Rhone Rising: Local Wineries Aim to Educate Through Tasting

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/30/17

When Larry Schaffer launched his Tercero wine label a decade ago, he hung his hat on Rhone wines.  He was on the Fess Parker winemaking team back then, and the focus there on wines like syrah was clearly an inspiration.  But what sealed the deal for Schaffer was potential.

“I was attracted to how diverse Rhone wines are – how diverse they show themselves to be when given the opportunity,” he told me this week.  “These wines express themselves so distinctly and differently.”

Schaffer will be showcasing the expressive spectrum of Rhone wines next Monday, when the Santa Barbara chapter of the Rhone Rangers pours for the public.  The event will feature wines from Andrew Murray Vineyards, Qupe, Zaca Mesa, Beckmen and Fess Parker Winery, among others.  Tickets to the event, which runs 4:30-6:30pm at the Funk Zone’s Santa Barbara Wine Collective (131 Anacapa Street), are just $25.

Larry Schaffer (Bob Dickey photo)
“It’s a chance to get up close and personal with winemakers,” Schaffer says.  But it’s also about consumer education.  Fact is, consumers “are not that familiar with Rhone wines,” according to Schaffer.  And outreach efforts by a small group of Santa Barbara Rhone Rangers (with a membership of about a dozen wineries) is often drowned out by a powerhouse marketing machine in neighboring Paso Robles and by a heavily invested push by Burgundian endeavors (that’s pinot noir and chardonnay) in nearby Sta. Rita Hills.

“I applaud what those guys have done,” Schaffer says.

The challenge has led to a national non-profit Rhone Rangers alliance and a handful of sub-chapters (like Santa Barbara) that, for several years, have taken on promoting the grapes native to France’s Rhone region.    Some of the 22 grapes under the group’s promotional umbrella are pretty familiar: reds like syrah and grenache and whites like viognier.  Others – like vaccarese, muscardin, bourboulenc, picardin and ugni blanc – are not.

But what all these grape varieties have in common should appeal to consumers on multiple levels, Schaffer says.  They’re great matches for food, for one, thanks to tempered alcohols and varied textures.  And they’re a solid buy, too.  “You can find a really good bottle of syrah for under $30, but you’re hard-pressed at that price to find an equally great pinot,” Schaffer says.  As Santa Barbara pinot’s price points continue to climb over the next few years, as many in the industry predict, the value of Rhones will only grow.

And then there’s the appeal that can attract consumers the way it lures winemakers: the potential in the bottle.  Unlike other families of wine grapes, Rhone varieties can be resilient, expressing different flavors and aromas based on where they grow.  And while they can deliver solidly good wines when they’re bottled on their own, they’re wonderful blending agents, too, often elevating the imbibing experience simply by cohabitating. 

It’s enough to keep Schaffer infatuated – his word.  “I’ll never get bored working with Rhone wines,” he says.  It’s also enough to make consumer education a priority.  And tasting is lesson one.

For tickets to Monday’s Santa Barbara Rhone Rangers event, click here.

For more information on Tercero and its Los Olivos tasting room, check out tercerowines.com.


Wine Review: Rusack Vineyards Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2015

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Winemaker Steve Gerbac runs a fantastic chardonnay program at Rusack, with bottlings that represent several prime Santa Barbara County locations – and even Catalina Island!

At under $30, this delicious chard is one of best values around, especially when you consider its pedigree: this all-Santa Maria Valley white is 28% Sierra Madre fruit and 72% grapes from the world-famous Bien Nacido Vineyard.  Barrel fermented and aged for 10 months in mostly-neutral French oak barrels, this is a layered, structured, sophisticated chardonnay that also delivers a ringing acidity and quenching flavors of pears, apples and citrus.

Open this wine in the afternoon and enjoy a glass while reclining in the grass and reading your favorite guilty-pleasure magazine, along with some dates and nuts.  Finish off the bottle at twilight, as you prepare dinner and munch on cheese and salad fixings, and as you watch the sky’s daytime glow soften into evening.

  • Label: Rusack Vineyards Chardonnay
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Source: Santa Barbara County
  • Winemaker: Steve Gerbac
  • Alcohol: 14.4%
  • Price: $28

Find out more about Rusack Vineyards at rusack.com.


Review: Fess Parker Winery Syrah 2013

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

This month marked seven years since Fess Parker passed away, and I still fondly remember doing one of his very last sit-down interviews.  We spent time in the lobby of his namesake DoubleTree hotel, along Santa Barbara's waterfront, discussing family, business and wine.  And we sipped, too.  His favorite -- syrah.

Fess Parker Winery's 2013 Santa Barbara County syrah is a delicious balance of brawn and beauty.  There's certainly muscle here: it's inky, full-bodied and extracted.  It's meaty on the palate, with big flavors of blackberries, plums, mocha, pepper and earth.  But winemaker Blair Fox and his team have also achieved finesse and elegance here, with a potpourri of herb aromas, a buxom mouth feel and a silky finish.

Made with Santa Ynez Valley fruit -- a 62-38 combo of Rodney's Vineyard (estate) fruit and Camp 4 fruit -- this wine saw almost two years in (mostly neutral) French oak barrels. It's the perfect inspiration for your favorite home-recipe lamb kabobs or medium-rare burgers.  Or just sip while chomping on a big chunk of aged cheddar.

  • Label: Fess Parker Winery Syrah
  • Vintage: 2013
  • Source: Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County
  • Winemaker: Blair Fox
  • Alcohol: 14.9%
  • Price: $30 

Find out more about Fess Parker Winery at fessparker.com.

Also, the Parker family is about to launch its brand new restaurant in Los Olivos, The Bear and Star; read my preview story here.


Review: La Voix “Here and Heaven" Chardonnay 2015

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/16/17

Know someone who’s sworn off drinking white? Want to change their minds? Pour them this!

You know winemaker Steve Clifton from the world-class Brewer-Clifton pinots he crafts with Greg Brewer and the wonderful Italian varietal wines he makes under the Palmina label.  Clifton’s pet project, La Voix (which is French for, “The Voice”), is his first solo effort focused on French varietals.  And this chardonnay does, in fact, sing!

It’s vibrant, electric and racy! The aromas are radiant – oranges and herbs.  And the flavors of tangerines, cantaloupe and honey are as lively as they are generous. 

This is a melody about a special place for sure – the John Sebastiano Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, where clay and limestone, and a relentless ocean breeze, enhance each note.  But any memorable song is a testament to the performer’s talent, and Clifton proves with this wine that he really knows how to carry a tune.

  • Label: La Voix “Here and Heaven" Chardonnay
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Winemaker: Steve Clifton
  • Source: John Sebastiano Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
  • Alcohol: 13.5%
  • Price: $55

Find out more about La Voix at lavoixwinery.com.


Review: Area 5.1 "Equinox" 2015

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/16/17 

Kalyra’s outer space-inspired sister label, Area 5.1, has one of the most buzz-worthy tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone.  That’s where I met up with winemaker Martin Brown recently to taste through their blends.

They’re all blends here – unorthodox blends, mainly – with galactic-like names like Close Encounter (grenache blanc, albarino, rousanne, verdelho and loureiro) and Conspiracy Red (merlot, cabernet and syrah).

The Equinox really impressed – a 50-50 blend of chardonnay and riesling that delivers floral and citrus notes on the nose and tastes super refreshing.  The chard imparts a juicy, structured mouth feel that takes off with Riesling-inspired acidity and flavors of lychee.  This wine is easy to drink, so it’ll go quickly, especially if you share it while hanging by the pool, waiting for the shrimp-and-veggie skewers to come off the grill.

  • Label: Area 5.1 Equinox
  • Vintage: 2015
  • Source: Santa Barbara County
  • Alcohol: 13.5%
  • Price: $24

Find out more about Area 5.1 at  www.a51wines.com. 

I wrote about Area 5.1 in early 2014, shortly after the tasting room opened; read about it here.


The Table is Set: Parker Family Announces Opening of New Restaurant

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

Siblings Ashley Parker Snider and Eli Parker are bringing a slice of Texas to Santa Barbara wine country.  Their new restaurant, The Bear and Star, will feature refined ranch cuisine inside the family’s Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos.  Doors will open in mid-April.

“The food is going to be fantastic,” Ashley Parker told me this week.  “It’s not a barbecue joint, it’s not a steakhouse.  We’ve been calling it family recipes with a twist, or re-envisioned.”

The Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos
The Bear and Star is, in fact, a tip of the (cowboy) hat to the family’s late patriarch in more ways than one.  The Star is an homage to Fess Parker’s native Texas; he was born in Ft. Worth and raised in San Angelo.  The Bear refers to Fess Parker’s adopted state of California, where he’d gain fame in film and television by portraying both Davy Crockett in the 1960s and Daniel Boone in the 1960s.  Mr. Parker became a cherished member of the Santa Barbara community, too, where he established Fess Parker Winery in the mid-1980s and spearheaded multiple hospitality and development projects.

The cuisine at The Bear and Star will be intrinsically connected to the 700-acre family estate nearby, along Foxen Canyon Road, where much of the food will be sourced.  There, the family raises dozens of Wagyu cattle that are often fed with the pomace byproduct of the family winery.  The property is also home to chickens, quail, rabbits, pigs, and bees, as well as heirloom fruits and organic vegetables.

Chef Jojn Cox (credit: Kodiak Greenwood)
“Connecting the restaurant to our family ranch is something we’ve always dreamed about,” says Eli Parker.

“It’s all about synergy,” adds Ashley.

At the helm of the kitchen will be Chef John Cox, a Texas native who formerly led the Sierra Mar culinary team at the deluxe Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.  His team will include Santa Barbara native Chef Jeremy Tummel and Sous Chef Trent Shank.  Andrew Scherer has been named general manager.

The restaurant is divided in to four distinct environments, including a Chef’s Room for classes and private dining groups and a Wine Room for special events.  The Bar & Lounge opens to an airy terrace along Grand Avenue, where breakfast, brunch and lunch will be served.  The 50-seat Dining Room, decked out in oversize chairs and velvet banquettes, will welcome guests in the evening.

The Bear and Star's smoker (credit: John Cox)
The crux of Chef Cox’s cooking will be performed on the Parker family’s newly acquired 30-foot, reverse-flow Texas smoker.  “It’s the neatest thing – it’s like a mobile kitchen,” says Ashley Parker.  The self-contained wood-fire kitchen houses a Big Green Egg barbecue, pizza oven, sink with running water, onboard refrigeration and lighting.

The Bear and Star is, in many ways, a return to their roots for the Parker siblings.  The family ran the space as Restaurant Marcella for many years before it was leased to restaurateur Petros Benekos in 2008.  Petros Restaurant closed last summer (although three sister eateries, including one in Santa Barbara, remain).

Regaining control with The Bear and Star will allow the Parkers to better manage it in concert with the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, as well as bolster the AAA 4-Diamond hotel’s room service and poolside service.  Adds Ashley, “Guests will have a more cohesive experience overall.”

For more information, keep an eye on thebearandstar.com.


Retro Tasting: Hitching Post Dinner to Feature 11 Older Vintages

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/2/17 

Frank Ostini’s latest stroll down memory lane is speckled with oversize bottles.

“We’re not getting any younger, and neither are our wines,” the man behind Buellton’s Hitching Post II Restaurant and Hartley-Ostini wine label told me this week.  “So let’s enjoy them!  I mean, we do hoard these things forever sometimes, and they do have a finite life – they do start to fade at some point,” he continued, adding, teasingly, “Just like us!”

A simple premise, actually: that the present is as good a time as any to drink something special.  And it was the only excuse he and winemaking partner Gray Hartley needed to revisit 11 of their earliest vintages, one big bottle at a time.

A special retrospective dinner featuring 1991 through 2001 vintage wines by Harley-Ostini is slated for this weekend.  It’s part of World of Pinot Noir, or WOPN, which returns to Goleta’s Bacara Resort & Spa for its 17th run.  The two-day affair, which highlights Burgundy’s most famous red grape and brings together wine experts and consumers from all over the world, features tastings, seminars and dinners.  Ostini (one of the founding members of WOPN) and Hartley will host their throwback feast on Saturday night, March 4th, with most wines poured from a variety of large format bottles.  The cost is $120, with seating limited to just 65 people.

“The wonderful thing about wine is that every bottle will be its own experience,” says Ostini.  “Is every single one going to show great? Well, bottles vary.”  But when so much of what’s available to the consumer are younger, forward, higher-alcohol wines, this event is “a chance for people to appreciate older flavors,” continues Ostini.

Gray Hartley, left, and Frank Ostini, along with the large-format bottles they're featuring at WOPN 2017
Several of the vintages stand out to this reminiscing winemaker.  Like 1991, which marked the launch of the Hartley-Ostini pinot noirs.  “That was Santa Maria Valley, a blend of Bien Nacido and Sierra Madre fruit,” recalls Ostini.  The wines were made at the Au Bon Climat/Qupe winery back then (before the label moved operations to Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria in 2001 and then to Terravant Winery in Buellton in 2008).

Ostini remembers 1994 fondly, too, “because that was renowned as a very good vintage” in Santa Barbara County.  And 1995, for what that year’s Santa Maria Valley blend became.  “That wine was pretty weird when it was young, it had a stink about it,” he recalls.  It turns out, though, that the pungent smell was the byproduct of an effective preservative, “so it has actually evolved into this fresh and young-like wine today in a wonderful way.  I mean – it’s 22 years old!”

Ostini happens to like what age does to pinot – a funkiness sometimes develops that imparts unique flavors and smells, and that make it uniquely delicious.  That’s why several older vintages are always available at his Buellton steakhouse, like a 2000 vintage pinot offered by the glass and a 1997 pinot poured out of magnums.  But for those who prefer newer, fresher wines – and for the sake of age-inspired comparison – younger bottles from the 2006 and 2014 vintages will also be featured at Saturday night’s dinner.  Throw in that quintessential Hitching Post II barbecue experience – Santa Maria-style wood fire-grilled meats and vegetables – and this nostalgic culinary journey may well be the one WOPN event not to miss.

“We’re really in awe – that we’re able to turn grapes into a beverage, and we put them into bottles, and that fruit can be preserved for so long,” says Ostini.  “Fruit integrity doesn’t die over time.  It evolves.  But wine does not die.  And to be able to feature these older flavors and aromas is special to us.”

For more information on this and all WOPN events, check out www.wopn.com.

For more information on the Hitching Post II and Hartley-Ostini Wines, go to www.hitchingpost2.com.