“Is that smoke?”
For a group focused on sipping some of Santa Barbara County’s best wines on a leisurely Saturday courtesy of the highly recommendable Sustainable Vine Tours, the question caught us off-guard. But sure enough, over the hill in front of us, wafts of brown, black, and white smoke could be seen peeling into the warm wind.
After having already sampled a slew of wines from the Demetria Estate on Foxen Canyon Road and preparing to dive into the offerings from Ampelos in the Sta. Rita Hills - where we were about to eat our New Frontiers-made sandwiches under an oak tree - fire was something we were hoping to avoid. That was especially true for the non-Santa Barbarans in our group, a quartet from San Diego, some of whom had to be evacuated in last week’s blazes.
But sure enough, the warm ‘n’ windy Indian summer weather made burning easy, and a hillside less than a mile away - and adjacent to the south side of Highway 246 - was ablaze. Peter Work, who owns Ampelos with his wife Rebecca, jumped in his truck to take a closer look. I ran to the top of the nearby hill and found, sure enough, the fire was directly in front of us, but luckily blowing the other way, inland toward Buellton and approaching 246. Meanwhile, back at the picnic table, blackened salmon and turkey sandwiches were unwrapped, and washed down with a syrah rose, a pinot noir, and a grenache, all under the Ampelos brand.
Within a few minutes, we heard the buzz of a helicopter that was equipped, we figured, with seawater from the Pacific Ocean, whose normally cool breezes make the Sta. Rita Hills ideal for growing grapes, especially pinot and chardonnay. It swung over us, and then got its bearings on the fire, dropping its orange bucket on the flames. Simultaneously, five engines and a bulldozer were on the scene - clearly, no one was messing around with fire this Saturday, as the miniscule one-acre blaze was attacked by no less than a small firefighting army.
The chopper came back for a second drop, dripping its contents a few yards from our picnic table before unleashing another bucketload on the grass fire. Eventually, Peter returned with a “that was scary” expression on his face, and laughed as he began eating and sipping his homegrown pinot.
As we finished the bottles and said our goodbyes, the smoke had subsided. The hillside was charred and the crews kept spot-treating the hot ground, but everyone was safe. And we were on our way to the last stop of the day: Alma Rosa Winery.