Santa Barbara's Biggest Wine Party of the Spring: Vintners Festival Returns

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Bob Dickey
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/12/18

Santa Barbara’s biggest wine party of spring is just days away. Santa Barbara Vintners, the group that represents more than 100 local wineries and vineyards, is hosting its 36th annual wine fete on Saturday, April 21st at sprawling River Park in Lompoc. Free-flowing world-class wine aside, here are five reasons to be among the 2000 thirsty revelers who’ll be there.
The Bubbles
The Bubble Lounge is new this year – a dedicated spot to all things fizzy! In a few short years, Santa Barbara has seen sparkling wine production soar, with some of the area’s top labels, like Riverbench, Lucas & Lewellen and Alma Rosa, cranking out bubbly yearly. The Bubble Lounge will be an effervescent oasis – a great way to cleanse the palate throughout the afternoon.
The Food
Wine lovers are food lovers, so the culinary spin to this festival is always a crowd pleaser. In fact, at some of the area’s most popular gastronomic hangouts, be ready to wait in line. More than 30 local restaurants, chefs and purveyors will be doling out edible treats, and look for some of the region’s top farmers to be serving up their in-season organic fare.
Frank Ostini, chef/winemaker
The Stages
This year’s festival will feature not one, but two stages. One will add to the event’s epicurean appeal, hosting several cooking demonstrations. The other stage will host The Bryan Titus Trio, a band known for its modern take on bluegrass. Toe-tapping to their high-spirited tunes is a great way to take breaks and pace yourself throughout the day.
The First Few This year’s event is a tip-of-the-hat to the 17 young winemakers who started it all. “No one has that ‘look at me’ mentality, it was about ‘look at us,’” remembers Qupe vintner Bob Lindquist in a recent interview with Santa Barbara Vintners. The first Vintners Festival took place in 1983 at Mission Santa Ines in Solvang, with the goal of raising enough money to print a wine trail map; with 500 tickets up for grabs, it was a sellout. And today, it’s one of the longest-running wine festivals in the country. Look for many of those original 17 winemakers –Lindquist, along with Jim Clendenen, Ken Brown and Richard Sanford, among others – at the April 21st event.

Norm Yost, winemaker
The First Responders
More than 8500 firefighters from 10 states descended on our area in December when the largest wildfire in California history roared through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The debris flow in Montecito a few weeks later showcased first responder heroism all over again. In gratitude, the Festival includes a First Responder Invitational, which allows members of the community to buy a ticket for a firefighter or police officer to attend the festival. The goal: at least 100 first responders in attendance.
Please enjoy this festival to the max, but please enjoy it responsibly. Bus transportation from Santa Barbara, Solvang or Buellton begins at $30 and non- drinking tickets for designated drivers and kids (ages six to 20) are $25. General admission to Saturday’s Grand Tasting is $70 and the five-day Vintners’ Visa Weekend Pass, which gets you complimentary tastings at 12 wineries of your choice all weekend long, costs $50; do the combo for $100. Check out
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In a Flash, and Flashy: Montecito’s New Frankland’s Crab & Co. Raises Bar on Food Served Fast

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Yasmin Alishav and Jakob Layman
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/12/18

To hear Chef Philip Frankland Lee describe his Buttered Maine Lobster Sandwich is simply mouthwatering.
“We use a five-pound live Maine lobster that’s flow in, we keep it live on ice, we steam it live, then pull the meat out, chop up the whole lobster and then chill it,” he says.
Chef Lee’s wife, Margarita Kallas-Lee, makes the butter on the stovetop, and she folds in the cracked lobster shells to infuse flavor. She also makes the brioche bread, which is griddled on the outside to keep the inside soft and dressed with homemade cocktail sauce. Lobster meat goes on, along with the warm butter, lemon juice, shaved iceberg lettuce and plenty of Mr. Frankland’s proprietary seasoning salt.
“We close it up, put a pair of toothpicks in it and then cut it in half,” the chef concludes. “It’s inspired by the way I like to eat lobster. We just make the whole thing into a sandwich and make it killer.”
No wonder, then, that this sandwich has become the number one seller at Frankland’s Crab & Co., the brand new and much-anticipated street-front eatery at the Montecito Inn. Opening day was April 6th, and the restaurant’s been buzzing ever since. "Jam-packed, busier than we expected, and we expected to be busy,” admits the chef. “The community has been incredibly supportive.”
On expectation alone, Frankland’s was bound to launch big. It’s the first of four dining concepts in the works for the Montecito Inn by the celeb chef couple behind LA’s Scratch Restaurants, and it was just one week away from opening day when the Montecito debris flows hit on January 9th. The hotel’s re-opening last month was, even if just emotionally, a welcomed step forward for the Santa Barbara community. Frankland’s own grand opening, even if three months behind schedule, strikes an emotive chord, too.
Chef Peter Frankland Lee (Alishav)
“We’re not just back on track,” says Chef Lee, optimistically. “As a community, we’re further than we were, and we’re keeping it growing.”
But the chef and his team are aiming to strike expectations head on, and they intend to deliver. There’s only counter service at Frankland’s Crab Co., and while the food comes out fast by design, quality prevails. “People come in here to eat, not dine. Like when you’re coming back from the beach, in sandals, and just want to pop in to grab a bite,” says Chef Lee, 31. “There are plenty of other spots up and down Coast Village Road that do the fine dining thing, they’re more proper, and they do it great. We’re a high-brow approach to low-brow cuisine.”
Dovetailing from the out-of-the-box concepts that have shaped the chef pair's Scratch eateries over the years, high-quality ingredients are sourced both locally and globally, and pretty much everything on the Frankland’s menu –from breads to sauces to pickles – is made from by hand and onsite. “We’re more like a French brigade of chefs – a team that’s trained more in a fine dining style – that happens to be doing this more approachable type of food,” says Chef Lee. “So, if you’re having a sandwich here, you’re getting the best product money can buy. And we’re making everything else ourselves, and we’re tasting everything for quality.”
The Frankland’s menu is concise, with a tip-of-the-hat to as much that’s local as possible; the “Specials” board this week has featured local spot prawns, local sea urchin and local rock crab.
Oysters and clams ($3 each) are available raw or fried, and they stay live until they’re fried to order. Steamed items are presented at market prices, including snow crab claws, king crab legs and live Maine lobster. Sides include corn on the cob, salads and potato chips, though the Frankland’s Style Fries ($8) are the star: Yukon gold potatoes sliced thin, tripled-blanched in the fryer until crispy, seasoned with Frankland’s seasoning salt, topped with a heaping ladle of homemade clam chowder, bacon, cheddar and scallions.
Sandwiches highlight a seafood variety, like the Beer Battered Branzino ($15), the Soft Shell Crab ($16) and the Lobster Grilled Cheese ($14). There’s also a Prime Angus Cheeseburger ($12). And the Breaded Chicken Breast ($13) is another early winner: Mary’s Free Range Chicken breast, butterflied, panko-crusted and fried, served on fresh brioche with spicy mayo remoulade, a multi-colored pickled slaw of cauliflower, fennel and carrots and seasoning salt. “It’s what all my chefs eat while on break,” jokes Chef Lee.
Margarita Kallas-Lee (Alishav)
There’s only one dessert on the menu – Margarita's Homemade Iced Cream Sandwich ($6) – and a handful of beverages, including housemade root beer, local draft beer by the pint or pitcher ($6/$17), a bevy of Bottles from the Minibar ($8) and Wine in a Can ($12).
In the near future, the Frankland’s team aims to provide picnic baskets to go (inside logoed Igloo coolers) and even seaside delivery. Says Chef Lee, “We’re working on a drop-off point at Butterfly Beach, where maybe people are laying out, they can order by phone, we ride down in a beach cruiser and deliver food to them on the sand!”
Three other dining concepts are in the works, including The Monarch around July, a fine dining option inside the former Montecito CafĂ© spot across the hotel driveway from Frankland’s. Margarita’s Snacks should open in the fall, a France-meets-California seaside patisserie doling out ice cream, cakes, pies, doughnuts and scones. And The Silver Bow, a super-deluxe, reservation-only, chef-led dining concept in a private alcove on the inn’s ground floor -- an experience Chef Lee predicts will be “the French Laundry of Montecito – could be welcoming guests for New Year’s Eve.
Frankland’s Crab & Co. is open seven days a week, 11am to 10pm.
Frankland’s Crab & Co. at The Montecito Inn, 1295 Coast Village Rd., Montecito. 805-845-9310.

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Time for Dessert: Italian Ex-Pat Launches Gelato Venture in Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Dan Quinajon
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/29/18

When Alessio Carnevale speaks about making gelato, he compares it to other classic food preparations that require time. “It’s like braising osso buco,” he insists. “You can’t rush it.”

And when the Italian native really wants to drive the point home that great gelato is the product of patience, his comparisons get even more vivid. “It’s like sex, actually,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “It’s more enjoyable if you take your time!”

It’s with a clear passion for classic Italian food that Mr. Carnevale, 35, just launched a new boutique dessert business in the Santa Ynez Valley, Valley Craft Gelato. His focus is on the sweet treat that’s practically part of everyday life in Italy. For Mr. Carnevale, that included working in his uncle’s parlor in the southern Italian region of Calabria. “This is where I first learned how to make gelato – in my mind, one of the best,” he recalls. “My uncle’s shop kept a regular stock of perennial favorite flavors.”

On the surface, gelato differs from ice cream in the execution: more whole milk, less cream (therefore, a product with a bit less fat); a slower churn, with air whipped in (for a denser, creamier product); and presentation at a slightly higher temperature (for a dessert experience that melts smooth in your mouth).

For Mr. Carnevale, though, there’s no real competition between gelato and ice cream. “What makes the difference is, who’s making the product? I’ve tasted great ice cream just like I’ve tasted bad gelato. If the person making it has the right passion, you’re going to get the right product.”

What really distinguishes a quality gelato, he continues, is the quality of ingredients, which generate flavors that are remarkably genuine and intense. “You buy the best bananas, and you get oranges that are perfectly ripe,” he says. “And then you let flavors ferment for several hours – six or eight hours. So many people try to make gelato so fast.”

Indeed, making a batch of gelato is a two-day process for Mr. Carnevale. Some of his ingredients are imported – “Pistachios from Italy are the best for me,” he says – the vast majority are sourced from throughout the Santa Ynez Valley, like blood oranges and figs. “I’m also using Belgian chocolate which is the best, but I’m looking to start working with some of the great chocolatiers in Solvang.”

Mr. Carnevale established roots in the Valley when he moved here in 2010. He met his wife, a Southern California native, while she was studying in Rome and the pair, and their twin children, now live in Buellton. After a stint at former Santa Ynez Italian food hotspot Trattoria Grappolo, Mr. Carnevale was part of the original service team at SY Kitchen, where he still works alongside his friend, Executive Chef Luca Crestanelli. SY Kitchen was one of the first customers of Mr. Carnevale’s side business, combining his vanilla bean gelato with hot espresso for their affogato dessert.

The Valley Craft Gelato line is handmade inside a private commercial kitchen in downtown Santa Ynez. Flavors range from the classics -- Salted Caramel, Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate, Espresso – to seasonal, locally-inspired creations, like Pistachio and Lemon Zest, Roasted Coconut and White Chocolate, Honey and Lavender, and Fig Sorbetto. Currently, the gelatos are primarily made-to-order for catering, special events and wholesale orders, as well as for a growing list of local restaurants, including the newly-opened Mattei’s Tavern. Mr. Carnevale also takes direct-to-consumer orders and crafts flavors by request. He can be reached through the Valley Craft Gelato Facebook page, through Instagram and, eventually, his in-progress website.

Mr. Carnevale’s ultimate dream is to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and open his own storefront, leveraging a growing appreciation for gelato among U.S. consumers. “You guys are ready!” he says.

But, just like when he’s making great gelato, he’s not rushing it.

“It’ll take some time, because I’m a one-man army right now. I’m doing everything in the business myself. But that’s a good way to show vendors that I am committed to this.”
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Crossover Wine: Santa Barbara's Buttonwood Releases Wine Infused with Hops

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/15/18

When Karen Steinwachs released Hop On, she threw the TTB for a loop. That’s because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the government agency that regulates the beverage industry, didn’t have a way to designate it. Hop On, it turns out, may be the first commercial white wine infused with hops to get federal approval.

“It felt like I was going for a record for the most label rejections ever – at least five,” says Steinwachs, who’s celebrating her 11th year as winemaker for Solvang-based Buttonwood. “Finally, I had to ask – what exactly do you want me to call it?!”

My brother, Christian, was really taken by Hop On
On the label, Hop On is described as a “hopped white wine with natural flavors.” Government regulations, or lack thereof, prevent Steinwachs from including a vintage year, or the region where the wine was grown or the grapes that went into making it. So creative, if not nebulous, labeling prevails.

In the bottle, Hop On is mostly estate-grown sauvignon blanc, with a dash of semillon. While still in the tank, the wine is infused for about three weeks with hops held inside large mesh bags. It’s then barrel fermented, and then filtered, before it’s put in bottle.

In beer making, hops are used as a bittering agent during the brewing process. Here, the hops, which are sourced from Pacific Valley Hops in Lompoc, are used exclusively as a way to impart aromatics. “I just wanted the nose of a good IPA,” says Steinwachs.

Indeed, Hop On delivers a unique, refreshing, hoppy nose, while classic sauv blanc flavors prevail. Bright acidity is tempered slightly by subtle hints of resin. The finish is clean and crisp, thought with a distinct hoppy character, too.

With Hop On, Steinwachs cleverly taps into a long-known connection between beer and wine. Most any Santa Barbara winemaker will tell you that sipping on beer is their preferred way of unwinding after a long day of making wine. Steinwachs herself is a self-avowed “beer person and a wine lover.” And her connection to the Pabst beer empire – she’s a direct descendant of the original Best Brewing Company family, via her great-great-grandfather – adds a special angle to this story.

But this crossover winemaking technique also opens up the Buttonwood brand to a new audience, while getting old fans to take a fresh new peek. “Many people have been buying it as gifts for friends who like IPAs,” Steinwachs remarks. And the hazy TTB rules inspire production, affording Steinwachs the chance to create and sell Hop On in small batches, like so many quality craft beers, rather than once a year, as dictated by vintage.

And let there be no doubt that the Buttonwood folks are taking this special way of making sauvignon blanc seriously: they’ve just planted their own ¼-acre plot of hops.

Hop On sells for $22 at

Buttonwood Winery & Vineyard, 1500 Alamo Pintado Rd., Solvang. 805-688-3032.

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