Closing Time: Santa Barbara’s Downey’s Restaurant to End 35-Year Run

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/24/17


John and Liz Downey (credit: Phil Downey)
In 1982, when John Downey took over an existing restaurant at 1305 State Street in Santa Barbara, there was a piece of furniture he didn’t really want.  “It was a big old English armoire that they’d been using as a coat rack,” the chef recalls.
When he overhauled the restaurant three years later, he took it home. “But I’d come home, and I’d see this thing there every single day, and it was like I couldn’t get away from the restaurant. So I thought, ‘I have to sell it,’ and I put it in the want ads.”
 
The only woman who answered that ad bought it. Then she started dating the chef. And then she married him.
 
John Downey opens his restaurant in 1982
John and Liz Downey would go on to become one of the most revered and respected culinary teams in town. To this day, their intimate restaurant, with its pastoral paintings on the walls and its fresh-cut flowers on the white linen tabletops and its picture windows that peek at the street, remains one of Santa Barbara County’s best. And next month, 35 years after John Downey put his name on the menu, the chef is hanging up his coat and Downey’s is closing its doors for good.
“We are going to cook for each other and eat together, like real people,” Mrs. Downey jokes. “It’s very exciting.”
 
Truth is, for the length of Downey’s' run, the two have been at their restaurant posts almost every single night. Now, with son Phil and daughter Nina in college and out of the house, the couple says they’re ready for the next chapter of their lives.
 
The Santa Barbara food scene, of course, will lose one of its most skilled players. John Downey’s knack for the kitchen was obvious well us before he left Penelope’s (it’s known as Stella Mare’s now) to open up his eponymous eatery downtown. He’d become a chef at the age of 12 in his native England. “My teacher there instilled integrity – respecting the ingredients you’re using and how you prepare them, seeing them as gifts,” Mr. Downey recalls. “’Just do it right,’” he’d say. By 19, John Downey was cooking for the Queen aboard the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner.
 
The Downey's dining room today (credit: Phil Downey)
He settled in New York in the early 1970s, where he worked at fine French restaurants and became enamored with a new dawn in American fine dining. He moved to Santa Barbara in the late 70s. And 10 years after he opened his own restaurant, he met that pretty armoire shopper who’d become his wife and business partner.
 
When he reminisces about 35 years in Santa Barbara, John Downey muses, in a tone that’s almost bittersweet, “We could be the last of the old guard.” If there was an early trendsetter in the now modish farm-to-fork movement, it was Downey’s. Sustainability, organic ingredients, local produce – these have always been staples of the Downey’s experience. “I think I was one of the first chefs to start utilizing the farmers’ market, really,” he says.
 
His style has always hinged on seeking perfection. “I tend to micromanage,” he admits. “I want to do it my way and I want it done right.” And, as a pair, the Downeys have always leaned toward the charming and quaint. “Ours is more of a sit-down style, where you can enjoy nice conversation in a calm atmosphere. That’s our niche.”
 
But things change. While it’s true that the timing for retirement feels right for the Downeys, their departure coincides with a shift in how food is made and how people eat. “We’ve seen the dining scene in Santa Barbara change a lot, even within the last five to seven years,” Mr. Downey says. “There are a lot more small, quick, throw-together places. If it’s loud, it’s good. And that’s not for us.”
 
There’s less room today, the chef laments, for cooking that’s complex. “By the time I finish a duck demi-glace into a cabernet reduction, that sauce could be three days in the making,” he says. “People are not doing that anymore.”
 
“It’s an endurance sport,” his wife interjects, with a laugh.
 
“And it makes business harder,” he adds.
 
That cabernet sauce, by the way, is part of John Downey’s Grilled Duck, a best seller, served with turnips, leeks and exotic grains. It’s his wife’s favorite. He’s partial to his squab preparation, and to the seasonal sea bass and lobster that he festoons with a ragout of chanterelles, shell beans and smoked bacon. “You eat it with a spoon and you beg for more bread to soak it all up,” he declares. “Every time I make it, I say, ‘Damn, I wish was eating this!’"
 
John Downey's Lobster & Sea Bass Ragout (credit: John Downey)
John Downey's Local Spiny Lobster w/Local Papaya & Three-Citrus Dressing (credit: Phil Downey)
John & Liz Downey's favorite peach dessert: two layers of almond meringue, house made peach ice cream, toasted almonds, strawberry coulis and fresh peaches on top (credit: Shelly Vinson-Contreras)
The Downey’s menu, actually, has always mirrored the sophistication of the restaurant. Driven purely by what’s available, it features just a handful of carefully constructed dishes. Appetizers often include a lobster and angel hair salad with asparagus and sundried tomatoes, or local mussels with tiny black lentils and mild curry dressing. Entrees range from Hawaiian ahi with mango-cucumber salsa and king salmon with parsley potatoes to natural Angus filet mignon in a balsamic sauce to Colorado lamb loin with garlic and local green beans. Downey’s “Taste of Santa Barbara” menu rotates daily: four courses that end with homemade dessert presented on a cart.

End of an era: Downey's closing around the end of August (my pic)
Mrs. Downey has always had creative control over the wine list, considered one of the most diverse in town and always “geared toward John’s cuisine,” she says: bubblies and crisp whites for the salads and fish, syrahs and Bordeaux reds for the proteins. Mrs. Downey never had formal training, but “I’ve always had a really good sense of smell and a really good sense of taste.” And her sit-down tastings with a select group of local wine reps, every single Tuesday, “really taught me a lot. It’s remarkable how many wines I’ve tasted!"

The Downeys, who began thinking about retirement three years ago, have sold their restaurant to a fellow member of the Santa Barbara restaurant scene. Mr. Downey says the new owner will likely change the name and “change the concept, make it more casual.”
 
Once Downey’s closes its doors at the end of August, the couple is not sure they’ll remain in Santa Barbara; their kids are currently in college in Northern California and Washington State. The pair is very satisfied, though, with their 35-year run here. “It’s been a source of pride to be part of Santa Barbara’s restaurant community,” says Mr. Downey.
 
And that big old English armoire? It’s still at home.
 
 
Downey's, 1305 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-966-5006. downeyssb.com
 
 
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BREAKING IN SANTA BARBARA: Downey's Restaurant is Closing

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

July 21, 2017

Chef John Downey
After 35 years as one of the very best restaurants in Santa Barbara, Downey's is closing its doors. John and Liz Downey have always been the consummate hosts, and if there was ever an early trendsetter in Santa Barbara's farm-to-fork movement, their restaurant was it. Working as a team, along with a solid staff, John crafted delicious food while Liz put together a wonderful, Santa Barbara-centric wine list.

For us, if a special occasion called for a special dinner, odds were we'd make a reservation at Downey's. We'll miss this place and this awesome couple!

The Downeys will likely retire by the end of August. More details to come. Here's the letter that broke the news today, sent out to Downey's email list.

Downey's, 1305 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-966-5006. downeyssb.com.

We believe this may come as a surprise & disappointment to many of our loyal guests but, later this summer, after thirty-five years of serving you with Santa Barbara's finest cuisine, Liz and I will be retiring from Downey's and moving on to our next life adventure. There will be a new restaurateur taking over 1305 State Street and we are confident that they will offer you a very pleasant dining option in the heart of the downtown theater district.

Liz and I would like to thank you, our guests, for supporting our efforts through these years. We hope you have enjoyed our hospitality as much as we have enjoyed sharing it. It really has been a rewarding experience for us, from shopping at the Farmers' Market, to preparing food, to tasting wines, to serving you, to...well, maybe not to doing the dishes! But you get the idea.

We will miss so many of our regular guests and that will be one of the harder aspects for us. Downey's has been a huge part of our life for many years. But it really is time for us to relax and enjoy our life together. First thing will be a nice, long vacation to adjust to the "no-restaurant" lifestyle. It's been a long time since we have had such a chance.
If you have an opportunity to join us for one last duck with baby turnips or maybe a slice of raspberry millefeuille, then we would love to see you. Our last day is not yet determined but we anticipate closing around the end of August.

Warm Regards and Cheers!

John & Liz

Hidden Oasis in Santa Barbara: New “Biltmore” Dining Venue Takes You Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/13/17

Don’t let its diminutive dimensions fool you. At 120 square feet, the Luna Terrace at the Four Seasons Resort “The Biltmore” Santa Barbara is likely the smallest noshing spot in town. But with a palpable sensuality that spreads from the décor to the menu, this is elite dining at its finest.

The mezze spread at Luna Terrace
Luna was created when the resort’s Ty Lounge underwent a full revamp last year, a project inspired by owner Ty Warner’s own extensive travels. A south-facing window became a wrought iron glass door, vegetation was cleared and a 12-by-10 space aimed at transporting guests through premium food and service was born.
 
“This is a little, intimate social hub,” says food and beverage manager Koji Akaboshi. “We want to tap into guests’ emotions, allow them to really connect with each other, and to really play to their senses – you hear the waves, feel the breeze, connect with the environment.” The private event venue is targeted to parties of two to eight and is prime for everything from a festive celebration to a secluded night out.
 
Luna leverages the luxury resort's prime beachfront location and famously lush surroundings perfectly; guests are completely enveloped by towering plants and colorful flowers. But it’s also a totally self-contained experience, emulating the shades and flavors of Morocco, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Custom wood furnishings are elaborate and eclectic, yet cushy, decked out in plush pillows and threaded spreads. The imported lamps, dinnerware and cutlery exude a Persian flare. Colors are striking and opulent at once: sapphire, camel, crimson and gold. Fabric drapes and canopy help round out a veritable oasis.
 
My wife loved our secluded Luna Terrace escape
Specialized training has created a service experience at Luna that’s unhurried and that pivots on refined attention: premium bottle service comes standard; bartenders mix and pour their custom cocktails on the spot; chefs arrive with the main courses to describe dishes and mingle with their guests. “We love to interact with our customers,” says Executive Chef Marco Fossati, who’s spearheading a culinary revolution at all the Biltmore dining rooms. “Not only because we want customers to understand the passion behind our dishes, but so we can also better understand their preferences. The more comfortable guests are with you, the better you can cater to them and surprise them.”
 
Pomegranate seeds add color & pop to the baba ghanoush
Drawing from his work experience at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm el Sheik in Egypt, Chef Fossati has created new exotic dishes for the Luna experience. He lists herbs and spices he’s using much more readily: turmeric, cardamom, cloves, paprika, curry, cayenne pepper. “I love the combination of all these flavors,” he says. “The magic of Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine is how these vastly different flavors actually create balance and dishes that are elegant.”
 
Dining is modeled after a traditional Moroccan mezze, which is served family-style in multiple courses. A basket of grilled flatbread and fried pita bread, all made in-house, are presented with a variety of gourmet dips, like charred eggplant, yogurt-and-herb and piquillo pepper-and-almond. The charred eggplant dip is velvety smooth and subtly earthy. The hummus is made with roasted garlic, smoked paprika, za’taar (an ancient Middle Eastern herb mixture) and preserved lemon, and is served warm.
 
A large mezze plate follows. Skewers of grilled chicken and lamb kofta come with a cilantro dressing for dipping. Ornate individual tagines carry a bevy of steaming seasonal vegetables, topped with poached eggs and herbs. The whole roasted cauliflower is like a crowning jewel. “Cauliflower is trending big right now,” says Chef Fossati, who strips the white contoured plant of its leaves before poaching it in a solution of white wine vinegar, water, red chili pepper, turmeric and salt “until it’s al dente” before baking it in the oven, drizzling it sporadically with olive oil and spices. “As it’s leaving the kitchen, we finish it with lemon and za’taar,” he adds. The gourmet cauliflower is served with a creamy blend of mild goat cheese, mascarpone cheese, salt, pepper and olive oil, for dipping.
 
The Luna Terrace décor is lush and exotic
The generous menu can cater to a variety of guest experiences on Luna Terrace. The “Casablanca Romance For Two” ($500), for example, features the entire two-course mezze along with Champagne or wine bottle service (off the full Ty Lounge bar menu) and a delightful tagine salver of decadent sweet treats. Couples can opt for sunset or moonlit service, and the experience comes with a three-hour limit. Similar “Moroccan Feast” presentations can be tailored for parties of up to eight people and with extras like rolling cart with private bartender and premium liquor bottle service. Private brunch ($75 per person) can be prepared at Luna, too, complete with bottomless mimosa, bellini or bloody mary bar.
 
Reservations for Luna Terrace are made through the Biltmore’s concierge. And while the mezze model is the only one of its kind in Santa Barbara, and easily one of its most distinctive dining experiences, the Luna experience can always be customized and personalized. After all, Chef Fossati says, “this is all about catering to desires.”
 
Luna Terrace at Ty Lounge, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara, 1260 Channel Drive, Montecito. 805-969-2261. fourseasons.com/santabarbara.
 
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Sunset Sips: Wine Goes Wild at the Santa Barbara Zoo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 13, 2017

Who knew: the wildest spot in Santa Barbara is quickly becoming a wine lover’s haven.  “Most of our guests are Santa Barbara locals who maybe haven’t been to the zoo in a while and are drawn by a unique new way of experiencing it,” says the Zoo’s special event coordinator, Cheyenne Brooks, of the Sunset Sips series.

A main attraction at these summer gatherings, which take place after the zoo closes for the day, is the beautiful rolling hilltop lawn, usually the setting for weddings and special events. You can see the waters of East Beach from there, and the sights and sounds of the zoo’s residents only add to the magic. In fact, Sunset Sips guests get to feed the giraffes, ride the train that circles the property and even roam the zoo (as most animals are retiring into their dens for the night).

This month’s event is the final in this year’s series and will feature three boutique wineries: Pence Ranch, Roark Wine Co. and Sevtap. Common Cidery will also pour and Enterprise Fish Company, Vida Natural Baking Company and Hippy Pop Popcorn will dole out the edibles. See you at Sunset Sips on Thursday, July 20th from 5:30-7:30pm. $30 at sbzoo.org.

(Want more wine at the zoo? Attend the Dignitarios event during Fiesta, which features numerous local wineries, and look for the zoo’s annual Roar & Pour wine festival in May.)

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Sip N' Swirl: Wine with a View at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
July 7, 2017

Going on its fifth year, the Sip N' Swirl summer series at Santa Barbara's Canary Hotel is a local’s favorite, where the focus is squarely on the wine.

“It’s a social environment where people come taste wine and have fun but also network with other like-minded people who are interested in all things Santa Barbara wine,” says Marc Simonetti, assistant GM at the hotel’s Finch & Fork restaurant. To that end, five wineries are featured each month; stalwarts like Zaca Mesa and newbies like Lavender Oak have already poured this summer. There’s the occasional special treat, too. “Last month’s tasting coincided with the hotel’s Negroni Week, so everybody finished off with a Negroni nightcap,” says Simonetti.


Good luck, though, focusing on what’s in your glass. Sip N' Swirl takes place on the Canary’s rooftop, famously one of the best vantage points in Santa Barbara. The views of the ocean, the mountains and the hotel’s myriad red tile-roofed neighbors, especially as the day dwindles, are breathtaking. Live music and gourmet cheeses come standard.

The three remaining Sip N' Swirl events are all on a Wednesday from 5:30-7:30pm:  July 19 (Larner and Babcock are pouring), August 16 and September 20. $35 at nightout.com.

The Canary and Finch & Fork are part of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.


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Seaside Sipping: Tasting Series at “The Biltmore” Focuses on Santa Barbara Locals

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Rachel Rock

Update 7/21/17: Here's the link for the upcoming Summer Tasting Series events

“I wanted to do this for the locals,” says Koji Akaboshi. The Food & beverage Director at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is telling me about the Summer Tasting Series, which is back by popular demand this summer. The lineup of luxe sip-and-graze events combines luxury and fun, and it gives visitors unique access in more ways than one.

The second annual series, which will host three more events through September, is actually part of a refreshing renaissance of the Biltmore food scene. New executive chef Marco Fossati is improving menus, libations are being invented, restaurants are being reinvented – and a movement to reintroduce this legendary resort to its neighbors is definitely on. One of Akaboshi’s contributions has been these monthly Friday-night tasting experiences, held throughout the resort and featuring quality brands.
 
June's POP! Bubbles event was a sell-out
“I wanted to get away from the traditional sit-down wine dinner, which doesn’t always allow guests to speak casually with winemakers and purveyors,” Akaboshi says. “These tastings are meant to be more accessible, less stuffy and formal, and to give guests the chance to meet with local producers.”
 
May's event focused on bourbon
This summer’s series kicked off in May with “Master Distillers,” which paired local vodka and bourbon with house-made pastas, signature seafood dishes and dry-aged carpaccio, and which allowed guests to mingle with distillers. This month’s “Pop! Bubbles”—a sell-out – showcased high-end rosé sparkling wines from around the globe, along with oysters chucked to order.
 
Each of these classy gatherings is held at a unique locale throughout the Biltmore’s opulent 22 acres – a chance for the resort to showcase its various dining rooms, outdoor spaces and event venues. “These are locations usually reserved for weddings or private events,” says Akaboshi, “so it allows guests to discover new spaces and see something totally different.” On July 21, for example, the “Red, White & Brew” tasting will takes place on the Monte Vista Lawn, a lush garden with sweeping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains; a gourmet barbecue will accompany seven local breweries, including Telegraph, Island and Brass Bear.
 
On August 11th, the resort puts on the Ferragosto Festival, celebrating a bevy of local Italian white wine varieties and an Italian-inspired fritto misto bar; guests will get a rare chance to descend on the oceanfront Coral Casino, with its famous million-dollar views. And on September 22nd, the series culminates with a Harvest Crush on the hotel’s Palmera Garden, an intimate lawn decked out in flagrant flowers and shady palm trees; Santa Barbara winemakers will pour to celebrate the 2017 vintage while resort chefs take on a traditional pig roast.
 
May's bourbon tasting also featured Chef Fossati's dry-aged carpaccio
Akaboshi, who’s been at the Montecito property for two years and has worked at nine different Four Seasons resorts over the last 20 years, is looking to make the Summer Tasting Series a model for Biltmore events moving forward. “Fun, relevant and approachable, but high quality at the same time,” he says. And he put the spotlight back on locals, who present an ongoing and germane opportunity for a landmark resort like this to grow its clientele.
 
“They are fans of these winemakers, brewers and distillers, and fans of these local products,” he says. “By bringing them together here, it reminds them what a great spot this is to host an event, have dinner or just hang out and have a drink.”
 
The views come standard.
 
Each event is priced at $78, or bundle the remaining three events in the Summer Tasting Series for a discounted $187. Call 805-565-8232 for tickets. And check out fourseasons.com/santabarbara.
 
 
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Wine Industry Shakeup: Leader of Santa Barbara's Largest Winery Group Steps Down

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Tenley Fohl and Allison Levine

The head of the Santa Barbara wine industry’s most influential group is stepping down. Morgen McLaughlin has been Executive Director at Santa Barbara Vintners since 2013. After she leaves her post in mid-July, she’ll become Executive Director at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association in Oregon.
 
Ms. McLaughlin’s impact on the organization that’s an advocate for the majority of Santa Barbara’s wineries – 130 out of the county’s 200 – is undeniable. Some of the changes she drove were small, but important: the group’s relatively new moniker, for example – Santa Barbara Vintners – replaced its more cumbersome predecessor, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. Ms. McLaughlin also pushed for increased training of member wineries in areas like hospitality and responsible beverage service, as well as increased engagement between the local wine industry and Santa Barbara government officials.
 
Morgen McLaughlin (Fohl photo)
Her greatest strides were, perhaps, in the group’s never-ending effort to increase the visibility of local wine, both domestically and internationally. “Santa Barbara County deserves to be considered as a top wine region in the world,” Ms. McLaughlin said in an exclusive interview this week with the News-Press. “To be a player on that stage, you have to think worldly.”
 
To that end, she helped spawn a slew of road trip opportunities for Santa Barbara wineries. Sporadic trips to Los Angeles, the holy grail drive market for Santa Barbara wineries, were marked with intimate culinary gatherings at lucrative venues throughout the city. She also took a handful of promotional trips abroad, responding to what she sees as a growing interest by international media and trade “to learn about California wine beyond Napa and Sonoma.”
 
She adds, “Having to increase the profitability for our tasting rooms versus having a place on the world stage – those are two very different executions. I’m happy with what we did on both those tracks.”
 
But Ms. McLaughlin’s most vivid memories from her years in Santa Barbara may well be the roadblocks. “The job and its challenges were much greater than I expected,” admits Ms. McLaughlin, 44, who points the finger at local politics and overly aggressive land use restrictions that are squelching the Santa Barbara wine country experience.
 
“On the surface, the job seems easy,” she says. “This region in one of most well-known parts of the world. You travel, and people salivate when you mention Santa Barbara. You’ve got an amazing location, perfect weather, and wines that run the gamut of style. You think it’s a very easy story to tell. But then you quickly realize how restricted wineries are in land use.”
 
Indeed, county rules governing development by wineries have long been famously obstructive in Santa Barbara. When winemaker Michael Larner finally won approval last month to build a winery and tasting room on his Ballard Canyon property, for example, it was only after a contentious and expensive seven-year fight. Lawmakers and filibustering neighbors point to issues like traffic and noise while winemakers and advocates like Ms. McLaughlin point to other wine regions’ far less restrictive rubrics. The result? A wine country experience defined mainly by tasting rooms – clustered tasting-only venues in Los Olivos and downtown Santa Barbara, for example – rather than wine estates.
 
“You can’t remain competitive on the world stage, and you can’t attract serious wine drinkers and connoisseurs, by just having a tasting room-only model,” insists Ms. McLaughlin. “They want to experience a winery, vineyards, dinners in a barrel room – touch and feel! And you have to have a pipeline of new projects.
 
“The wine industry has not been able to get people into elected office who really understand wine and tourism and agriculture, and the intersection of it all. Until that mentality can evolve, having someone like myself onboard is simply not the best utilization of my skills.”
 
Ms. McLaughlin also laments the absence of a county tourism office in Santa Barbara.
 
“You have all these smaller tourism groups – Visit Santa Barbara, Visit Santa Ynez Valley, Visit Santa Maria, Solvang, Buellton, Lompoc – each with their own marketing, board, budget,” she says. “Each plays a part but they’re doing it individually. For Santa Barbara to be competitive against Paso Robles and Sonoma and Napa… they have to pool money to be used collectively and to deliver a cohesive message to the consumer. I spent 2-1/2 years trying to bring these respective associations together and to agree to fund a significant investment in wine tourism, but I wasn’t able to get it done. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see low visitor numbers."
 
Ms. McLaughlin points to data released just this month by Silicon Valley Bank and Wine Business Monthly that tracked monthly tasting room visitation numbers throughout the U.S. for 2016 and that put Santa Barbara second to last among California regions, just ahead of Mendocino. Paso Robles’ numbers, at 1342 visitors per month, nearly doubled Santa Barbara’s 751 (and rivaled Napa County’s 1497).  To be fair, Paso and Napa are larger than Santa Barbara, and they have more tasting rooms. “But we’re 100 miles from eight million people,” says Ms. McLaughlin, referencing L.A. “We should be leading in visitation numbers. The Santa Barbara caché is just not being tapped.”
 
Morgen McLaughlin, left, speaks during a 2016 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 (Levine photo)
As she turns her sights on Oregon and the 230 wineries she’ll be representing, Ms. McLaughlin’s excitement hinges a lot on how the Willamette Valley is different. “They don’t have land use restrictions. Not to say that as the region grows they won’t be faced by that, but right now they have responsible growth and wineries are able to get permits and host guests,” she says.
 
“And the focus on pinot noir is refreshing,” she adds. The popular red wine is the most widely planted grape by far in the Willamette Valley, which stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south, and which grows 80% of all the wine in Oregon. “It is, first and foremost, a pinot noir region.” Santa Barbara, on the other hand, while also a coveted pinot noir site, lays claim to growing many other varieties well, too. And while diversity is an interesting story to tell, it’s not an easy one to market.
 
Ms. McLaughlin will be moving to Portland with her husband, wine distributor Nathaniel Smith, and the youngest of their three sons, who’ll be starting high school in the fall.
 
Matt Murphy, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Board, says that “while I am sorry to see Morgen go, I could not be happier for her to have the opportunity to lead another world class wine growing region.”
 
Mr. Murphy says the Board is focused now on filling the Executive Director position, which is garnering “intense interest from people all over the country,” according to Ms. McLaughlin.
 
“One of the primary headwinds facing our local wine industry is a challenging regulatory environment, including, but not limited to, restrictive land use polices, limiting growth of the Santa Barbara County wine industry,” says Mr. Murphy. “One of the core competencies of the next Executive Director of our association will be to build on our association's successes combatting these regulations and advocating on our behalf at the city and county levels of government.”


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Pet Project: Liquid Farm Winemaker Launches Own Kings Carey Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/17

The newest player in the Santa Barbara wine scene in someone who, actually, has already made a significant mark in it.  James Sparks has been winemaker for the celebrated Liquid Farm label since 2009, crafting beautiful chardonnays that combine fruit from multiple vineyards as a way to encapsulate the Sta. Rita Hills region in each bottle; the about-to-be-released 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay, a blend of six vineyards, is floral and racy. Liquid Farm recently expanded into pinot noir production, too.
 
But Sparks’ Kings Carey wines are totally new, with the first three bottlings just now hitting the marketplace.  “It can be challenging, finding that balance,” Sparks says of juggling his full-time gig at Liquid Farm with his pet project. But the focus of Kings Carey is precise – grenache only, for now – as a way to both eliminate competition and explore something totally personal.
 
Sparks’ foray into winemaking is relatively new, itself -- and fascinating, when you consider his background. One of a dozen children raised in rural Idaho, Sparks, 41, left the Mormon religion a little over a decade ago – a totally new way of life, and an introduction to the world of alcohol consumption and creation. His brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, now became an important connection; a former employee at an L.A. wine shop, he’d helped found Dragonette Cellars in 2005, and as the label began its quick climb to becoming one of Santa Barbara’s premiere boutique wine labels, it also became James’ foot in the door.
 
Serendipity is a powerful thing. But there’s no denying Sparks’ own knack, which saw him transitioning as assistant winemaker at Dragonette to winemaker at Liquid Farm within a year. Just a handful of vintages later, his presence and influence established, Kings Carey becomes Spark's next chapter.
 
Interestingly, the label’s name pays homage, in part, to Sparks’ upbringing; he hails from Carey, Idaho, a river valley ag town with a population of about 600. “Kings” is a tip of the hat to Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, a marketing whiz from Kings Point, on New York’s Long Island. The pair lives in Solvang with their beautiful three-year-old daughter, Bea.
 
“Why grenache?” I ask him as we sit and sip. The Kings Carey launch features a 2016 Rosé of grenache, a 2015 Sta. Rita Hills grenache and a 2014 Santa Ynez Valley grenache. I ask him, in part, because word on the street is that grenache, like syrah and other Rhone wines, is a hard sell.
 
“I want to do what I like, first and foremost,” he says.
 
Grenache also allows him to explore a new winemaking avenue: whereas Liquid Farm is a study in blends, Kings Carey sheds the spotlight on single varietals and single vineyards, with a push for minimal manipulation and lower alcohols.
 
The 2016 Rosé ($20) is fresh and juicy, with floral aromas and red berry flavors that scream afternoon sipping. “I love café,” says the winemaker. “It can go with almost anything, from salads to burgers.” The fruit comes from Brick Barn Vineyard, located in the warmer stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.
 
The 2014 and 2015 reds reveal what grenache can do in cooler environs. Their source is the same: the renowned John Sebastiano Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. But remember the contentious battle a few years ago to expand the boundaries of SRH? This vineyard featured prominently in this fight. Before the feds' approval of the expansion, most of it lived within the AVA, with a small portion spilling into a zone that had to be identified more broadly as Santa Ynez Valley. The 2014 Kings Carey grenache was bottled before the SRH borders were stretched, which requires Sparks to use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA moniker on his label. By the time the 2015 wines were put in bottle, he had the federal government’s blessing to label it, officially, Sta. Rita Hills.
 
No matter what it says on the label, though, these wines are awesome, although distinct. The 2015 Grenache ($29), harvested a bit earlier in the season, is more youthful, with tangy red berries on the nose and bouncy mouth feel. A lunch red, if you will, or a red you can easily sip as the sun goes down on a warm summer’s day. My favorite, the 2014 Grenache ($29), was picked a bit later and exhibits more depth – more earthy – with red currants, oak, white pepper and even a dab of cocoa, and a luscious finish. More of an evening meal wine, perhaps. Both grenache wines are about 13.5% alcohol and are drinkable now, though they exhibit wonderful aging potential, too.
 
Another standout element here? The Kings Carey labels, which feature black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphia-based artist Hawk Krall. The hand-drawn images pop and have a hip, urban vibe. Touching again on grenache’s marketplace challenges, Mrs. Sparks, the branding pro, says, “It speaks to the millennial audience that we’re after.”
 
Find out more at kingscarey.com.
 
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Mexican Dining, Elevated: Santo Mezcal Opens on Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/18/17

For several weeks, Ricardo Garcia put his clientele’s taste buds to the test.  The executive chef at Santa Barbara’s popular Los Agaves began offering daily specials – unique gourmet dishes that weren’t on the Milpas Street restaurant’s standard Mexican food menu, which draws a steady stream of customers daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It was a culinary experiment, of sorts.

Pulpo a las Brasas
“The idea was to give him the ability to create dishes that are creative and that take extra time to prepare,” says his boss, restaurateur Carlos Luna.

The dishes that fared best – the ones that got the most raves from guests – now have starring roles at Santa Barbara’s newest restaurant, Santo Mezcal, which opened in early May on lower State Street.  The new project by Mr. Luna has been more than a year in the works and takes over the spot that has housed other buzzy restaurants in the past, most recently Nuance.  But the best timing for a hit eatery just a block from Stearns Wharf may be now.

“This area is finally revitalized,” says Mr. Luna, 36, during an recent interview.  It’s the lunch hour, and he’s sitting by a large glass door that opens onto State Street, sporadically welcoming patrons he recognizes in both English and Spanish.  “It’s all been construction here, but now – it’s the perfect time to open Santa Mezcal.”

Camarones al Mezcal
For years, the two blocks of State Street between the beach and Gutierrez Street have, in fact, been an area to avoid.  Street closures, construction crews and choppy street patterns have afflicted this zone, and many locals and visitors alike have opted to dine, shop and drive elsewhere.  But summer 2017 is the light at the end of the tunnel here, with the grand opening of a brand new luxury hotel.  Already, the highly-anticipated MOXI Museum, right next door to Santo Mezcal, is welcoming guests daily and several other eateries and wine bars have opened, or are about to.

So, Santa Mezcal becomes the latest fresh arrival in this newly imagined section of Santa Barbara, and its prospects hinge squarely on the dining experience it creates moving forward.

The name pays homage to one of Mexico’s most revered distilled cordials; mezcal enjoys widespread exaltation among its fans as a divine sipping spirit.  Born in the state of Oaxaca, it’s made from the agave plant, just like tequila.  But because it’s roasted in underground ovens covered by earth and rocks, it exhibits a distinctive smoky flavor.  The wall behind the bar at Santo Mezcal houses dozens of mezcal bottles, which are often identified by their village of origin or even the age of the origin agave plant.  Mezcal can be ordered by the shot or in a cocktail, like the Margarita Jamaica ($11), which features spiced hibiscus syrup and hibiscus flowers, or the Sant-Old Fashioned ($12), with add-ins like agave nectar, chocolate-mole bitters and burnt orange essence.  All the flavoring syrups and nectars are made in house by mixologist Sean Sepulveda.

The mescal and tequila selections at the Santo Mezcal bar
The bar also features a comprehensive lineup of tequilas.  The wine list is concise but varied, representing Santa Barbara, mainly, as well as Chile, Argentina and Spain.

The kitchen is enclosed in glass, allowing lunch and dinner patrons to watch the kitchen crew in action.  The focus is on ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonally available, and the menu leans toward the sea.

Margarita Jamaica
Appetizers include several ceviche preparations.  The Ahi Tuna Ceviche ($13.95 lunch, $14.95 dinner) features a tangy medley of cucumbers, jicama, cilantro and corn; the salsa that’s folded in gives it a refreshing edge.  The Ceviche Pulpo ($13.95, $14.95) features octopus meat that is remarkably tender, along with onion, cucumbers, avocado and cilantro.

The entrees, dubbed Especiales del Mar, include one of Mr. Luna’s favorites, the Pulpo a las Brasas ($22.95, dinner only).  Two grilled octopus tentacles, marinated in a housemade vegetable stock to ensure a tender bite, comes with a garbanzo bean purée; the chile oil drizzled on top as it’s exiting the kitchen offers each bite a spicy pop.  The Camarones al Mezcal ($14.95, $15.95) features several oversize Mexican shrimp sautéed in a velvety mezcal cream and comes with Mexican rice and salad.  And the Salmon Tropical ($19.95, dinner only) is served over grilled pineapple and topped with mango salsa and grilled shrimp.

House specialty dishes – the Especiales de la Casa – are hearty, like the veal osso bucco Chamorro ($18.95, $19.95) and the Cazuela Poblana, with grilled chicken and pasilla peppers topped with Oaxaca cheese.  Meat lovers will eye the off-the-grill specials, which feature ribeye steak in myriad preparations and served with sides like cheese-stuffed pasilla peppers and crab enchiladas. There are several taco and enchilada entrees on the menu, as well as one- and two-item combination plates.

Several of the dishes are vegetarian and gluten-free, by design.  “We really wanted to give those customers a lot of good options,” says Mr. Luna, “which is easy to do with Mexican cuisine, because it’s so fresh.”  Dishes will be rotated regularly, too, “to give customers more reasons to come back."


Ahi Tuna Ceviche
Food aside, the reason to return for many patrons will be Mr. Luna, himself.  The restaurateur who founded Los Agaves on Milpas Street just nine years ago and who’s grown the enterprise to four bustling locations (in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Westlake Village) is known as the consummate host.  His demeanor is understated, although the numerous interactions with patrons and even passers-by during this interview points to a personality that’s much larger.  Mr. Luna makes a point of mentioning his regulars.  “These are people who gave us a chance,” he says.  ““Local support is what keeps us going."

Dining at Santo Mezcal?  Look for free 75-minute parking at the city lot by the Amtrak station, just up State Street.

Santo Mezcal, 119 State Street, Santa Barbara. 805-883-3593. @santomezcal_sb on Instagram.


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The Food’s the Focus: Buellton’s New Bottlest Bistro Raises the Culinary Bar

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/4/17

Beef Short Ribs w/carrot puree, roasted carrots & preserved meyer lemon
In Buellton’s steady march toward becoming a culinary epicenter, Bottlest Bistro is the latest major milestone.

The gourmet bistro opened its doors just a few weeks ago, and in a familiar space.  It’s linked to Terravant, a large scale custom crush facility that allows dozens of labels – think handcrafted projects like The Hitching Post II’s Hartley-Ostini – to produce, age and store their wines.  And it takes over for Avant, a tapas-focused eatery that became known for its casual vibe, mainly.


With Bottlest Bistro, the focus is squarely on the food and wine, and on a dining experience that’s meant to be approachable but gourmet.  “My overall philosophy is quality over quantity,” says Executive Chef Owen Hanavan.  “If we have quality service and if we have quality food that we put out consistently – that’s the biggest thing – then our image will speak for itself."


Jidori Chicken w/whipped potato, kohlrabi noodles, grapefruit, chicken jus

Chef Hanavan’s resumé impresses, with stints at Michelin-starred COI restaurant in San Francisco and Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore in Montecito.  As Head Chef, he also helped open the wildly popular Barbareno in downtown Santa Barbara.  And he credits his experience at various country clubs, including Santa Barbara’s La Cumbre Country Club, with expanding his culinary perspective.  “Having to offer members and their international guests a wide variety of food and flavors – it was like getting extensive training in global cuisine,” he says.  “So sneaking Japanese flavors into classic French dishes, for example, is something I love to do.”


Wild Atlantic Salmon w/cooked lentils, sprouted lentils, meyer lemon, mirpoix
He’s crossing borders when it comes to ingredients, too, with a focus on “quality product.”

“It could be a cheese out of the Midwest or a fish from the Mediterranean flown in that morning,” says Hanavan, 29. But, “I’m looking to showcase quality products, starting with our surrounding area.  We have an abundance of farmers and fishermen."

At Bottlest, Chef Hanavan leads a still-growing team of cooks, including Chef de Cuisine Bart Jones, and the menus are seasonally inspired and ingredient-driven.  For lunch, the restaurant’s wood fire pizza oven produces specialties like The California, with chicken confit, garden greens and fontina cheese.  The Buellton Steak Salad features red bell pepper dressing and quinoa, and the Beets Salad (one of Chef Hanavan’s favorites) presents the root vegetable three ways – raw, cooked and pickled – along with burrata cheese and Egyptian spices.  Other lunch options include supple lamb meatballs with mint; a white cheddar Mac and Cheese with chicken, jalapeno and bacon add-on options; Pork Belly with sunchoke; and locally sourced Yellowtail adorned with Japanese-inspired flavors.

Dessert is served: Belgian Chocolate Rice Tart w/house made crème fraiche & seasonal jam
More dessert, please: California Bay Leaf Ice Cream/vanilla & amaretto cookie
On the dinner menu, hearty but elegantly presented dishes include Beef Short Ribs with carrot puree, a Jidori Chicken with whipped potatoes and kohlrabi noodles and the Sixteen-Spice Pork Shoulder served with almond rice, pilaf and a date glaze.  The already-popular NY Strip is attractively festooned with potatoes cooked in duck fat, crispy leeks, a soubise onion sauce and a house-made chimichurri sauce.  For dessert, the California Bay leaf Ice Cream does not disappoint.

Flavors matter, but so do looks.  “I was always taught to season in layers, to develop flavors that are elegant,” says Mr. Hanavan.  “But truth is, we eat with our eyes first, smell afterwards, then dig in.”

Lunch items range from $12 to $18 (the cheese board is $24), with dinner prices between $13 and $33.

 
52 wines by the glass accessible via a high-tech dispensing system
Detailed attention to the wine list is part of the Bottlest DNA.  The bistro, actually, shares its name with Terravant’s new online customization tool – the first of its kind – that allows individuals anywhere in the world to craft their personal bottle of wine from beginning to end.  The Bottlest  website, which is still in Beta testing mode, allows would-be vintners to use a wine profile wheel to control aspects like earthiness, oakiness and sweetness, and then design their own label.  Each blend, made with proprietary Terravant wines, is then shipped out.  Terravant also runs a wine club with a slew of VIP benefits.

At the bistro, guests can choose from 52 wines by the glass.  The constantly changing selections are displayed on the Wine Wall, a unique dispensing system that accepts pre-paid cards in return for one-ounce tastes or half- or full-glass pours.  The wine program, which leans heavily local, is run by certified sommelier Vlad Stojanov, whose international résumé includes, most recently, Bacara Resort & Spa.

The centerpiece bar, which is adjacent to the dining room, is sleek and open.  Local ingredients are a priority here, too, with all syrups and flavorings made onsite.  The Lavender Gin Paloma features house-infused lavender gin and grapefruit juice.

Bottlest Bistro is airy.  It’s one floor up from ground level, and it makes good use of south-facing windows for natural light.  The open floor plan includes several large portals into the busy kitchen and a massive glass frame that overlooks one of Terravant’s production rooms, filled with oversize stainless steel tanks.

Bottlest Bistro is open for lunch and dinner daily, from 11am-9pm Sunday through Thursday and until 11pm Friday and Saturday.  Visit bottlest.com/bistro for more information and reservations.


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