Stately Sippers: Local Wines Poured at Department of State Dinner

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/26/17

A recent dinner hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a real feather in the cap for one Santa Barbara County winery.

Solomon Hills' estate pinot noir
Two wines from Solomon Hills Estate – a 2013 chardonnay and a 2012 pinot noir – were poured during a Valentine’s Day meal thrown by Mr. Tillerson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on a diplomatic visit to the U.S.  The wines were made by Trey Fletcher and were sourced from Solomon Hills, the western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.  They were hand-picked for the sit-down affair by State Department Executive Chef Jason Larkin.

“It is a great honor,” says Will Costello, a master sommelier who was recently named brand ambassador for Solomon Hills and its sister wine label, Bien Nacido.  “Our government didn’t just choose expensive wines but, rather, wines that were reflective of great quality and food-friendliness.”

The chardonnay was paired with the first course, a cauliflower velouté with porcini mushrooms and crispy parsnips.  The pinot was poured with the main course that followed, a monkfish “osso buco” served with a smoked tomato-saffron broth and stewed heirloom beans. 

“The combination of long warm days with cool ocean breezes imparts on the Solomon Hills wines a common thread: they’re bright and fresh, with intense fruit flavors and lower alcohols,” says Mr. Costello, 34.  “They’re what consumers are looking for these days – it’s not bombastic, oaky, high-alcohol wines anymore.  And these aren’t porch sippers or cocktail wines.  They’re meant for food.”

Solomon Hills, like Bien Nacido, has long been regarded a premier grape growing site in California; its fruit is hotly sought-after by winemakers who proudly distinguish the vineyard by name on their labels.  Recently, its owners, Santa Barbara’s Miller family, which has been cultivating wine grapes in the Santa Maria Valley since the mid-1970s, decided to earmark two percent of each vintage for its own eponymous production.  That translates to only 180 cases of chardonnay and 150 cases of pinot noir each year, making these Solomon Hills wines especially desirable.

Solomon Hills Vineyard
A few bottles of the 2012 pinot remain at the Bien Nacido/Solomon Hills tasting room in Los Olivos.  Otherwise, newer vintages of each wine are currently in the marketplace, with the 2014 chardonnay retailing for $45 and the 2013 pinot noir for $65.  They can be purchased directly through the winery’s website, 

The State Department nod is a boon for the local wine industry as a whole, admits Mr. Costello, who ran the wine programs at the 5-Star Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas and the 5-Star Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego before joining the Millers’ Thornhill Companies.  He calls Santa Barbara County “a teenage wine region,” compared to older growing sites like Napa and Bordeaux.  “That creates lots of upside potential, both for branding and winemaking, and its makes the wines a great opportunity for value.”

The wines were certainly a political hit: Secretary Tillerson took several unopened bottles with him on a consular trip to Germany the next day.


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