Mexican Dining, Elevated: Santo Mezcal Opens on Santa Barbara’s Lower State Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BREAKING: Brewer-Clifton Now Part of Jackson Family Wines

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
posted 5/18/17

Winemaker Greg Brewer (Bob Dickey photo)
In a deal expected to close on Friday, May 19, Jackson Family Wines is acquiring Santa Barbara’s celebrated wine label, Brewer-Clifton. Financial details have not been disclosed. Winemaker Greg Brewer spoke with me from his office in Lompoc today about this deal, which will bring Brewer-Clifton under the umbrella of one of the biggest beverage companies in the world. Here are some excerpts from our chat:
  • “I am honored to be their sole voice now in the Sta. Rita Hills, and I think this is a huge showing of confidence for the evolution of the appellation."
  • "They’ve stated, under no uncertain terms, that they want me to continue to do what I’ve always done. They have a multitude of other wine brands, with their own spot in the marketplace, so their reason to purchase Brewer-Clifton is -- they want it to remain as is."
  • “This means an infusion of marketing, outreach and exposure for the brand. We’ll now have a tremendous amount of resources at our disposal. It’s a different scale – they have networks and infrastructure that few other people do, so I’m excited to be part of this system now."
  • “There’s tremendous momentum now in the Sta. Rita Hills, the future is bright. This deal furthers opportunities to grow our market awareness, not just for me, but largely for the appellation. There are many corners of the world that have not tapped into Sta. Rita Hills, and knowing there’s more in the marketing and publicity side of things to get further exposure is exciting.”

Brewer-Clifton was founded in 1996 by Brewer and friend Steve Clifton, though Mr. Clifton was bought out of the partnership within the last two years. The label produces what are considered some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay wines out of Santa Barbara County, if not the entire state of California. It sources fruit exclusively from four estate vineyards that comprise a total of 60 acres.
Brewer-Clifton currently produces about 12,000 cases of wine a year, a number Mr. Brewer plans to grow.

The deal also includes acquisition of Diatom, a project Mr. Brewer launched in 2005 to focus exclusively on crisp, stainless steel-fermented chardonnay.

In a statement, Jackson Family Wines chair Barbara Banke said, “I’ve long been impressed with the purity and intensity of these wines. Brewer-Clifton strengthens our portfolio of singular, site-specific chardonnay and pinot noir, while complementing our offerings from the nearby Santa Maria Valley,” where the company owns Cambria and Byron.

More to come...


Pioneer to Retire: Ken Volk Selling Legendary Santa Barbara Co. Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/11/17

As he heads into his 40th vintage as a Central Coast winemaker, Ken Volk is calling it quits.

“It’s driven by my health,” Mr. Volk, 59, says of a decision that is, really, bittersweet.  The well-known winemaker is still reeling from the effects of a significant stroke three years ago, which affected the part of his brain that control the optic nerves, inducing a wandering blind spot.  He had a knee replaced last week.  And, along with recent bouts with epilepsy, he may be seeing the early onset of Parkinson ’s disease.

“Not being able to drive, not having the stamina I used to have – it makes it pretty hard to play in the wine business,” he says.

Vintner Ken Volk at harvest
Volk’s impact on California winemaking has been, however, a tour de force.  It began in the mid-1970s, with fruit science studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and harvest work at Edna Valley Vineyards.  In 1981, he founded Wile Horse Winery, a label that would become one of the most recognizable on the Central Coast, and a venture that would grow to 200,000 cases a year before he sold it to a division of Jim Beam Brands in 2003.  His move into Santa Barbara County followed when, in late 2004, he bought a legendary vineyard.

The original Byron Vineyard was founded by winemaker Ken Brown and partners that included famed grower Dale Hampton.  Located in the northeastern portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA, and at the mouth of Tepesquet Canyon along Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the sprawling 12-acre property was acquired by Robert Mondavi in 1994.  Mr. Volk purchased it, and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards, 12 years ago.

The tasting room on Ken Volk Vineyards
As part of his retirement, Mr. Volk is putting his namesake winery and vineyard on the market.  A decades’ worth of upgrades and infrastructure improvements by Mr. Volk include a plumbing overhaul and improved crushing equipment.  The turn-key operation includes a tasting room, a winery with a 25,000-case capacity and a four-acre vineyard of what’s easily considered world-class pinot noir and chardonnay.  There are also native gardens, event facilities and a commercial kitchen.  Represented by real estate broker Jenny Heinzen (who helped Mr. Volk sell Wild Horse), the property is being offered at $3.7 million and the entire business -- including label and wine inventory -- for $5.5 million at

“In a perfect world, I sell the vineyard and the brand as a package,” says Mr. Volk, who's open to maintaining, at least in the short term, his label.  “I do plan on bringing in fruit this year, and crushing,” he says, “just very scaled back from what I’ve been doing.”

I asked Volk what he’ll miss most of a career four decades in the making, and in a region that’s seen the number of producers explode along the way.  “The viticulture side,” he answers quickly, fessing up to a genuine love for grapes, especially under-appreciated grapes.  “Pinot noir and chardonnay pay the bills, and they’re popular because they’ve proven they can make interesting wines around the world,” he says.  “But if I could go back, I’d go back to school, and I’d do analysis, and I’d study to better understand lesser-known grape varieties and where they came from.  The fact we’re now able to follow the DNA trail and the alpha protein trails of grapes, we can really see what’s related to what.”  He pauses, and then adds, with a chuckle, “Yeah, it’s kind of goofy.”

The Volk chardonnay selected for Pope Francis's U.S. visit in 2015
Over the years, Mr. Volk has served on a variety of grape grower alliances and advisory councils on the Central Coast.  He’s also received myriad accolades, including Winemaker of the Year from Wine & Spirits Magazine and Wine Industry Person of the Year from the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association.  He also made news two years ago, when his chardonnay was selected for Pope Francis’ flight into New York City during his U.S. visit, which Volk described as, “a nice surprise for my company.”

The father of two children, ages 30 and 26, Volk lives with his wife in San Luis Obispo. Find out more about Kenneth Volk Vineyards at


There’s Food, Too: Santa Barbara’s Longest Running Wine Festival Expands Focus

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

There’s a new wine festival in town.  OK, not new.  In fact, the annual wine fete that takes over the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is the longest running festival of its kind in our area.  But this year – the year that marks its 30th anniversary – this hugely popular gathering is changing its name, and expanding its focus.  Welcome to the Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival.

For those of us who love wine, what was formerly the Santa Barbara Wine Festival has always been a standout, and for several reasons.  The setting, for sure, since the museum’s grounds, behind the Old Mission, are simply lovely.  Straddling stony Mission Creek and speckled with towering oaks, rustic bridges and meandering dirt paths, this is a nature lover’s oasis.  The festival also takes place in June, so the weather is perfect – sun-drenched and warm.  The crowd, which usually numbers about 1000 enthusiasts, is always in a dependably amiable mood.  And then there are the stars themselves: the wines and the women and men who made them.

The museum's bucolic grounds
This has, actually, always been a sort of who’s who of Santa Barbara winemaking.  Many of this area’s wine pioneers have poured at this festival themselves – not winery reps – from day one.  Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, Ken Brown, Fred Brander, Doug Margerum, among others. 

Richard Sanford once told me he favors this festival because, “I love connecting with the season here.” 

Drake Whitcraft once said he remembers coming to this festival each year with his dad – the late, great Chris Whitcraft, one of this event’s founding fathers –and going off to play in the creek nearby, “until I was old enough to pour.” 

They pour every year: winemakers Graham Tatomer, Drake Whitcraft and Richard Sanford
Most of these winemakers claim their favorite pouring spot year after year, and they regard the audience for whom they pour as advocates both for their own pet projects and for the Santa Barbara region as a whole.

On this 30th anniversary of Santa Barbara’s namesake wine festival, none of this changes.  The cast of characters remains – expands each year, actually, as new producers are carefully hand-picked and invited to come and wow with their liquid creations.  The 50-or-so wineries featured this year include the very best: Foxen, Kalyra, Zaca Mesa, Tercero, Palmina, Municipal Winemakers, Blair Fox, Fess Parker, Melville, Longoria, Tatomer, and so on, and so on.

But there’s something new afoot.  Food is getting top billing now, too.  Sure, there have always been nibbles and bites to enjoy along the way.  But the caliber of the culinary purveyors has grown to mirror the collection of their winemaking counterparts.  So the festival is changing names to reflect that – the Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival.

More than 30 of our area’s top restaurants, caterers and purveyors will be there this year.  I’m looking forward to seeing many of my friends, like Bob Oswaks of Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos and Michael Hutchings of Michael’s Catering in Santa Barbara.  Some of your own tried-and-true fave eateries will be there, too: Tre Lune, Industrial Eats, Via Maestra 42, Brophy Bros. and Finch & Fork.  And if you haven’t visited the new, exciting, buzzed-about kitchens in town, then this is your chance: Barbareño, Loquita, Pico, Helena Avenue Bakery and Freezer Monkeys will be there, too.

Well beyond recognizing the extent and caliber of the event’s food offerings, the name change just makes sense.  Wine and food are meant to be savored together, they complement each other like nothing else, they are the ultimate match – simple as that.  And it’s clever marketing, since the expanded focus now targets a wider audience – people who might like to drink but who love to eat.  It expands its appeal.  And so the new moniker has the real potential to not only strengthen festival attendance but to grow the funds it raises as well.

In fact, that’s another thing that won’t change about this festival, no matter what you call it.  The money raised by this event – $85,000 last year and a $93,000 goal this year – pays to enlighten and inspire and educate school kids from throughout the state.  More than 40,000 students a year come here to spend the day with docents, scientists and curators, to study exhibits hands-on and run the grounds, and to become engaged in the world of natural history.  It’s one of our community’s truly great outreach causes.

The 30th annual Santa Barbara Wine & Food Festival takes place Saturday, June 24th, from 2-5pm.  Tickets are $100, or $75 for museum members.  For $125, upgrade to the VIP Lounge and get early admission and several culinary perks.  There’s no auction at this festival, but bring extra cash for the Every Cork Wins raffle: pay $40, pull a cork, and win a guaranteed prize valued at least $40 (some go as high as $400).  Buy tickets through the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website,