Opening Its Doors, 40 Years Later: Santa Barbara's Hitching Post Wines Launches First Ever Tasting Room

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/24/18

Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley had kicked around the idea of opening up a tasting room for several years. The men behind Santa Barbara’s Hitching Post Wines eyed the market, even contemplated building out a tasting nook in Mr. Ostini’s popular Buellton steakhouse, The Hitching Post II.
But it wasn’t until a tasting room suddenly became available right next door to the restaurant a few months ago that the timing finally seemed right, if not auspicious. And so, earlier this week, and close to 40 years after the Hartley-Ostini venture was born, Hitching Post Wines opened the doors to its first ever tasting room.
Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley at the new Buellton tasting room for Hitching Post Wines
“We’ve fallen in love with this property,” Frank Ostini told me this week, as the tasting room’s very first visitors came and went. The location along Highway 246, which was previously shared by the Cargasacchi and Loring labels and which Mr. Ostini and Mr. Hartley lease, expands the Hitching Post’s real estate from one acre to a sweeping 12. The lot has undergone a fair share of cosmetic upgrades, including new fencing to buffer the hums of traffic, the repurposed use of trellising to shade outdoor seating and the substantial clearing of brush to reveal vistas of the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains.
Most of the property, some eight acres, is untouched terrain that neighbors Ostrich Land and that stretches south across the Santa Ynez River. “This was an area the Chumash once used to fish steelhead [trout],” Mr. Ostini says. It’s a potential site for future farming, he adds, but no grapevines.
The crowning jewel here, though, is the tasting room, which the duo has transformed into a bright, breezy space. Light wood floors and plenty of natural light abound. Two tasting areas feature bars made from reclaimed barn wood found out back. A cellar of older vintages takes over an entire wall. And a lounge room with rustic wooden tables connects to a small retail space with an array of Hitching Post merch; the pith helmet famously donned by Frank Ostini in pretty much any picture that comes back when you Google him sells for $36.
An artsy gallery is a nod to the history of this renowned wine project, which saw Mr. Ostini and Mr. Hartley harvesting wine grapes for the first time in 1979. The display features the first wine they ever made under a joint label: a 1981 pinot noir “made at home in Sisquoc,” as is written right on the bottle. Dozens of photographs capture Hitching Post milestones as well as moments with industry colleagues who’ve passed away, like Chris Whitcraft, Seth Kunin and Mike Bonaccorsi. Guests will also find the last photo taken of Mr. Ostini without his signature mustache, snapped in 1986. And there are photos of the Sideways cast, too, who spent many nights in the Hitching Post dining room while filming the 2004 Oscar winner.

Chris Burroughs pours at Hitching Post Wines
In an interesting turn of irony, the tasting room staff at Hitching Post Wines includes Chris Burroughs, a longtime tasting room presence throughout the Santa Ynez Valley. Mr. Burroughs makes a memorable cameo in Sideways, pouring for Myles and Jack on their first stop during their wine-fueled bachelor adventure through Santa Barbara wine country. On opening day this week, he was taking visitors through the Traditional Tasting Menu ($15), which includes five Hitching Post classics; currently, they include the 2015 Cork Dancer Pinot Noir and the 2016 Gen Red blend. The $20 Reserve Tasting gives access to top-line, vineyard-specific wines, like pinot noirs from the famous Bien Nacido and Sanford & Benedict Vineyards. All wines, which are made at Buellton’s Terravant Wine Co., can be bought by the glass (from $6) and the bottle ($18-$55), with discounts for four- and 12-packs.
Outdoor seating at Hitching Post Wines
A tasty perk to the experience here is the cook-to-order lunch menu, which is grilled up by the Hitching Post crew next door, long renowned for its mastery of authentic Santa Maria BBQ. Served from 11am-2pm, “HP To You” includes a Grilled Corn Quesadilla ($6); a Grilled Artichoke with smoked tomato mayo ($10); a Steak Salad ($11); a Cheese Burger ($11); and the Steak & Caramelized Onion Sandwich ($12). The Meat & Cheese Plate costs $14. A classic Air Stream-turned-kitchen has already been brought onsite to take over the brunt of lunch service in the near future from the Hitching Post, which starts dinner service daily at 4pm.
The wine and lunch crowd has plenty of outdoor seating options, including cozy, shaded benches and a handful of secluded Adirondack chair pairs shaded by red umbrellas and fronted by valley views as far as they eye can see.
Hitching Post Wines, 420 E. Highway 246, Buellton. Sun.-Thu. 11am-5pm, Fri.-Sat. 11am-9pm. 805-688-0676., @hitchingpost2.
Want more wine, food & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!

Skip the Cabernet: Pair Bourbon with Your Steak

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published by the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/16/18

Chef Kyle Johnson & me inside the Bourbon Steak LA kitchen
My quest to grill the perfect steak took me to Glendale a few days ago. Bourbon Steak LA is a Michael Mina restaurant and one of a handful of Bourbon Steak outlets across the country, in cities like Washington DC, Nashville and Las Vegas. At any one of these culinary havens, steak reigns supreme.
I spent the afternoon with Chef Kyle Johnson, a Vegas native and New York City transplant who’s been helming the kitchen at Bourbon Steak LA for four years. The restaurant is located at Americana at Brand, an elegantly cozy shopping complex designed by mogul Rick Caruso (the same man behind the construction – finally! – of the Rosewood Miramar Beach Resort in Montecito) and features a menu of 14-oz New York Strips, 20-oz Cowboy Ribeyes and 32-oz. Porterhouses for two. I came to explore the world of filet mignon.
I learned a lot about this cut, a part of the cow that’s rarely used, which makes it super tender and soft by nature. It’s bright red when freshest, with intermittent veins of fat, and it doesn’t need a whole lot of seasoning beyond cracked pepper and sea salt on all sides to enhance flavors. Chef Johnson sets his filets in a warm butter-and-herbs bath for 20 minutes before setting them on the grill. “It’ll start to warm the steak through and it’ll start to disperse the fats… and really start to melt those down.”
On a really hot grill, he bastes the filet continually with a house-made red wine butter and allows smoke from hickory wood chips to swathe the filet. Two minutes per side for medium rare, and then “let it rest, let it rest, let it rest.” Suffice it to say, this filet mignon (an eight-ounce center cut, accompanied by a seasonal trio set of vegetables, sells for $50 on the Bourbon Steak LA menu) was delectable.
One eye-opener for me during this visit was Chef’s Johnson liquid match for my filet: bourbon. Sure, the name on the marquis should have clued me in to the fact that this restaurant makes more than 50 whiskeys available by the glass. But as a pair for a beautiful steak?
“The high acidity form the alcohol and the heat from the alcohol cuts through a lot of the fat,” says the chef. “There’s a lot of butter, a lot of ample fats… and it helps cut a lot of that.”
And he was right. The bourbon almost acted like a palate cleanser between bites, prepping my tastes buds for the next soft, supple bite of filet. And the subtle sweetness of some of the bourbons we tasted, as well as the fruit-driven aromatics, also added structure and a fair share of nuance to the filet experience.
Sipping bourbon between bites will be different than if you were drinking a big, beautiful red wine, which would have been my knee-jerk reaction choice. With an alcohol content about three times that of wine, you’ll want to taste bourbon slowly and carefully. But the extra bite to each sip actually inspires you to slow your meal down and, in a surprisingly wonderful way, savor even the most delicious cut of meat just a little bit more.
The whiskeys Chef Johnson shared as “three of my favorites,” included Whistle Pig Straight Rye, aged 10 years, made in Vermont and distilled in Canada; Angel’s Envy from Louisville, Kentucky, which is aged in port casks for more depth and complexity; and Eagle Rare, also from Kentucky and perfect for “everyday drinking,” according to the chef, with bold but approachable citrus and honey flavors.
When I pressed him for a red wine match, Chef Johnson turned to Santa Barbara County: the Bordeaux-inspired Habit Red Blend by winemaker Jeff Fischer. The wine is supple and structured, with elegant tannins and integrated flavors of oak and red fruits. A blend of cabernet franc (43%), merlot (27%), petit verdot (14%) and cabernet sauvignon (13%), it’s sourced from the McGinley, Curtis and Grassini Vineyards in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley.
What I learned: red wine or bourbon, if the filet mignon is done well (and when I say “well”, I mean “medium rare”), it all works.
By the way, Bourbon Steak LA features Happy Hour daily from 4-7pm, with many plates discounted 50%, and half-off select bottles of wine every Monday night.

Travelzoo has negotiated an exclusive op with Chef Johnson for dinner for two at Bourbon Steak LA, for visits through October 31, check it out!
Bourbon Steak LA, 237 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. 818-839-4130.
Want more food, wine & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!

Driven by Beauty: Babcock Winery Event Aimed at Enthusiasts of All Things "Vintage"

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/13/18

At Babcock Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, near Lompoc, the wine is the main attraction. Bryan Babcock, who’s been growing wine here since the early 1980s, is easily considered one of the top winemakers in Santa Barbara County. The wines he produces, wines like pinot noir and chardonnay, are lauded by consumers and colleagues alike.
Some of the vintage attractions in the Babcock tasting room
Something interesting happens, though, when visitors step up to the tasting bar. What surrounds them, wows them. And if it’s the wine that brought them here, it’s often the décor that inspires them to stay.
The look and feel of the Babcock Winery tasting room is an ever-evolving canvas for Lisa Boisset, Mr. Babcock’s wife for more than 26 years. It’s a menagerie of vintage finds, antique treasures and special, iconic, fascinating pieces that, each one, tells a story and strike a chord.
The tasting room is, actually, a warehouse. Mr. Babcock stacked his fermentation barrels here, floor to ceiling, until the notion struck his wife that this vast, cavernous space had way more potential. That was eight years ago. Today, the floors that embrace the tasting bar are as much a space for retail as a showroom for special acquisitions.
“I don’t have a design or a plan for every nook and cranny – there’s no recipe,” says Ms. Boisset. “And, because of that, it feels authentic.”
Truth be told, the winemaker’s wife has professional pedigree that totally ligitimizes her knack for design. Her formative years were spent traveling all over the world, thanks to a father who worked in the airline industry. “Few distractions, almost no TV and lots of adventures,” she says, are what helped fuel creativity, curiosity and an open mind.
She says, “I learned to appreciate other cultures and art and music in a free-spirited way. I think that’s why I’m a pretty fearless person. I’d rather be creative and go for things – not hastily, but with purpose. If you have great intuition and creativity and see an opportunity… there’s no harm in trying it.”
After college, Ms. Boisset delved into fashion and into retail, going on to spend more than 30 years as a buyer of contemporary fashions for Bullock’s, the once-mighty department store chain. Merchandising for a bevy of other companies followed, Forever 21 most recently.
“So I understand retail,” she declares, “and I like being creative and I like creating experiences.”
Much of that, these days, is channeled into the Babcock tasting room, which she outfits with random yet wonderful finds made on the road, at estate sales, specialty shows, bazaars and flea markets all over the world. “I’ll go anywhere and everywhere,” she says.
The tasting room treasures change all the time and range from cards, books and jewelry to furniture, works of art and collectibles from myriad eras. “They’re things that resonate with me,” says Ms. Boisset. “And I also have a good sense of what our customers will appreciate.”
For Ms. Boisset, these unique pieces mean a whole lot more than the price tag they don, of course. They represent a potential for discovery – “People find things here they never thought existed!” – and for an emotional connection.
“There’s a soulful quality to the acquisition of objects that mean something to us personally,” she says, adding with emphasis, “and, there’s also something meaningful about purchasing from an individual who is also colorful and interesting to you."
The latter point – the point about the people who sell interesting items – that’s what inspired Ms. Boisset to host a special event this weekend that’ll feature more than 20 antiques and collectibles vendors. Some are local, some are flying in from far away – all people Ms. Boisset has met during her own personal experiences curating relics and mementos.
“Taste + Savor + Relish” takes place this Saturday and Sunday (August 18 & 19, 2018) from 10am to 5pm. The event is free and open to all ages, though there will be an assortment of Babcock wines and fare from the popular Scratch Kitchen in Lompoc for sale. The celebrated band, Tina Schileske & The Graceland Exiles, performs a grand finale concert Sunday at 3pm. And, of course, there will be hundreds of treasures for the finding – furniture, clothing, artwork, photography, lighting, textiles and ceramics, all in styles ranging from mid-century modern and industrial to Farmhouse and Bohemian.

“Just like wine tasting is sensual – you taste, you talk about it, you think about it – this is also,” says Ms. Boisset. “People get caught up with routine. This is about experiencing something new. Fun music, good food, interesting people, seeing amazing things – it’s going to be a feast for the senses, an opportunity to be open and to appreciate beauty.”
To view some of the items that'll be for sale, check our Ms. Boisset's new Instagram venture for all things vintage, @soulstruckvintage.
When friends & I visited Babcock to celebrate my wife Renee's birthday, we loved the wine... and the décor!
And for those prone to wandering – for those who find themselves venturing toward a different kind of "vintage" – they’ll likely notice that Ms. Boisset has had quite the effect on her husband’s vineyard, too.  “Agristhetics,” Mr. Babcock says. It’s a word he coined to describe his own agricultural push away from what is routinely practical and towards what is aesthetically pleasing.
“I cut grape production in half a few years ago,” he says. “I planted 65 oak trees and I’m using one of my hillsides to plant milkweeds and different flower species for butterflies.”
Dovetailing from his wife’s own penchant for what’s attractive to the eye, and calling it an endeavor that’ll last “the rest of my life,” Mr. Babcock aims to “wow guests as soon as they enter the property.”
And he adds, with an enthusiasm that would make Ms. Boisset smile, “it’s all driven by beauty.”
Babcock Winery & Vineyards, 5175 E. Highway 246, Lompoc. 805-736-1455.
Want more wine, food & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!

On 'Cue: Bear & Star Restaurant in Santa Barbara Wine Country Launches Cooking Classes

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/9/18

At the Bear and Star, class is in session.
The popular Los Olivos restaurant helmed by Chef John Cox is launching a series of super intimate, hands-on cooking classes this weekend. The first in the series, dubbed “Summer BBQ,” will focus on techniques for grilling local seafood and shellfish. Scheduled for 4-8pm, it’ll culminate with a sit-down meal with Chef Cox and his team.
“For me, these classes are something I felt there was a need for,” says Chef Cox, who, in partnership with the Fess Parker family, helped launch the restaurant in May of 2017 inside the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. “Plus, I love interfacing with customers.”
Classes will be limited to just 12 students.
The Bear and Star team leading the new BBQ cooking classes, from left: Chef Trent Shank, Chef Jeremy Tummell & Chef John Cox
The inaugural session will highlight the bounty in Santa Barbara’s waters and take on a culinary topic that many home chefs find “intimidating,” according to Mr. Cox.
“I think people just need permission to see and understand how easy grilling seafood can be,” he says. “With seafood that's fresh, all it’s about is not messing it up!”
Ahead of this Sunday’s class, Chef Cox will visit the Santa Barbara Fisherman’s Market, the every-Saturday experience that allows consumers to buy the morning’s fresh catch right off the fishing boats. “This is something I do every Saturday,” says the chef, who lives on a boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor.
Based on what Saturday reels in, Sunday’s class and menu will highlight techniques for making Pacific Coast Oysters “Rockefeller” Style; local sea urchin prepared with Meyer lemon and garlic butter; goat cheese-stuffed summer squash with basil; an heirloom tomato salad with grilled prawns and black radish vinaigrette; whole grilled local rockfish with foraged fennel and house-made chorizo; and dessert from the Parker family farm.
“Sea urchin, for example -- it’s a lot easier to grill than people might think,” says Chef Cox, who admits to preferring the echinoderm, famously harvested along the Santa Barbara coast by diver Stephanie Mutz, raw. “But on the grill, we’ll use a touch of cream, parmesan, lemon – almost making a sea urchin fondue inside the shell. You get these smoky, mellow flavors and the cooking takes a bit of the harshness out of the urchin. Grilling is an easy gateway to eating urchin.”
The class and dinner costs $90 per person or $160 per couple, with a $50 upsell for wine pairings curated by the Bear & Star’s wine expert, Allison Crawford.
Much of the inevitable appeal of these first-ever classes at the Bear and Star stems from John Cox’ own renown, which includes several years running the kitchen at the legendary Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur and even a recent guest appearance on the hit Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay. Primarily, however, his notoriety is a product of what he’s accomplished at what’s become one of the buzziest restaurants in the Santa Ynez Valley: a home-grown program driven by an unabashed pursuit for sustainability. Most every item on the Bear and Star menu is raised, grown or harvested on the Parker family’s 710-acre ranch, less than seven miles away, including Wagyu beef, pork, rabbits, quail, chicken and organically grown vegetables, herbs and fruits. “A true ecosystem,” Chef Cox has called it in the past.
Food is slow-smoked and barbecued on the restaurant’s proprietary 30-foot custom reverse-flow Texas smoker and no fewer than six Big Green Egg grills.
In July, I  joined Chef Cox for a gorgeous dinner experience at the Parker ranch, w/all food cooked on that awesome smoker
The cooking classes will take place at the Bear & Star’s outdoor kitchen and inside the exclusive Chef’s Room. The second class in the series, BBQ Classics, is slated for September 9th and will highlight techniques for perfecting brisket, ribs and smoked chicken; it’ll be led by Chef Jeremy Tummel and John Cox. A class titled Save the Autumn Harvest, an October 14th session led by Chef Trent Shank and Mr. Cox, will focus on preservation techniques – smoking, fermenting, pickling and canning – and include a visit to the Parker ranch to harvest a variety of produce.
These classes are all about making cooking accessible to consumers, says Chef Cox. “For us [chefs], though,” he adds, “there’s nothing more exciting than interacting with people who get excited about food and about preparing it and talking about it.”
For tickets, call 805-686-1359 or click here.
Want more food, wine & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!

Viva el Vino: Fiesta-Inspired Santa Barbara Wine Finds

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/2/18

If you’re in town to celebrate Fiesta, then Santa Barbara’s deep Spanish roots are not lost on you, from names on street signs to striking architecture that’s recognized the world over.
Old Spanish Days, then, might be the perfect excuse to delve into Santa Barbara’s modern-day winemaking, all with a tip of the hat – err, the glass – to Spain.
The beauty and the uniqueness of Santa Barbara’s viticultural potential exist in its diversity. If Napa is defined by cabernet and Sonoma by pinot, then Santa Barbara’s definition stems from its knack for doing it all. Cab and pinot excel here, as do dozens of other varieties. It’s a knack wrought by those east-west mountains that anchor this corner of California – mountains of rich soils that funnel marine air and create a cavalcade of growth zones (and the same mountains that greeted those Spanish seafarers hundreds of years ago).
Here are three classic Spanish wine grape varieties that thrive in Santa Barbara and are well worth seeking out:
2015 Martian Ranch & Vineyard “Uforic” Albariño ($24)
Grown in Spain’s northwest region of Galicia (and also popular in northwestern Portugal), this delightful and refreshing white grape is summer sipping at its best. Light, lively and bright, this easy-drinking wine is often defined by its citrusy overtones and briny subtleties. This one, grown biodynamically near the town of Los Alamos, shines for its brisk acidity, floral aromas and ripe stone fruit flavors. Perfect with spicy edibles, or pretty much anything you’ll find at the mercados. Martian recently welcomed its new wine grower, Gretchen Voelcker, earlier this summer.
2015 Margerum Grenache ($40)
The French region of Rhone grows world-class grenache, though this red wine grape - -one of the most widely planted in the world – most likely hails from Spain, where it’s known as garnacha. It’s also one of the oft-overlooked darlings of Santa Barbara. Fleshy and juicy at once, it is a marvelous dinner companion, with a fruit-driven character and lively, yet unobtrusive, bounce on the palate. This one by restaurateur-turned-winemaker Doug Margerum, of Wine Cask fame, is smooth and bracing, with spicy notes and a wonderful balance of plum and cherry flavors. Got pizza? Sip this.
2014 Tre Anelli Tempranillo ($32)
Tempranillo means “little early one” in Spanish, a reference to the fact this grape often ripens will ahead of its red Spanish counterparts. The most widely planted grape in Spain’s Rioja region, it often exhibits Bordeaux-like nuances – earth, leather, dust. But there’s a wonderful savoriness to a great tempranillo, and this one, made by my friend Brett Escalera, smacks between sips of bacon, smoke and herbs, all enhanced by balance and medium tannins. Fire up the grill, folks! Tre Anelli is part of the Sanger Family of Wines, which also includes Consilience and Marionello. And breaking news: I ran into Escalera during dinner at The Bear & Star in Los Olivos last week, and he told me that the Sanger tasting room, currently on Grand Avenue in Los Olivos, is moving to Solvang soon.

Viva la Fiesta!

Want more wine, food & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!