Santa Barbara Wine Country Road Trip

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Wine Country

Goethe says, “…The moment one definitely commits one’s self, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance…”

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Ken and I had agreed to make a short overnight visit to Buellton, in Santa Barbara County in order to attend a private barrel tasting of the 2015 vintage of Hilliard Bruce Vineyards wines and pop in for a quick tasting at our other favorite winery in the region, Pence Ranch. As luck would have it, the week before our trip, we were invited to attend the Santa Barbara Taste/Makers Salon at The Stage and Table in Santa Monica, to rub shoulders with chefs, winemakers, brewers and artists, hoteliers, florists, aestheticians and a chocolate maker who gets a special mention because… well, if you have ever tasted Jessica Foster’s handmade gourmet truffles, you would understand.

Santa Barbara Taste/Makers Salon

It was a glorious evening at a perfect venue: Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. greeted us at the door with unique craft beer cocktails; SY Kitchen made an art of the best Old Fashioned cocktail I have ever tasted; Sunstone Merlot and Grassini Cabernet Sauvignon, proved the spectacular microclimates and diverse soil of the SB wine region produce deliciousness in many grape varietals; We even got an opportunity to blend our own wines from a choice of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot; The Hitching Post highlighted the variety in their Pinot Noirs at different price points; A table of roses showcased the many hues and flavors of pink and I got a teaser treatment on my hand from Salt.

As we left, we were offered a choice of envelopes with special gifts inside. Ken was pleased with his gift certificates for wine tastings at Andrew Murray Vineyards and Fess Parker Winery… until he saw my generous gift cards for The Lucky Penny, The Lark, and Les Marchands – restaurants in the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara! He felt a little less miffed at my good fortune when I pointed out that we now had a no-brainer itinerary for our trip.

Breakfast at The Lucky Penny was sensational. Never before have I tasted eggs that (Ken informed me) were “Shired.” I highly recommend these little pots of perfection. We decided to order (divine) sandwiches from there to take with us for lunch. I had a $50 gift card and the total for the two of us for breakfast and lunch came to $49! They don’t make their sandwiches until 11am though, so we explored the courtyard whilst we waited. This was a great move as I had a $50 gift card for Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, around the corner. I purchased a La Voix rose (She’s Crafty – is the name of the wine) and a 2012 Bussola Valpolicella, for a grand total of $51.54 (including tax). With this run of luck, we should have been traveling to Las Vegas, not Buellton!

Pence Ranch Horses Helen Melville at Pence Ranch

Pence Ranch

We reached Pence pretty much on time, in spite of Ken’s swallowed comments on the speed I drive – ok, I drive like a granny, but I make allowances for that when I schedule things – besides, the scenery is fabulous when viewed at a steady 60mph!

Gracie poured the wine and chatted about Industrial Eats – a restaurant we absolutely had to try for dinner, she said. Pence makes wine with grapes from Sanford as well as those from their own slopes. Sanford is one of the oldest wineries in the region, but I consistently prefer the fruit sourced from the Pence vineyards. Evidently, so do others as their Fugio pinot noir was sold out, but we did get to taste the magnificent 2014 Unum. The winemaker de-stems the grapes from this part of the vineyard to showcase this friendly, vivacious, yet delicate wine. This was Ken’s favorite of the trip and he likened it to drinking rubies. Dani, who among her duties, coordinates the wine club shipments, gave me a jar of freshly milled rye and durum wheat flour, which they grow on the property. These are given to wine club members as a party favor for loving their wines!

Hilliard Bruce Winery Hilliard Bruce Winery

Hilliard Bruce Vineyards

Arriving at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards is always a thrill – the estate is breathtakingly beautiful. The bottling of the 2014 vintage was in full swing as we pulled into the parking lot. Big hoses pump the wine from the stainless steel tanks into a trailer, eventually to emerge in bottles ready for sale. Kari showed us a new type of cork they are trying which is supposed to prevent “corked” wines. She mentioned in passing that we absolutely should try Industrial Eats for dinner.

Hilliard Bruce Winery Tour

I have previously written about the magic of Hilliard Bruce pinot noir wines (here and here), but I would like to make a special mention here of the 2014 Chardonnay. Christine Bruce favors a uniformity of method and oak barrels so that each vintage shines on its fruit for that year: 2011 is refreshing and crisp; 2012 is broad and full, with more evident malolactic fermentation; 2013 drinks like a piñata apple crumble with hints of nutmeg. Ken and I tasted from a freshly bottled (and screaming with shock) 2014. For me, it was like looking at Ann Hathaway in her frumpy sweater, knowing that with a bit of grooming and help from Prada, she would end up being a show stopper.* 2014 is a beauty contestant graced with spark, intelligence, and wit along with a rocking bod – the perfect love child of all the vintages that have gone before. I bought two bottles and am looking forward to tasting this wine again once it has had a little time to settle.

We entered the barrel room with excited reverence. The embryonic 2015 wine sleeps in its barrels like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Even at this early stage of development, each barrel we tasted from tantalized with individuality and promise. I have never tasted such young wine before and it surprised me how much it brimmed with distinctive flavors of licorice, cherries, mushrooms and spice, based on the type of barrel and the source of the fruit. John Hilliard generally uses only the grapes for his wine but this vintage, he was persuaded to try two barrels using full stem clusters. This wine exhibited very familiar notes of the typical good Santa Barbara region pinot noir, like a member of an internationally renowned choir. By contrast, the de-stemmed Hilliard Bruce pinot noirs are charismatic soloists – singing contest winners and bona fide superstars with me as a clamoring fan.

Siri tells us that twice mentioned Industrial Eats is only a 10-minute walk from our luxurious Motel 6. Off we trotted to what looked like a school dinner hall with communal seating and oddly mismatched décor.  Wine is served in water glasses and the food… the food is spectacular! The diverse, creative menu is bursting with fresh, delicious ingredients and delectable dishes at reasonable prices. Thank you, Kari and Gracie, for the recommendation. With stomachs fully satiated by arugula, mushroom, burrata pizza and sugar snap peas in dill, we ambled back to our lodging to turn in for the night and prepare for a full morning.

Andrew Murray Vineyards

Andrew Murray

Breakfast in Los Olivos, before heading to Andrew Murray Vineyards, or so we thought… A local (from South Africa) informed us that Los Olivos Café is only open for breakfast at the weekend and the nearest good place to eat this early would be Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos. I had to send my toast back because it was cut into soldiers that looked like they’d been burnt to a crisp in a forest fire and my poached egg were unappetizingly undercooked, but the do-over was perfect and yummy – especially the potatoes in a jar.  Ken loved the presentation of his tasty lox and bagel.

wine country road trip food

We had a few hiccups getting to Andrew Murray Vineyards because our certificate for a tour had two numbers juxtaposed in the address. This resulted in a bit of sweat and Siri insisting that we still had 14 miles to go when the sign for the tasting room was right in front of us. My advice to those who blindly follow iPhone directions? Look out the window, lol.

Andrew Murray has taken over the old Curtis Winery next to the old Firestone Ranch.  This gorgeous facility has way more production capacity than Pence and Hilliard Bruce, but not all of it is currently in use as the yields are lower under the expert guidance of Mr. Murray… The tasting room is family friendly, especially for wine club members, who have their own private tasting lounge, complete with games and cuddly toys for the kids to play with. The garden is dog friendly and supplies poop bags ☺

During our brief tour, we were lucky enough to meet the man himself, hard at work in his office/laboratory. As our eyes wandered aghast to a cheap box wine sitting on the counter, Andrew was quick to explain that he doesn’t drink it (perish the thought!), he uses it as a base line comparison in his lab. Box wines are engineered never to vary, unlike their high-end distant relatives. He is a passionate perfectionist presenting approachable complex Rhone varietal wines at an affordable price. The highly rated Tous Les Jours is less than $20. The most you will pay for one of his wines is $45 for a Thompson Vineyard Syrah, which bursts with flavor, as do all his wines. The blend with the most crowd appeal is Esperance – a sumptuously velvety GSM blend with oodles of black fruit that sells out in a heartbeat. Ken bought a $28 bottle of 2014 Enchante, a multi-layered, supremely refreshing, crisp white blend of estate grown Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. It is the quintessential quaffer for Summer.

As we were leaving, I noticed a counter full of truffles being packed into boxes of four for a special event Syrah and chocolate tasting. Upon closer inspection, I discovered they were Jessica Foster handmade truffles! Wallet out, employing my most winning smile, and determined to beg if I had to, I left the building clutching a box of the precious.

Last stop was Fess Parker, just up the road from Andrew Murray (honestly Siri, it really is just up the road!). Fess Parker is a beautiful location for weddings and events with a grand tasting room and an expansive lawn open to romping dogs. We quickly tasted through a flight of mostly non-estate grown wines that neither offended nor delighted, whilst the small tasting party of French people standing next to us were treated to finer fare from under the counter. Sour grapes?  Lol, perhaps… and then it was time to drive home… which we did without encountering traffic until we hit Hollywood.

I returned home to an email informing me that my blend, Snow White, had won the wine blending contest from the Santa Barbara event. My prize is a wine blending workshop and label painting for eight at Artiste winery and tasting studio in Los Olivos. I am already looking forward to my next visit – I still have a $100 gift card for The Lark restaurant too!  Thank you, Hilliard Bruce, for the barrel tasting invitation leading to this whole stream of delicious unforeseen events in our favor. Now, where can I buy a lottery ticket?!

* The Devil Wears Prada

HELEN

Santa Barbara Vines

We recieved compensation on order to bring information about our Santa Barbara Wine Country Road Trip to this blog. Some photos appear courtesy of Andrew Murray Vineyards, Pence Ranch, and Hilliard Bruce Vineyards as well as my editorial partnership with Shutterstock.

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