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.

Want more wine, food and travel news? Follow me on Instagram and Twitter!

 

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BREAKING: Santa Barbara's Wine Grape Harvest is Underway

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
August 4, 2017

Doug Margerum, right, and his team

Winemaker Doug Margeum announced Thursday, August 3rd, that the 2017 wine grape harvest in Santa Barbara has begun.

"Low yields and a very steep rocky section at McGinley Vineyard resulted in perfectly ripe sauvignon blanc grapes," he tells me. McGinley Vineyard is in the Happy Canyon AVA, in the dependably warm eastern stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.

"It's about the same time as harvest has been the last few years."

Norm Yost and Cooper





The crew at the Margeum winemaking facility in  Buellton, including winemaker Michael Miroballi and assistant winemaker Lucas Meisinger, toasted harvest's inception with bubbles, sipping on Billecart-Salmon Rosé, as they've done for the last 17 harvests.

Other winemakers will be following suit soon enough.

Flying Goat Cellars' Norm Yost, along with wife Kathleen and their dog Cooper, have been scoping out grapes at Bien Nacido Vineyard, which barely escaped the fast-moving Alamo Fire last month.

Yost expects to "pull the trigger" on pinot noir cone 115 next week -- grapes he'll use for his popular lineup of sparkling wines.

Willson Family Vineyards pinot

"We find no evidence of smoke taint," Yost's team announced in an email blast this week. "Bright acid and racy cherry flavors are expressed early in the fruit this vintage."

In Carpinteria, my friend and budding vintner Tyler Willson plans on picking his pinot noir next Tuesday. His lovely Willson Family Vineyard, located in Shepard Mesa, is planted to one acre of pinot noir, and the wine is made by Fabien Castel, assistant winemaker at Ojai Vineyards.

More to come, cheers!

For more wine, food and travel news, follow me on Twitter and Instagram!


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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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