California: Santa Barbara

Several years ago, a copy of a beautiful coffee table book on Santa Barbara showed up on my desk. The writing was the work of Barnaby Conrad; the photography was the art of Marc Muench. Their collaborative effort was both delightful and enchanting; it sparked in me an intense desire to visit the city. 

I was eager to see Santa Barbara’s Pacific coastline and harbor — home of hundreds of large boats and yachts. I looked forward to walking down historic State Street and strolling in and out of the small boutiques and restaurants. I couldn’t wait to see the red tile roofs of the homes and public buildings, especially the really old ones — built two and three centuries ago.

I had seen pictures of the Santa Barbara Mission, for example, and knew it dated back to 1786. Seeing it (inside and out) was high on my list of priority stops. So too was the Santa Barbara Courthouse — considered by many to be the most beautiful courthouse in America. I could imagine the interiors of both — original Spanish tile work. I could imagine praying in the mission and showing up for jury duty at the courthouse.

My recent visit to Santa Barbara allowed me to see all these sites and more. It permitted me to enjoy a most beautiful and memorable city! It gave me lots of great experiences and much to write about — too much for any one article.

Getting to Santa Barbara, California was not easy from Houston, but it was well worth the time and effort. (First, there was a three-hour flight from Houston’s Bush Airport to LAX and then a 90-mile drive west on SH 101.)

Simpson House Inn
By the time I got to the Simpson House Inn in Santa Barbara, I could not have been  more ready to rest and relax.The inn — the only Five Diamond Bed & Breakfast in North America — was built as a private home in 1874. It is tucked away behind tall shrubs in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, just a couple of blocks from State Street. 

After receiving a warm welcome from the inn’s general manager, I was escorted across the extensively landscaped backyard to the Weathervane Room, located on the second floor of what was once the property’s barn. What a joy it was to walk in and see this beautifully designed and decorated room with all the comforts of home.

The Weathervane Room features white wood plank walls and high ceilings, and both make the large spaces seem even more so. Multiple windows, French doors opening to a small balcony and skylights throughout flood the room with natural light and keep everything inside bright and cheery.I was thrilled to see a finely dressed king-sized bed, large and luxurious bath, a dining table for in-room service and a sitting area with sofa, reading lamps and wood-burning fireplace. The room also came equipped with wireless internet access, cable TV with VCR/DVD player, mini fridge and wet bar. I liked that too!  

After a dreamy first night at the Simpson House Inn, I was up and out the door early — ready and eager for adventure.

Sustainable Vine Wine Tour
The day’s agenda called for a trip into the wine country with seven other travel writers. It was an outing arranged by Brian Hope, owner of Sustainable Vine Wine Tours of Santa Barbara County. Hope promised a six-hour, behind-the-scenes look at organic winemaking and drives through some of the most beautiful parts of Santa Ynez Valley. And, he delivered — big time!

Our first stop was the Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, owned by the husband/wife team of Richard and Thekla Sanford who strongly believe nature and agriculture should co-exist in sustainable harmony.

Sanford came to the Santa Ynez Valley more than 40 years ago to create wines that would rival the best of France. He was the first to recognize the potential of the Santa Rita Hills —  now an officially accredited AVA (American Viticultural Area) as Sta. Rita Hills. He was also the first to plant Pinot Noir vines here.

The Sanfords founded Sanford Wines in 1981 and for 27 years produced award-winning wines sold in 50 states and 16 countries. (It was this wine that the characters in the movie, Sideways, tried first on their wine-tasting adventure.)

In 1983, the Sanfords planted their first 100 percent organic vineyard at Rancho El Jabali. The Rinconada and La Encantada vineyards followed, and in the year 2000, all Sanford estate vineyards were the first in Santa Barbara County to be certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers.

It was an unexpected treat to get to meet and taste wines with Sanford himself. I learned a lot from him, including the fact that Alma Rosa Wines are now available at Spec’s in Houston.

The second stop on our tour was the Ampelos Cellars & Vineyards, situated on one of the loveliest rolling hills in the area.

Ampelos, which translates to “vine” in Greek, is owned and operated by Peter and Rebecca Work, former corporate execs who gave up one life to pursue the dream of another.The Works planted the initial 15-acre vineyard in 2001, with10 acres of Pinot Noir (clone 115 and Pommard) and five acres of Syrah (Estrella and 99) and about one-fifth acre of Viognier in a classic Rhône tradition.

In 2004, the couple expanded the vineyards and selected eight separate, small areas on the property to plant 10 additional acres, lovingly called “baby blocks.” The Works continued their focus on Pinot Noir and Syrah but added a small block of Grenache. In 2008, another adjustment was made. The Works grafted the one acre of Syrah clone 99 over to Grenache.

While we were there, Work led us around the vineyards, stopping often to tell us about some of the technicalities of growing grapes in harmony with nature. We learned about why rows and vines are spaced as they are, how the planting area is kept clear of weeds, how the vines are carefully pruned by hand, etc. Fascinating, to say the least.

Mid-day we all sat around a long table under a big shade tree and enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch, all the while tasting more and more of the Ampelos wines.I couldn’t help but pause and reflect as I sat there: “I can’t think of anything in the world more delightful to be doing on such a bright and beautiful day! Gosh, I love my job!”

After lunch, we made our way over to the lovely Demetria  Estate, a family-owned winery founded in 2005.

Getting to the winery was interesting. It called for a long drive to a hilltop and  maneuvering delicately up and around a narrow winding road. At its end, we found ourselves perched high above the beautiful vine-filled valley below.

The building on the property was as lovely as it could be. It featured sun-colored stucco walls, arched doorways and rich touches of stained wood throughout. To its left was an outside terrace for simply sitting and sipping wine.We met John Zahoudanis, the owner of the winery, and Michael Roth, the winemaker.

From Zahoudanis, we learned about his long-time interest in owning a vineyard and making wine. We also learned Demetria Estate is named for his daughter.Roth led us on a tour of the winery and told us a lot about the Demetria Estate wines and himself, including how he came to be the accomplished winemaker he is.

Demetria Estate produces two “separate portfolios” of wine, including Burgundian varietals and Rhone-style blends. The Burgundian offerings comprise of manifestations of Pinot Noir, Char-donnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.To enjoy all of these Demetria Estate wines, we sat on the terrace, at a long and shaded rectangular table. From there we were able to fully appreciate the beauty of the scenery below and beyond and share our thoughts with each other about a whole lot of very good wine!

The Wine Cask
After the tour, we were taken back to our accommodations to clean up and dress for dinner. By seven o’clock we connected at The Wine Cask. 

Located in downtown Santa Barbara in the El Paseo complex, The Wine Cask is a popular gathering spot, well-known for its style and atmosphere, excellent service and creative, farm-to-table menus.

We gathered in the Tasting Room and met owners Doug Margerum and Mitchell Sjerven. They educated us about the history of their place and introduced us, via a series of tastings, to Doug’s namesake Margerum wines. My favorite was his M5 (a Rhône-styled red blend). I was delighted to learn the M5 is also available at Spec’s in Houston.

We met Chef Brandon Hughes prior to experiencing one of his highly regarded Chef’s Counter Dinners in the Main Dining Room. I discovered some of the chef’s  training had taken place in Houston — at Tony’s. I couldn’t help but think: small world.

The thought stayed with me and. Even now, I can seem to get the song, It’s a Small World, out of my head. It would be maddening if it didn’t remind me of Santa Barbara — and how eager I am to go back there soon and see more!

Beverly Denver is the editor and publisher of Houston Woman Magazine. When she’s not working on the magazine, she off purusing her love of travel and adventure.