The Bet on Rhone that Paid Off: Epiphany Cellars Turns 20

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Montecito Journal on 2/6/20

When Eli Parker launched his pet project, Epiphany Cellars, 20 years ago, his dad had doubts.
 
“He was not thrilled with what he perceived to be a distraction at the time,” says the vintner, referencing Fess Parker, the Disney icon who launched his eponymous wine brand in 1989. Ten years in, the label, anchored on a sweeping 700-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley that remains the family homestead today, had already won fame for a diverse portfolio of wines. A new label might dilute its visibility in the marketplace.
 
The new venture was timed right, though, thanks to several factors that had come into play in the 1990s; indeed, the family’s beloved patriarch would soon have a change of heart. Syrah, the flagship grape of the Rhone grape varieties – as in, originating in the Rhone region of France – saw a surge in popularity during the final decade of the 20th century. It meant, on the one hand, that the marketplace became flooded with cheap renditions of syrah. “Consumers embraced it at the $10-to-$12 price point but then couldn’t understand the other, more expensive end of the spectrum,” recalls Mr. Parker.
 
But the younger Parker’s own travels in the 90s to places like France, where Rhone wine production was well established, and Australia, where wines like syrah were getting a fresh new spin, solidified his love for all things Rhone.  “The more I drank those wines, the more I loved those wines,” he says, and he quickly came to the realization that “the Rhone set is really what I had a passion for.”
 
Eli Parker
At this time – the clock was quickly ticking toward a new millennium – the Fess Parker label was fine-tuning its own focus in earnest, thanks to new leadership from Tim Snider, an E & J Gallo alum who joined the family business in 1999 (and who’d soon become Eli’s brother-in-law). The brand’s hard pivot toward pinot noir and chardonnay cleared the way for Eli to focus on Rhone varieties in earnest: syrah, for sure, plus lesser-known red grapes like grenache and mourvedre, and whites like viognier, roussanne and grenache blanc. The first releases of wine under the Epiphany Cellars label were small lot experiments that Eli conducted with then-winemaker Brett Escalera (who’s with the Sanger Family of Wines in Solvang now), including the syrah-grenache amalgam known as Revelation ($49), which remains a flagship Epiphany blend to this day.
 
Twenty years later, Epiphany Cellars is one of the best vintage-by-vintage snapshots in all of Santa Barbara County, and in all of California, of the potential of Rhone grapes. The label produces various vineyard-specific syrahs, bottles rare finds like the red grape counoise on their own and produces phenomenal blends, including one of my favorites, Gypsy ($29). Grapes are sourced locally, including Rodney’s Vineyard on the family ranch for some of the best bottlings, and as far away as Napa. With Eli taking a more supervisorial role, the label is in the hands of winemaker phenom Blair Fox.
 
“He’s a Rhone fanatic, too, and we have similar palates,” says Mr. Parker. “If I had to hand over the program to anyone, Blair was a no brainer. His whole team is amazing.”
 
The Epiphany tasting room in downtown Los Olivos
Indeed, Mr. Blair and his crew handle winemaking for the Parker family’s entire production of more than 70,000 cases a year, including the Fess Parker label, the Fesstivity group of sparklers and the Addendum line of high-end Napa cabernet. The Epiphany lineup is available for tasting daily at its sleek, breezy tasting room along Grand Avenue in Los Olivos.
 
Epiphany’s 20th birthday will be celebrated February 29th from 6-9pm during a special event inside the Fess Parker Winery barrel room. Open That Bottle Night, an annual commemorative day launched by Wall Street Journal wine writers Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, encourages wine fans to – finally – open and enjoy that special bottle that’s long been sitting in their wine racks, awaiting a special occasion. At the Parker family’s event, library wines, including bottlings from throughout Epiphany’s 20-year history, will be poured, and guests are encouraged to bring their own special wine to share. The event is limited to 80 people, so get your tickets at epiphanywineco.com. I’ll see you there!
 
Cheers!
 
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More Than Just Food: Santa Ynez Valley Restaurant Weeks Target Wine Lovers, Too

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Monteicto Journal on 1/23/20

Have you seen all the promos for Restaurant Week? It’s a national phenomenon throughout the winter season, actually: destinations leveraging the appeal of their top chefs (and the allure of value) to entice consumers and beef up foot traffic during a historically slow travel time of the year. Santa Barbara’s Restaurant Week returns February 21 through March 6 and will feature prix-fixe menus at top-tier eateries all around town; in Montecito, they’ll include Lucky’s and the Biltmore’s Bella Vista.
 
The $20.20 3-course menu at Solvang's First & Oak includes
a chocolate mousse dessert w/dulce de leche &crisp honeycomb
(credit: Tenley Fohl Photography)
The one I’m really excited about is the one happening throughout the Santa Ynez Valley right now. It’s Restaurant Weeks, actually – plural – since its run from this past Sunday through January 31st will have offered hungry travelers almost two full weeks of tasty savings. The promotion screams “staycation,” by the way, with several hotels offering discounts and free upgrades during the Weeks’ run.
 
Santa Ynez Valley Restaurant Weeks launched in 2010 and has successfully spotlighted the remarkable dining that the zone’s six towns – Buellton, Solvang, Ballard, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Los Alamos – have to offer. To be sure, though, it’s a dining scene that’s an offshoot of the viticulture that’s been flourishing there for decades.
 
“We’ve had incredible wine crafted in the Santa Ynez Valley for over 50 years, but our burgeoning culinary scene is relatively new,” says Shelby Sim, President and CEO of Visit the Santa Ynez Valley. “Restaurant Weeks is a great time to sample all that we have to offer at an unbeatable price: at $20.20 for a three-course meal, you can visit several restaurants over the two weeks without breaking the bank!”
 
The $20.20 3-course menu at Los Alamos' Cisko Kid includes
a Smoked Lamb Pozole Verde w/Santa Ynez Valley heirloom corn
(credit: Visit Santa Ynez Valley)
More than 30 restaurants are participating this year. At Cecco Ristorante in Solvang, home to what is probably the best pizza crust in all of Santa Barbara County, Chef David Cecchini’s special three-course menu features starter options like a seared diver scallop crudo and smoked salmon carpaccio and entrée selections like Risotto al Mercato, Pizza Bianca and Bistecca al Vino Rosso; everyone gets Affogato for dessert, that sumptuous espresso-gelato treat. A mouthwatering deal, indeed, at $20.20.
 
First & Oak in Solvang, which nabbed special recognition in Michelin’s California guide last year, has a trio of courses that includes a wild mushroom risotto main and chocolate mousse for dessert; they’re also doing a four-course menu for $40.20 and a five-course meal for $58.20. And at the Los Olivos Café in the historic haven of Los Olivos, the $20.20 prix-fixe main options include sage fettuccini, buttermilk fried chicken and rock shrimp risotto.
 
“Chef Conrad Gonzalez at Cisko Kid [in Los Alamos] will use locally sourced heirloom corn to take his dishes to the next farm-to-table level,” Sim told me, “while Luca Crestanelli and his team at S.Y. Kitchen [in Santa Ynez] will offer dishes not part of the regular menu, like Zuppa Celestina, which features a clear beef broth with thinly sliced crepes.”
 
In Buellton, Jeff and Janet Olson of Industrial Eats continue their annual charitable push with a culturally-inspired menu which, this year, features recipes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) and whose proceeds benefit humanitarian causes in that Central African nation. Down the street, at the Hitching Post II, beef buffs get to choose from a top sirloin steak, a New York steak or sirloin-and-quail combo, along with chicken, pork chops and fish dishes; there’s bittersweet chocolate tart with whipped cream for dessert and, as a bonus, special pricing on their popular Hometown pinot noir.
 

In Buellton, the Hitching Post Wines team -- Frank Ostini & Gray Hartley -- are offering
special pricing on lunch &wine during Santa Ynez Valley's Restaurant Weeks
In fact, wineries and tasting rooms are taking part in Restaurant Weeks, too. At their new wine tasting room right next door, the Hitching Post team is offering a special $20.20 pricing on bottles of their outstanding Santa Maria Valley pinot, along with an exclusive lunch-with-wine menu. At nearby Alma Rosa Winery, the pet project by wine pioneer Richard Sanford, a special $20.20 tasting fee adds their delicious bubbly to the regular lineup, and guests enjoy artisan cheeses. At their Gaviota tasting spot off Highway 101, Folded Hills is offering a charcuterie board accompanies the wine tasting. And at sprawling Pence Vineyards off Highway 246, on the way toward the coast, $20.20 is the price for wine sipping with cheese and charcuterie, as well as a vineyard tour.
 
Here’s the bottom line: some of the best eating in California exists in the Santa Ynez Valley. If a promo like Restaurant Weeks succeeds in filling seats during low season with lovers of food and wine who would have otherwise missed out, then it’s a win-win to be sure. Check out the menus and plan your visit at DineSYV.com.
 
Cheers!
 
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