Wine & Fire: Annual Fete Celebrates Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on August 8, 2019

A rose by any other name may still be a rose. But when it comes to wine grapes, nomenclature matters. Just ask anyone who makes wine in the Sta. Rita Hills.
 
The 10 square-mile ag region nestled in the westernmost reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley – where Buellton gives way to Lompoc and where mountains that run east-to-west straddle State Route 246 – is hallowed ground to many wine aficionados. It gained AVA status in 2001 – that’s American Viticultural Area, which denotes a wine grape growing region of distinction by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The recognition allows winemakers to leverage this region’s clout by using that Sta. Rita Hills name on their labels, rather than more general terminology, like Santa Ynez Valley or Santa Barbara County. In fact, the words “Sta. Rita Hills” on a label essentially validates, and elevates, a wine’s pedigree. There are currently six AVAs within Santa Barbara County.
 
The La Purisima Mission hosts the closing night festivities at Wine & Fire
The special, distinguishing characteristics of Sta. Rita Hills are the handiwork of Mother Nature, of course – that aforementioned east-west stretch of the Santa Ynez Mountains, mainly, which is found nowhere else in the western coasts of North or South America, and which creates a funnel for marine air to seep many miles inland.
 
“We get to keep cool while the rest of the world keeps warming up,” says James Sparks, the winemaker mastermind behind the celebrated Liquid Farm brand and his own wow-worthy label, Kings Carey.
 
“The winds in evenings cools everything down and dries everything up,” he continues, “so the grapes get to just chill for eight to 12 hours, until the fog dissipates the next day. Sta. Rita Hills are very unique in that aspect compared to the rest of California and the rest of the world.”
 
It turns out that these unique weather conditions, along with diatomaceous soils replete with calcium-rich chalk and limestone, are idyllic for pinot noir and chardonnay. Winemakers have figured that out, and consumers are paying attention, too. Bottom line: the pinot and chard grown in the Sta. Rita Hills are superlative wines that are elevating Santa Barbara viticulture’s standing on the world stage.
 

Foley Estates host the opening night Barn Party
This year's Wine & Fire, an annual wine-and-BBQ-inspired annual affair that celebrates all things Sta. Rita Hills, takes place August 16-18. It's a unique chance to sip through an impressive lineup of delicious wines. Most importantly, it’s a rare opportunity for consumers to get one-on-one time with the personalities raising the bar here and making some of our area’s most buzzy wine – labels like Babcock, Flying Goat, Fiddlehead, Hitching Post and Brewer-Clifton.
 
The opening event, a Barn Party at Foley Estates ($85), is a casual mingle-fest that’ll feature 30-plus winemakers pouring large-format and library wines. The T-Bone Ramblers perform live and Chef Anthony Endy from the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort fires up the grill.
 
Saturday morning’s Speed Tasting & Lunch With a Winemaker ($110) at Peake Ranch & Vineyard will feature eight winemakers in a speed dating-style interchange with guests, taking turns sitting at tables in 10-minute intervals and pouring and discussing specially-selected wines. Sparks will be pouring and comparing/contrasting two of his Liquid Farm chardonnays – White Hill, which is crisp and clean, and Golden Slope, which is more rich and lush. Both are native to the Sta. Rita Hills, but the grapes are grown in different plots and harvested at different times . “It’s fun to see how those two vineyards and the ways I get to pick differently can affect the outcome,” says Sparks.
 
The grill masters from Buellton's Hitching Post II will fire things up at Wine & Fire
Saturday night’s Grand Tasting ($120) has become legendary because of its setting, the beautiful La Purisima Mission, which is decked out for a spectacular evening culinary feast. Sunday features open houses and breakout events at member wineries throughout the AVA, including a wine-and-food truck affair ($40) at the Santa Rita Wine Center in Lompoc.
 
Wine & Fire  is presented by the Sta. Rita Hills Alliance. Tickets to all events, especially the Saturday morning speed tasting, are limited. Check out staritahills.com for more information.
 
See you there!

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Every Sip of the STORM CELLAR Helps: New August Cocktail at Santa Barbara's Finch & Fork Restaurant Raises Funds for Vintners Charity

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on 8/1/19

Thirsty? May I suggest the “Storm Cellar” at Finch & Fork? After all, every sip helps!
 
The Storm Cellar
The mixology team at the popular restaurant-and-bar at Santa Barbara’s Kimpton Canary Hotel launched a unique charity drive this summer – Cocktails for a Cause. A new mixed drink is introduced each month and proceeds from the sale of each order – shaken or stirred – are earmarked for a different non-profit. When they asked to team up with me for the month of August, I jumped at the chance, and I let my taste buds lead the way.
 
A cocktail novice myself, my contribution was to suggest that a local wine be a main ingredient in the cocktail. Wine as a mixed drink ingredient can be challenging – the powerful flavors of big red wines, especially, can clash against popular spirits like vodka and bourbon. So Finch & Fork’s lead mixologist, George Piperis, went white, with the 2018 Storm Sauvignon Blanc, right off the Finch & Fork wine list.
 
The wine has plenty of merit on its own. Santa Barbara County’s 2018 vintage was cool, so the sauvignon blanc grapes, which were sourced from three vineyards in different corners of the Santa Ynez Valley, “saw a long hang time and a lot of acid retention, so it’s made in a style that fresh,” says winemaker Ernest Storm of Storm Wines.
 
Piperis agrees. “It has a dry, crisp character,” he tells me last week from behind the bar as he concocts what he’s calling the Storm Cellar, a tip of the barman’s hat to the winemaker. Combined with equal parts gin, along with ginger, lemon juice and soda water, and served on ice, the sauvignon blanc helps create a spritzy, bright, refreshing cocktail. A raspberry liquor floater adds a spark of color and a touch of sweetness that elevates the drink’s zesty pop. The Storm Cellar is super easy to sip, downright delicious and perfect on any August night. It’ll sell for the month of August, and for August only, for $14.
 
Watch George serve up the Storm Cellar:
 
 
Also among my duties: to select August’s charity, which gave me a chance to spotlight the wonderful work of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. The philanthropic arm of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association has represented the vast majority of our area’s vintners in donating to myriad local causes. The Foundation was classified as a nonprofit organization in 2000 and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars through high school and college scholarships and to altruistic groups like the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, People Helping People and the Santa Barbara Foundation. Its biggest gifts go to Direct Relief, with a focus on the well-known international aid group’s local projects; thanks to their spectacular biennial Santa Barbara Wine Auction, it’s raised more than $5 million for the Goleta-based group, including the more than $900,000 it reeled in last year. Find out more about the Foundation’s work at sbvf.org.
 
“It doesn’t matter how much wine we make or sell, it’s more about whatever we can do for others,” says Jessica Gasca, Foundation president and winemaker behind the Story of Soil label. “People in the wine business are generous and they want to give back.”
 
Me & the Finch & Fork team: George Piperis, left, restaurant manager Josh Blumenthal & food & beverage director Bryan LaFontaine
One dollar from the sale of every Storm Cellar will go to the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation. Any thirst concerns during the month of August, then, should be taken directly to the Finch & Fork in downtown Santa Barbara, at 31 W. Carrillo St. The bar is open all day from 7am for breakfast, lunch and dinner and hosts Happy Hour every weekday from 4-7pm. Check out the predominantly local wine list and the whimsical lineup of cocktails at finchandforkrestaurant.com.
 
Just be sure to order the Storm Cellar by name.
 
Cheers!
 
 
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Celebrating 30: A Milestone for Santa Barbara's Fess Parker Winery

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on July 25, 2019

The folks at Fess Parker Winery are already in the holiday spirit!
 
The winemaking team at the sprawling winery in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley sent out a notice last week highlighting “Wines for the Holiday Table.” They hand-picked three wines that they feel “could help create a fun-filled holiday,” according to a news release, including their 2016 Fesstivity Brut CuveĆ©, a bright and bouncy sparkling wine made from a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, and their crisp and lively 2017 Ashley’s Chardonnay. The Fess Parker 2017 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir rounds out the trio, a wine I enjoyed with dinner a few nights ago and loved: it’s bouncy but elegant, with wonderful flavors of red berries and dark cherries. Its fruit source – various vineyards in the celebrated Sta. Rita Hills growing region between Buellton and Lompoc, including the famous Sanford & Benedict Vineyard  -- speaks to its pedigree. At $30, this is an awesome pinot noir value.
 
A lot of us may not be ready to put together a Christmas wine shopping list just yet. But if you are, you won’t go wrong by stuffing your stocking with any of these wines. If nothing else, kudos to the Parker marketing team for getting us to think about Christmas in the middle of July!
 
This was a fresh reminder, of course, that Fess Parker Winery is in the throes of a major milestone this year: its 30th anniversary. In a young wine region like Santa Barbara – a viticultural area that began to show promise on a world scale only in the mid- to late 1970s – three successful decades is a big deal. It makes you a pioneer, of sorts. And there’s no denying the Parkers’ special story, one defined by myriad business successes and one fueled by a multigenerational vision.
 
Fess Parker at Rodney's Vineyard (photo by Claude Ising, 2007)
“The original motivation for buying the ranch was the fact it was a gorgeous piece of property, and its proximity to Santa Barbara,” Ashley Parker-Snider told me recently. She was speaking about late 1987, when her dad, Disney TV Icon Fess Parker, bought a 714-acre estate along Foxen Canyon Road. The Texas native had already become a household name, thanks to his uber-successful portrayals in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood of American heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Various projects for Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. had made Mr. Parker one of Hollywood’s original celebrities by the time he moved his family to Hope Ranch in the late 70s. He’d purchase a 23-acre resort along Cabrillo Blvd. in 1986 – it’s the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort today, owned 50-50 between the Parker family and Hilton Hotels, which manages it – and the Santa Ynez Valley ranch the following year.
 
Winemaking from grapes off the estate was a fun family experiment at first, a new frontier. “It started out very organically,” Ashley recalls, “and then it definitely picked up steam.” The first decade would be defined by plenty of experimentation, several hits and several misses. The wine program would come into focus and be far more refined by the year 2000, when E&J Gallo alum Tim Snider, now company president and Ashley’s husband, and winemaker Blair Fox had joined the team. Ashley and brother Eli took on relevant roles from the get-go – they’ve always been hands-on with winemaking, vineyard sourcing and marketing. And their own children’s involvement makes the wide range of Fess Parker project – known collectively at FESPAR -- a solid three-generation enterprise. Today, that’s a powerhouse project that includes hotels in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley, the celebrated Bear & Star Restaurant in Los Olivos and a thriving ranch and cattle business.
 
The Parkers
The winery produces close to 70,000 cases a year through a portfolio of several labels, including the eponymous Fess Parker, the Epiphany line of Rhone wines, the Addendum series of Napa-based cabernet sauvignons and the Fesstivity bubblies. The accolades that the Parker wines earn – 90+ point reviews from all the top wine publications and rave reviews from consumers near and far – make their impact on the world’s growing appreciation of Santa Barbara County wines undeniable. And that’s 30 years well spent, and spent well.
 
August presents three ways to join the Fess Parker Winery pearl anniversary celebration: the weekend of August 16th and 17th includes a Celebration of Rodney’s Vineyard ($100), a 30th Anniversary Retrospective Tasting ($80) and a Movie Night ($20) screening of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, starring Fess Parker, with proceeds benefitting the Old Yeller Ranch Rescue for dogs. All events take place at the Santa Ynez Valley ranch. For tickets, visit fessparker.com/events.
 
Cheers!
 
 
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