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Wine Tasting Santa Barbara-Style, Part 2: Small-Lot Wineries in the Santa Barbara Hills

I have a tale of two cities to share with you. This is a tale of a city by the sea and at the same time a city that stretches into gentle foothills and rugged mountains. A city whose reputation is built on fine wines, culinary greatness, and adventure- based activities that range from the urban divine, to the salty ocean, to the rolling mountains. You might come for the Pinot as I did, but you’ll leave touched by the style and grace of a user-friendly community that is at the top of its game.

In my wine tasting stories, I am looking beyond the big name wineries for small lot, family owned wineries that are the soul of any wine region. Along the way, I also experience exceptional lodging, food, and activities that complement my adventure. This trip was no exception. With help from Shannon Brooks, Director of Communications for the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau my two day mid-week trip was, to say the least, memorable. My first day was spent “Carless in Santa Barbara,” and is penned as Part 1 ~ The Urban Wine Trail and can be found in a separate article.

My day two goal was to experience the breath and width of the wineries of Santa Barbara. I asked Shannon to give me a full day wine itinerary focusing on the variety of growing regions (there are five), cherry picking only the small lot, family owned wineries that have an exceptional story to tell. Well folks, all I have to say is… GREAT job Shannon and…thank goodness for GPS! Fortifying ourselves for what would become an 11- hour round trip adventure, my husband and I joined several other travelers for a delightful breakfast in the gardens of our home base, the Cheshire Cat Inn and Cottages . We then programmed our GPS and headed out for our 4-target wineries: Alma Rosa Winery, Margerum Wine Company, Demetria Estate, and Flying Goat Cellars.

I liked that we began our day with the folks who are planted the first Santa Barbara area vineyard way back in 1970. I sat down with Alma Rosa Winery’s (Buellton) owner Richard Sanford for a 30 minute chat. I found him to be what I call a “smart interview.” This guy had a vision for the area long before anyone else thought about grapes or winetasting rooms in connection with the Santa Rita Hills AVA. A Naval officer originally interested in cultural geography, Richard was convinced that quality grapes could be grown in the region. He went back and studied 100 years of climate studies to see if his hunch was right. He also got in his car and drove around with a thermometer looking for just the right place to plant his vineyards. I’d say that was brains and initiative at its co-pairing best. “I knew I needed a cool maritime climate to preserve the flowery fruit nose I was looking for and natural acidity that produces bright, refreshing wines” Robert told me. “It turned out to be a remarkable experience, a sense of discovery for me. I followed my bliss, and here I am today on my third winery producing premium wines in one of the best wine regions in the world.” I’d agree. My picks for this exceptional winery begin with the 2006 Chardonnay - El Jabalí Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. A barely-oaked Chardonnay from 25-year-old vines farmed organically in the front yard of their ranch at El Jabalí, this wine shows off the citrus clarity of the fruit. It has a ripe pear and apricot nose and a slick streak of vanilla in the mouth ($28). I also enjoyed the 2007 Pinot Noir - La Encantada Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills for its lovely balance of raspberry tones with a deeper, darker, cherry-based note ($43).

Stop two found us in Los Olivos at Margerum Wine Company for lunch with owner/winemaker Doug Margerum. To our great delight this was to be a working lunch with staff and friends. Today was a bottling day. Around the lunch table was the assistant winemaker, the Margerum marketing pro, a local grower, a sommelier from Aspen, Doug’s 15 year-old son, a Penfolds winemaker, and two wine club members. Quite a group …and they were all there to either support or learn from Doug. We quickly learned that the admiration and accolades never stop…and there’s good reason for it. I could – and probably should – do a piece just on this man and his vision for the Margerum Wine Company. He’s committed to working with the top vineyards in Santa Barbara County to produce small lots of premium wines. He’s, “…looking to return wine making to its previous form of production -- hand-crafted and personal. “ He delivers wines with place and personality and a special delicacy that makes them especially food friendly. Doug currently produces three primary wines: a Sauvignon Blanc called SYBARITE, a Syrah called ÜBER, and a Rhone blend called M5. Companion single vineyard wines are: a Pinot Gris from Alisos Vineyard, a Sauvignon Blanc from Vogelzang Vineyard, a variety of single vineyard Syrah’s, and a distinctive Pinot Gris from their own vineyard in Washington State. They do NOT have a tasting room so their wines are available directly from their Website. We ended our visit with a vertical barrel tasting of the ’05 Syrah, the ‘06 Syrah (first and second grape pick), the ’07 Syrah, and the ’09 Syrah. Not sure if even the expression OMG does this wine and winemaker justice. By far my personal pick of all wineries visited. You can visit this winery by appointment, and I encourage you to do so, or on my recommendation order a bottle or two online for your cellar. They’re all good, but you might want to start with the 2006 Margerum Syrah Alondra de los Prados Vineyard. This wine is for aficionados and at $36 it’s a steal.

Off we went down the road to the by reservation only Demetria Estate. It’s located on a very long (almost -2 lane) road that winds up into the Los Olivos hills. It sits behind two sets of coded gates. Luckily we had the passcodes and marriage-saving GPS. The setting is gorgeous. Seated tasting with attentive, knowledgeable staff makes this a special treat. The wines are varietally specific creations of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc farmed sustainably in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County. They farm bio dynamically so their Rhone-based wines are, according to son Alexis Zahoudanis, “Of consequence and environmental merit.” I love it when wineries talk environmental. Their estate vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley produces Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. “Our wines are made in a whole cluster style, creating lower alcohol and higher acid. They are bone dry and make great food wines” Alexis told me. My suggestion? Schedule this winery on your next trip to Santa Barbara and for sure purchase the “summer in a glass” 2007 Cuvée Papou ($28). It’s a white Rhone blend of Rousanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc. I know you’ll enjoy the elegant floral notes on the nose and the rich crispness of apple, orange blossom, passion fruit and subtle apricot flavors on the palate. Ideal with spicy foods or chicken dishes.

GPS set; we were off to our final winery visit, Flying Goat Cellars in Lompac. Winemaker Norm Yost has been making wine for twenty-five years, and has a particular passion for Pinot Noir. Since this grape is finicky and unpredictable…and a particular favorite of mine, I was really looking forward to chatting with this man who calls his Pinots, “Fine wine…alluring, delightful and thoroughly enjoyable.” Unfortunately, our wires got crossed and he was elsewhere and the tasting room was closed when we arrived. All is not lost however. Norm dropped off a couple of wines at our B & B and agreed to an interview at a later time, so I will be doing a separate focus article on him at a later time. Can’t wait!

Our final stop for the day was dinner at the famous Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton just outside Solvang. Co-owner Frank Ostini sat with us for 30 minutes or so and was a wealth of information. The first thing I learned was that there is a darn good winery attached to this restaurant…AND it came before (1984) the restaurant (1986). The food is Santa Maria style fare cooked on a wood fire stove. As Frank says, “The fire is what my food is about. It’s simple but high quality.” The place was packed because the food and wines are exceptional, not just because Sideways featured it. Much of our visit concentrated on the wines, and rightly so.

I am sure you’ll go for the food and the fame of the place, but do NOT miss the wines. Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post wines are made by Buellton Hitching Post owner/chef Frank Ostini and his good friend, former fisherman Gray Hartley. Their passionate focus is to work with the California Central Coast's best vineyards to produce Pinot Noirs, Syrah’s, and a Cabernet Franc blend. With a cool marine-influenced climate and an unusually long growing season, the grapes make wines that drink well when young and have the ability to improve and age gracefully for years to come. I know, surprise, surprise. You absolutely MUST taste the 2004 Westerly Vineyard Merlot (I think they only bring it out when you ask for it). It’s a serious Merlot. Whatever it costs, try it, you’ll thank me later. The 2007 ($22.00) is also exceptional. The “Pinks” (Pinot) 2009 Rosé ($15) is awesome. It has beautiful aromas of strawberry, cherry and rainbow sherbet. And finally, the Santa Barbara Pinot Noir 2006 Highliner ($40) is a stunner. This top-of-the-line bottling, blends their best barrels from their best vineyards. Their goal is, “To achieve balance and complexity in a graceful and elegant, yet compelling and complete expression of Pinot Noir from our region.” Yup. I got that loud and clear. These wines are a delight to sniff and sip.

After a long but satisfying road trip, we left the Hitching Post and headed back to our luxury lodgings. The Cheshire Cat Inn and Cottages is centrally located for any type of Santa Barbara adventure you’re looking for. Its 5 minutes to downtown, an hour or less to many wineries. The staff is welcoming and knowledgeable. The 17 well-appointed large rooms are all named for and decorated in an Alice in Wonderland theme. Rates ($199 - $399 depending on season) include gratuity-free service, delicious continental breakfast mid-week and full out breakfast on weekends, afternoon wine & hors d’oeuvre hour daily, complimentary wireless Internet, computer & printer solely for guests’ use, outdoor Jacuzzi, fluffy robes, selection of DVDs, and (yea!) off-street parking. I know you’ll enjoy the gorgeous flower-filled gardens, fountains, spa, and gazebo hugging the two historical Queen Ann houses built in 1894 that make up the Inn. Peaceful, relaxing, romantic seems to capture the essence of this charming place.

So ends my time in Santa Barbara. Before I go, I want to remind you that there are lots of activity options when visiting this area. Especially notable are the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum (fabulous surf board collection and a director that really knows his stuff – ask for a personal tour with Greg Gorga), and the Botanic Garden. Be sure to do some research on special areas like the Summerland Sojourn (sleepy, artists’ haven), The Funk Zone (Eclectic mix of surfboard shapers, studios, galleries and wine tasting rooms), the Culinary Jaunt (A hub for haute cuisine), and Paseo Nuevo ( Upscale shopping with VERY cool jewelry!) . There are also tours galore available. I especially like the Brew Trek (six micro-breweries), Film Tours (From Scarface to Sideways), and the Santa Barbara Safari. You can find out more about each at the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau Web site. Summer, winter, spring or fall YOU must set your GPS to this five-region appellation to personally celebrate the food, wine and culture of it all.

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