This weekend I ventured up to Lompoc and the 36th Annual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival. Having been to previous events as far back the early 90s the event, the participants and the attendees has clearly changed, as has the tone of the event over the years. The crowd was more local. The tone more subdued. The lines shorter. The location easier to get to than the old days out in the heart of the valley at I want to say Rancho Sisquoc.
So what wines impressed me? Zaca Mesa's reds were fabulous. One of the early pioneers in the Central Coast, their wines had slipped a bit, but the last few times I've tasted their wines since 2014, I would have to say they've returned to form. Their 2014 Syrah and GSM blend both showed gobs of fruit and were classic Santa Barbara County style. Samsara, was recently purchased from Chad Melville and I've always been a fan of their wines for the longest time, starting at the 2005 Santa Barbara Futures tatsing. Their 2014 Larner vineyard Grenache, the Syrah-Turner Vineyard and their Pinot, made from fruit grown in Santa Rita Hills were all outstanding. A taste of a library 2010 Syrah was equally stunning, but I walked away feeling the Grenache was tops. Casa Dumetz is cranking out lots of different wines, and doing some special ciders made from wine too. Their Mourvedre Cider was an interesting diversion and shows how creative the winery team is being. The 2017 Rose was delightful too, and just in time for Rose season too.
Margerum Wine Company used the event to debut their new 2016 M5. It may be the team's best effort. I'm a bit biased though, as I make my Comunicano Wine Company wines with Doug and Michael, and the 2016 S5 is clearly it's fraternal twin both in spirit and style. And don't miss the 2017 Riviera Rose, as it's another hit in a strong of Rose winners from Doug and Michael. Qupe's Bob Lindquist, son Ethan and daughter Paige were all there and what's so great to see was once again how well Bob's whites showed. He poured his 2014 Marsanne and 2014 Roussanne, both showing great balance. Ethan remarked about the dinner last year I hosted at the Los Angeles City Club, and how with help of Rick Morrison we had a 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Qupe Roussanne flight that showed just how well those wines develop over time in the bottle. The Kaena 2017 Rose is another in a steady line of hits in that department for Mikael Sigouin. Mikael, is one of the true masters of Grenache in Santa Barbara and his blend with even a dash of Merlot in the pink wine, continues to be a favorite.
One of the reasons I enjoy events like this is the ability to see long time friends like Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Mikael Sigouin of Kaena, the team from Margerum, led this year at the festival by Doug's brother and standout artist Hugh Margerum and winemaker Michael Miroballi, and countless others. I even ran into Becky Corey of Core Wine who has been a friend since 2003 when I met both she and David and wrote the first ever wine review of their wines back when I was contributing to the Del Mar Times as its wine critic.
This year's event was very well run from an attendees perspective. The presence of the California Highway Patrol with two cruisers at the entrance to River Park was reassuring, sending a message that having a Designated Driver was the right way to go home or as I did, to Uber or Lyft. The event organizers were equally thoughtful and had a designated Uber and Lyft drop off and pick up area. That's always a nice touch.
Getting my badge was easy thanks to the new CEO, Alison Laslett who started with the association last November, after an assist to Refugio Ranch's Tasting Room Manager, Maeapple Chaney. The lines to enter flowed quickly, as the t-shirt security staff and the team from the association had the line moving, wrist bands being applied and glass in hand in what felt like seconds.
Once inside it was easy to get around. The tented winery areas were laid out alphabetically making it easy to find my long time friends first, and then taste other wines from those who would be new friends. One thing that caught my eye after a quick hello to Gray Hartley of Hitching Post was the presence of the CHP tent. Having been a regular at so many tastings in France I remembered how InterRhone makes sure people can check their alcohol level with a personalized breathalyzer so I asked the CHP officer why they weren't offering them. The honest response was "we've never saw those." The officer took the suggestion well and was going to mention it to their public affairs people.
There were food stations galore, with samples from all. Many were tasty, like the meatballs in BBQ sauce at Bear and Star from Los Olivos, some delightful olive oil and bread, and water at almost every table. That was a nice touch. The food stations sure helped break up the tasting and provided additional value to the price of admission, making the $70.00 General Admission ticket a really good value.
What was great to see was how the entire tasting room line up at El Paseo were there. Grassini, Jamie Sloan, Au Bon Climat and of course Margerum which shows support for the annual event. It would have been fun to see the likes of Liquid Farm, Hilt, Larner, Jonata, Core, Solminer, Andrew Murray, Tensley, Habit, Longoria, Loring, Tercero or Grace Wine Company supporting the local wine community at one of its showcase events and becoming members too. If internationally known and respected brands like Au Bon Climat and Qupe can be there, the others should do their part too.
There is also the county itself and its love-hate relationship with the wine community. While Lompoc's local tourism board was there, where was Santa Barbara County's? Where were the likes of Breakaway Tours and other transportation companies who make so much money from visitors needing transportation and guidance. Where was Amtrak who hauls freight and people to both Santa Barbara and Goleta ? Where were the airlines Alaska, American and United who fly into Santa Barbara's Airport? All of those groups and companies make money off of the wine country tourism, and yet not one was supporting the event. Those organizations need to step up, not wait for someone to ask them. It's their custodial obligation.
Someone asked me what score I gave the event. I gave it a solid 85/100. It was well run. The wine flowed and never did I feel rushed. The lines moved, and everyone was happy and upbeat. Those are all signs of something good...just like the wines from all the Santa Barbara Vintners who were there to pour, meet people and provide a great time.