Seasonal Suds: Santa Barbara Sparkling Wines Abound

Sales of sparkling wines are on the rise right now, historically soaring between the Thanksgiving and New Year’s holidays. Sparklers connote celebration, of course. They’re a great option to have on hand for rich holiday meals, too, since the effervescence in every sip cleanses the palate of the richness in every bite.

The French and their fancy Champagnes give us plenty of options, of course, as do the Italians with their prosecco, the Spaniards with their cava and the Germans with their sekt. Napa and Sonoma producers have fantastic alternatives, too. But why go any further than Santa Barbara County?

Mirroring a surging consumer demand for all things sparkly, the number of Santa Barbara County wine producers dabbling in bubbly has popped in recent years. My own rudimentary county puts the number at close to 50, which means about a third of our region’s wineries have decided that the extra mile they must go to produce wines awash in tiny pearls is well worth it. The newest entry comes from a true original, Santa Barbara Winery, the county’s very first winery, established by architect-turned-vintner Pierre Lafond in 1962. I admire the way this recognizable brand continues to run on a family-driven ethos: when I visited their downtown winery last month, Mr. Lafond himself was on site, inspecting the day’s shipments, along with daughter Michelle and son David, as well as several longtime employees. Granddaughter Madeleine was there, too; it was her social media post a few days earlier that had alerted me to the release of their first-ever sparkling wine.
“It felt like it was time,” winemaker Bruce McGuire told me as he handed me a bottle of the 2017 Sparkling Rosé ($49). McGuire has been making wine here since 1981, and his new foray into bubbles was driven by the Lafond family’s desire to add something new and special to their remarkable portfolio of wines.  The sparkler is made with pinot noir from Burning Creek Ranch in the lauded Sta. Rita Hills region near Lompoc. The still wine was made first and then shipped to a Sonoma facility called Rack & Riddle that took it through the traditional methode champenoise to bring the bubbles to life. Periodic samples were sent down to Mr. McGuire throughout the nearly two-year process, until he made the ultimate call that it was ready for bottling. The Lafonds tasted it for weeks before the call was made in November that the bubbly was ready for release.
Only 200 cases of the 2017 Sparkling Rosé were made, split evenly between the Santa Barbara Winery and sister Lafond Winery brands. Regardless of label, this wine is Champagne-inspired and refreshing and delicious at once, with red berry aromas, clean citrus flavors and a dry, elegant, lip-smacking finish. Buy it at the tasting room at 202 Anacapa Street, just down from State Street, or online.
The Santa Barbara Winery/Lafond Winery team welcomes their new bubbly, including founder Pierre Lafond (far left) and winemaker Bruce McGuire (second from left)
Folded Hills' new bubbly

The sparkler from Folded Hills is new, too. Their 2017 Sparkling Lilly Rosé ($65), from winemaker Angela Osborne, is a tribute to matriarch Lilly Anheuser and the six generations of formidable Anheuser-Busch women since.  Zesty, crisp and brimming with berry notes, this bouncy bubbly is made with grenache grapes grown on the family’s sprawling Santa Ynez Valley estate near Gaviota, just off Highway 101. Folded Hills officially launched the Sparkling Lilly Rosé during a wine club members-only affair at its Coast Village Rd. tasting room in early December.

Other regional producers of sparkling wines of note include winemaker Norm Yost’s Flying Goat Cellars, which launched its Goat Bubbles lineup of sparkling wines 10 years ago; Yost, who now makes five distinct sparkles each year, and all by hand at his Lompoc winery, is considered the first serious sparkling wine producer in Santa Barbara County. Fess Parker Winery impresses every year with its own traditional expressions of the bubbly stuff; their Bubble Shack in downtown Los Olivos is a haven for seekers of all things fizzy. And Riverbench Winery, which sources pinot noir and chardonnay from its Santa Maria Valley vineyards for its annual sparkling wine releases, puts out consistently great bubblies, too.


Bye-Bye Bottle: Wine in Aluminum Cans is Becoming All the Rage

I enjoyed a lovely rosé wine over the weekend. It was refreshing, with a pretty light pink hue, a delicate fizz on the tongue and yummy flavors of red berries and citrus. The finish was especially quenching – dry, perky and clean.

There was one thing about this wine that was especially remarkable, though: it came in a cute little aluminum can.

To be sure, many avid wine drinkers will think twice about the idea of a fine wine in a tin can, if not reject it altogether. We tend to be traditionalists, we understand the glass bottle, and we’ve learned how to extricate the wood cork like pros. Isn’t the fact that we’ve expanded our minds to accept the proliferation of the screwcap progress enough?

Fact is, wines in a can, which have been an increasingly pervasive part of the wine marketplace for the better part of the last decade, are quickly becoming a consumer favorite. According to Nielsen, canned wine sales surpassed $69 million in 2018, way up from the $2 million they netted in 2012. Their convenience, their no-frills attitude and the fact that better wines are going into these little aluminum vessels these days are giving this sector of the industry an ever-larger piece of the consumer pie.

The wine I supped this weekend is new – Nomikai, a Northern California-based brand named after the Japanese word for drinking parties. The wines come in 187-ml. cans, or the same as one-fourth of a regular 750-ml bottle (or what many of us call, a glass of wine). The Frizzy Rosé is made up of various white grape varieties, plus grenache. There’s a California Red, too, which I did not like as much because of the sweet-leaning fruit character; however, for those who like zing in their reds and who like the idea of sipping it chilled on a warm afternoon, by the pool perhaps, this wine might fit the bill nicely. The wines are sold in 24-pack singular or mixed cases, or the equivalent of six bottles, for $96 on the Nomikai website.  A growing number of retailers carry it, too, though none yet (ironically) in California.
You will, though, find plenty of other canned wine options at your local wine shop or supermarket, since the movement is being driven by some of the industry’s largest players, like E. & J. Gallo. Foley Family Wines, founded by magnate and former Santa Barbara resident Bill Foley, announced earlier this year its lineup of rosé, chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir in 375-ml. cans under the Oregon-based Acrobat label; a project like this coming from the same folks who put out myriad top-tier California labels, including Foley, Lincourt and Firestone in the Santa Ynez Valley, is promising for consumers. I’ve tasted nice wines from Union Wine Co. in Oregon, whose quarter-million-case output of the canned Underwood label wines last year accounted for more than half of its total production. Canned wines from Alloy Wine Works in Paso Robles are worth a few yanks of the pull-tab, too.
One of the great canned adult beverages in the marketplace now is Rosalie, a half-wine/half-beer experiment from Firestone-Walker Brewing Co. that sees both components – chardonnay, viognier, sauvignon blanc, riesling and muscat grapes plus hops and pilsner malt – fermented together.  Hibiscus flowers are added to create a drink that appeals to wine and beer lovers alike: it’s wine upfront, with a bouncy mouth feel and flavors of berries, and it’s beer on the back end, with a subtle hops essence and a refreshing effervescence. At 5% alcohol per volume, it’s prime for multiple pours, too. Target sells a six-pack of 12-ounce Rosalie cans for $9.99.

The approachability of aluminum cans, and their affordability, make this packaging appealing, or at least intriguing – and not only for a new wine audience, but even for fervent wine consumers looking for that sweet spot where value and quality converge. It’s still hit and miss overall, but the growing market is bound to show at least a few new stars.

The Nomikai folks tout the eco-friendly angle, too: their cans are 99% recyclable and while four cans equal one glass wine bottle in volume, the waste they produce weighs 13% as much. So drinking red, it turns out, can help you go green. Check out for more information.



Wine Through the Lens: New Hardcover Book Spotlights Santa Barbara Wine Industry

“There are plenty of photography books on how wine is made, and by whom, and what tasting rooms look like,” declares George Rose, who happens to be a real whiz behind the lens, himself.
“I set out with the idea of showcasing where the grapes are grown. This is about the land and the people – it’s about the place.”
George Rose
Rose’s latest coffee table book is, in fact, a beautiful tribute to Santa Barbara County’s wine region, delivered in sweeping, moving images. The hardcover “Wine Country: Santa Barbara County” ($80, including California sales tax and shipping) is almost 200 pages long, weighs more than three pounds and takes full advantage of its 11-by-14-inch format. “I wanted to present the pictures as if people were walking through a gallery,” says the photographer. “When you turn the page, and that image doubles in size – it makes an impact.”
Rose’s style makes the various vineyards depicted in the book look downright spectacular, like a sun-drenched stretch of Stolpman Vineyards along Ballard Canyon, or the starry harvest sky above Dierberg-Star Lane Vineyards near Lompoc, or a blanket of fog hugging the vines at Grassini Vineyards in Happy Canyon. Portions of the book guide the reader through several wine growing hot spots, like the pinot noir haven that is Sta. Rita Hills, the much warmer Los Olivos District and the Foxen Canyon Trail.
But Rose’s book goes well beyond the wine, reaching for that sense of place he mentions, capturing the people who live in the towns that make this particular portion of California special. “There’s a very Western flavor to Santa Barbara County that makes it unique and different from Napa and Sonoma,” says Rose, who published a similar book on Sonoma County’s wine region in 2017.
Solvang is represented by the young ladies doling out aebleskivers during Danish Days, the dancers twirling down Mission Drive during the 4th of July parade and the legendary Rancheros Vistadores traversing the open range on horseback. Buellton, Lompoc and the Santa Maria Valley star, too. And even Santa Barbara gets a chapter, with big pictures of families at dinner, friends out on bikes and plenty of smiling sippers in the Funk Zone. “I’ve been fascinated watching the wine tasting idea in an urban setting really explode,” says Rose.
One of the book’s most poignant sections is its spotlight on the women and men who work the vineyards. Dozens of photos capture the oft-grueling physical task of harvesting grapevines – plucking and sorting thousands of berries by hand, and often in the cold, dark hours between midnight and dawn. “I feel strongly that California is rooted in agriculture,” says Rose. “There’d be no wine industry without these people --  they are critical to the success of California wine. And it’s very important that we keep hitting on that topic. With all the politics today, that message gets lost.”
Photos from George Rose's "Wine Country: Santa Barbara County”
Rose, who moved from Healdsburg to Solvang six years ago, brings a lifetime of behind-the-camera experience to his new tome. He was in his 20s when he worked as a staff writer at the L.A. Times and, soon after, as an in-demand freelancer for Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone. More than 13 years followed, as an official photog for the NFL. Serendipity stepped in when Rose was offered a job in wine industry marketing, a job he held for 25 years with companies like Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson. But Rose, who never stopped honing his shooting skills, decided to return to photography full-time in 2012, and he’s been gazing at vineyards through his lens ever since. “I realized quickly,” he says, “that my style worked well with vineyards’ own growing social media needs.”
“Wine Country: Santa Barbara County” is self-published by Rose, who secured funding from myriad tourism groups, like Visit Santa Barbara and Visit the Santa Ynez Valley, and local wineries, including Zaca Mesa, Foxen and Bien Nacido. The book is available at all sponsor tasting rooms, as well as Rose’s own website,
An art exhibit featuring many of Rose’s recent landscape photography, titled “Santa Barbara County & Beyond,” will open at the Wildling Museum in Solvang on November 16th.

A Survivor Gives Back: New Wine Benefits Cancer Patients

Winemaker Brittany Rice doesn’t wallow in her struggles. She beat cancer once when she was three – acute lymphatic leukemia, which was eradicated after seven years of experimental trials. And she beat it twice when she was 39 – ovarian cancer, from which she’s free and clear today. The youngest of three who grew up in Palm Springs and the Santa Ynez Valley, she lost her mother, Linda, to cancer, too – breast cancer – in 2010.
Lots of good, and many tragedies,” admits Rice, 41, who was recently divorced. “But I feel it's a responsibility of a survivor to tell the story so others having to go through it can learn."
So Rice isn’t wallowing. No self-pity here. Rather, she’s melding her struggles and her talents to do good.
Rice just launched a new private wine label in honor of the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, which supports families living in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo Counties who have a child battling cancer. The non-profit focuses not only on the child, but on the family as a whole – close to 200 families in 2019 alone – providing wide-ranging financial, educational and emotional support. That’s a big deal for Rice.
Growing up having cancer, there wasn’t a lot of support for kids with cancer,” she says. “A lot of the guide and reassurance and balance weren’t there, so I think it’s amazing that Teddy Bear is there to support kids – and their entire families – that way.”
Rice is donating 25% of the sale of each Teddy Bear bottle to the Foundation. The 2017 Grenache Rosé ($42) was fermented for four days, “so it has a lovely red color, with raspberry and red currant notes, and a nice finish,” says the winemaker. The 2017 Viognier ($34) was fermented in stainless steel tanks, for a crisp mouth feel and flavors of apricot and Asian pear. And the 2015 Cabernet Franc ($48), “a soft, elegant wine that’s really bold and juicy, and with high tannins,” according to Rice, was aged in oak barrels that once stored dessert wine, giving the cab franc nuances of “caramelization, bourbon vanilla and a maple, though dry, finish.”
The Millesime Cellars tasting room in Camarillo
Rice was born into an entrepreneurial family who, in 1990, established one of Santa Barbara County’s great wine labels, Sunstone Winery; the family's 52-acre ranch in Santa Ynez features 28 acres of organically farmed wine grapes, including merlot, cabernet franc and syrah. Rice worked on the Sunstone team in the early 2000s and, in 2005, founded her own boutique label, Millésimé Cellars, to produce small lot, unfiltered Bordeaux blends. Millésimé produces about 800 cases of wine a year and sources organically grown grapes from throughout Santa Barbara County; the wines are showcased at a facility in Camarillo, where Rice has helped individuals and organizations create their own custom wine labels.
Rice’s other passion is food, which led her to earn a degree from the California Culinary Academy and, in 2010, found her own organic catering business, Rustik Chef. She’s also been a pastry chef at the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito and, until last week, at the Four Seasons Westlake Village. This week, with the 2019 harvest in full swing, Rice returned to Sunstone as director of winemaking, overseeing an annual production of about 14,000 cases.
“It’s a little daunting,” she admits, “but totally exciting, too.”
The Teddy Bear wines are all sourced from vineyards throughout the Santa Ynez Valley and showcase a golden ribbon on a sky blue watercolor label. They’re available through and by emailing the winemaker directly:
To learn more about the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, go to You can donate to them directly by texting TEDDY to 444999.

Celebrating a Sense of Place: Famous Santa Maria Vineyard Turns 20

Solomon Hills Vineyard
When the boundaries for the Santa Maria Valley AVA were drawn, they excluded a thousand-acre plot of land so far west, it was considered too cold to grow grapes. An AVA, or American Viticultural Area, is a carefully outlined ag  area that’s been determined by the federal government, through myriad considerations over things like topography and climate, to be uniquely suited for producing wine. The Santa Maria Valley became the very first AVA on California’s Central Coast when it won recognition in 1981, and winemakers have been showing it off on labels ever since to denote a wine pedigree stemming from a special sense of place.

That plot along Telephone Road that was originally excluded was a working avocado ranch when brothers Steve and Bob Miller bought it in the late 1990s. “My parents would drive past it all the time on their way to Bien Nacido, so they had an eye on it for a long time,” says Nicholas Miller, Steve’s son, and VP of Sales & Marketing for Santa Barbara-based Thornhill Companies. The family-owned enterprise holds various wine operations in Santa Barbara County, including the world-renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard, which the Millers planted in Santa Maria in the 1970s  -- a pioneering move in a still-nascent wine region – and the vineyard that would come to be known as Solomon Hills inside an AVA whose boundaries would eventually be re-drawn.

“It’s located in the coldest spot in all of the Santa Maria Valley,” continues the younger Miller. “It’s very marginal for growing grapes, actually, and we really struggle for yields every year.”

The Millers picked the “choicest spot for wine grapes” and planted just 100 acres of pinot noir, mainly, along with some chardonnay and syrah. Soon, it would become clear that a “struggle for yields” often translates to resilient gapes of superior caliber. Today, the land’s remaining 900-or-so acres are leased to various private enterprises, including Driscoll, which cultivates some of the best blueberries here in all of California.

The Miller men: Steve, center, with sons Nicholas (left) and Marshall
Solomon Hills Vineyard turns 20

Solomon Hills was planted to wine grapes in 1999, making this year’s vintage its 20th anniversary. As the family and a whole community of wine aficionados look back, they recognize its potential for consistently growing stellar grapes – grapes made spectacular by sandy, chalky, gravelly soils that long ago were blanketed  by the Pacific Ocean and a persistently cool climate driven by ocean breezes and fog.

“The pinot berries tend to be small and intense, leading to a racier, darker, broodier pinot noir wine – it has intensity,” says Nick Miller. The chardonnay grapes “are beautifully unique,” he adds, “creating wines based on minerality and acid. The chard is a real gem here.”

Solomon Hills Vineyard is managed by celebrated grower Chris Hammell. Its grapes are earmarked for the Millers’ world-class estate program, under the Solomon Hills label, which produces less than 1000 cases a year and which, until just a few weeks ago, was led by winemaker Trey Fletcher. The rest go to choice producers who, recognizing the fruit’s quality and potential, carry long-term contracts, like Liquid Farm and Ojai Vineyards. All these wine growers consistently see top marks from critics for their Solomon Hills-sourced wines.
To celebrate Solomon Hills’ 20th vintage, the Millers are hosting a first-ever event onsite – a special chance for consumers to visit this special place and taste the family’s latest releases, including the 2016 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir. The event, with food provided by Orcutt-based Trattoria Uliveto, takes place Saturday, October 5th, from 4pm to 7pm. Tickets -- $60 and $45 for wine club members – are limited and available through

The wines of Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido are always available for sipping and purchase at their destination tasting room, located along Grand Avenue in beautiful downtown Los Olivos. Find out more at


Flying Goat Turns 20: Landmark Santa Barbara Label Pioneered Local Sparklers

Norm Yost’s pygmy goats were more than mere pets. His affinity for the precocious pair inspired a very personal project in the year 2000 – his own wine label, Flying Goat Cellars. Santa Barbara County’s 2019 wine grape harvest, which is now well underway, means Flying Goat is turning 20.
This past weekend, Flying Goat Cellars threw a Harvest Lunch and Barrel Tasting at their Lompoc winery. Guest perks included tasting pre-release wines and blending their own cuvée. Yost hosted alongside his business partner Kathleen Griffith; the pair is happily married and will celebrate their 10th anniversary on New Year’s Day.
Norm Yost (credit: Bob Dickey)
Yost’s been making wine for more than 40 years, with a resumé that features Napa Valley, Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I got to know him during his first few years as a Santa Barbara wine grower, including a stint as winemaker at Foley Estates. The launch of Flying Goat, though, solidified his role as a top-tier producer, focusing on delicious vineyard-specific pinot noir wines from the coveted Sta, Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley growing regions.
The launch of his Goat Bubbles portfolio was a pioneering move in 2011. What could be called the first serious sparkling wine program in Santa Barbara County has exploded into a field of dozens of bubbly producers today. However, Yost’s long-term commitment to sparkling wine, which now includes five unique bottlings every year, was indeed visionary.
“Emulation is always the best form of flattery,” he told me recently.  “It’s actually exciting to see, since we’re now utilizing these wonderful Santa Barbara County grapes in another form."
Images from Flying Goat's first pick of the 2019 harvest  (credit: Makena Blanco)
Flying Goat’s 20th harvest began on August 30th, with a pick of more than four tons of pinot noir and chardonnay that will become 2019 Goat Bubbles, out to the public in about three years. The very early harvest preserves acidity in the grapes – that’ll translate to brightness and pop – and keeps sugars – and subsequently, alcohol – low.
Find out more at Flying Goat's newly redesigned website:


Everything’s Coming Up Sideways: Cult Wine Country Film Turns 15

Little known fact about the 2004 cult film, Sideways: if George Clooney and Brad Pitt had gotten their way, the heartthrob pair would have seen their own names on the movie’s marquee. Director Alexander Payne turned them down, though, opting instead to cast lesser known names that wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the story or its characters. In the end, Payne’s call paid off, reeling in Oscars for Sideways and launching a funny little film about two bachelors fumbling their way through Santa Barbara wine country – often with a fair amount of raunch tossed in – into Tinsel Town immortality.

Me, actor Paul Giamatti and chef-winemaker Frank Ostini at a Sideways 10th anniversary party in 2014

Indeed, here we are, 15 years later, still talking about Sideways and counting down the days to its crystal anniversary on October 22nd, the date of its official U.S. release. In fact, preparations for "Sideways Fest" are already underway – a three-day fete from October 18th to 20th, with myriad events throughout the Santa Ynez Valley put on by the Sta. Rita Hills Wine Alliance. The festival will include a screening of the film at the Solvang Festival Theater, a shuttle tour of locations featured in the film and a grand tasting at Buellton’s River View Park.

It would make sense, of course, that the Santa Ynez Valley would pay homage to Sideways. At its core, the movie plays like a travelogue – a road trip vignette – filmed  in panoramic fashion that brings the sweeping beauty of our wine region to life. Local tasting rooms, towns and even residents became a real-life supporting cast to the partying pair of Miles and Jack, played by Paul Giamatti and Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church, and love interest Maya, portrayed by Virginia Madsen, also an Academy Award nominee.
Frank Ostini & Gray Hartley at the Hitching Post tasting room in Buellton
One of those biggest local stars? The Hitching Post II, the popular family-owned Buellton steakhouse that became a regular hangout for author Rex Pickett, whose tome by the same name would inspire the Sideways movie. The eatery is a pivotal setting in the film and is mentioned by name numerous times. It’s the kind of marketing only Hollywood – with a dash or two of serendipity – can provide.

“Within three years, the movie opened up an unlimited national and international market for us,” recalls chef-winemaker Frank Ostini, who owns the Hitching Post II with his wife, Jamie, and who makes wine under the Hitching Post label with business partner, Gray Hartley. The two men make cameos in the film – Hartley as a gregarious diner in the background and Ostini’s hands, actually, as a Santa Maria-style barbecue is prepared over an oak-burning grill. The quick shot made Ostini $55 for his work as an extra, a check he never cashed.

Partnering with Discover Buellton, the tourism group that promotes travel to one of the six quaint towns that make up the Santa Ynez Valley, Ostini joined Sideways producer Michael London last week at a dinner and screening of the film at the private H Club in Hollywood. A handful of mostly LA-based media were on hand for an introduction to Buellton’s allure – an opportunity to leverage the renewed attention around Sideways to inspire Angelenos to make the drive north, past Santa Barbara, into the heart of a still-burgeoning wine region.
This map by my friend Bob Dickey showcases the stops throughout Santa Barbara wine country made by Miles and Jack, and it became a super hot marketing tool in the years following Sideways' runaway success 

Indeed, Sideways’ impact on Santa Barbara County’s viticultural region and on the world of wine as a whole is inarguable.

Hitching Post Wines “went from producing 250 cases a year before Sideways to more than 2000 cases today,” said Ostini during a post-screening Q&A. What’s more, those rumored effects on pinot noir, the red wine the film champions, and merlot, the red wine the film eschews, are true. Santa Barbara pinot prices soared after Sideways, and they’ve remained high, as pinot retains its place as a local darling today; at the same time, Sonoma-based Vineyard Financial Associates (VFA) reports that pinot production in California is up 170% since Sideways’ release. Merlot, meantime, is finally showing signs of a rebound; VFA estimates a $400 million loss among merlot producers in the decade following Sideways’ big screen debut.
The HP Highliner gets mentions by name in Sideways
However, for the many local enterprises featured in the film – wine labels like Whitcraft, Andrew Murray, Fiddlehead and Margerum Wine Co. and destinations like Ostrich Land, downtown Solvang, The Los Olivos Café and the River Course at The Alisal – the movie’s greatest achievement is the way it memorializes the Santa Ynez Valley.

“I remember telling my employees during the filming: this movie will come and go, but we’ll still be here, so we have to keep our integrity, focus on our customers and keep prices the same,” Ostini told the captive crowd last week. His focus paid off, of course; the movie’s unexpected triumph has been an added bonus.

“In 100 years from now, long after I’m gone, people will watch this movie and see a little snapshot of what my life is all about right now,” says Ostini. “And that’s just amazing.”

The Hitching Post II is open for dinner nightly and just celebrated one year since it’s 11-acre expansion, which includes a new tasting room and a full lunch menu. Find out more at

Learn more about Buellton at

And for tickets to Sideways Fest, visit