Seaside Sipping: Tasting Series at “The Biltmore” Focuses on Santa Barbara Locals

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Rachel Rock

Update 7/21/17: Here's the link for the upcoming Summer Tasting Series events

“I wanted to do this for the locals,” says Koji Akaboshi. The Food & beverage Director at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is telling me about the Summer Tasting Series, which is back by popular demand this summer. The lineup of luxe sip-and-graze events combines luxury and fun, and it gives visitors unique access in more ways than one.

The second annual series, which will host three more events through September, is actually part of a refreshing renaissance of the Biltmore food scene. New executive chef Marco Fossati is improving menus, libations are being invented, restaurants are being reinvented – and a movement to reintroduce this legendary resort to its neighbors is definitely on. One of Akaboshi’s contributions has been these monthly Friday-night tasting experiences, held throughout the resort and featuring quality brands.
June's POP! Bubbles event was a sell-out
“I wanted to get away from the traditional sit-down wine dinner, which doesn’t always allow guests to speak casually with winemakers and purveyors,” Akaboshi says. “These tastings are meant to be more accessible, less stuffy and formal, and to give guests the chance to meet with local producers.”
May's event focused on bourbon
This summer’s series kicked off in May with “Master Distillers,” which paired local vodka and bourbon with house-made pastas, signature seafood dishes and dry-aged carpaccio, and which allowed guests to mingle with distillers. This month’s “Pop! Bubbles”—a sell-out – showcased high-end rosé sparkling wines from around the globe, along with oysters chucked to order.
Each of these classy gatherings is held at a unique locale throughout the Biltmore’s opulent 22 acres – a chance for the resort to showcase its various dining rooms, outdoor spaces and event venues. “These are locations usually reserved for weddings or private events,” says Akaboshi, “so it allows guests to discover new spaces and see something totally different.” On July 21, for example, the “Red, White & Brew” tasting will takes place on the Monte Vista Lawn, a lush garden with sweeping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains; a gourmet barbecue will accompany seven local breweries, including Telegraph, Island and Brass Bear.
On August 11th, the resort puts on the Ferragosto Festival, celebrating a bevy of local Italian white wine varieties and an Italian-inspired fritto misto bar; guests will get a rare chance to descend on the oceanfront Coral Casino, with its famous million-dollar views. And on September 22nd, the series culminates with a Harvest Crush on the hotel’s Palmera Garden, an intimate lawn decked out in flagrant flowers and shady palm trees; Santa Barbara winemakers will pour to celebrate the 2017 vintage while resort chefs take on a traditional pig roast.
May's bourbon tasting also featured Chef Fossati's dry-aged carpaccio
Akaboshi, who’s been at the Montecito property for two years and has worked at nine different Four Seasons resorts over the last 20 years, is looking to make the Summer Tasting Series a model for Biltmore events moving forward. “Fun, relevant and approachable, but high quality at the same time,” he says. And he put the spotlight back on locals, who present an ongoing and germane opportunity for a landmark resort like this to grow its clientele.
“They are fans of these winemakers, brewers and distillers, and fans of these local products,” he says. “By bringing them together here, it reminds them what a great spot this is to host an event, have dinner or just hang out and have a drink.”
The views come standard.
Each event is priced at $78, or bundle the remaining three events in the Summer Tasting Series for a discounted $187. Call 805-565-8232 for tickets. And check out
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Wine Industry Shakeup: Leader of Santa Barbara's Largest Winery Group Steps Down

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 6/22/17
photos by Tenley Fohl and Allison Levine

The head of the Santa Barbara wine industry’s most influential group is stepping down. Morgen McLaughlin has been Executive Director at Santa Barbara Vintners since 2013. After she leaves her post in mid-July, she’ll become Executive Director at the Willamette Valley Wineries Association in Oregon.
Ms. McLaughlin’s impact on the organization that’s an advocate for the majority of Santa Barbara’s wineries – 130 out of the county’s 200 – is undeniable. Some of the changes she drove were small, but important: the group’s relatively new moniker, for example – Santa Barbara Vintners – replaced its more cumbersome predecessor, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association. Ms. McLaughlin also pushed for increased training of member wineries in areas like hospitality and responsible beverage service, as well as increased engagement between the local wine industry and Santa Barbara government officials.
Morgen McLaughlin (Fohl photo)
Her greatest strides were, perhaps, in the group’s never-ending effort to increase the visibility of local wine, both domestically and internationally. “Santa Barbara County deserves to be considered as a top wine region in the world,” Ms. McLaughlin said in an exclusive interview this week with the News-Press. “To be a player on that stage, you have to think worldly.”
To that end, she helped spawn a slew of road trip opportunities for Santa Barbara wineries. Sporadic trips to Los Angeles, the holy grail drive market for Santa Barbara wineries, were marked with intimate culinary gatherings at lucrative venues throughout the city. She also took a handful of promotional trips abroad, responding to what she sees as a growing interest by international media and trade “to learn about California wine beyond Napa and Sonoma.”
She adds, “Having to increase the profitability for our tasting rooms versus having a place on the world stage – those are two very different executions. I’m happy with what we did on both those tracks.”
But Ms. McLaughlin’s most vivid memories from her years in Santa Barbara may well be the roadblocks. “The job and its challenges were much greater than I expected,” admits Ms. McLaughlin, 44, who points the finger at local politics and overly aggressive land use restrictions that are squelching the Santa Barbara wine country experience.
“On the surface, the job seems easy,” she says. “This region in one of most well-known parts of the world. You travel, and people salivate when you mention Santa Barbara. You’ve got an amazing location, perfect weather, and wines that run the gamut of style. You think it’s a very easy story to tell. But then you quickly realize how restricted wineries are in land use.”
Indeed, county rules governing development by wineries have long been famously obstructive in Santa Barbara. When winemaker Michael Larner finally won approval last month to build a winery and tasting room on his Ballard Canyon property, for example, it was only after a contentious and expensive seven-year fight. Lawmakers and filibustering neighbors point to issues like traffic and noise while winemakers and advocates like Ms. McLaughlin point to other wine regions’ far less restrictive rubrics. The result? A wine country experience defined mainly by tasting rooms – clustered tasting-only venues in Los Olivos and downtown Santa Barbara, for example – rather than wine estates.
“You can’t remain competitive on the world stage, and you can’t attract serious wine drinkers and connoisseurs, by just having a tasting room-only model,” insists Ms. McLaughlin. “They want to experience a winery, vineyards, dinners in a barrel room – touch and feel! And you have to have a pipeline of new projects.
“The wine industry has not been able to get people into elected office who really understand wine and tourism and agriculture, and the intersection of it all. Until that mentality can evolve, having someone like myself onboard is simply not the best utilization of my skills.”
Ms. McLaughlin also laments the absence of a county tourism office in Santa Barbara.
“You have all these smaller tourism groups – Visit Santa Barbara, Visit Santa Ynez Valley, Visit Santa Maria, Solvang, Buellton, Lompoc – each with their own marketing, board, budget,” she says. “Each plays a part but they’re doing it individually. For Santa Barbara to be competitive against Paso Robles and Sonoma and Napa… they have to pool money to be used collectively and to deliver a cohesive message to the consumer. I spent 2-1/2 years trying to bring these respective associations together and to agree to fund a significant investment in wine tourism, but I wasn’t able to get it done. Until that happens, we’re going to continue to see low visitor numbers."
Ms. McLaughlin points to data released just this month by Silicon Valley Bank and Wine Business Monthly that tracked monthly tasting room visitation numbers throughout the U.S. for 2016 and that put Santa Barbara second to last among California regions, just ahead of Mendocino. Paso Robles’ numbers, at 1342 visitors per month, nearly doubled Santa Barbara’s 751 (and rivaled Napa County’s 1497).  To be fair, Paso and Napa are larger than Santa Barbara, and they have more tasting rooms. “But we’re 100 miles from eight million people,” says Ms. McLaughlin, referencing L.A. “We should be leading in visitation numbers. The Santa Barbara caché is just not being tapped.”
Morgen McLaughlin, left, speaks during a 2016 pinot noir trade event at L.A.'s Republique, as winemakers like Palmina's Steve Clifton, Fess Parker's  Blair Fox and Alma Rosa's Richard Sanford look on (Levine photo)
As she turns her sights on Oregon and the 230 wineries she’ll be representing, Ms. McLaughlin’s excitement hinges a lot on how the Willamette Valley is different. “They don’t have land use restrictions. Not to say that as the region grows they won’t be faced by that, but right now they have responsible growth and wineries are able to get permits and host guests,” she says.
“And the focus on pinot noir is refreshing,” she adds. The popular red wine is the most widely planted grape by far in the Willamette Valley, which stretches from Portland in the north to Eugene in the south, and which grows 80% of all the wine in Oregon. “It is, first and foremost, a pinot noir region.” Santa Barbara, on the other hand, while also a coveted pinot noir site, lays claim to growing many other varieties well, too. And while diversity is an interesting story to tell, it’s not an easy one to market.
Ms. McLaughlin will be moving to Portland with her husband, wine distributor Nathaniel Smith, and the youngest of their three sons, who’ll be starting high school in the fall.
Matt Murphy, President of the Santa Barbara Vintners Board, says that “while I am sorry to see Morgen go, I could not be happier for her to have the opportunity to lead another world class wine growing region.”
Mr. Murphy says the Board is focused now on filling the Executive Director position, which is garnering “intense interest from people all over the country,” according to Ms. McLaughlin.
“One of the primary headwinds facing our local wine industry is a challenging regulatory environment, including, but not limited to, restrictive land use polices, limiting growth of the Santa Barbara County wine industry,” says Mr. Murphy. “One of the core competencies of the next Executive Director of our association will be to build on our association's successes combatting these regulations and advocating on our behalf at the city and county levels of government.”

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Pet Project: Liquid Farm Winemaker Launches Own Kings Carey Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/17

The newest player in the Santa Barbara wine scene in someone who, actually, has already made a significant mark in it.  James Sparks has been winemaker for the celebrated Liquid Farm label since 2009, crafting beautiful chardonnays that combine fruit from multiple vineyards as a way to encapsulate the Sta. Rita Hills region in each bottle; the about-to-be-released 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay, a blend of six vineyards, is floral and racy. Liquid Farm recently expanded into pinot noir production, too.
But Sparks’ Kings Carey wines are totally new, with the first three bottlings just now hitting the marketplace.  “It can be challenging, finding that balance,” Sparks says of juggling his full-time gig at Liquid Farm with his pet project. But the focus of Kings Carey is precise – grenache only, for now – as a way to both eliminate competition and explore something totally personal.
Sparks’ foray into winemaking is relatively new, itself -- and fascinating, when you consider his background. One of a dozen children raised in rural Idaho, Sparks, 41, left the Mormon religion a little over a decade ago – a totally new way of life, and an introduction to the world of alcohol consumption and creation. His brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, now became an important connection; a former employee at an L.A. wine shop, he’d helped found Dragonette Cellars in 2005, and as the label began its quick climb to becoming one of Santa Barbara’s premiere boutique wine labels, it also became James’ foot in the door.
Serendipity is a powerful thing. But there’s no denying Sparks’ own knack, which saw him transitioning as assistant winemaker at Dragonette to winemaker at Liquid Farm within a year. Just a handful of vintages later, his presence and influence established, Kings Carey becomes Spark's next chapter.
Interestingly, the label’s name pays homage, in part, to Sparks’ upbringing; he hails from Carey, Idaho, a river valley ag town with a population of about 600. “Kings” is a tip of the hat to Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, a marketing whiz from Kings Point, on New York’s Long Island. The pair lives in Solvang with their beautiful three-year-old daughter, Bea.
“Why grenache?” I ask him as we sit and sip. The Kings Carey launch features a 2016 Rosé of grenache, a 2015 Sta. Rita Hills grenache and a 2014 Santa Ynez Valley grenache. I ask him, in part, because word on the street is that grenache, like syrah and other Rhone wines, is a hard sell.
“I want to do what I like, first and foremost,” he says.
Grenache also allows him to explore a new winemaking avenue: whereas Liquid Farm is a study in blends, Kings Carey sheds the spotlight on single varietals and single vineyards, with a push for minimal manipulation and lower alcohols.
The 2016 Rosé ($20) is fresh and juicy, with floral aromas and red berry flavors that scream afternoon sipping. “I love café,” says the winemaker. “It can go with almost anything, from salads to burgers.” The fruit comes from Brick Barn Vineyard, located in the warmer stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.
The 2014 and 2015 reds reveal what grenache can do in cooler environs. Their source is the same: the renowned John Sebastiano Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. But remember the contentious battle a few years ago to expand the boundaries of SRH? This vineyard featured prominently in this fight. Before the feds' approval of the expansion, most of it lived within the AVA, with a small portion spilling into a zone that had to be identified more broadly as Santa Ynez Valley. The 2014 Kings Carey grenache was bottled before the SRH borders were stretched, which requires Sparks to use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA moniker on his label. By the time the 2015 wines were put in bottle, he had the federal government’s blessing to label it, officially, Sta. Rita Hills.
No matter what it says on the label, though, these wines are awesome, although distinct. The 2015 Grenache ($29), harvested a bit earlier in the season, is more youthful, with tangy red berries on the nose and bouncy mouth feel. A lunch red, if you will, or a red you can easily sip as the sun goes down on a warm summer’s day. My favorite, the 2014 Grenache ($29), was picked a bit later and exhibits more depth – more earthy – with red currants, oak, white pepper and even a dab of cocoa, and a luscious finish. More of an evening meal wine, perhaps. Both grenache wines are about 13.5% alcohol and are drinkable now, though they exhibit wonderful aging potential, too.
Another standout element here? The Kings Carey labels, which feature black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphia-based artist Hawk Krall. The hand-drawn images pop and have a hip, urban vibe. Touching again on grenache’s marketplace challenges, Mrs. Sparks, the branding pro, says, “It speaks to the millennial audience that we’re after.”
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