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,