Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara County

The anticipation had been building the entire week. A four day trip to wine country, to do some tasting is always something to look forward to. But this time, it involved a tour bus, hotel arrangements and dinner reservations for 27 people. The California Central Coast, at harvest time, was the destination, and this is a recap of that trip, along with some restaurant and winery hotspots to check out.

Brandon pouring at Dragonette Cellars
On Friday, we arrived at Los Olivos, the Santa Ynez AVA. While waiting for friends to show we decided to stop in one of the many tasting rooms located in this quaint little town.  This small town of a little over 1,500 people boasts more than 40 wine tasting rooms, all lining Grand Avenue, and the adjoining side streets. Park your car and taste!

We stopped first at the Tensley tasting room. Where they are known for their Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, and Chardonnay. They are a small producer, making only about 4,000 cases a year. Located in the same building is Carina Cellars (also partially owned by Joey Tensley). Carina Cellars was more Rhone oriented, serving Viognier, Syrah blends (similar to Cote du Rhone).

John Dragonette
Our friends soon arrived, and we walked down the street to the Los Olivos CafĂ©. Not only do they have a very nice menu, but their wine selection is outstanding. Not only local wines, but wines from all over the world. The first “find” of the trip was a bottle of Grenache that was ordered with lunch. It was a Grenache from Martian Vineyards, called “Ground Control”. We had never heard of this winery, but were intrigued. Little did we know, we would encounter this bottle in a couple days (more to follow in next week's blog).

Barrel Tasting at Dragonette Cellars
We checked into the Buellton Marriott, which is nicely located for access to all the wine growing regions in this area. Just up the road, our entire group gathered at the new winery for Dragonette Cellars. Those of you who follow this blog, know that this is one of my favorite wineries in the area, and I have been a fan of their wines since I "discovered" them about six years ago. Our group had the fortune to meet with both John Dragonette and Brandon Sparks-Gillis, who shared time talking about their wines, their vineyards, and production methods. We barrel sampled a few wines, and also tried some pre-release Sauvignon Blanc Grassini, as well as some freshly pressed Grenache Rose, that had yet to start fermenting. As I do with all winemakers, I asked if there were any up and coming wineries we should check out. The response: Martian Vineyards, and Roark Wine Company. Brandon shot off an e-mail to the winemaker at Martian, and eventually I had an appointment to meet on Sunday. We weren't able to connect with Roark, so next trip they will be on the list.

Dinner this first night was at Sides Hardware and Shoes, in Los Olivos. Located in a historic old hardware store, built in 1901, this restaurant offered a varied menu, to satisfy everyone’s palate. The wine list offered most wines by the glass, and the corkage was only $15. I can’t speak for the others, but my lamb with goat cheese gnocchi was delicious. However, the talk of the evening was one particular dessert: Blueberry upside down cake.

Sogno del Fiore
Saturday was another organized day of tasting. Now that we had the full group in attendance, I hired Wine EdVentures to shuttle us to the four tasting locations. Notice that I didn’t say “wineries”. That is because our first stop was actually a wine club. Sogno del Fiore is something new…a wine club, a wine estate, a wine location (video). While they do grow grapes here, their main purpose is their wine club. We met with owners, Jerry and Liz Fiore, who conducted a tasting of various wines, purchased for their wine club members, along with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. What is unusual about their club is that they offer up to villas, in the vineyard for club members to rent. Depending on your membership level, the use of the villas includes free night stays.

Feliz Noche Tasting with Don Felipe
Our next stop took us to a large oak tree, in the center of the Oak Savanna Vineyard (video). There was a table set up, some case of wine stacked behind it, and that was it. Within a few minutes a pickup truck traveled down the dirt road, and out steps Felipe Hernandez. The locals refer to him as Don Felipe, in recognition of his over 40 years working the vineyards in the Santa Ynez valley. Don Felipe works as a wine consultant to numerous vineyards, including Koehler. His personal label is Feliz Noche Cellars.  He produces very limited (100 cases or less) production wines. His Grenache had one of the most distinct red cherry flavors I’ve tasted, and his unusual blend of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Grenache (known as “Mi Passion”), was a hit (video). The wines are pricey, and they are hard to find. Could this be the next “cult wine” from Santa Barbara County?

Alma Rosa Tasting
Next we moved on the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The first stop was at Babcock Winery. This is a larger production winery, producing over 10,000 cases. It sits up on the eastern slope, and overlooks the valley below (video). From here, we moved to the other side of the Sta. Rita Hills, and visited the Alma Rosa Winery.  When Richard Sanford left his namesake winery in 2005, he started up the Alma Rosa Winery. Known for their organically farmed Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, we also tried some Vin Gris Rose, and Pinot Blanc. This is a quaint little tasting room, tucked back in the trees (video).

After returning back to the hotel, and a quick dip in the hot tub, we were ready for dinner at one of the newest restaurants in the area: SYKitchen. We were pleased to have John and Mitchie Dragonette join our group for dinner, were we tried a little of everything. The Octopus salad was fantastic, and the braised beef special was outstanding. This little farmhouse restaurant also boasts a knowledgeable Sommelier to help you pair your meal, and the prices were very reasonable. We also had our first "star sighting" when Jim Messina showed up for dinner.
Oak Savanna Vineyard
So, by the end of day two, we had been to a total of seven wine tastings. As has been our experience, the Sunday/Monday tastings tend to be the most exciting. On my next blog, I will complete the last two days of our trip.


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