This weekend marks a coming-out party of sorts for one of the most exciting new ventures in the Central Coast wine world. The Urban Wine Trail in downtown Santa Barbara is a collective of 17 wineries that either operates a production facility, tasting room or both, right in the heart of Santa Barbara. What is so exciting about this venture is the combination of top-rated wines, world-class cuisine, shopping, lodging and some of the best ocean views in the world. This collection of wines is some of the very best that the Central Coast has to offer.During this first “Passport Event”, the wineries of the Urban Wine Trail will open their doors and numerous bottlings to guests who only have to pay one fee. Accessing over 50 wines, this is truly the best opportunity to taste some amazing wines, and walk around one of the most fascinating downtown areas in America.With 17 wineries and a lot of ground to cover, it may be somewhat difficult to navigate which wines you should taste, what tasting rooms to avoid and what you cannot miss in this fantastic party. Much like your high school graduation – there are some not to miss awards that will make it much easier to select where to start and where you should never leave. Most Likely to Succeed: Sanguis Winery.
Before I tell you where you should be going, I must tell you where not to go. Arguably the best winery in Santa Barbara, the Wizard of Sanguis, Matthias Pippig and his ruby-slippered apprentice Jessica Gasca have a problem that every winery wants to have – no wine to sell! Strictly dedicated to a very loyal mailing list and distributed ever so slightly into fine retailers and restaurants, the small production Sanguis winery does not open their Oz-like door for the general public. My suggestion is sign up for their newsletter and find out how you can get on their mailing list, as these wines are worth tracking down!
Best Foreign Exchange Student: Margerum Wine Company
On any day of the week in Santa Barbara County, you can taste and enjoy no less than 10 different wines that Santa Barbara’s own Doug Margerum produces. On the cover of every Central Coast publication imaginable, Doug Margerum has taken his popularity, name and namesake and placed it on every wine list that exists in the county. Do not get me wrong, Doug’s Central Coast wines are some of the finest available, but for passport weekend, I suggest another route for the true wine lover. Walk into the Margerum Tasting Room, at the head of the Wine Cask restaurant, and make them open the following wines.
2. Quercus Ribolla Gialla
3. Margerum Rose VDP
4. Fanny Sabre Red Burgundy (they should have one floating around)
5. Chene Bleu – anything would be amazing
Now you may be looking at this list and wonder what sort of a blog you have discovered, but one of the best and most fascinating things about the Margerum Tasting Room is that it also features the wines that Doug imports from around the world. There is no better opportunity in Santa Barbara to taste wines from these regions around the world that would outshine the 6 above. So make yourself known at the Margerum Tasting Room that you want to taste the best that Margerum has to offer (it just so happens that they are all imported!)
Grill master’s Trophy: Jaffurs Winery
When Craig Jaffurs opened up his wine production facility in Santa Barbara, it should have come with a fire pit built right on the street. Probably not up to code, Craig decided instead to create a series of wines that would make any tri-tip master wet his pants in excitement.
Jaffurs Winery has made a name for itself in crafting deep, rich, spicy Rhone reds that are a perfect foil to any slathered, grilled meat that you throw down this summer. Starting with his single-vineyard Syrah, Craig takes several of the best Syrah vineyards (Bien Nacido, Larner, Verna’s) and turns them into fantastic, terroir-driven interpretations that have a Jaffurs flair about them all. If you get to taste through more than one of the single vineyards, you will see a common theme – great structure, rich, hauntingly dark fruit and a peppered-bacon finish that will have you noticing one key element – they are all in check. Jaffurs is not a Rhone producer that goes crazy on alcohol. They are big wines, but they are also great food wines, pairing with BBQ to prime rib and everything in between.
Personally, I find no better Petite Sirah on the market today. Rich, violet with hints of Cacao and Columbian coffee that will leave Juan Valdez giving up his standard beverage. If you are into big daddy red wines – Jaffurs is your first stop. Before you go to any other winery, cleanse your palate with his Viognier – viscous, tropical and honeyed, it would awaken your tongue and your salivary glands – on to the next one.
The Son Also Rises Award: Whitcraft Winery
Drake Whitcraft doesn’t have it easy. Along with an endless supply of Pliny the Elder and other delicious brews, Drake has possibly one of the most difficult jobs in wine – be better than Dad. In 1985, when Drake was about 3 (Drake could be either 30 or 50 or 15, the beard throws me off every time), Chris Whitcraft started Whitcraft Winery, and over the next 20 years, gained a reputation as one of the finest wineries on the Central Coast, learning from the likes of Burt Williams (yeah, the Williams Seylem guy) and Joe Heitz. Fast forward to 2005, son Drake took over the small production winery and has taken the program to new heights (or Heitz, get it?).
There are no better Pinot Noirs on the Urban Wine Trail, and Drake makes several. Focusing on vineyard sources that are sustainable, and produce amazingly different vineyard characteristics, Drake produces Pinots from Santa Barbara, Sta. Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo and Anderson Valley. So which is the best? Well the answer is yes – they are all amazing. So the best thing to do is try them all, isn’t that what the passport is all about? What you will find is that Drake’s Pinots (and his sick Grenache from Stolpman) are wines that can age just like his dad’s and are complex, rich and elegant, eclipsing what Whitcraft has ever done in the past.
Most Likely to Party: Carr Winery
Anytime that you are able to step into a winery and take pink bubbles to go – you know in your heart of hearts that anything related to this place is going to be fun. In what looks like a hollowed out airplane silo, Ryan and Jessica Carr have created an atmosphere at their eponymous winery that rivals the best party in town. Carr has created a very cool growler-type program, where you can get your own refillable bottle and fill it with several of their delicious offerings, which are always in small production. Still one of the top vineyard managers in Santa Barbara, Ryan is able to capture some of the best fruit sources for his eclectic mixture of bottles, including one of the best white wines in the county.
The Pinot Gris produced from Turner Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills is an homage to really a combination between the bright crispness of classic Italian Pinot Grigio and a weighty, waxy, higher acid tip of the cap to the Alsatian Pinot Gris. Being just a short walk to the harbor, it is a great match to oysters and Santa Barbara prawns.
In addition to all of the amazing wines that Carr offers at their winery/tasting room, they know how to throw a party. As you come into town for Passport Weekend, I would recommend finishes your day at Carr. Most likely, they will have the best after party every night, including great live music and themed parties that make you realize what has been know all along to the Carr’s – wine is fun!
Now of course there are many other wineries to check out and if you come for all 3 days of the tasting, you can work your way around to possibly all of the open wineries. If you have extra time, check out the phenomenal Sauvignon Blanc at Grassini Family Vineyard’s new tasting room by Wine Cask. Also make it a goal to hit up Municipal Winemakers, who will always have at least 2 varietals you have never heard of and 3 blends that will make you shake your head. Municipal has a great future ahead of them, as they are truly about creating great wine and not buying into the critics or making wine for a particular customer, just making good wine.
The Passport event here this weekend is a new, exciting chapter in the future of Santa Barbara wine. It will truly show the wine-drinking world that there are many layers and opportunities to enjoy some of the best wines in California, without having to drive to the boonies. This event will open the door for a lot of new excitement in the area and pave the way for some new tasting rooms that will be coming onlaine in the next year downtown.
Enjoy the party and the secret, before the masses find out!