California: In food heaven

By Leena Tailor

The angels sing for Leena Tailor as she pairs good wine with good food.

More than 50 grape varieties flourish in the 175 wineries scattered through the Santa Barbara region.
More than 50 grape varieties flourish in the 175 wineries scattered through the Santa Barbara region.

It's never too late, or too early, to drastically change your career in Santa Barbara.

Pete was a rocket scientist, who now makes beer at The Brewhouse. Kurt swapped touring the world with Ike Turner and Stan Ridgeway to run wine tours. Bill is an 83-year-old dentist-turned-winemaker and Erin went from occupational therapist to food-tour guide. The common instigator? Food and wine.

In a region now boasting more than 175 wineries and in the top 10 US cities for restaurants-per-capita, it's no surprise that Santa Barbara County is fuelling the fruition of countless culinary dreams.

Many come with a twist of other personal passions. Like the cupcake lovers at Saarloos + Sons, who offer wine/cupcake pairings and "cupcake flights".

Or foodie Tara Jones who, feeling the effects of the recession on her production company, combined the idea of starting the city's first culinary tour with her love of photography.

Let's face it - if your holiday meals aren't good enough to be posted on Instagram, they're simply not good enough. Tara has capitalised on the sweeping social media component of modern holidays with her walking tour Eat This, Shoot That.

Whether it's solving backlight issues, the best smartphone apps for editing images or how to send a postcard from your phone, even experienced photographers can pick up tips as they sample the city's food and beverages.

Kicking off at the pier, we dive into a tasting at Deep Sea Winery, sampling the peachy 2009 viognier from its Coquina vineyard. The Spanish word translates to shellfish, in reference to the marine fossils found in vineyard sites throughout the county.

The marine influences have affected the soil, producing flavours and characteristics unique to Santa Barbara wines. The region, where more than 50 grape varietals flourish, is also the only east-west oriented wine-growing valley in North America, meaning the ocean brings an evening chill leading to high-acid wines.

After a quick lesson in capturing the city view reflected in our wine glasses, we continue down the pier to taste the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company's rock shrimp ceviche. The trick to mouth-watering food images is simple. "Wet the food so it's shiny," says Tara, squirting lemon juice on to the plate.

Next, we sample a burrito-style pizza at The Lucky Penny and, at Figueroa Mountain Brewing, beer made using sauvignon blanc grapes. Then it's on to the hard stuff at Cutler's Artisan Spirits.

"The trick is to sip rather than down it in one go so it doesn't burn your throat," says Tara, after warily watching us demolish vodka shots.

Gin and bourbon follow, but the distillery's must-try is Grandma Tommie's Apple Pie liquor. Inhaling the warm waft of cinnamon and spice, the scent alone is reminiscent of the oven door opening on a freshly baked pie and the liquor goes down almost too easily.

High on wine, beer and spirits, we move on to bubbly and chocolates at stylish, lounge-like Riverbench.

By now it's clear that anyone doing this tour shrugs off the precaution, "do not mix your alcohol".

Luckily, our final stop is a hearty meal of chicken on bacon waffles with bourbon-infused maple syrup. The combination initially makes me grimace but it's the perfect end to soak up the afternoon's booze tastings.

Full and tipsy, I surrender my evening to napping on the sun-soaked patio at Hotel Indigo, declaring I will never eat again.

Next morning we're at Mosby, stop one of a Santa Ynez wine tour. Owner/retired dentist Bill Mosby got to work pimping up the facilities after reading a review stating his Italian-style wines were great but his restrooms were not.

Our guide, Kurt Kummerfeldt, is full of fun facts, such as how it takes 630 grapes to make a glass of wine, why sunscreen ruins wine-tasting and how the region is believed to have the highest number of female winemakers per-capita in the world.

Having toured the globe as a bass player, Kurt and his wife visited Santa Barbara for their wedding anniversary two decades ago and instantly fell in love.

"We ended up coming six times in one month, then one night as we were looking at the stars, my wife took my hand and said, 'Honey, we have to live here.'

"There were only two dozen wineries then and if you'd told me I would end up in the industry, I would have laughed then gone home and dreamed about it."

Santa Barbara Winery's Pierre Lafond opened the region's first winery post-Prohibition in the 1960s, sparking the birth of the area as a grape-growing mecca. The county now has 8900ha of vineyards and visitor numbers rocketed after the 2004 film Sideways, about two men touring California's wine country.

"Suddenly, everyone wanted to come here, drink and party," says Kurt, pointing out the Days Inn hotel where Sandra Oh "goes postal" on Thomas Haden Church. "The problem is they didn't want to buy wine, so tasting rooms started charging for tastings."

After lunch on the gorgeous, New Zealand-reminiscent grounds of Rusack, we head to Bella Cavalli Farms and Winery. The advantage of taking tours is they often allow exclusive access or VIP entry to restaurants and vineyards - whether it's bypassing the locals queuing to watch the World Cup at bustling hotspot Figueroa the previous day, or enjoying a private session with owners Jeff and Joanne Lockwood at Bella Cavalli.

Part-vineyard and part-equestrian centre, the couple couldn't choose between their love of wine and their love of horses, so combined them, launching their property next door to famed "horse whisperer" Monty Roberts.

I meet captivating, snow-white horse Marilyn and feed a foal after a relaxed courtyard tasting.

Joanne fetches a fresh batch of her peach salsa to accompany the wine.

"When you pair good food with good wine, the angels start singing," says Kurt.

It's a sentiment which nails exactly why Santa Barbara has become a must for foodies as top chefs have flocked to town to open restaurants in response to the booming wine industry.

Many, including Ricardo Zarate's California-Peruvian eatery Blue Tavern, sit near the "funk zone", a part of downtown formerly an industrial and manufacturing district.

Nestled next to the beach, the area is now the hip, happening home to restaurants, artisan stores, cafes and art galleries, as well as the part focus of another of the city's culinary tours, Savor Santa Barbara.

Run by occupational therapist Erin O'Rourke, the lunchtime excursion takes us for an arty stroll past walls of city-commissioned graffiti and through Spanish-style pasarelas (walkways) to sample steaming lobster bisque at laundrette-turned-restaurant Enterprise Fish Company, acai bowls at Backyard Bowls and balsamic-glazed arugula flatbread at Apero.

The funk zone is also home to several stops on the Urban Wine Trail, a walking route allowing visitors to enjoy a day of wine-tasting without having to leave downtown.

After all, you can't come to Santa Barbara and not sample the wine.

"My personal philosophy is that people who enjoy wine enjoy life," says Kurt. "I'm yet to be proved wrong."

Culinary getaway

For those who prefer to experience the culinary scene without leaving their hotel, the Bacara Resort and Spa has five restaurants, a wine-tasting room, complimentary wine and cheese receptions and two annual culinary events.

Twenty minutes from downtown, the stunning seaside property - which has hosted interviews with Oprah Winfrey, The Bachelorette episodes and boy-band weddings - has me enchanted with its picturesque pool, private hiking trails, movie theatre and beach house.

The resort recently held its inaugural Santa Barbara Food and Wine Weekend, partnering with the Julia Child Foundation for cooking classes, panel discussions, wine receptions and a farmers' market.

In October, foodies can enjoy a "three-day food and wine party" where Paso Robles label Tobin James will take over the resort with all-inclusive packages offering local cuisine and wine.

- Herald on Sunday

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