Those Who Wine Together, Stay Together: Meet Three Santa Barbara Winemaking Couples

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/14/19

Love may well be all you need. But to make it work and to make it last, you can’t skimp on patience, compassion and understanding. That’s certainly true when it comes to making wine – a mash-up of talent, sweat and sacrifice that often makes a very personal project a very grueling one. These three Santa Barbara couples are proof that love has a lot to do with success in the wine business – love, plus a few glasses shared at the end of the day.
 
Brooke and Mike Carhartt
Like me, Mike Carhartt married way up. And he agrees. “She’s smart, intelligent, good-looking, creative – she takes care of everything,” he says of his wife of almost 37 years and his partner in the Carhartt Vineyards business, which they launched in 1996. He grows the grapes and Brooke makes the wine – a labor of love, these days, with their son, Chase.  When the 30-year-old – a whiz both in the winery and across myriad social media platforms – entered the business, “that made the whole thing blossom even more,” adds Mike. Carhartt produces 7000 cases of wine a year and sells all of it directly to consumer, both through their wine club and their trendy new tasting cabin in Los Olivos. It is a seven-day-a-week gig, and a family affair, which means that the lines between work and home often blur. “We have a rule that, after six or seven o’clock, we don’t talk shop,” says Brooke. And then she adds, with a laugh, “It’s not always successful, but it’s a good theory!” This partnership – and it’s clearly a happy, healthy one when you spend time with the two of them – is a reflection of a mutual respect for boundaries. “We both have our own tasks and roles in our business and we both trust one another in those roles,” says Brooke, “so we don’t have to micromanage each other.” Their intimate understanding of their brand and their winegrowing philosophies helps: “We started it together, it’s our business, and we discuss everything with each other,” she adds. And they both acknowledge their good fortune – “an incredible ride,” Mike calls it. But does this couple’s venture bring its share of trying moments? You bet. “The hardest part,” Brooke says, tongue in cheek, “is that I have to make him lunch every day!”
 
 
Sarah and Blair Fox
This is a story about high school sweethearts who went on to get married, have two kids and launch, not one, but two, successful wine labels. “I feel fortunate to be able to work alongside such a talented husband/winemaker who loves what he does and who’s so good at it,” says Sarah Fox, who started dating Blair during senior year at Santa Barbara High. She studied at SBCC, and he at UCSB, before the two graduated from UC Davis. This year, as parents of 14- and 11-year-old soccer star daughters, they’ll celebrate 20 years of marriage. There’s no denying Blair Fox’s credentials, or workload: when the winner of the prestigious Andre Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year Award is not making wines for Fess Parker Winery, he’s working on his own, for both Blair Fox Cellars and Fox Wine Co. She helps with the winemaking, runs the tasting rooms and manages the businesses. Sticking together as a couple for decades goes far in making the wine businesses work. “We’ve been together so long, and we’ve been doing this together so long, that we’ve figured it out,” says Blair. Sarah admits that “no matter what time of day or night, a conversation arises about business, [so] we have to constantly remind ourselves to keep our evenings as personal as possible.” Kids’ schedules and interests beyond wine keep things fresh, and defined roles keep the business moving. “When it comes to hard core winemaking decisions, that’s where I step in,” says Blair. “In terms of business and ideology and what needs to be done, that’s her. And that helps the relationship – usually!”
 
 
Sonja Magdevski & Greg Brewer
Wine is what brought Sonja Magdevski and Greg Brewer together, and it’s what’s keeping them together, too. She’s the mastermind behind the fun, popular Casa Dumetz brand. He’s the phenom who’s made the Brewer-Clifton label, part of Jackson Family Wines, synonymous with the best in Santa Barbara pinot noir and chardonnay. For the two of them, wine is more than a job, of course – it’s a lifestyle. And like any passion project – like any endeavor that means putting your heart on the line day in and day out – it’s defined by its ups and its downs. “It’s beautiful when you understand someone’s industry from the inside so well, so that the second they say one word or make a comment or have a certain expression on their face, you know exactly the gravity of what that means,” says Sonja. Her marriage to Greg in 2016 was her first, his second. It was a business relationship first, then a friendship. And then the mutual respect they had for each other as winemakers “ramped things up,” recalls Greg, with a laugh. He agrees with Sonja that empathy is key for them – he calls it “really healthy in keeping our spirits going.” But a successful personal relationship in the wine biz is also about checks and balances. “Wine projects are so emotionally fueled that they’re really our own identity – we’re really deep in it, 100% in,” he says. “Having someone to read that and help navigate that for the other is a beautiful equilibrium to maintain.” Sonja brings it back to that mutual respect that fueled their romance in the first place: “We’re each other’s number one fan.”
 
 
Wise words for any relationship, and in any industry, I say.
 
Happy Valentine’s Day!
 
Want more wine, food & travel stories? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!
 
###

Fizzy and Flirty: Pink Santa Barbara Sparkling Wines Perfect for Valentine’s Day

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 2/14/19

The mechanics behind making sparkling wine look pink are pretty straightforward. You’ve got to use red grapes, of course – pinot noir, if you’re going to be traditional, though many local winemakers are also flirting with grapes like grenache and syrah. The longer the red skin contact with the juice, the more intense the rosy hue.
 
But there’s nothing mundane about the sensations conjured up by a delicious bubbly rosé: the chill on the glass that melts to the warmth of her fingertips, the rush of effervescence that fans the beating of her heart and that pretty pink tint that, if you’ve played your cards right, blushes just as much as she does.
 
Impressing the one you love on Valentine’s Day is never an easy task, but these five pink Santa Barbara sparklers will help.
 
Carhartt “Venture” Nat/E Boi Sparkling Rosé ($30)
If you’re looking for a traditional bubbly, look elsewhere. The same fun, edgy approach that’s made Carhartt one of the hippest wine brands in Santa Barbara spills into this brand new sparkling wine project. Made using a technique called Methode Ancestrale, also known as Pet-Nat, this wine bends a lot of rules.  No yeast. No sulphur. And no disgorgement, meaning no solids are removed, resulting in a naturally hazier beverage. “The whole concept of a ‘natural wine’ for me is to produce something with the least intervention possible,” writes winemaker Brooke Carhartt in her February wine club newsletter. She made the wine with her 30-year-old son, Chase, using grenache grown on the family farm by her husband, Mike. Forgoing the cork for a crown cap and showing off tangerine cream aromas and citrusy berry flavors, “it’s just a bottle of fun,” says the elder Carhartt, “and people are just lapping it up.” It’s an instant hit, too: less than 15 of the 45 cases released just last week remain in Carhartt’s Los Olivos tasting room. carharttvineyard.com
 
2016 Fess Parker Winery Fesstivity Brut Rosé ($49)
This release is also brand new: it was disgorged just last month after almost two ears en tirage, which is time that bubbly spends in bottle, in contact with yeast, during its secondary fermentation.  “The 2016 vintage, in general, are the best sparkling wines we’ve made under the Fesstivity label,” says winemaker Blair Fox, who makes the sparkling wines following strict traditional methods inside the Fess Parker facility along Foxen Canyon Road. The superlative 2016 bubblies, the young label’s fourth vintage, are the result of continual “fine-tuning in our winemaking process,” he adds, as well as “expert vineyard operations.” Fruit for the all-pinot noir sparkler came from the family’s Parker West vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills, which was planted by Fox himself, and a harvest at low sugars led to a wine with bright acidity and zest. Grapefruit aromas, raspberry flavors and a pretty soft pink color make for a lovely sipping experience. fessparker.com
 
2016 Toccata Sparkling Rosato ($35)
This one’s inspired more by prosecco than Champagne, since it comes from Lucas & Lewellen’s sister label with an Italian spin, Toccata. Pinot grigio grown on the brand’s Los Alamos Vineyard, one of its three estate vineyards, is predominant, which gives this bubbly brightness, liveliness and an easy-drinking vibe. Credit a squelch of dolcetto for the rosy color – it leans more crimson than pink – and a splash of malvasia bianca for the floral aromatics. Made by winemaker Megan McGrath-Gates, this wine is fizzy, fruity and fun. Find it at the Toccata tasting room in the heart of downtown Solvang. llwine.com
 
2016 Riverbench Cork Jumper Brut Rosé ($48)
Riverbench launched its sparkling wine program in 2008 with 200 cases. Driven by demand, annual production of various different bubblies is now at 3500 cases. The Brut Rosé is all pinot noir and grown in the estate vineyard nestled in the Santa Maria Valley. The flushed hue is striking. “After we make the base wine, some of the color drops off during fermentation,” says general manager Laura Booras,” so we add a few gallons of still red wine toward the end to get that pretty pink color.” The wine is made to be less bready or yeasty than a traditional Champagne and, rather, in a style that drives acidity and freshness. Discover bright red fruit and rose petal aromas and strawberry flavors with a touch of lime zest. Booras says it best: “This is a very romantic wine.” riverbench.com
 
2015 Flying Goat Cellars Rosé ($42)
If there’s a pioneer in the realm of Santa Barbara sparkling winemaking, it’s Norm Yost. The man behind the Flying Goat label went fizzy 15 years ago and, today, produces no less than five sparklers each vintage. The Rosé is the workhorse, the most popular in the lineup, to the tune of 300 cases a year. The fruit – pinot noir clone 23, a Champagne clone, “with thick skins and big berries,” says the winemaker – comes from Solomon Hills Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley and produces a lively sipper with berry and watermelon flavors and a dash of spice. Yost, whose Lompoc Wine Ghetto tasting room features a sparkling wine-exclusive bar, touts the wine’s food friendliness. “I like a good, dry, hard cheese with it, or salmon on the grill, or a white meat like pork tenderloin,” he says. “Its great acidity makes a it a great palate cleanser, and its lower alcohol (12.5%) lets you have an extra glass with less worry.” flyinggoatcellars.com
 
Happy Valentine’s Day!
 
Want more wine, food & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!
 
###

Culinary Classic: Maui Event Bridges Love for Wine, Travel & Luxury

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/31/19

UPDATE: Click here for information on the 2020 Maui Wine & Food Classic, returning Memorial Day Weekend, May 22-25

The upcoming Four Seasons Maui Wine & Food Classic is a glimpse into the future of travel: Americans are seeking experiences that are as memorable as they are transformative, and they’re seeking luxury. And this Classic, the first of its kind, aims to deliver.
 
“This is about changing a culture of how we experience wine, and in a region that will make an impact,” says Christian Navarro, president and co-owner of the Wally’s culinary enterprises in L.A. and a man regularly dubbed, ‘sommelier to the stars.’ Wally’s is co-creator of the Classic with the Four Seasons Resort Maui, oceanfront celebrity haven where the inaugural three-day foodie spectacular will take place March 1st through 3rd.
 
The Four Seasons Resort Maui
“We’re living in an era where people are forgetting to listen,” Navarro continues, referencing the trend toward larger, impersonal consumer events that define the American wine industry today. The Classic, with a three-day guest total hovering around 200, “is immersive and all about intimacy.”
 
He adds: “We want to change the way we look at cultural experiences. Instead of these giant events where you have sea of people and a gazillion wines, I want to make it smaller.”
 
Christian Navarro
Some of the 20 full-time somms at the Four Seasons Resort Maui
Navarro has curated an impressive list of almost three dozen world-class wine producers for the Classic, most of which will be represented at the Classic by their founders, family figureheads and lead winemakers: Colgin, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Kistler, Louis Roederer, Dom Perignon, Taittinger, Bisol, Moet and Cheval Des Andes, to name but a few. California powerhouses include Harlan Estate, Krug, Newton, Williams-Selyem and Wally’s own proprietary Napa label, Marciano Estates.
 
Asks Navarro, “Where else would you be able to mingle and speak one-on-one with folks like this?”
 
The Classic coincides with Wally’s own renaissance – a 50-year L.A. wine powerhouse that has managed to reinvent itself in the last three or so years, pivoting from a wine-centric family of shops to a pair of gastronomic destinations in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
 
The Classic’s island setting, and its connection to the Four Seasons Resort Maui, is instrumental to its legitimacy and success, too. Set in Wailea, on Maui’s southwestern shores, where sunshine prevails more than 300 days out of the year, what’s considered one of the best Four Seasons properties in the world “is a little piece of paradise that will allow all of us to let our guard down, and just talk and interact.” Maui-sourced ingredients and products will feature prominently during the event. And the resort, one of only four AAA 5-Diamond properties in all of Hawaii, is already a culinary destination all its own, with renowned eateries like Spago and Ferraro’s onsite and no less than 20 full-time sommeliers on staff.
 
Enjoying dinner at Ferraro's with my son, Dec. 2018
The partnership between the Four Seasons Maui and Navarro launched about a year ago, when the lavish resort finished renovation on its Elite Suites, super luxurious top-tier accommodations. The famous wine pro was brought on to create enhanced wine experiences for guests -- more than half of whom herald from lucrative SoCal zip codes from Santa Barbara to Bel-Air and who invest $14,000 a night on their tropical getaway. Navarro sources uber-premium wines for Elite Suite guests; the current liquid lineup includes Tyler Winery’s 2012 Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay by winemaker Justin Willett, “an incredible Santa Barbara County-based producer making some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay on the Central Coast,” according to Navarro. The Wally’s whiz also established one-on-one somm-led wine courses, ultimate wine pairing dinners and “glassology” classes on optimal glassware led by Resort Manager and Riedel-certified expert Marti Dell.
 
March’s Wine & Food Classic will feature a series of Master Classes ($250) led  by vintners and master sommeliers, ranging from “Napa Valley Superstars” and “A Discovery of Pinot Noir” to “Louis Roederer Champagne & Roederer Estate: France vs. California” and “Louis XIII Cognac.” The “Oceanfront Gala” ($495), set on one of the hotel’s most popular ocean overlooks, will feature plenty of mingling opportunity.
 
Me w/Wally's Chef Ryan Kluver, Jan. 2019
And guests will have five Elite Wine Dinners ($995) to choose from, hosted throughout the resort and starring labels like Colgin, Harlan, Pio Cesare and Chateau Cos d’Estournel. At a recent media event at Wally’s Beverly Hills, Chef Ryan Kluver previewed his multi-course dinner featuring Marciano Estate wines: the BBQ Pink Opakpaka, a native Hawaiian pink snapper, was served with grilled avocado and coconut rice and the Ribeye Cap, rubbed with Maui coffee, came with a Maui onion farcie, Okinawa sweet potato and a tamarind jus.
 
All five concurrent dinners retire for dessert to the Serenity Pool, the resort’s adult-only pool that is usually closed after dark. The moonlight party fosters more mingling and conversation, all fueled by over-the-top desserts, hand-crafted cocktails featuring Casa Dragones Tequila – and that sweeping ocean view.
 
Events can be secured individually. The all-inclusive Wine & Food Package, which includes a four-night stay at the Four Seasons Maui and pairs of tickets to six events, including the experiences above as well as a farewell sparkling wine Brunch, starts at $5540. Find out more at fourseasons.com/maui.
 
Want more wine, food & travel news? Follow me on Twitter & Instagram!
 
###