This past Saturday, we ventured north for the Santa Barbara installment of the Reds, Whites & Blues California Wine Festival. In true Santa Barbara style, the seasonably warm weather alternated between overcast and sunny, with a refreshing ocean breeze—perfect for wine and food tasting. As promised, there was no shortage of wine, food and music from throughout California. Rich focused on the wines and there were many old favorites on hand—Howell Mountain, Trefethen and Zaca Mesa, to name just a few. Leah explored the food items. Unlike some festival-goers who were there to consume volumes and get a buzz on, we were there on a serious mission in search of things new and different—at least to us—and we found them.
Arroyo Robles Winery is a relatively new, emerging winery located in Paso Robles. With a total annual production of 6,000 cases (recently up from 3,500 cases), the Shore family is clearly onto something good. We thoroughly enjoyed their award-winning 2005 Tempranillo—smooth and balanced with very nice fruit—which retails on their website at $25 a bottle (with discounts for case and wine club purchases). Brianna Shore informed us they are about half-way to being a biodynamic winery. We’ll be trying their other wines soon. They are clearly one to watch.
Charles and Helen Mara of The Mara Wine Group were on hand to pour their 2005 Mara Reserve Zinfandel from the Dolinsek Ranch vineyard planted in the Sonoma County Russian River Valley in 1910 (qualifying the vines as “ancient”, rather than merely “old”). This Zinfandel is a unique one—full and rich fruit concentration, but incredibly smooth. Whether you are a Zin lover or you generally don’t drink Zin, you must try this wine, which retails on their website at $48 a bottle.
On the food side, this year’s festival included over twenty restaurants and food purveyors that served up some pretty tasty samplings of their fare. We saw a lot of cheese cubes and toothpicks (in fact, too many) being offered. It was to be expected from the cheese and dairy companies, but you’d think that Gelson’s Market and Trader Joe’s (of all my fave grocery stores!) could have gotten a little more creative. In TJ’s defense, at least they served one of their more unusual cheeses (a mozzarella roulade with a prosciutto and basil filling) and also skewers of herb-marinated mozzarella balls with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil leaves.
There are so many foods that pair well with wine besides cheese. Our favorite foodie find of the festival comes from Savvy Wine Food. Chef Erika Heinemann created Gourmet Wine Nuts using fresh herbs and spices to season specific nuts that complement whichever wine you’re drinking (red or white). For reds, slow-roasted California Mission almonds are seasoned with flavors that will “highlight and suggest the versatility of red wines from light to full-bodied”. We found them to be quite a flavorsome pairing with the Zin we sampled from Mara Wine Group. Almonds are also used in combination with roasted cashews and pistachios for the white wine nuts. Fresh herbs and hints of citrus flavor this blend. Many of the cheeses we sampled also tasted great with these nuts.
Another product that impressed us was the balsamic vinegar from Gourmet Blends. They have an extensive line of gourmet blended vinegars and oils that are really unique and delicious. My personal faves were the Thai-Sesame Ginger, Basil Garlic Parmesan, and Sun Dried Tomato Balsamic (which also happen to be their best sellers). They have many other blends and products to choose from (check their website for recipes and suggestions). A versatile product line for my money!
A final favorite was found at Pierre Lafond Bistro. Their Wine Cake samples had people coming back two and three times for more. The simplicity of the cake is what appealed most to us. It’s very similar in texture to a pound cake and not overly sweet. Whereas the previously mentioned Wine Nuts don’t actually contain wine, Wine Cake actually has wine in it (Riesling, to be precise). This cake is at the other end of the spectrum from Bacara Resort’s artful dessert offerings, but we (and many others) seemed to like it more for its unpretentious flavor and homemade appeal.
We also enjoyed the samplings of three local restaurants, Epiphany, Sesto Senso and Fresco Cafe. Epiphany is located in downtown Santa Barbara and Sesto Senso (its sister restaurant) is in nearby Montecito. Epiphany was serving Spicy Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho (delicious and very flavorful) and Local White Sea Bass Ceviche. Sesto Senso received top wine hors d’oeuvres honors from us, though, for their Sesame Soy Tuna Tartare on Wonton Crisps. Full of flavor and contrasting textures, it complemented the wines we were sampling very nicely. Apparently, this restaurant began as a wine/carpaccio bar but recently expanded its menu to offer entrees as well. Fresco Cafe has been a landmark restaurant in Santa Barbara since 1995 and emphasizes cooking with organic and natural ingredients. They brought by some dainty little fruit tarts and mini èclairs for us to try as we waited for the festival to officially open. They were quite welcome and quite good! We look forward to checking out the rest of the menus at all of these restaurants on a future visit to Santa Barbara.
July 21, 2008 at 12:11 pm
It’s me (Caroline). You spoke to me and my boyfriend in the Trader Joe’s line. Love your website! We saw that same “overimbibed” guy and were getting a laugh out of it too! We’re in agreement with you about the cheese–way too much of it! You’d think it was the only thing to eat with wine! We did like those nuts you mentioned and also the wine cake (my bf had 4 or 5 pieces by himself!). Still a pretty good festival, tho. Are you going to any others this summer?
Hey Caroline! Nice to hear from you so soon. We’re planning on checking out the Long Beach Grand Cru in August. Never been to it before, but it’s supposed to be a good one. Check out the WI home page side bar for more info about it.
I went to that festival. Not bad, but nothing great. I’ve been to better for the price.
Charles F. Mara said:
Did not know if I thanked you for the kind words about my Mara Dolinsek Zinfandel 2005.
Charles F. Mara
Thanks for writing. I meant what I wrote. You made some excellent wine!