Category Archives: Tasting Rooms

Keyed Up

As cliche as it might sound, the Key to Wine Country event really did unlock some new tasting room doors…I think that sounds better than, I got keyed at Key to Wine Country, not sure if that even makes sense. Regardless the “keys” thing is put on by the Santa Barbara Vintners Association. You pay $100 for your ticket and there is a bevy (and a few bevvies for that matter) of different tasting rooms to visit, throughout Santa Barbara County. Admittedly, this is one of the more creative winery experiences I’ve come across. Definitely, more interesting than those big room and table affairs.

You’ll need a map of the county as all sorts of winery folk get involved. Some have food or chocolate with wine parings, others do vineyard walks, the best by far are the intimate winemaker chats (you have to RSVP as spaces are limited) where they taste you through their decision making steps, from grape to bottle….I fancied the El Paseo experience. A tour of all six tasting rooms in the maze-like corridors of El Paseo, in downtown SB.

El Paseo Santa Barbara

El Paseo is located just above De La Guerra and between State and Anacapa. Doug Margerum’s tasting room has been here the longest, about four years or so, next to his Wine Cask restaurant. Doug talked one of SB’s most famous winemaker’s, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat fame, to open next door. You can find ABC wines to purchase, dating back decades. There’s also Grassini out of Happy Canyon AVA. And two other spots Happy Canyon Vineyard and Jamie Slone, whom I imagine also opened tasting rooms under Doug’s suggestion….and why not, he makes both of their wine (totally different styles too!).

This whole winery wonderland is really the brainchild of Doug Margerum, and I must applaud him as it has really propelled, actually started, the whole State Street wine scene. It truly is a handful of the best Santa Barbara has to offer. As for the wines I tried here are my three favorites:

Top accolades go to Au Bon Climat. Their tasting list is true to the winery’s Burgundy roots, but there’s all sorts of stuff to try. The bog standard Santa Barbara County Chardonnay for instance, which is used by MWs in London to teach classic Chardonnay. There’s everything from Aligote to Riesling to purchase, but my fav wine of the day in fact was a Chardonnay from ABC.

2009 Au Bon Climat “Compelling” Nuits-Blanches au Bouge, Santa Maria County – A tight lemony and raw apricot little number, when you talk about tension in wine make sure you try this. Has years to go, but if you’re into crisp and fresh it’s ready now – $35 (There’s also a ’98 Nibiollo that was insanely good and a steal at $35)

2009 Au Bon Climat "Compelling" Nuits-Blanches au Bouge, Santa Maria County

2009 Au Bon Climat “Compelling” Nuits-Blanches au Bouge, Santa Maria County


Margerum actually has two tasting rooms. His regular one with an entrance on Anacapa, then MWC 32 a few steps into El Paseo, where they pour older vintages and reserve wines. It was at his Anacapa room that I found my fav though.

2011 Margerum Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County Margerum is all about Rhone varietals and this Syrah does not disaapoint in the slightest. I reckon it has quite a few more years (about 10), but you can have it now, no problem. It is a very, very approachable wine. With a hint of peppercorn spice and fresh juicy blueberries – $40

Margerum’s straight Grenache was also very good.

2011 Margerum Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County

2011 Margerum Syrah, Colson Canyon Vineyard, Santa Barbara County


Four years back, Grassini’s Bordeaux inspired wines were the first I tried out of the Happy Canyon AVA, I really liked them. There was a turn of events and Justin Willit of Tyler fame (and also partner to Mandy Grassini) made the previous vintage and his wines were being poured. I’ve been looking forward to trying Willit’s Bordeaux style, his own label is very much about Pinot and Chardonnay and above all that restraint…it was interesting to see him venture to the dark side of the noble grapes. The Sauv Blanc was particularly fresh, the grapes were picked at the very dawn of harvest, beginning of August and probably very low in potential alcohol. The two Bordeaux blends were also quite fresh it was however a single varietal wine that I really enjoyed.

2011 Grassini Petit Verdot, Happy Canyon AVA – not a grape you see very often, if at all, by itself. Petit Verdot is usually used to add back bone or rather mid-bone to the mid-palate of Cab and Merlot. Grassini PV is what I like to call a crunchy wine. It tastes as if your biting in to handful of juicy ripe blackberries, super concentrated fruit. There’s some musky like leather and grippy tannin. Like it’s palate the price too is a hefty $95, steep but a very good wine.

A great thing to note at Grassini’s tasting room, they pour all their high-end wines with a coravin, my first time seeing it in use….totally impressed!

2011 Grassini Petit Verdot, Happy Canyon AVA

2011 Grassini Petit Verdot, Happy Canyon AVA


Look out for the Keys to SBC next year. Thanks to Morgen and Taylor over at the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association for sending the tickets. Find out about future SBCVA events on their website —

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Finding Berkeley’s Urban Wineries – easy as A, B, C

Urban winemaking is nothing new, and the scene is definitely growing. I took a couple of hours this past Saturday to check out (in fact re-check) some wineries in Berkeley. If you live in the bay area, nothing beats going to the actual regions of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, et al. but if you fancy your quick winery fix, there is all you want a few minutes away. I80 North (or South) get off at Gilman St and a few blocks away are three working wineries.

Berekeley Map 1

Broc Cellars – 1300 5th Street Berkeley, CA 94710

Chris Brocway has been on the scene for a while now, and recently moved to his new digs, directly on the corner of Gilman and 5th. Broc Cellars is a natural wine producer (he adds SO2 just before bottling), I first came across his wares at a Sonoma rosé tasting and was surprised to hear he sourced the grapes from a Spiltwine buddy, Mike Roth of Martian Vineyards. Some wines to look out for at Broc are the Zinfandel (with something crazy like 13.5% alc) and the Carignan – made by carbonic maceration (which is how it’s made in the Languedoc), real light and Beaujolais in style.  The geekiest wine at Broc might just be the skin contact Roussane, basically an orange wine.  Apparently the one we tried was from 2009….and therefore even darker in color and overall complexity, current vintage is the ’11. He sources grapes from all over the state, even Oregon! Oh, and that little cement thing next to the bottle is a sample model of Broc’s egg cement tank, awesome for convection during fermentation – here’s some extra reading on cement and egg-shaped tanks. (I’m a fan, btw)

Broc Cellars 2011 Rousanne

Donkey & Goat – 1340 5th Street Berkeley, CA 94710

I’d been hearing murmurings of this winery even when I was down in Santa Barbara. Owners Tracey & Jared Brandt are full on natural winemakers, and just a few hop, skip and jumps from Broc on 5th Street. My first excuse to pop by the TR was for a Carignan story I was working on….well their Carignan was very impressive! Full of crunchy bramble and blackberry fruit. They source from all over the state and my fav are the Carignan (or course) as well as the Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah, which I later found out received a 97(!!)
in Wine Enthusiast – here’s the review. This high score is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, is the Wine Enthusiast making a stand that they are willing to give such high scores to wines of this style (ie low alcohol, natural in style), or is this just a one time thing? And secondly will the Wine Enthusiast be the voice (and therefore give more of these higher scores) to the polar opposite views of Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate?  Time will only tell, but when I chatted to Jared about this he too was just as surprised, and made a note that D&G don’t really send wines out to be scored, Wine Enthusiast had contacted them……The Fenaughty is nearly out, so get it quick! They also have some –
bursting with ripe berry flavor – Grenache (and also the best movie poster, in the bogs).

2010 Donkey & Goat Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah (El Dorado)

Lusu Cellars – 805 Camellia St. Berkeley, CA

Another couple of steps from D&G this time on Camelia Street is Lusu Cellars (it’s in fact where Broc used to be). I have never heard of Lusu and was pleasantly surprised with the wine. David Teixeira is the owner/winemaker and guy pouring the wine in the cellar, basically the tasting room is in construction and you will be sniffing and swirling amongst the barrels and tanks, about as authentic as it comes. David (that’s him with the beard, below) grew up on the Delta and his Portuguese family have been making wine since he can remember, mostly Zinfandel.  It was also his Zinfandel that I liked best, a light style (again a 13.5% alcohol level) with soft plum, white pepper and fresh raspberries. All the wines are available at the winery. In the barrels he’s got some port ageing as well as Madiera (!?), I don’t think I’ve ever had a Madiera style wine made in Cali, David’s Portuguese roots stem from the little island…will definitely be going back to see his progress with both of those fortified wines.

Lusu Cellars Zinfandel

There you have it, three very good wineries, all a stones throw away…..more to come on the Bay Area’s urban wine scene….stay tuned!

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