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Sebastian Wahl

This Is Not a Tourist

A New York Couple Takes on Lightning in a Bottle and Wine Country


(Editor’s note) Every Santa Barbara resident has been through some version of the following scenario. Your favorite friends in the world are, at long last, on their way to Santa Barbara for vacation, and you are either going to be really busy at work, out of town, or, as I was over Memorial Day weekend, both. How do you squeeze the most out of having friends visit without dropping your job or your life? Fortunately for everyone concerned, a lot of Santa Barbara requires little or no explanation. A group of intrepid travelers could tackle it themselves and likely have a ball. “But what about me?” you say. “Don’t I deserve to have some fun too?”

Yes, you do, and here’s how. With the help of expert travelers and long-time New Yorkers Stacy and Sebastian Wahl, I managed to come up with a way to make our situation work. Even though I missed a lot of what they got to do, like go to Lightning in a Bottle, and have lunch at ABC vineyards with Bob Lindquist, I still had a great time with them and got to share a lot more of their trip than we had at first expected. It was a less than ideal situation, but by the time we were through, I had gained new confidence in my ability to host visitors, hang out with them, and keep things here together, all without going (all the way) on vacation myself. Call it a vicarious vacation.

The first things we agreed to were that Sebastian would take pictures and Stacy would keep a journal of all the things they did while they were here. We had Thursday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night to eat together and trade stories, which would be plenty of time, especially with such high impact documentation (see below).

The next step we took involved spending some money on my part, but it added so much to the experience that I recommend it without qualifications. For me, the hardest thing to have to miss would be the wine tasting. I had been to Lightning in a Bottle, but I have still never done a real two-day wine country tour, and certainly not anything like what they had scheduled. So for me to experience this part of the trip, Stacy agreed to buy for me as much as my budget would allow of whatever she thought was most interesting. The resulting mixed case (plus two magnums) sits in my house right now, still in the box from Foxen with “Parker tasting April 24” written on it in Sharpie. I haven’t got through it all yet, but somehow the fact that I missed out on all the barrel tasting, sightseeing, and excitement is a little less painful with a delicious glass of Brewer-Clifton’s amazing Lindsay’s Pinot Noir in my hand.

What follows are Stacy’s notes and Sebastian’s photos. Together they tell a great story about what we have here by showing how it all looks to a couple of savvy out-of-towners. So the next time you encounter the stereotypical tourist, consider the possibility that there are other visitors here too, people like ourselves with an ability to fly in under the radar and make off with the best that Santa Barbara has to offer. —Charles Donelan

Gone Green in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara County, one of the most enthralling destinations in the United States, is the polar opposite of my home in New York City. My husband and I have lived there for more than a decade, high in the sky in our apartment on the 22nd floor near Gramercy Park. Neither of us had ever been to Santa Barbara before and we were determined to make this trip an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. “Trying to catch lightning in a bottle” describes something that’s extremely difficult, perhaps bordering on the impossible. Like successfully producing the world’s first and only green music festival, the aptly named Lightning in A Bottle. The phrase “to catch lightning in a bottle” can also express the idea that a person has succeeded in trapping the essence of some elusive creative process, which brings me to wine and the winemakers who are busily capturing the essence of the local grapes from the area’s vines in the wines of Santa Barbara County.

Our first stop was the wonderfully hip Presidio Motel on State Street, and then it was on to the Lightning in a Bottle festival, which is held each spring at Santa Barbara’s Live Oak Campground. We then planned to travel northwest from LIB into Santa Ynez, the Santa Rita Hills, and the Santa Maria Valley to sample the region’s much heralded wines.

Part I-Lightning in a Bottle

Living in New York City requires presence of mind, but that does not automatically imply environmental awareness. I am extremely aware of my impact on other humans as I move about the Big Apple, yet I sometimes forget to think about my footprint in the environment, or my impact on the local economy. For me as a New Yorker, a classic example of conscious awareness is looking out the back window of a taxi before flinging the door open and possibly taking out an unwitting bicyclist. As a result, camping for three days amongst the Lightning in a Bottle community raised my “think before I act” consciousness to a whole new level.

At Lightning in A Bottle one gets immersed in the eco-conscious, green, sustainable lifestyle. This one-of-a-kind festival (yes, Burning Man is a definite inspiration, but LIB has far fewer participants, a much less harsh environment, food vending, and even showers!) has been providing fun, entertainment, and education to underground souls for years, and all the while supporting green business and sustainability. LIB started on the down low in a remote location and has grown by leaps and bounds since going more mainstream in recent years, reborn under the Do LaB’s revolutionary green business ethics and standards.

In its own words, the Do LaB is a radical art collective committed to the expansion of minds and the destruction of conventions. Do LaB founder Jesse Fleming, 29, and his team strive to stimulate consciousness at their events by building large-scale, interactive art installations and creating surreal environments for people to temporarily inhabit in which they can “party with a purpose.” Their approach invites participants to feel like they’re a part of what is happening rather than just paying for a ticket to then be entertained as transient spectators. Fleming’s kick-ass team includes the skilled resident designer Josh and green expert Shena Turlington. This crew has come further than any other festival in the world in applying the concept of greening to the 2008 Lightning in a Bottle event.

Lively panel discussions on topics such as bio-diesel fuels, composting, social networking, and community consciousness were a pleasure to absorb in the Bottle’s cozy cocoon in the woods. There are recycling guidelines and stations available at the event that inspire a leave-no-trace ethic amongst festival attendees.

There is also plenty of visual stimulation to complement the educational opportunities. I couldn’t walk 100 feet at LIB without seeing an outrageously clad stilt-walker lumbering through the forest. The Bazaar section of the festival was filled with artists selling countless one-of-a-kind crafts of their own designs. And, there were tons of giggling kids present taking advantage of the workshops in the “Kids Area” made just for them. Kid activities included wildlife hiking and tiara making. LIB is truly a family festival and this dynamic further added to the strong sense of community that is unique to this gathering. One morning, while standing in line at one of the java vending stands, I saw the most beautiful twenty-something mother decked out in a feathered fedora, black stretchy body-hugging clothes, and suspenders-bringing that cabaret/vaudeville look so prevalent at LIB. Her healthy baby was smartly wrapped up in an additional piece of black cloth and securely tied to the young woman’s body facing her breast. When the baby managed to maneuver through the layers of stretchy fabric and help himself to his mother’s milk while she patiently stood on line for something to eat or drink, it was utopian. This vision of a nursing mother and her happy child stayed with me throughout the weekend, leaving a secure glee in its wake.

In addition to the workshops, inspired empathy, and art installations, Lightning in A Bottle overflows with top-notch entertainment. The Do LaB’s sister company and world-renowned performance troupe Lucent Dossier created by Dream Rockwell provided a gigantic chunk of eye-candy at LIB. Dream based her Lucent Dossier concept on the idea that a circus-like vibe would be more fun than anything else she could imagine. Lucent Dossier believes that it is artists who will shape the future, as they are the ones who see beyond what is, and into what is possible. Witnessing the gorgeous aerial and acrobatic feats of this well-sculpted collective of beautiful people, I immediately felt tapped into the rich imagination that this crew inspires in one another. Lucent Dossier’s performances throughout the weekend were raw, boundary stretching, in your face (sometimes in the crowd) spectacles that confronted emotional and environmental themes with an impish flair.

Day and night at LIB, the music flowed from booming sound systems surrounding the three main stages-Treehouse, Bamboo, and Woogie. These stages were made by master creators like LIB veteran Shrine, who built the Treehouse Stage from, you guessed it, GARBAGE! The Bamboo Stage was conceived and constructed by bamboo artisan Gerard Minakawa and his crew. The Treehouse Stage looked more like a Shipwreck stage to me, but the Bamboo Stage looked exactly like what it was dubbed. Bamboo is a quickly renewable building material that is also incredibly strong and pliant. Shrine is slated to build the ambitious Temple structure at Burning Man this year while Gerard Minakawa impressed many with his sculptures at last year’s Burning Man. Heading out from camp into any of the eight residential “patches,” with veggie names like Carrot, Rutabaga, or Asparagus, and toward one of these three stages provided a chance for a reflective, invigorating walk en route to catch a slew of talented deejays.

Sebastian Wahl

DJ Laura from the Bay Area was one of the musical highlights at LIB. She absolutely crunked the Treehouse into a dancing mash of potatoes with her eclectic mash-up of beats and tracks until 2:30 p.m. Laura’s acid crunk sound and wild breakbeats were totally infectious. Forgetting for a moment that I was in an accepting environment of like-minded free spirits, I was at first self-conscious about dancing so hard at that hour. Being right up front by the deeejay booth in broad daylight was felt a bit exposed: until my social fears were allayed by a boisterous, skinny dancer dressed in a lime-green and yellow spandex unitard wildly hula-hooping toward me. Before I knew it, we were dancing side by side and whooping and hollering about how great the afternoon was. And as evening drew near, LIB kept getting better.

The deejay line-up of El Papa Chango, Tipper, and the Glitch Mob made for one of the best Saturday nights I’ve ever had, hands down. El Papa Chango is an Argentine who really loves a funky groove. He’s got a nice dirty sound that really got the evening going. Dave Tipper came in from Hawaii to remind everyone how much he loves loud music. With his set, he hit the dance floor with some real bombs that showed how comfortable he is with a wide range of styles and a wobble factor that defies all systems of measure. All four members of the Glitch Mob (edit, Ooah, Boreta and Kraddy) were present at this year’s LIB. The Glitch Mob are wizards of sound creation. During their one-and-a-half hour set I had the sense that I could hear what it would sound like to rip through the fabric of time. At any moment, the recycled garbage used to construct the Treehouse Stage was in danger of being crushed, melted, and ultimately milled by the straight heat that the Glitch Mob was oozing.

On Sunday night, Lorin Ashton aka Bassnectar was slated to play in the Treehouse Stage at 9 p.m. after arriving from a date on the East Coast just hours earlier. He settled in and duly performed his inner ear (and inner organ) tickling bass test before launching a battery of drum sounds, similar to those of marching bands, right into the colorful and expectant crowd. This percussive assault was punctuated by an urgent, high-pitched alarm whine that made the hairs on my arms stand up. At the other end of this tension-filled, fiery opening came a perfectly timed drop that had all of us on the floor poised to start swaying in connected unison. The energy was palpable. Bassnectar came on strong, and his music provided a wet-towel snap of energy to LIB that night. Well aware of the fact that he had dropped in on a party in its peak that Sunday night, Bassnectar delivered a set that brought a dose of the real world into the protective womb of LIB. When it comes to making sure no one forgets about the purpose/duty behind the party, there’s no better messenger than Bassnectar.

When Monday morning came, we began switching vacation gears, from Lorin to Loring, and from Live Oak to Lompoc-but not without a glitch for our little mob of campers. Our good friend who had driven his RV up from Los Angeles (who also happens to be a contributing photographer to this paper from time to time) had somehow lost all the air out of one of his back tires during the days it was parked at Lightning in a Bottle. It was Memorial Day and no options for towing seemed to present themselves via the calls to AAA. We were thinking we might end up camping on the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course till normal business resumed on Tuesday and the vehicle could be serviced.

We didn’t expect to be saved by a couple of honest, hard-working men from Garcia’s Tire Shop! Their guys showed up at our break-down location, swiftly rotated the RV’s tires front to back, and even managed to rig a spare so that we were truly all set to go. Now though, our friend had lost half the day, was pressed for time, and could not drive us to Lompoc where we were due the next morning for our winery tours.

Part II-Wine Country

Miraculously, the side of the Garcia’s Tire Shop repair truck had Lompoc, CA stamped on it under the company logo. We perked up and asked if there was any way they could give us a ride to Lompoc, and they were more than friendly and willing to help us. We piled into the truck with our luggage and made our way north on Hwy 154 making a left turn onto the 246. It was one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. It was verdant, expansive, and populated with hills and fields of poppies and wild mustard plants. It was then that I started to see the first signs of vineyards. My heart sped up. I began to feel a rush of gratitude toward the universe and my job for affording me this rare opportunity to be cruising through paradise.

I am a freelance bookkeeper who serves clients in a variety of industries. It is work that I love and that keeps my days varied and full. One of my first clients, Jean-Luc Le D» owns the nascent wine-geek boutique Le D»’s Wines in the West Village of Manhattan. Jean-Luc has inspired me personally and professionally on many levels and he and the entire staff of the shop have given my curiosity about and passion for wine such a boost that I now like to combine vacations with wine tasting trips whenever possible. That said, I had arranged appointments with Jean-Luc’s help and I was honored to be welcomed at some of the most revered wineries in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).

Lompoc (taken from the Chumash word Lum Poc meaning little lake or lagoon) is a small, mostly industrial town in the westernmost part of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. [The Santa Rita Hills appellation belongs to Chile; thus, here, it is spelled “Sta. Rita Hills.”] The day we were there, there was a prohibitive wind blowing that made me feel chilly even though the early morning sun was blazing. Brewer-Clifton is located on a very quiet street about a mile away from where we had spent the night.

It is hard to convince a New Yorker that a taxi is required for distances of two miles or less. Walking is the preferred method of transportation in my town. As we walked north along North “F” Street toward the winery, we crossed a set of railroad tracks and couldn’t help but chuckle realizing the proximity of Brewer-Clifton to an area of Lompoc known as the “wine ghetto.” We rang the bell and when Stephen Janes opened the large steel door to greet us, we were surprised to hear drum and bass music pumping so early in the morning. Hadn’t we left Lightning In A Bottle? We immediately felt at home. As we entered, I noticed how sleek and modern this sci-fi winery was. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then Brewer-Clifton is a slice of heaven.

The tasting that had been organized for us was sublime, and included two of the just released 2007 Chardonnays (from the Huber and Clos Pepe vineyards) under the Diatom label. Diatom is the three-year-old project that is run by Greg, the Brewer half of Brewer-Clifton. The word Diatom refers to the fossilized sea creatures found throughout the soils of this terroir. These Diatom wines are unlike any California chardonnay I have ever tasted. Diatom has a stealthy flavor profile that is difficult to put a name on. I found myself tasting and wondering how an experienced wine professional would fare in a blind tasting trying to nail down this usually in your face varietal. Fermented cold in 100 percent stainless steel, the Diatom is austere and unique, and makes a bold statement by going against the current of today’s domestic chardonnay market dominated by much yellower, fattier, and more buttery wines.

Sebastian Wahl

From the Brewer-Clifton portfolio, we sampled two Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. Greg Brewer had some time to sit with us and gave us some insight into the winemaking style of Brewer-Clifton. With an intelligent glint in his eye and expressive body language, he explained that the philosophy is driven by a desire to capture the essence of the soils in which the grapes are grown. Brewer-Clifton’s reputation for producing aromatic wines was completely solidified for me as we tasted through Lindsay’s, Clos Pepe, and Cargasacchi Pinot Noir offerings from the 2006 vintage. Of the three, the Lindsay’s was the most immediately accessible with a fruit forward nose of blueberry, cherry, and forest floor. On the palate the flavor was intense, but with an elegant style that lingered on in the finish. Brewer and Janes made it clear that they felt the Lindsay’s was showing particularly well that morning which certainly added to my enjoyment of the tasting. The Clos Pepe and Cargasacchi pinots were a bit more restrained but with patience, will definitely be a rewarding in two to three years time.

We were grateful when Janes offered us a ride to our next appointment at Loring Wine Company. It impressed me how the strong sense of community I experienced at the Lightning in a Bottle festival seemed to be paralleled by the folks in the wine industry.

At Loring (dubbed Pinot Prisons due to its proximity to the Lompoc State Prison), we were greeted with enthusiasm by winemaker Michael Padrick. Padrick began working with Bill and Kimberly Loring after he met Bill at a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, where he was living at the time as a self-proclaimed ski bum. Bill offered Padrick a chance to come work for Loring. Now he continues to produce wines alongside Bill for the Loring label and additionally bottles his own pinot noir and syrah under the moniker P2 Wines. With Padrick siphoning out barrel samples like a shaman doles out singing water, we embarked on an extreme tasting of 2007s including the Loring Garys’, Rosella’s, Brosseau, Graham, Naylor, Russell, Aubaine, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe (from two different clones), Keefer, all from Loring, and the P2 Brosseau and syrah selections. My palate was absolutely reeling.

Loring wines are somewhat controversial as they are not particularly age-worthy creations. While they may not be collectible in the same way their Burgundian counterparts are, Loring wines are expertly crafted, and I for one am bursting with gladness over the fact that they are drinkable upon release. To my mind, there’s a time and place for drinking delicious wine : and that’s the present!

Tuesday night saw us dining at the fabled Hitching Post, only it was NOT the Hitching Post but rather, the Hitching Post II. Our favorite Santa Barbaran (not barbarian?) drove up to meet us and realized when the hostess couldn’t find my reservation that I had made the classic tourist error when booking a table here. No matter that my name was not technically on the books-we were told it wouldn’t be too long for a table. We then spent an efficient 20 minutes at the bar, which is where I learned the meaning of “Lompoc” from the bartender who lives there. We perused the wine list and selected a 2002 Hitching Post “Julia’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir to get some experience drinking a more aged bottle of the local goodness. We gave the wine an “A” for effort. It was lush and flavorful with cherries, spices, and an inherent earthy quality. It was, however, a bit past its peak and lacked some of the spunk of the wines we had tried up to that point.

On the last day of our still-unfolding adventure, we were thrilled to be guided through Santa Maria, Los Olivos, and the Santa Rita Hills by Bryan Hope of Sustainable Vine Wine Tours. Hope picked us up in his environmentally sound van-it runs on biodiesel.

Hope told us about the organic and biodynamic techniques used by a lot of the local producers in an attempt to be lighter on the land while still producing award-winning wines.

After a tour and lunch at Au Bon Climat, where we were honored to dine with one of my favorite winemakers, Bob Lindquist (his 1998 Bien Nacido Hillside Syrah brought tears to my eyes), Hope was excited to continue the day and take us to an organic winery. He gave us more than a ride. He allowed us in to his world. Hope understands the history and evolution of the wine in the region having lived for years in Santa Barbara. He can point out where the oldest vines are, recount the stories behind the wineries and winemakers, and describe the projects all are currently involved in, and he definitely knows the roads. I can’t imagine trying to navigate those windy, scenic animals all jacked up on barrel samples. All I would want to do would be to take my eyes off the road. Hope took us to Demetria, a gorgeous location that uses entirely organic techniques to produce some lovely wines, including several distinguished pinot noirs.

Epilogue

Who doesn’t dream of living in a life-sustaining environment that is restorative over time? Many of us are totally open to guidance and information on how to practice the habits that better our relationship with ourselves, our fellow men and women, and with our planet. Lightning in a Bottle strives to make a positive impact on the environment by offering guidance in this realm. The LIB founders are trailblazers who are lighting the way of the future by showing their extended family of patrons, artists, and fellow event producers how to follow suit by bringing the green into their own lives and projects.

Similarly, in the Santa Barbara world of wine production, it is comforting to know that there are wine growers who are committed to methods of sustainable and organic farming that represent the connection they’ve retained to the local land for many years. You can taste the dedication and integrity in the wines produced from these grapes harvested from vines grown in the magical soils of the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and even up into the Chalone AVA. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Santa Barbara area, you are blessed with local access to some of the best wines in the world.

Back home in New York City looking through our many and colorful photos my husband and I eat pistachio nuts. We both reach for the last one in the pouch at the exact same moment. Hubby gets to it first, chivalrously opens it and passes me the nut with a giving smile. I look at the empty bag, notice the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company logo printed on it, and realize we bought these nuts while still away. I suddenly feel like we have managed to extend our vacation by smuggling organic California treats home. I feel slightly reticent to eat the last one. Then I promise myself to be sure and get back to Santa Barbara as soon as possible. Satisfied with that thought, I pop the nut in my mouth and muse over the fact that it is green.

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