The varied and amazing wines and wineries of Santa Barbara County

It’s no secret, I’m in love with the Santa Barbara County Wine Region.  It is laid back with an incredible range of variety.  “Sideways” got it right.  This is the best up and coming wine area in our country.  Up and coming actually seems a little silly, the wineries and winemakers here have quite a history.  There are giants of winemaking here including: Richard Sanford, Jim Clenedenen, Bob Linquist, Richard Longoria & Bill Wathen. And the list of amazing winemakers continues to grow and the wines they are producing are varied and amazing.

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Santa Barbara lies in a unique area that separated from the plates along the coast.  Over the past twelve million years this little section shifted and created a Transverse valley.  This means that the valley here runs east west as opposed to north south like all the other valleys on our coast.  The transverse valley and the microclimates within it lead to a place where you can grow an amazing variety of grapes in a relatively small area.  On the western edge the valley is cool and is perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  As you move east the valley warms by a degree a mile!  This makes the middle section perfect for Rhone varieties like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Roussanne and as you continue to the east side where Happy Canyon lies you have enough heat to support those Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.

So if you are a wine geek like me…this is a great place.  But if you are not a wine geek and want to avoid the intimidation of wine talk and just enjoy a glass…well this is the right place too.

So…make your first stop in the Funk Zone near the beach in Santa Barbara on the Urban Wine trail.  Stop into one of the many great tasting rooms there.  Maybe hit Municipal Winemakers first and soak up some of the funky atmosphere.  Sit down at the picnic table and enjoy a glass of rose.

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

Then if you are feeling like learning a little about where these wines come from head up the street to AVA Santa Barbara. Here you can taste wines from all the different regions in Santa Barbara County.  The entire wall over the tasting bar is a huge chalk mural by Elkpen that  shows the regions soils, microclimates and topography. The wines, by Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines are lovely and deliberately varied to feature the microclimates in this incredible area.

Au Bon Climate, Grassini, Margerum

If you head further North into downtown, you will find Grassini, Au Bon Climat & Margerum to choose between for a tasting.

Bistro Dining and Sunset Tasting at Deep Sea

Bistro Dining and Sunset Tasting at Deep Sea

Head back through the downtown shopping district and stop at  Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro for lunch.  Then take a stroll on the beach and finally enjoy a nice glass of wine at Conway Family Wines – Deep Sea Tasting room on the Santa Barbara Pier while you enjoy the sunset.

 

Saarloos & Sons & Cupcakes

Saarloos & Sons & Cupcakes

Oh, but my friend, you are just getting started in Santa Barbara County.  Tomorrow drive into Solvang, the adorable little Danish town and get some aebleskivers for breakfast at the Solvang Restaurant.  You can then stroll this town and taste at several tasting rooms that you can walk to, or drive a little further into Los Olivos where you will find over 35 tasting rooms to choose from!  And…I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a great place to dine at Side’s Hardware & Shoes.  Don’t miss Saarloos and Sons for a pairing with cupcakes from Enjoy Cupcakes.

Carhartt Patio Tasting Area

Carhartt Patio Tasting Area

They are there Thursday thru Sunday from 11-5 (or until they run out of cupcakes, so go early!) and one of my favorite tasting rooms, the tiniest one on the planet is across the street from Saarloos and Sons at Carhartt.  Carhartt stays open an hour later than the others and this often becomes quite the gathering spot on the beautiful but tiny back patio.

Are you overwhelmed yet?  There is more…I highly recommend Terrravant Winery Restaurant in Buellton for dinner and pairings.  They have an Enomatic wine dispensing system set up so you can try small tastes of many of the amazing local wines.  And the now World Famous Hitching Post II is also here in Buellton, made famous by the movie “Sideways”.

Avante Front Entrance

Avante Tapas & Wine Bar Front Entrance

Tomorrow morning you have more wine country to explore!  There are amazing wineries outside of Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley like Buttonwood Farms & Beckman.  Or travel up to Santa Maria through Foxen Canyon and enjoy the morning Vandenberg Fog.  Stop at Zaca Mesa and try their Rhones.  This place has been around a while and popped out some pretty amazing winemakers!  Further up the road, you can’t miss stopping at “The Shack” at Foxen.

Zaca Mesa chess set

Zaca Mesa Patio with the oversized chess set

And…then there is the Sta. Rita Hills. If you love Pinot or good Chard you want to drive through here.  Make an appointment and stop by Clos Pepe.  Wes Hagen has more vineyard and wine knowledge than you can imagine and a tasting with him is amazing!  Just past Clos Pepe is Hilliard Bruce.  John and Christine have an incredibly beautiful landscaped property and their vineyard management is state of the art.

Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce

Clos Pepe and Hilliard Bruce

Keep driving down 246 to Lompoc and top into the Wine Ghetto.  Filled with small wineries working out of an industrial park you will find Flying Goat Cellars, Fiddlehead & Palmina as well as a host of others.  Check the hours though, because they are often just open on weekends for tastings.  Further into Lompoc you will find Brewer-Clifton, which again brought out my geeky side as we talked about stem inclusion and how they thin the vines to ripen the stems!

Lompac Wine Ghetto

Lompac Wine Ghetto

Have I covered it all?  Not even close.  There is so much exploring I look forward to going back to do.  But…if you are short on time…The Grand Tasting at the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend will have all of these great wineries and winemakers in one place on April 12th.

Or at anytime for information visit Santa Barbara Vintners

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Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend

Santa Barbara Vintners Weekend


The vineyards are seeing bud break, it’s spring and we are all ready to burst outdoors and enjoy the new season.  It’s a beautiful time of year to visit Santa Barbara and enjoy a weekend with the vintners!

Beginning  Thursday April 10th and running to Sunday April 13th, the Vintners Weekend is filled with a variety of events.

Thursday there is the Vintners Festival Golf Tournament and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA Dinner & Wine Pairing.

Friday during the day there is a Vintners Wine Education Seminar Series happening as well as vineyard hikes at Beckman, Buttonwood Farm, Baehner Fournier, Hilliard Bruce and Refugio Ranch.  That evening you can choose between a Barrel Toasting Seminar with Barrel Tasting or a 90+ Points Top Rated Wine & Dine Event.  Other events happening that day include a blind tasting and seminar on Cabernet at Brander Vineyard, a Wine and Cheese Pairing at Brewer-Clifton and a Flying Goat Winemaker Dinner at the La Purisima Mission.

Saturday is the big event with the Vintners Festival Grand Tasting.  There will be over 100 wineries and over 50 varieties of wines represented.  In addition there are Open houses and other events at many wineries including: Melville, Zaca Mesa, Pence Ranch, Lafond, Alta Maria, Longoria, Brander, Lucas & Lewellen, Foxen & Cottonwood Canyon.

Sunday wraps up with a Farm-to-Table Picnic & Concert.  Plus lots of vineyards and wineries will be having open houses, brunches and receptions.

This is the perfect opportunity to explore all the wines of Santa Barbara County, meet the vintners and have a really extraordinary weekend.

Santa Barbara Vintners Weekend

Santa Barbara Vintners Weekend

Baked Salmon recipe Paired with Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?

Herb crusted Salmon

Herb crusted Salmon

Salmon is a glorious fish that can pair with either red or white wine.  So tonight we did a taste test and pulled out 2 stunning bottles of wine from Santa Barbara County.

This was also another incredibly quick meal to make!  I did an Israeli Cous Cous, an herb green salad and then baked a big fillet of salmon.  I searched the web for how to best cook my salmon and found a basic method that I got to add the finishing touches to.  First…take your salmon out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before you plan to prepare it, so that it gets closer to room temperature.  Next, preheat the oven to 475.  Get your baking dish set with a couple tablespoons of butter and a little olive oil and stick it in the oven to preheat.  Meanwhile get your herbs ready.  I had thyme, lemon thyme and parsley that I coated the salmon with on the non-skin side.  Once the butter has melted and the pan is hot, pull it out of the oven and put the fish in skin side up (so herbed side down) and stick it in the oven for about 5 minutes.  Then pull it out and peel the skin off.  The skin should come off easily, if it doesn’t stick it back in for a minute or two.  Once the skin is off, season with salt and pepper and flip it over.  Then season your herbed side also and throw it back in for another 3 or 4 minutes.  I admit, I saved the skin and toasted it up the rest of the way later and it accompanied the rest of the salmon for lunch today.

Here’s what it looked like right out of the oven.

Now for the wines.  I pulled out two wines that I have been wanting to get into. The Chardonnay is a 2010 from Hilliard Bruce.  We had the great pleasure to visit them on our last trip to Santa Barbara.  This Chardonnay is stunning. It is crisp with great acid, but still has that wonderful yeast on the nose.  You get a bit of oakiness in the mouth, but the acid beautifully balances it out.   It is aged in 100% French Oak, 30% of which is new and Christine does barrel fermentation with Montrachet yeast with full malolactic fermentation.   It is aged on the lees for 16 months.

Hilliard Bruce 2010 Chardonnay

Hilliard Bruce 2010 Chardonnay

The second wine, our Pinot Noir comes to us from Carhartt Vineyards another of our favorite places in Santa Barbara County.  The Carhartt 2012 Pinot Noir is from Riverbench Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley.  This is a young bold Pinot Noir and it was suggested to go with grilled planked salmon.  Lots of smoke and baking spice on the nose and very savory with lots of depth.

Carhartt 2012 Pinot Noir

Carhartt 2012 Pinot Noir

So, which paired better?  Both were good, but the Chardonnay really knocked it out of the park..  Keep in mind, Carhartt suggested a grilled planked salmon which would have had lots of smoke flavor.  Had we prepared the salmon that way I think it would have been the winner.  But, as it was the herbs paired beautifully with the Chardonnay, the acid cut through the fat in the salmon and it was amazing bite after bite.

Herb Crusted Salmon, Israeli Cous Cous, Salad, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir.

Herb Crusted Salmon, Israeli Cous Cous, Salad, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir.

 

Hilliard Bruce, Viticulturally blessed

On the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County you will find the pristine Hilliard Bruce vineyard.

The property, owned by John Hilliard and Christine Bruce, is immaculately manicured and as peaceful as a Zen garden.

It has been called, quite appropriately “Viticulturally blessed”.

Visit Hilliard Bruce

check out more Santa Rita Wineries

Hilliard Bruce Vineyards – Part 3: Canopy Management, Wines & Philosophy.

Canopy Management

Part 3 of a 4 part series on our trip to Hilliard Bruce in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

Canopy management that you will see no where else!

The planting style at Hilliard Bruce is compact with 2,420 vines per acre at a spacing of 6 feet by 3 feet.  The canopy management that John is so rightly proud of begins with the trellis system that is vertical shoot positioned.  The vines here are hand pruned twice each year.  Each spring the new shoots are carefully positioned to run parallel and then are individually tied so that they do not cross each other.  They monitor the number of leaves per vine to offer the perfect exposure to sun and so that the air can move through.  This keeps down the mold and disease.  This also allows the bunches to hang free which is helpful for easy harvesting.  All this is lots of work during the growing season, but makes for much less work in the winery.  As we looked down the rows from the top of the vineyard John pointed out how you could see from the shadows that all the vines were healthy.  It’s easy during the day to come out and look at the shadows and see where you have lost a vine. But of course with the kind of attention that these vines get, that is rare.

Fruit of all this labor…amazing wines.

They are  growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here exclusively.  Christine claims the Chardonnay as her own and John’s focus is on the Pinot Noir.  The yield per acre here is less than 2 tons and less than 1.65 lbs per vine.  Next year the new winery will be ready, but this year they will make their wines at the Central Coast Wine Service  facility that is located in Santa Maria.

While there we tasted the 2010 Moon Pinot Noir, the 2011 Earth Pinot Noir and the 2011 Chardonnay.

The Moon Pinot Noir is very much a Sta. Rita Hills style Pinot.  After 12 months in barrel they go through a careful selection process and choose only the barrels that show the concentration and focus that this cool growing region is known for.  They look for riper fruit and full spice as they choose the barrels.

The 2011 Earth Pinot Noir is definitely earthier.  This wine has rich clove spice, darker fruit and minerals as well as great tannins.

The 2011 Chardonnay comes from the coldest corner of the vineyard and these vines produce very little fruit.  With great acid, oak for tempering and a little salinity this is a truly stunning Chardonnay.

The winery is well under way and photos of the progress can be seen on their facebook page.  This will be a LEED Certified, gravity flow winery with an underground cellar that will be humidity controlled. It will be designed as a  work of art, but also to blend and compliment the beautiful natural setting.

Philosophy

There is a quote from Paul Ingersol on the Hilliard Bruce labels that really sums it up

  • Happiness is the only good
  • The time to be happy is now.
  • The place to be happy is here
  • The way to be happy is to make others so.

This is what they embody at Hilliard Bruce.

 

Stay tuned for a video of our visit tomorrow!

Hilliard Bruce Vineyards – Part 2: On Sustainability

Lily pad in Pond

Part 2 of a 4 part series on our trip to Hilliard Bruce in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

 

On Sustainability

The vineyard is SIP Certified as Sustainable.  For several years they farmed “organically” but John wanted to move past this and address the efficient use of water and electricity.  SIP Certification addresses a broader goal of sustainability including water conservation, pest management, energy efficiency, habitat conservation, economic stability as well as human resources.

Hilliard Bruce Solar panels

Power

The property is solar powered by 35 Kilowatts of solar panels that provide at least 80% of the power needed.

Hilliard Bruce lake view

Water

They hired a bioreclaimation company for industrial sites to create a 6 acre reservoir.  The reservoir holds 1.5 million gallons of water and originally had a v-8 car engine to power the pumps.  In 2011 this was put to good use preventing frost damage that year in April.  Spraying all 21 acres with the water raises the temperature above freezing keeping the vines from being damaged.  In addition the reservoir is also used for irrigation.  The reservoir sits on a hill top so much of the irrigation is gravity flow.  There are 1500 square feet of floating islands in the middle of the pond, made of recycled water bottles.  This island with it’s plants filters out heavy metals and excess nutrients from the water.  The water is then conditioned so that when it goes into the irrigation lines there is not alkaline bicarbonate build-up which can cause clogs and keep the lines from irrigating evenly.  They also have cutting edge computer telemetry to monitor the vines for when they need water.  They use drip, double drip and overhead sprinklers for watering. And the trickle down effect is measured in, so….the vines at the bottom of the hill don’t have as much coming out of the drip as the top of the hill, because the excess water from above will be already trickling down to them.  Brilliant!

Composting

The Static Aeration compost building is pretty amazing.  The compost is aerated from below to get the micro-organisms going faster.  This compost is made from Horse Manure from their stables with Arabian horses that they raise.  The building has a blower system underneath to inject air into the compost from below.  They use the manure for the 20 Arabian horses to create compost in 30 days without turning the pile!  The entire compost needs of the vineyard are taken care of internally from this compost building.

 

Tomorrow We will get into their amazing canopy management and talk about the wines.

Hilliard Bruce Vineyards – Part 1: The People and the Place

Hillard Bruce Entrance

The start of a 4 part series on our trip to Hilliard Bruce in the Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

We had a trip planned to Santa Barbara to visit wineries and I had tweeted looking for great spots for sunrise shots etc.  I had a response from a winery that was not on my radar.  Hilliard Bruce tweeted “ If you can, you’ve got to see the canopy management at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards at least once before you die.”  And well, when you put it like that, how could we not!  So we scheduled a visit with the tweeter, who turned out to be John Hilliard himself.

 

John Hilliard & Christine Bruce

John Hilliard and Christine Bruce are peaceful, gentle and thoughtful people.  They are both certified master gardeners, and perhaps their demeanor comes from this connection with the soil and growth.

Christine is an avid horsewoman and raises Arabian horses on the property.   She also has an extensive background in music studying classical piano and then falling in love with contemporary jazz and working as a professional keyboardist after graduating from the Berklee College of Music.

John came from a background in finance and maritime insurance until he decided to take up painting full time.  In Houston he was the Director and President of Diverse Works and a panelist for the Cultural Arts Council of Houston.  Later he took over his family’s shipyard business. (Talk about diversity!)

They divide their time now between the vineyard in California and their home in Miami where they are still part of the art scene.

It’s a joy to meet them, their dogs Wiglette and Jackson are always with them. And they love to be out on the property.  The pride in this place is evident as they show you around.

As they drove us around the vineyard we passed a section where several birds were trapped under the netting.  They net over 2 rows, so you can go underneath and still work on the vines.  John noticed the birds and we stopped to set them free.  Yes I’m sure that this keeps the birds out so that they don’t eat the berries, but John was mostly concerned that the birds were not trapped.  The kindness that exudes from John and Christine I am sure makes their wines better.

 

The Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills

View of Pinot Vines

They found this property as they searched for a place to breed Arabian horses and plant a vineyard where they could grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This location idyllic for this.  It is located on 101 acres on the Western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, with 21 acres planted with vineyards in 2004.  From the top of the vineyard the view is amazing.  You can see the ocean to the West, to the North you can see Gypsy Canyon and to the West, Kessler Haak, Clos Pepe, Melville, Babcock Vineyards.  They are directly across Rt. 246 from Dos Hermanas Vineyard (previously known as Ashley’s Vineyard).

The soil here is a sandy silk that is very low in organic matter making it extremely fast draining.

They have 17.5 acres of Pinot Noir with Calera, Pommard, 115, 667, 777 and 828 clones.  The Chardonnay covers 3.5 acres in 76 and 96 clones, but they are about to plant more Chardonnay.

The property is also a showcase for their love of gardening with 300 date palms, apple trees, an avocado orchard, hundreds of roses and a stunning cut flower garden.

Christine’s vegetable garden is beautiful, a photographers dream.  With her love of beauty and art, she admits to sometimes having trouble harvesting in her garden and upsetting the beautiful visual.

 

Tomorrow we will explore their approach to sustainability!

Santa Barbara Wines- the Highlight Reel!

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural Central Coast Wine Country

We are back from our trip to Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles and I wanted to quickly get the highlights out and give some shout outs to people and places that made this an exceptional trip.

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro SB

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro SB

We started the trip in Santa Barbara, walking the beach, exploring the murals in the funk zone and then heading up to beautiful State Street for lunch and a flight at Wine Bistro Pierre Lafond.  This beautiful café has great sidewalk tables that let you take in the romance that is State Street while enjoying great food and wine.  There is great history here, more about that in a later blog.

 

Grassini Tasting Room

Grassini Tasting Room

Our next stop was Grassini Family Cellars.  This winery is located in Happy Canyon and they specialize in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Their tasting room is located in the historic El Paseo shopping center near Au Bon Climat and Margerum.  This is a beautiful space and Katie Grassini stopped in while we were there and we had a wonderful conversation about their wines, the winery and the sustainable practices they are using there.

 

Carr SB Tasting Room

Carr SB Tasting Room

From there we headed off the beaten track a little to Carr and we tasted through their line up.  The space here is a converted Quonset hut giving it a feel of the inside of a barrel.  They also have wines available here on tap.

 

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

AVA Santa Barbara Elkpen Mural

Now it was back into the Funk Zone proper to AVA Santa Barbara, previously known as Anacapa Vintners.  This beautiful tasting room features wines from each of the Santa Barbara AVA’s.  On the entire wall behind the tasting room bar you will find a huge Elkpen mural that shows the AVAs and describes the climates, soils and topography.  They have soil samples on the counter to look at and the staff is incredibly knowledgeable.  For wine geeks that get into the soil and climate this is heaven.

To finish our day we headed down to Stearns Wharf to Conway Family Wines Deep Sea Tasting Room.  This beautiful tasting room is on the 2nd level on the Wharf with beautiful views of the coast and the ocean.  Their Deep Sea Wines are made with coastal grapes.  Shout out to Lauren for a great tasting!

Conway's Deep Sea Winery

Conway’s Deep Sea Winery

 

We finished the day with some sunset shots followed by dinner on the end of the Wharf at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company…tiny and perfect!

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

 

Just before bed I realized I had a message from Morgen McLauglin from the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, she had been searching to see if anyone was harvested so we could go get some harvest shots.  Well she found a small harvest happening at none other than Clos Pepe.  So we were up early the next morning to meet her at the vineyard at 5:45.

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

Clos Pepe in the Santa Rita Hills

This unexpected boon turned out to be so much more than we expected.  Michael jumped in getting shots and Morgen and I chatted and she walked me down to meet Wes Hagen, the winemaker.  Wes handed us gloves, clippers, a bucket and a head lamp and directed us on the finer points of harvesting pinot noir.  The harvest was for a sparkling project that he was working on with another winery. We spent about 2 hours helping to harvest 2 rows of beautiful tight clusters of pinot noir and watching the sun come up.  And…we were lucky enough that Wes invited us to tag onto a tour and tasting he was doing later that day.

 

Vines at Carhartt

Vines at Carhartt

After a quick cleanup and breakfast at Succulent in Solvang, we headed to Carhartt for a winery tour with Joe the new Wine club manager.  We got to see all the new buildings the harvest prep and then head up to the ridge to see the vineyards as well as the newly planned vineyard site.

 

Saarloos & Sons

Saarloos & Sons

We headed back into Los Olivos for a little wine and dessert!  “Enjoy Cupcakes” has cupcake flights available daily to pair with Saarloos and Sons tastings.  If you are here on a weekend, this is really something you shouldn’t miss.

We managed to have time for one more shared tasting at Presqu’ile.  This is a stunning tasting room that they unfortunately closed after Labor Day.  Don’t be too sad though, they have a tasting room open at their new winery in Santa Maria.  Everyone I have spoken to says the new winery is beautiful.  The wines here I found to have a unique flair which seems to come from their winemaker.  I look forward to stopping by the winery on our next trip.

At this point it was time to head back out to Clos Pepe.  I will have an entire post about our visit here.  Wes Hagen opens his mouth and fascinating facts fall out.  The wines were spectacular and the information and knowledge shared was beyond expectations.  If you are in the area and love wine, you should schedule a visit with Wes.

We ended our day in the world’s tiniest tasting room at Carhartt’s which becomes quite the gathering spot at the end of the day.  They are open an hour later than the other tasting rooms and end up being quite the industry gathering spot. And then caught a light dinner at Avant in Buellton.

 

Hilliard Bruce

Hilliard Bruce

The next morning we were off to Hilliard Bruce.  As I was tweeting about our upcoming trip, I had a tweet from them saying, “If you can, you’ve got to see the canopy management at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards at least once before you die.”  Well with an offer like that…  So we went.  This is a mind bogglingly beautiful property.  John Hilliard and Christine Bruce are both Certified Master Gardeners and they love their plants.  The entire property is beautifully landscaped and truly, the canopy management is beyond anything you will see anywhere else.  Again, you will get an entire blog post on this exceptional property, but let me say that between the wine, the property and the people this was really an amazing visit.

Lots more fascinating details to come as well as photos and video!