Seth Kunin: Santa Barbara Wine Icon Passes Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/31/17

Update 11/7/17: A celebration of life memorial for Seth Kunin has been set for Monday, Nov. 13th at 1pm at Larner Vineyard. For info and to RSVP, click here.

Santa Barbara’s culinary community is reeling from the news that Seth Kunin, considered one of the area’s most talented winemakers, has died. Mr. Kunin passed away of a heart attack on Saturday night, in his sleep. He was 50.

“It’s unreal,” says winemaker and friend Drake Whitcraft, who’s coordinating efforts by several winemakers to finish Mr. Kunin’s work on the 2017 harvest. Mr. Kunin finished picking grapes a week ago, with 2017 marking his 20th wine harvest in Santa Barbara County. “We’re going to finish pressing and putting wine into barrel. There’s also wine to be bottled.”

Seth Kunin (photo by Bob Dickey)
Mr. Kunin leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and his wife and business partner of 10 years, Magan Eng. The pair run two successful wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, Kunin Wines and AVA Santa Barbara – The Valley Project, both of which his wife reportedly intends to keep open. Mr. Kunin’s eponymous label, which he launched in 1998, produces about 5000 cases a year and is well-known for world-class renditions of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, zinfandel and viognier wines, among others.  His Valley Project label features wines from each of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs, or wine growing regions; the tasting room on E. Yanonali St. is popular for the dramatic chalk mural that welcomes guests who come through the glass doors.

Mr. Kunin studied pre-med at UCLA before he was recruited as a manager by Santa Barbara’s Wine Cask in 1992. He became instrumental in building the restaurant’s famous wine program, which has won the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award for many years. “People will think of Seth as the gregarious, open-armed, super-mentoring guy that he was,” says Wine Cask owner and fellow winemaker Doug Margerum. “He was always in a good mood, and he always encouraged young people to enter the wine business. He was a really, really nice guy. I’ll miss him.”

Seth and Magan
Family friend and L.A.-based PR professional Katherine Jarvis remembers Mr. Kunin as pervasively positive and a friend to all. “He was positive about everything, did everything with full force and was full of joie de vivre,” she says. “And he loved his wife and daughter with that same passion, and he treated them like the most important things alive.”

He was crazy smart, quick-witted, wildly organized and wonderfully logical,” says fellow winemaker Morgan Clendenen. “ He always had enthusiasm for anything wine-related and knew how to boss sommeliers and wrangle them like no other helping to organize some of the greatest wine events in California. You could always, always count on Seth.”

Mr. Kunin was a member of the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation for many years. He had just completed designing and building a new winery in Goleta, which was going to allow him to leave the communal wine crush facility in Santa Maria he’d been using for many years and continue his craft closer to his Santa Barbara home.

Seth Kunin’s Facebook page has become a sounding board for friends and colleagues from around the world, who’ve been posting personal messages, stories and pictures ever since his wife announced his passing Sunday afternoon. His own final post came last Wednesday and referenced the tricky 2017 grape harvest in quintessential Seth Kunin style: “Bye, bye #harvest2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out."
 
Information about a celebration of life for Seth Kunin is forthcoming.

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Wine Inspires Art: Upcoming Auction Benefits Unique Santa Barbara Studio

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/26/17


"Mountains" by Slingshot artist Wayne Dreyer
on a bottle of 2016 Willson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir
The wine label as a canvas. It can be effective, in the way it lures the eye, and it can be attractive. At SlingShot, it’s also a powerful thing.

SlingShot may well be the most special little art studio and gallery in Santa Barbara. It’s a creative outlet for close to 50 budding artists from throughout the county – men and women who come here to hone and showcase their talents, to interact with visitors and to sell what they create. These are some of our community’s finest who, despite their developmental disabilities, can use their knack for art to express themselves and to become empowered.
"Tumblers" by James Jasper

SlingShot is located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara and open Monday through Friday, and by appointment. It’s a creative extension of Alpha Resource Center, the nonprofit that offers life skill and training programs to developmentally challenged kids, teens and adults. They help more than 2200 local families every day to secure housing, train for jobs and find a multitude of creative and recreational outlets. SlingShot, which allows adults not only to create art but also to display it and sell it, is an Alpha success story.

“SlingShot is about the powerful ability of art to affect people,” says Tyler Willson, an Alpha board member. “For the participants, it gets them inspired and it gives them confidence in their art and in themselves."

Willson and his wife, Mia, were introduced to Alpha the day their beautiful daughter Mylie was born. Mylie has Down’s syndrome, a diagnosis her parents weren’t aware of until the day before she was delivered. “All the tests we took during the pregnancy came back negative,” Willson tells me. Mylie would see multiple hospitalizations and surgeries before age two.
"Lady" by Rachel MacKenzie

Alpha Resource Center became a lifeline for the Willsons – an immediate link to information, experts and resources to parents who found themselves totally in love with their second child but totally caught off guard, all at the same time. “They are such wonderful people,” says Willson.  “Not just for what they’ve done for us, but also for what they do for so many other people who can’t do it for themselves.”

Today, 9-year-old Mylie is thriving – a happy, playful, spirited young lady bursting with personality (and with a real flair for gymnastics).

So the Willsons have found a special and very personal way to say thanks.

The couple owns one of the very few vineyards in Carpinteria, a fertile half-acre plot in the back yard of their Sheperd Mesa home of Clone 777 pinot noir. They planted the vines themselves in 2009, and harvest each year since has always been a family affair. The wine – about two barrels’ worth each vintage, or about 20 to 25 cases – is made by Fabian Castel, assistant to celebrated winemaker Adam Tolmach at Ojai Vineyard.

"Blue Tulips" by Frank Quaranta
The Willson Family Vineyard wines have now become liquid assets for SlingShot. The family donates a barrel a year to the gallery, and the bottles it produces are labeled with diminutive versions of original Slingshot art. The wine label as a canvas. And for the artists, who see their artwork manifested in a fresh new medium and who now have a new vehicle to promote their talent, a powerful thing.

These bottles – assets as much for the wine they hold inside as for the art they feature outside – are the inspiration behind Wine & Art, a spirited auction that earmarks all proceeds for Slingshot. The funds go directly to the artists and to the studio’s operating costs. “The more we cover their costs, the more staff they can hire, and the more participants they can help with services and resources,” says Willson.

"Octopus Clown" by Megan Isaac

I’m proud to emcee this year’s second annual Wine & Art, and I hope you’ll join us. The fundraiser takes place Saturday, November 11th from 6pm to 8:30pm at SlingShot, 220 W. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara. Many of the silent auction items are a wine lover’s dream, including exclusive bottlings by Margerum, Grassini, Consilience, Ojai Vineyard and Liquid Farm. Winemaker Doug Margerum has donated a 3-liter bottle of the 1986 Pine Ridge cabernet sauvignon from his private cellar, a wine valued at more than $1000. And to adorn the Willsons’ pinot, original works by 12 Slingshot artists have been selected as featured labels; the wines will be featured as individual bottles, a select number of assorted six-packs and one grand prize case featuring all 12 art pieces.

Works by SlingShot’s resident artists will be featured, too. Lifestyle items range from passes to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and dinners at Barbareno restaurant and Joe’s Café to seafaring experiences from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center and tickets to upcoming performances of The Nutcracker by State Street Ballet. The Cork Pull – a $20 donation that guarantees a bottle of wine worth at least $20 – is back. And so is Chef Scott Wallace from SB Wine Dine Build, whose grilled sliders last year knocked it out of the park!
 
Tickets are less expensive if you buy ahead of time: $50, versus $60 at the door (with an attendance cap of just 120 people). If you’re a business or group looking for a fun night out, ticket bundles of six are $275. Check out alphasb.org/events.
 
For more wine, food and travel news follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
 
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New Santa Barbara Festival Combines Wine, Music and Polo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/2/17

Santa Barbara is no stranger to wine festivals. It’s become a haven for polo enthusiasts, too. And a new fete set to premier this weekend brings the two attractions together in one of the area’s prettiest settings.
 
The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club
The Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival touts itself as the first of its kind in California. The open-air, all-day event features high-thrills polo matches, upscale wine tasting and a star-studded roster of music. It’s set to take place this Saturday, October 7th, from 11am to 7pm, at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club in Carpinteria.
 
“This event definitely draws from fans of all three -- wine, polo, and music,” says Joey Massa, one of the event’s organizers. “And all three are representative of the Santa Barbara lifestyle."
 
The festival, which aims to become an annual affair, is also presented by KCRW, a popular public radio station that’s been on the air in Los Angeles for more than 70 years. That helps explain the impressive lineup of musicians, which are scheduled throughout the day and includes Grammy winner Macy Gray, who takes the stage at 6:15pm. Her five opening acts, scheduled throughout the afternoon, include buzzy independent up-and-comers like rocker LP, songwriter Nick Waterhouse and Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré.
 
The wine angle is clearly Santa Barbara-inspired, with labels like Summerland Winery, Standing Sun and the new August Ridge Vineyards. Happy Canyon Vineyard will pour and host a VIP tent; the popular winery in Happy Canyon, on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, is well-known for its own onsite polo field. Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company will provide beer.
 
The day’s thumping action will be provided by a cavalcade of horses. Two back-to-back polo matches are scheduled for 3pm, followed by pivot stomp. In the world of polo, matches are traditionally followed by a stomp where patrons flip over divots, or the chunks of turf kicked up by horses’ hooves, and drink bubbly and wine.
 
The goal of the event is, in large part, to combine multiple lifestyle activities – introducing wine lovers to the nuances of polo, for example, and vice versa. ““Polo is a sport that a number of people have never seen, and we want this to be a great introduction to that sport,” says Mr. Massa. To that end, organizers have created a website that highlights polo terminology – a “chuckker” is a period of play that lasts seven minutes, and matches can consist of four to eight chukkers – and suggested attire. There’s no dress code for the festival, but ladies are encouraged to wear stylish sundresses, hats and gloves while the gentlemen should sport chino pants or shorts and a polo or button-up shirt; men’s sports coats and fedoras are optional. Find out more when you buy your tickets at sbpoloandwine.com.
 
The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club is one of the oldest in the Western U.S., dating back to 1911
Guests have several buy-in options. General admission is $75, with wine and food sold separately. VIP ticket holders ($185) get access to a private entrance, the indoor/outdoor VIP Polo Clubhouse and stage area, VIP bathrooms, private bars, the Happy Canyon Vineyard tent and areas with extra shade. VIP Box and Cabana Seating ($265-$290) come with extras like a bottle of Champagne, valet parking and wait staff service during the polo matches.
 
General parking is $10 and VIP parking costs $40.
 
One dollar from every ticket sold is earmarked for Notes for Notes, a nonprofit group that outfits Boys & Girls Clubs with recording studios so that the clubs’ after-school youth can produce music for free.
 
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The Table is Set: New Dining Concept at Santa Barbara Wine Country's Ballard Inn Hinges on Shareable Dishes

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Tenley Fohl
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/31/17

The Gathering Table
Chef Budi Kazali’s latest culinary project was actually 13 years in the making.
 
“We knew right from the start that we would want to do a remodel,” says Mr. Kazali, who, with wife Chris, bought the Ballard Inn & Restaurant in 2004. “But when you’re open 364 days a year – every day except Christmas – there’s never a good time to stop.”
 
Remodel or not, the Kazalis’ property in the historic Ballard Township, close to Los Olivos and Solvang, has become a destination all its own over the years. The inn, with its 15 uniquely themed rooms, all with plush bedding and lovely country décor, is one of the top-rated places to stay in the Santa Ynez Valley. And the restaurant, with a season-centric menu and region-centric wine list, and with Mr. Kazali’s notable reputation, is one of the very few AAA 4-Diamond restaurants in Santa Barbara County.
 
Today, the property is finally enjoying a facelift.
 
The couple took a leap of faith earlier this year when they shut down for 17 days. The focus was almost entirely downstairs; the rooms, most all on the second floor, had seen sporadic upgrades over the years. This overhaul focused on the inn’s reception area and living room, and in particular on the restaurant’s dining room. “It was complete chaos,” laughs Mr. Kazali, recalling the round-the-clock project that had construction teams working overtime and even living at the inn. The toughest phase was the flooring. “After it was waxed and stained, there was no standing on it for five days – it halted everything!”
 
The revamped dining room at the Ballard Inn
The new and improved Ballard Inn & Restaurant features a succinctly fresher feel, with a muted palette of colors and elegant furnishings. Quaintness and comfort prevail, though, “in that wonderful New England bed-and-breakfast style that Chris and I love,” says Mr. Kazali.
 
The crowning jewel of the project is Chef Kazali’s reimagined restaurant, which he’s deliberately dubbed, The Gathering Table. “We wanted a dining concept based on food that’s shareable,” he says. “It’s the way I like to eat: I want to try every plate that comes out!”
 
The eatery’s centerpiece communal table fits up to 14 people, “perfect for a large party,” says the chef. “But when we’re seating different guests, we only serve up to eight, so it doesn’t get too cramped.”  The rest of the 40-seat dining room features round tables and booths, but the white linens are gone. “We’ve gone more cozy, less fine dining. More casual and even kid-friendly. We don’t want to be labeled as a once-a-year spot but, instead, a place guests and local can visit a few times a month.”
 
The new menu, which mirrors the chef’s famous knack for Asian-French fusion, is arranged from lighter to heartier dishes. Portions are smaller – five to six ounces, generally – to encourage not only sharing, but also personalizing. “A couple can create their own tasting menu and order, maybe, five things off the menu,” says Mr. Kazali. “A larger party can really have fun by ordering a lot of different things.” And prices have been brought down.
 
Grilled Filet Mignon
 
Hamachi
 
Desserts rotate regularly
Among the new highlights at The Gathering Table: Oysters on the Half Shell ($24 a dozen); Cheese Fondue ($7); Manila Clams with chorizo and garlic toast ($13); Octopus Sashimi with squid ink vinaigrette and spicy yuzu aioli ($15); and Sliders with white cheddar, housemade pickles and shoestring potatoes ($7 each).
 

Chef Budi Kazali
Several signature Kazali dishes, including larger stand-along entrees, remain, like his Hamachi with avocado and soy vinaigrette ($15); a Pork Belly with Napa cabbage fondue ($14); the Hudson Valley foie gras with caramelized cherry and port glaze ($18); the Duck Breast with spring vegetable medley ($22); and his Marinated Hanger Steak with spicy charrd Brussel sprouts ($23). The kitchen, which Chef Kazali shares with three longtime cooks, also features daily specials. And the chef’s well-known predilection for what’s fresh, including working with regional purveyors and visiting farmers’ markets weekly, continues.
 
The new menu, though, has allowed Mr. Kazali to “move away from more traditional cooking, like always having to do starches and sauces,” and create dishes that are lighter and that allow guests to experiment.
 
“People have become more conscientious about what they’re eating,” says the chef.  “They understand food more and they ask all the right questions. It’s good -- it keeps me on my toes and makes me push the envelope.”
 
The shareable slant to the food has also spurred greater interest in wines-by-the-glass. “Guests can try different wines as they order more things – it’s very pairing-driven,” says Mr. Kazali, who’s managing the wine list until a sommelier joins the team. The beverage program at The Gathering Table includes signature cocktails and premium sake, though the wine list remains Santa Barbara-inspired; about 80% of the rotating selection is local.
 
The Gathering Table at The Ballard Inn, 2436 Baseline Dr., Ballard. 805-688-7770. Wednesday-Sunday 5:30-9pm. ballardinn.com/restaurant.
 
For more food, wine and travel news, follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
 
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Celebrating Grenache: Kaena Throws Gourmet Bash in Favorite Grape’s Honor

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/14/17

Mikael Sigouin is proud of his title, Grenache King.
 
“I didn’t name myself, it was my peers,” he admits. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve worked with more grenache than most people in the state.”
 
The Oahu native began his love affair with the Rhone grape (and the most widely planted red wine grape in the world) in 1999, his first harvest at Santa Barbara’s Beckmen Vineyards. He speaks of grenache in devotional terms: “It deserves to be shown respect. Even if you think you’re doing everything right, you still need to nudge things in her direction, where she wants to go. Just like with any woman. And it has the greatest payoff in the world.”

The Grenache King
Sigouin attributes an upbringing shaped in large part by affectionate women, and by a pervasive respect for women, for his kinship with grenache. Many of his peers, he suggests, don’t have the necessary patience to allow grenache to reach its full potential. It can be so prolific, “they plant it in hot places and let it grow and grow to use as a bulk wine producer,” he says. Sigouin’s hands-on vineyard approach includes dropping two-thirds of his fruit to allow the best grapes to grow, regularly manicuring and picking late in the season. “It’s a waiting game, it takes patience,” he insists. And when you give grenache all the time it deserves, “the skins thin out, color comes out, you get that beautiful character of the tannins and this great texture and minearality.”
 
Sigouin launched his label, Kaena (Hawaiian for “potential for greatness"), in 2001; after juggling stints at both Fess Parker and Beckmen (as head winemaker), he went full time with his pet project in 2014. He now makes about 5000 cases of wine a year, including a grenache blanc, a grenache rosé and eight different grenaches, most of them vineyard-specific. “I’ve isolated some places that grow really great grenache,” says the winemaker. That's important, because the flavors of grenache very much reflect the site where it grows, he says. “Ballard Canyon, between Buellton and the 154 – that’s the sweet spot. Not too hot, not too cool, just right.”

It makes perfect sense, then, that Kaena would consider International Grenache Day a legit holiday. It celebrates it in style each year, and this year’s fete with Jeff Olsen at Buellton noshing hot spot Industrial Eats fires on all gastronomic cylinders. It takes place Friday, September 15, at 7pm, and just a handful of $100 tickets remain. Get yours at kaenawine.com.
 
After Sigouin insisted that “pork and grenache is the ultimate pairing,” I got a sneak peek at Chef Olsen’s six-course menu:  oyster, uni and avocado paired with Kaena’s 2016 grenache blanc (a wine so tasty, “it makes you salivate,” says Sigouin); tomatoes, melon, green chile and grilled ciabatta bread matched with the 2016 grenache rosé; pork shoulder in a Korean bossam style with gems, herbs and kimchi, along with the 2015 Santa Ynez Valley grenache;  achiote and orange-braised pork with avocado, queso fresco and corn tortillas, with the 2015 Tierra Alta grenache; pomegranate-grilled pork ribs with rosemary and roasted peppers, coupled with the 2015 Ali’i grenache; and warm chocolate soufflé cake for dessert, with chocolate-Nutella ice cream and the unctuous 2015 Larner Vineyard grenache.
 
You can’t go wrong with Olsen in the kitchen; check him out at industrialeats.com.
 
And all the wines are on store shelves now, including the popular Kaena tasting room in Los Olivos.
 
 
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Four Eateries Under One Roof: “Scratch” Reveals Dining Concepts for Montecito Inn

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Jakob Layman
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/7/17

“Not much of what we do is typical,” admits Philip Frankland Lee, chef-owner of Los Angeles-based ScatchlRestaurants. It’s a mantra that has served him and his partner-wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee, well in the last few years, and which speaks to the imaginative slant to the way they do business.
 
“It doesn’t cost any more to have an original idea,” he adds.
 
The buzzed-about chef’s star has been rising steadily since the couple launched their latest their multi-layered endeavor in Encino in 2015. Four restaurants in all – four storefronts connected through the back – including the marquee eatery, ScratchlBar, where chefs playing servers drives a personalized experience and where tasting menus can feature 25 courses. As the name implies, most everything on the menu is made by hand and from scratch. The couple also runs Frankland’s Crab & Co., Woodley Proper and SushilBar, all on the second floor of a strip mall along Ventura Blvd.
 
“Instead of one giant space it’s four spaces of different sizes, four different styles and four different levels of commitment,” says Chef Lee. “It reminds me of a great hotel in South Beach or Las Vegas where you go in and have several restaurants on the first floor. I like that.”
 
Philip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee 
The Lees are hoping the concept will translate just as successfully to Montecito, where, between now and the end of the year, they plan to premier four unique concepts inside the Montecito Inn. The 2500-square-foot bar and eatery spaces that flank the historic hotel’s entrance along Coast Village Road have been closed and covered up to walkers-by for more than a year. This will be the culinary couple’s first business venture outside of L.A., though not entirely in unfamiliar territory. “I grew up and went to high school in the San Fernando Valley,” says Mr. Lee, 30, “and I remember spending quite a bit of time in Santa Barbara.”
 
The Lees are revealing their four concepts in stages, beginning later this month with the second outpost for Frankland’s Crab & Co. Located inside the inn’s former cocktail bar, this casual spot will be accessible from the street and will feature standards like “peel-and-eat shrimp, lobster rolls, crab rolls, clam chowder and fried chicken sandwiches,” says Chef Lee. “Like a Malibu or county line crab shack.” Food, ordered via walk-up counter, will be for dine-in or take-out.
 
"Scratch" in the works at the Montecito Inn (my pic)
October will see the launch of The Monarch inside the longtime former home of The Montecito Café, just off the hotel’s lobby. Breakfast, lunch and dinner items will focus on Central Coast vegetables, seafood and game and will be complemented a regionally focused wine list and by cocktails prepped at a newly built 40-foot bar. The Monarch will also handle room service for Montecito Inn guests.
 
Margarita’s Home Made Iced Cream will open in October, too, a pet project of Mrs. Kallas-Lee, an accomplished pastry chef. Orders will be taken at a counter inside The Monarch as well as through a walk-up window along Coast Village Road. “I envision ice cream as a composed dish: the sprinkles complement the ice cream, which complements the cone,” says Mrs. Kallas-Lee, 28, who plans on featuring eight different types of cones. “And everything will be made from scratch and with natural ingredients. Like the sprinkles – things like beet powder and lavender oil and a little charcoal for color.” Among her sweet creations: chocolate ganache ice cream on a chocolate cone with dulce de leche sprinkles; roasted plantain ice cream in a corn cone with corn sprinkles; and triple-crème camembert ice cream in a sourdough waffle cone with sourdough breadcrumbs, wild honey and lavender sprinkles.
 
“There will be standards, but I like focusing on ingredients not usually highlighted in desserts,” she says.
 
Lobster rolls at Frankland's Crab & Co. in Encino
The Lees are most tight-lipped about their final concept, due in late December. The Silver Bough will focus on luxury dining – “The French Laundry for Santa Barbara,” says Chef Lee – with only 16 seats and only two seatings per night. Located in a space toward the back of the hotel and not visible from the street, the fine dining venue will require reservations up to a month in advance and will give seating preference to inn guests.
 
The couple, who’ve been married for five years, is living at the Montecito Inn while their latest enterprise unfolds. They admit their vision is ambitious but believe it’s in synch with today’s foodie culture, and therefore timely. “Ten year ago, it was difficult to eat well, then it was expensive,” says Chef Lee. “Now, eating well is more convenient and very much in fashion.” And the pair sees their arrival in Montecito as a partnership with nearby restaurants, not as a rivalry. “We don’t look at it as competition because no one is serving the same food as we are,” says the chef. “The more successful and the stronger the restaurant community, the better we’re all going to do.”
 
For up to date information, check out scratchrestaurants.com.
 
For more food, wine and travel news, follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
 
 
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Driving Demand: In Santa Barbara Wine Country, a Lunch Spot on Wheels

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/10/17

The hottest new spot for lunch in Los Olivos is actually on four wheels.

The First & Oak Food Truck rolled into town in May. It’s an extension of the culinary offering by Chef Steven Snook and his team at First & Oak, the Solvang restaurant that’s easily become one of the most buzzed about places for dinner in the Santa Ynez Valley. Chef Snook, who worked under celeb chef Gordon Ramsay in London and New York before moving to the West Coast, is celebrating two years at First & Oak next month.
 
“The ingredients, the processing, the methodology are foundationally the same,” says Chef Snook, comparing his food truck fare against the fine dining experience at First & Oak. “The final product on the truck, though, is more approachable and simple.”
 
The food truck is all about crepes right now. The savory selections are most popular with the lunchtime crowds, Chef Snook says, with options like braised beef short rib and fried chicken with gravy. “We treat the crepe as a vessel rather than a standalone item,” says the chef, acknowledging that the French culinary staple is a far newer concept to many wine country visitors. A First & Oak crepe is perforated and shaped like a cone, which allows it to be stuffed with myriad ingredients. “We’re taking the basic crepe concept and expanding it to make it more fun and engaging."
 
Chef Steven Nook (credit: Tenley Fohl)
Sweet selections include ice cream, caramelized bananas with candied hazelnuts and roasted peanut butter with dulce de leche and chocolate “We’ve also got our take on the great American cherry pie,” says the chef, an English native. “Cherry pie filling with crushed graham crackers and a white wine reduction.”
 
The focus on crepes is a tip of the hat to Bernard Rosenson, the Southern California restaurateur who owns First & Oak and the Mirabelle Hotel in Solvang where it’s housed, along with popular Sky Room restaurant in Long Beach. “He grew up in France, and crepes were one of his favorite childhood foods,” says his son, Jonathan, who helps manage all of the family businesses.
 
The Rosensons also own the Coquelicot wine tasting room in Los Olivos, which serendipitously, if not cleverly, allows them to circumvent some of the famously restrictive county rules about where food trucks can set up shop that have already driven other eateries-on-wheels out of town. The truck is parked on the Coquelicot patio, which is private property.
 
“In fact, we encourage folks to come enjoy their crepes at the tasting room, and we give them 20% off wine flights or bottles,” says the younger Rosenson. Coquelicot features organic estate wines, from Riesling to cabernet sauvignon and a variety of blends; its sister label, the smartly dubbed Rose & Son, is a project by Jonathan Rosenson that features fresh, approachable, more affordable wines.
 
The truck serves guests on weekends – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from about 11am to about 4pm. It’s equipped to do more, though. This is a converted 25-passenger bus that was gutted, reframed with steel and outfitted with brand new restaurant equipment: two crepe wheels, a grill, ovens, burners, a deep fryer, a salamander broiler and refrigeration and freezer space. That means the truck is available during the week for catering, and Chef Snook and his team have already cooked at rehearsal dinners, concerts, festivals and a bevy of winery and estate events from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria.
 
One of Chef Snook's savory crepes
With the success of crepes – the truck can dole out up to 150 on a good day – Chef Snook is already working on expanding the food truck menu – French boulangerie-style items, like salads and croc monsieurs. All the while, he’s conscientious about his gastronomic neighbors. “I don’t want to step on anyone else’s toes,” says the chef. “We’re not introducing direct competition but, rather, expanding the variety available to visitors.”
 
The unique appeal of the First & Oak truck, though, the only semi-permanent food truck in the Santa Ynez Valley, is undeniable. “It’s an easy walk-up and within minutes you have lunch in your hands and you’re off again,” says Chef Snook. “It’s quick and easy, and it’s pretty filling.”
 
First & Oak Food Truck at the Coquelicot Estate Vineyard tasting room, 2884 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos. 805-688-1500. firstandoak.com.
 
 
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SAMsARA Sold: Boutique Label Brings on Popular Santa Barbara Winemaker

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/31/17

In 2002, the very first wine column I ever wrote – a regular guy’s foray into the world of wine in Santa Barbara – was about a brand new pet project called SAMsARA. Ever since, this small, hands-on label founded by Chad and Mary Melville has stayed the course, producing complex wines with a focus on fruit source and quality, and it has gained steady critical acclaim. Last week, SAMsARA entered a new chapter, as it was sold for an undisclosed sum to long-time club members, Joan and Dave Szkutak.
 
SAMsARA is a Sanskrit word that, on its website, the founders define as, “The eternal circle of life… one of passion, oneness and harmony.”
 
SAMsARA winemaker Matt Brady (credit: Andrew Schoneberger)
The brand “was born before our children were even born, so I couldn’t imagine SAMsARA living on under someone else’s ownership,” said Chad Melville in the press release that announced the sale. “But when Joan and Dave expressed an interest in getting into the wine business, the idea of a sale began to take shape. They’re big fans of Santa Barbara County wines and have been dedicated SAMsARA customers for years”
 
New ownership, though, also brings something familiar to SAMsARA: winemaker Matt Brady. The 34-year-old has garnered his own following ever since he landed his first wine industry gig at Jaffurs Wine Cellars in 2005, when he was still at UCSB. He was promoted to co-winemaker in 2012 and to head winemaker in 2015. Brady left Jaffurs this past March.
 
“There was this organic, really good feeling about the whole thing,” says Brady about the few months that followed, when he explored opportunities with Chad Melville and heard that the Szkutaks, whom he knew well as long-time customers at Jaffurs, were eyeing a buy. “Everyone involved felt early on that we were moving in the right direction.”
 
I asked Brady this week about the viability of boutique Santa Barbara labels like SAMsARA, several of which have also changed hands in recent years: Brewer-Clifton was bought up by Kendall-Jackson in May; and Jaffurs, itself, was sold by founder Craig Jaffurs to winemaker Dan Green last year.
 
“Does it all boil down to affording all the necessary resources?” I ask.
 
“Yes, but the most important resource in Chad’s case was time, especially with his increased role at Melville,” says Brady. In fact, Chad Melville became full-time winemaker at celebrated Melville Winery, which was founded by his dad Ron in 1989, when longtime winemaker Greg Brewer left two years ago. “It can be hard to give everything the time it needs, and we all saw this sale as an opportunity to give more focus to the SAMsARA brand.”
 
SAMsARA produces pinot noir from multiple lauded estates, like Cargassachi and Rancho la Vina, as well as vineyard-specific grenache and syrah wines from properties like Larner and Melville. Prices range from $24 to $60 per bottle. As for the SAMsARA style, Brady says it’ll remain intact: “Savory, meaty, spicy stuff from cool-climate sites that exhibit real elegance. Lots of whole clusters, minimal handling in the cellar and a long time in barrel. Powerful wines with lots of body, texture and aromatics.”
 
One thing is new:  “We’re starting a chardonnay program this year,” says Brady, who harvested chard from John Sebastiano Vineyard and Zotovich Vineyards, both in Sta. Rita Hills, just this week. “I’m really excited because my goal is to make chardonnay in the style I want to drink: all neutral oak, acid-driven but big on texture and body.”
 
SAMsARA has a tasting room in Los Olivos, at 2446 Alamo Pintado Avenue, which is open Thursday through Monday. Find out more at samsarawine.com.
 
For more wine, food and travel news, follow me on Twitter and Instagram!
 
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Wine is the Opening Act: New Series for Hollywood Bowl Goers is Free

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/20/17

Caroline Styne at the Hollywood Bowl (credit: Paul Devlin, Sodexo)
For many Hollywood Bowl concert goers this summer, a new wine series is like music to their ears.

As of late July, visitors to what is one of the hottest concert venues in L.A. are getting a chance to sip before they sit. The Wednesday Winemaker Series features upscale, hand-crafted wines poured by the people who made them, and it’s complimentary. A few weeks ago, for example, guests tasted Ojai Vineyard wines poured by winemaker Fabien Castel and boutique international selections by Garber & Co.’s Sandy Garber before the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and a cavalcade of guests paid tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald.

I feature wines at that are made by artisan domestic and international producers that are fairly small production and that grow their grapes with attention to environmental sustainability,” says Caroline Styne, the four-time James Beard Restaurateur of the Year nominee who handpicked all the wines featured this summer. “This winemaker series allows me to bring the winemakers themselves to the Bowl, to interact with our ticket holders and bring our guests more deeply into the wine experience. It definitely makes the wine life at the Bowl more intimate and individualized.”
The Hollywood Bowl (photo courtesy of Travelzoo)
The series is the latest chapter in what’s been a culinary renaissance at the Hollywood Bowl – a revolution of gourmet proportions led by Styne and her business partner, celeb chef and James Beard Award winner Suzanne Goin. The pair took over the Hollywood Bowl Food + Wine project last year, and foodies have flocked to the Bowl as much for the fare as for the music ever since.

Goin and Styne are a draw in and of themselves, to be sure; the pair has been an L.A. gastronomic powerhouse ever since they launched their flagship restaurant, Lucques, in 1998. But at the Bowl, the proof is in the pudding, and the two have total creative control over the more than a dozen food and wine concepts that are now an integral part of the Hollywood Bowl experience. They run two restaurants, including the backyard, where al fresco dining is fueled by two wood-burning grills and a menu of summer salads, grilled meats and seafood and an extensive raw bar. At The Wine Bar at a.o.c., artisanal charcuterie and farmers’ plates are matched with an impressive wine list curated by Styne.


the backyard at The Hollywood Bowl (photo courtesy the L.A. Phil)
Also on the Bowl menu for Goin and Styne: Supper in Your Seats, pre-order and customizable three-course dinners that visitors can enjoy at their box seats; Lucques at the Circle, full service dining for upper-tier subscribers; Kitchen 22, made-to-order American standards like burgers and sandwiches; Buzz McCoy’s Marketplace and Sushi, a west-of-stage option featuring grab-and-go sandwiches and salads along with premium sushi; and a slew of street food kiosks that specialize in everything from BBQ, tacos and pizza to gourmet snacks like popcorn and nachos. Goin and Styne are also charged with the popular picnic pre-orders and the brand new  Plaza Marketplace inside the renovated Box Office Plaza, with options like rotisserie chicken, barbecued beef brisket, cheese plates, craft beers and wines.

Hollywood Bowl Food + Wine is part of a 10-year contract with Goin and Styne that ends in 2025 and is a joint partnership with the L.A. Philharmonic Association and the corporate services company, Sodexo Sports & Leisure.

This "Moroccan Feast" is available from the Supper in Your Seats menu (credit: Dylan + Jeni)

The Wednesday Winemaker Series is another perk for concert goers, but also a boon for winemakers. Sure, with the Bowl’s seating capacity of about 17,000, they could have plenty of pouring to do. But this puts them before a captive audience that trends toward the sophisticated, toward spending more on products they love and toward appreciating artists. And for the mostly Santa Barbara-based winemakers featured this summer, it also connects them with the holy grail of drive market consumers: Angelenos.

Gray Hartley will pour at the Bowl Aug. 30 (credit: Bob Dickey)


“I happen to feel that some of the most exciting domestic wine development is happening in Santa Barbara and along the Central Coast,” Styne told me this week. “There are a number of talented people really making their mark in that area and making really fantastic wines. I think that a lot of people here in Los Angeles are taking notice of this and are excited about supporting local winemakers.  And yes, these people also happen to be super lovely humans and their wines are some of my personal favorites!”

The Wednesday Winemaker Series continues through September 13th. Santa Barbara-inspired highlights include: Chad Melville of Melville Winery pouring ahead of a concert by Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington on Aug. 23; Gray Hartley of Hitching Post Wines sharing his wines before jazz greats Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, St. Paul & The Broken Bones and Lake Street Dive take the stage on Aug. 30; and Black Sheep Finds, the masterminds behind the Sta. Rita Hill's Hocus Pocus and Holus Bolus labels, pouring before a star-studded jazz tribute to Quincy Jones on Sep. 6.

Winemakers pour and mingle with guests at the Plaza Marketplace from 5-7pm, with concerts beginning at 8pm. Featured wines are also poured at the bar in front of Kitchen 22.

For more information on how Goin and Styne have transformed dining at the Hollywood Bowl, visit hollywoodbowl/foodandwine.

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Viva El Vino: Downtown Santa Barbara Wineries for Fiesta Visitors

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/3/17

If you’re one of the thousands who’ve descended on Santa Barbara for Fiesta this week, you probably already know – this is a wine lover’s haven. The wines coming out of here are some of the best in all of California. And, between margaritas, the opportunities to savor them abound.

Downtown is home to a handful of working wineries, too – small but fully equipped facilities where grapes are crushed, put in barrel and transformed into wine over many months and years. Following are three winery destinations not to miss, which offer the chance not only to sip the afternoon away but to meet the guys who make the wines face to face. These should really be a teaser, though – motivation to discover the vineyards and estates that grow the world class grapes that birth these wines. They’re only about 40 minutes up the coast, over those mountains that cradle this lovely city, in towns with names like Los Olivos, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez. They’re well worth extending your stay here well after Old Spanish Days are over, especially since, with grape harvest already underway, the vines are at their most spectacular now.

Drake Whitcraft

Or come back. Even after the parades end, the music stops and the mercados close, Santa Barbara – and its wine culture – remains one of the California’s destination gems.

Whitcraft Winery
You’ll find history here. The late Chris Whitcraft could be considered one of the founding fathers of the Santa Barbara wine industry and his son, Drake, continues the tradition today. There’s an obsession here with remaining hands-off and allowing the grapes to show off. No pumping, no fining, no filtering, no enzymes, no watering the wine down. Foot stomping. Gravity racking. Whole cluster fermentation. A lot of fancy terms that, instead of me wasting words defining here, Drake would be happy to showcase for you in person. Bottom line: you’ll find some of the area’s most exciting pinots, chardonnays and syrahs here, along with a bevy of lesser known varieties (ever had gamay?). The tasting room is steps from the ocean. And when you go, say hi to Terra, the winery dog. Whitcraft Winery, 36-A S. Calle Cesar Chavez. 805-730-1680. Whitcraftwinery.com.


Dave Potter (my pic)
Potek Winery
Dave Potter made a name for himself first with Municipal Winemakers, the hip and affordable label that pours inside a converted dive shop in the Funk Zone; the bar here is open late on weekends. With Potek, Potter pays homage to his Romanian great-grandfather, whose name was changed from Potek to Potter when he landed on Ellis Island 100 years ago. The winery is inside a slick new complex called The Mill, near Santa Barbara’s eastside, where Potter cranks out high-end wines from extra special vineyards. The single-vineyard pinots are awesome, and the Rhone selections – grenache and syrah – are among the area’s very best. Tasting here is a sophisticated yet approachable experience. Take a bottle of Sta. Rita Hills bubbly with you, if it’s not sold out. Potek Winery, 406 Haley Street #1.  805-770-5105. Potek.com.

Ryan and Jessica Carr
Carr Winery
Ryan Carr was managing some of the area’s top vineyards before he turned to making wine, so the guy knows grapes. His wines are consistently good, all made from grapes that Carr grows himself, and crafted with a knack for reflecting a sense of place. The portfolio here is diverse, showcasing the diversity of microclimates in this area that generate a wide range of quality wines, including cabernet franc, pinot noir and grenache. The space itself is cool – a round 1940s quonset hut anchored by a wrap-around bar that’s surrounded by towering barrels. Wine aside, this winery has become a social hot spot, regularly hosting live music events. Carr Winery, 414 N. Salsipuedes St. 805-965-7985. Carrwinery.com.

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