember it as the location of the famous Castagnola Lobster House, one of several local eateries established in the 1950s and 1960s by fishing industry legend George Virginio Castagnola.  The property, which is still owned by the Castagnola family, was recently rebuilt and is now being remodeled as a ground-level exhibition kitchen with counter seating and oyster bar.  Bluewater Grill is adding a second story with balcony to accommodate a full bar and dining room and “to take full advantage of those sunsets and beautiful views,” says Mr. Staunton.

The new restaurant’s location taps into some of Santa Barbara’s most robust foot traffic.  It’s also adjacent to the city’s newly reimagined lower State Street corridor, which will soon house a new luxury hotel and, in early 2017, the much-anticipated MOXI museum.  But it’s the water that sold the Bluewater folks.

The waterfront lighthouse building on the corner of Cabrillo Blvd. and Helena Ave. has a lengthy culinary history

“Imagine serving really good, fresh, awesome seafood right on the water – it’s the greatest no brainer of all time,” adds Mr. Staunton.    “But it’s not easy to do it right,” he adds, suggesting that,
with few exceptions, quality seafood, served oceanside, is tough to find in Santa Barbara.

Bluewater Grill may have well found the formula to doing it right.  Mr. Staunton and Mr. Ulcickas are fishermen by training who went into the restaurant business 20 years ago.  They prioritize sustainability, following the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch initiative and getting their fish purchases audited by the Long Beach Aquarium’s Seafood for the Future program. They serve up more than 40 varieties of seafood, reprinting their menus six to eight times a year based on what’s available seasonally and locally.  And they operate their own swordfish harpoon boat, the Pilikia, which cruises the waters from San Diego to Santa Barbara every June through October (that’s swordfish season) and supplies the Bluewater Grill restaurants with each fresh catch.
A rendering of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara (credit: LMA Architects)

Under construction, Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is set to open July 2017
“Whether it’s catching our own or buying from our suppliers, it’s always about getting the best,” says Mr. Staunton of their company strategy.  “And then it’s about controlling that product from the back door to when it gets to the plate.”

Mr. Ulcickas agrees: “The key to our success has been offering pristine quality at a value price.” 

Most dinner entrees on the Bluewater Grill menus range between $21 and $28.  The restaurants also feature lunch, brunch, a kids’ menu and happy hour specials.  There are in-season promos, too – currently, the restaurant is running a stuffed lobster special – and monthly themed wine and beer food pairings.

That emphasis on the right location, even the right building, has also been part and parcel to the group’s slow but profitable growth.  Its original Newport Beach location on Lido Peninsula, accessible by car, bike or boat, took over the historic site that once housed well-known The Sea Shanty and the very popular Delaney’s.  The Redondo Beach spot is right on Kind Harbor, surrounded by sailboats.  The Coronado Island eatery is in the former boathouse of the legendary Hotel del Coronado, which dates back to 1887.  And the Catalina Island restaurant sits right on Avalon Harbor, over the water.  When Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara opens, it’ll be the company’s ninth location. 

 “We don’t consider ourselves a chain, but rather a family of restaurants,” insists Mr. Staunton.  “Do they all serve fish and chips? Yeah.  But it’s not very interesting for us to cookie cutter the style for each restaurant.  Each menu is really styled for each location – and not only the food but also the design, which is always inspired by the buildings they’re in.”

Rick Staunton, left, and Jimmy Ulcickas (credit: Bluewater Grill)
And in that sense, Santa Barbara’s old Keeper’s Lighthouse building “was worth the wait,” adds Mr. Ulcickas.

The business connection with the Firestone-Walker team is really more a personal one.  Mr. Staunton’s wife, Cammy, was grade school classmates with Adam Firestone’s wife, Kate, and the families are longtime friends.  “I’ve tried to talk Jim and Rick into coming into Santa Barbara forever,” admits Mr. Firestone.  “I know they’ve always loved and had a connection to the local area.” 

Like all Bluewater Grill locations, the Santa Barbara restaurant will carry a variety of Firestone-Walker beers and Santa Barbara County wines.  It’s also looking to hire a Santa Barbara-based chef, as well as local management, servers, bartenders and kitchen personnel.

For more information, check out bluewatergrill.com.