“Dude, the ‘valley’ is where it’s at.”
So spoke Eric Railsback, co-conspirator of Vallin and Lieu Dit Wines in Santa Barbara, as we sat on his front porch late into the night last week. I flew in earlier that day, to spend a little time with another winery in the region, down the road in Happy Canyon. Staying in Buellton, I arrived at his house in Santa Ynez around 10:15 p.m., cause I couldn’t find the bloody street or house address signs. Not a street light in sight; only the stars and the wall light illuminated the table of wines before us. Eric and his wife, Santi Wilkinson (my fellow Gooner, go Arsenal!), Chris Ivers, and I, knocking back the range of juice from the two wineries. All Santa Barbara, none of the pretense.
Santi, formerly of Frasca, The Med, and Boulder Wine Merchants here in Colorado, moved out there to help open the new complex that Eric and Brian are invested in just off State in downtown SB. Chris, currently of Frasca, was on a 4 day break; a well-needed binge of beach babes and assorted beverages. I was familiar with the wines of Santa Barbara County, notasmuch the culture. Pinot and Chardonnay; warm, rich Syrah and excellent Rhone blends; Bordeaux varieties that were good, but hadn’t quite hit the heights of its’ brethren to the north. You could see Erics’ passion for the county and the untapped potential of the grapes grown here, if you were smart enough to not overdo it…
Vallin is the brainchild of Dustin Wilson of Eleven Madison Park, Brian McLintic (Erics’ partner in the Santa Barbara complex), Eric, and Justin Willett (think Tyler Wines). Lieu Dit is Justin and Eric. They are making some pretty sick shit. The wines were all ripe, but none over the top. The Lieu Dit Cabernet Franc was reminiscent of 2009 Chinon, with ripe cherry and sage notes, and a softness on the palate from a carbonic/whole cluster approach to winemaking. The roses were incredible, and the Chenin Blanc had a lanolin edge to the stone fruit and apple notes. The Vallin Grenache was off the hook…wild strawberry and rhubarb, almost campari-like (as described by Eric) in the fruit and earth it possessed on the nose and palate. Railsback was stoked, as he talked about living in Santa Ynez, a 50 minute drive from the main strip. Most in the industry, due to proximity of the vineyards (or that it is a helluva lot cheaper than living in Santa Barbara) live in the Santa Ynez or Santa Maria Valleys. The food scene is improving, as a young, energetic generation of winemakers and industry folk come into the valley. Santi commented on the similarities between Boulder 15 years ago and Lompoc today. Charles Banks (of Screaming Eagle and Jonata) is opening up a spot there in the next few months.
I was intrigued, and excited.
As far as Santa Barbara goes, this is big. Brian McLintic MS, star of the movie ‘SOMM’, and Eric, who was of late the wine director of RN74, Michael Minas’ hommage to Burgundy in San Francisco, had uprooted all to create a mecca of food and wine in a region known more for restaurants like the Hitching Post. I am not knocking the venerable restaurant in Buellton, far from it; this location is a mainstay of the wine culture. The place still packs them in, for anyone who has watched the movie ‘Sideways’ would recognize the decor. However, the area has had few places that promoted elevated cuisine. Bouchon, Jane, Louies, Le Petit Valentein and the Wine Cask have led the charge, carrying the flag for some time now. However, Santa Barbara also has the reputation of a college town/year-round resort setting, where the wealthy of LA and SF come for long weekends and a little R&R from the rat race. It truly is a beautiful place, and worthy of its’ title…
But a rising tide lifts all boats.
The next morning, I took a nice drive back into town, but taking the 101 along the coast, south to Gaviota, east to Goleta. Even got an phone interview with Bobby Stuckey of Frasca while gazing on the Pacific. What makes the Santa Barbara region so unique is the east/west direction of the valleys here. In fact, these are the longest such valleys in North America; nothing comes close to their size and scope until Chiles’ Aconcagua Valley, 6000 miles south. I planned on seeing some of the sights downtown, maybe catching some of the locations seen in ‘Psych’…(yeah, I like the show, don’t hate). And catching lunch with the fellas. After a bite, they had some work to do at the complex housing the new restaurant and bar. Located in the Funk Zone, it is a former industrial area now renovated and occupied by urban wineries, a brewery, art galleries, and coffee shops. A very cool place, 15 blocks from the ocean, and close to everything. Full of street tacos from Lillys on Chapala (this place fucking rocks), which helped settle the previous nights’ festivities, I strolled into the block-sized building, previously the Santa Barbara Fish Market. It has been redesigned to house a 150 seat restaurant, a wine bar, a winery, a pizzeria, and a private dining room/events center, which will hopefully be a venue for bringing wine education and the best winemakers from around the world to this city. Brian was already there, at home in the construction. I almost hit Brian an hour earlier on the other side of downtown…he was walking to his car, and I was looking for the restaurant where the others and I were supposed to meet up for lunch. The place looks phenomenal, and I need to get out there soon.
Check out the new project at Les Marchands Wine Bar