Updated: Nov 22, 2020
“Oh what a difference a year makes!” If I hear this quote or the word “pivot” one more time someone is getting punched in the mask! I could think of nothing else as I traveled to Santa Barbara last week with my first wine tour since March. It had been eight months in the making, but we had finally gotten our group ready for action. Understandably no one wanted to travel for quite some time, but as the pandemic raged people got cabin fever and wanted to move about. Granted we were not going on any international journey, but could we stay domestic, safe and still have a world class trip? Well hell, there was only one way to find out, so we dove right in. One way or another we were going to Santa Barbara wine country for harvest in 2020, and we were not making Mad Dog!
Knowing that some of the best juice in the world comes from the area made my plan a bit easier, but the rest was still beyond anything we had curated. How do we take ten people from around the country on a tour and make it feasible according to CDC and state regulations? How do we keep ourselves safe, the winery/restaurant staffs healthy and still enjoy one of the best weeks of food and wine in the history of the world? Could we participate in all the typical amenities and hands on events that a Heathen Wine Tour usually enjoys? I mean sure, most of our tours are for small groups (public or private) and we usually have wineries, buses, and resorts to ourselves. So how much do we really need to change? What circumstances can we prevent to create the perfect and safest trip for all?
As I poured some wine and contemplated the process, I flipped on the TV to catch a game. My beloved Celtics happened to be playing the Heat. Such an intriguing match up as I was reared “green to the gills” in the Larry Bird era and have resided in Miami for the last 7 years. Unfortunately, for my beloved “Bean town boys” the Heat were far to strong and the word “bubble” was used to a further extent than even “pivot”. And that's when it occurred to me, could we build a bubble for a wine tour? Could we exclude the outside world and be separated from the VID? What would it take, and would it even make sense monetarily? Well I had two options, figure out how to save my business which had gone dormant since March, or I could start sucking my thumb in the fetal position and feel sorry for myself. Sitting back is not exactly my modus operandi so I started the build out. Not all wineries would want to participate in the middle of the pandemic, and I understood that. Hell, there is no right or wrong answer when you are dealing with these types of situations, but you must ask the questions. We knew we could not control the airlines but everything else we could dictate for ourselves. So, if everyone got to the airport safely, we could handle the rest.
Housing is always a huge component on any of our trips. I have proven many times before that no matter how badly I screw up if people have a clean, comfortable room and safe transportation there is nothing that wine and pajamas cannot cure. We found our new friends at For Friends Inn in Santa Ynez while grinding through tons of websites in pursuit of the perfect weeklong home. We needed a private place with great, friendly service and most important a game plan should something go wrong. As I spoke with the owners Dave and Katie they answered my questions perfectly. Not about room service or thread counts on sheets, but about dealing with guests should someone come down with symptoms. When Dave told me his first reaction would be to use his “hospitality heart” to make a safe environment for us I knew we had found our spot. Even though we did not need all eight rooms we booked them to ensure our private bubble. Stage one done. Next up we grabbed our own private bus and driver. There was no way I was using a new driver daily, we wanted our own person to be part of the crew all week. We tested temperatures every day and always wore masks until we were seated outside. We encountered no other groups and typically had the wineries to ourselves. Everyone on the trip was responsible for getting a Covid test 48 hours before arriving at the airport. From there we would travel in our own bubble on our own private agenda.
After a long day of travel we took the first evening nice and easy and headed to Jeff Nelson’s backyard for pizza in his outdoor oven. Jeff owns Liquid Farm winery and produces some of the best chardonnay and pinot noir in the state. Paired with delicious, elegant wines, we had fresh porcini mushrooms, local charcuterie, hand tossed pizzas and salads to die for. With Jeff's chickens running around and the sun setting over the Santa Ynez mountains our first evening could not have been any closer to “normal”. Sunday morning after our 3-course breakfast (a daily occurrence) at the Inn we were off to Foxen Vineyards to meet our dearest friends in the business, owners Dick and Jenny Williamson Dore. I have the pleasure of calling the Dore's some of my best friends for over twenty years and they have consistently produced top pinot noir, syrah, cab franc and my favorite chenin blanc in the country. After our private tour of the winery including punch downs with winemaker Billy, we saddled up to taste twelve bottles paired with lunch on the porch. That afternoon we were off to meet a new friend who is quietly making some of the best new wines in the area. Matt McKinney aka McDreamy stands 6’8" and played professional volleyball in Europe and Puerto Rico after lettering in basketball and volleyball at UCLA. Basically, a one man show Matt spent the afternoon with us bestowing his love of wine gained playing ball in Europe. He even introduced us to his vineyard management team who lives on property, his goats. After a ridiculous day of wine and fun we strolled to Ellie’s Tap Room for a private 5 course dinner with owner Chef Joy. We were regaled with her story and love of sourcing all things local. Santa Barbara wine country does sit amidst what we think of as America’s garden.
Monday morning, we were off to our homie Andrew Murray’s winery to tour, taste and make our own wine blends. That's right, how cool is it when one of the best producers of Rhone wine varieties invites you to blend your own bottle? We spent the day in the vines, tasting and blending syrah, grenache and mourvedre for our own private bottles. After a day of winemaking we were in for a killer surprise that only SoCal can offer correctly, a feast of homemade tacos. Sitting in the garden listening to Dave play his guitar next to the firepit I contemplated. Who knew sparkling riesling and hand made tortillas could qualify for world’s greatest meal?
Tuesday, we headed north to San Luis Obispo county to hang with two legends of the wine world. Our first stop was with Brian Talley of award-winning Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande. Brian treated us to barrel samples from the soon to be bottled 2018 vintage of his chardonnay’s and pinot noir's. Next he treated the group to a private tasting in the winery courtyard. As the winery is closed on Tuesdays, we had the run of the place to ourselves. With fresh local cheese and charcuterie our wine tasting was the perfect setting with the sun warming our palates on a perfect 70-degree day. That afternoon we stopped by Lindquist Family vineyards to see our old friend Bob Lindquist. Known for decades as the best producer of syrah in the United States, Bob treated us to a tasting of ten wines on his terrace. Lindquist wines are spicy, earth driven with aromas and flavors of smoked olives, lavender and cracked pepper that ooze from these delicate, balanced wines. Always the showman, Bob was on fire that afternoon as his beloved Dodgers won the World Series the night before. Mr. Lindquist previously made a private wine label for the Dodgers and swears it is the perfect pairing for the world-famous Dodger Dog!!!
Our final day was a boozy doozy spent with one of our best friends in the business Chad Melville of Melville winery. Chad and his brother planted the vines here in Santa Rita Hills over twenty years ago and Chad has overseen the vineyards ever since. Eight years ago, he made the jump to the cellar and now makes the wines as well. We met Chad in the vineyards where he put us to work picking grapes. We then followed the grapes to the crush pad where we hopped in the bins to foot stomp the grapes “I Love Lucy” style. After tasting the fresh juice, we proceeded to a twelve bottle vintage tasting paired with lunch on the crush pad and a tour of the fermentation tanks and barrels. We literally processed the grapes from the vineyard to the tank. Unfortunately for the group Chad and I treat each other as brothers and tend to be verbally abusive in all settings. So, the entire day was met with a heaping side of snarky, irreverent schoolboy chatter typically reserved for closed door settings. After a full day of harvest work we were off to our final dinner at the phenomenal Industrial Eats. Our last evening is a festival of world class food that doesn't stop until we plead "no mas"! Fresh local fish, uni, hand pulled burrata cheese with local olive oil and tomatoes fresh from the vine. Lamb, the local specialty of tri tip beef, roasted vegetables and the best cheese you'll find on the West Coast. Not a belly or plate was left unattended as we enjoyed the entire back porch to ourselves and our “La Paulee” style dinner where everyone brings their favorite wine bottle from our week of winery visits.
All in all, we spent a week of normalcy other than social distancing, masks, and no contact with other groups. All the wineries, restaurants, chefs, and our inn keepers went above and beyond to ensure our safety and theirs. An incredible tour of grape stomping, blending, picking, world class food and our very own bed and breakfast. The wines were insane and dare I say we may have even learned a thing or two. Guaranteed there were enough laughs and giggles to ensure none of it was taken too seriously other than the love of wine, food, and fun! We returned home with no issues or illnesses and enjoyed new culture, wines, friends, and surroundings in the safest way possible!