If you weren’t following Santa Barbara’s wine scene a decade ago, you may take for granted how revolutionary Oreana Winery was when it opened its doors on the corner of Anacapa and Yanonali streets back in 2005. Not only was it just the third wine-production facility in town and second in the emerging Funk Zone neighborhood, but the winery — which was actually first founded as the cooperative Cellar 205 — also put an unprecedented emphasis on fun, cultivating an environment of live music and loud parties that made the world of wine much more of a social scene and less of a stodgy and studious pursuit. Today, in a Funk Zone jam-packed with places that now do a lot of the same, it’s easy to wonder whether any of it would even exist had Oreana not swung the gates wide open.
Nine years later, the winery’s winning formula remains intact. “We don’t want to be a stuffy tasting room,” said Danny Miles. A Santa Ynez native who started working in wine before he could legally drink, Miles signed on with Oreana back in 2006 and became head winemaker three years ago. “We want wine to be approachable. We want it to be fun.”
He’s never liked tasting rooms when the servers try to impress their customers with superior wine wisdom, but Oreana’s front-line employees also happen to be more knowledgeable than most. “They all work during harvest,” said Miles, who is now the face of the winery since founder Christian Garvin moved onto his Avelina project, which was briefly across the street before moving north last month. “They’re immersed in it daily.”
That’s the benefit of having the tasting room connected to the production facility, a rarity in the urban wine scene, and customers get the extra education as well. “Almost every day during harvest, we bring people back here to do punchdowns,” said Miles, explaining that he also has tasting-room visitors run the pH numbers and sugar levels for the fermenting wines.
Those wines change a lot, too; Miles shops the by-ton fruit market every harvest rather than holding onto acreage contracts, a strategy that saves money, requires flexibility, and makes for exciting offerings each vintage. (He does, however, always use some grapes from the Oreana Vineyard in Santa Margarita, which is owned by the winery’s main investor.) That means you’ll find wines from Lodi and Amador counties at Oreana, which produces between 3,500 and 5,000 cases a year, mostly in the $18 to $25 range, much cheaper than a lot of the countywide competition. “We want to represent and promote Santa Barbara County,” said Miles, “but as prices become unaffordable, it gets tough.”
The annual mix of grapes challenges the Oreana team to be creative with what they buy. “We do a lot of wild blends,” said Miles, including current releases of the Petite Merlot (a powerful 50-50 blend of petite verdot and merlot), and the Barely Legal rose from verdelho and zinfandel grapes. “I don’t think there’s a winery anywhere in the world that’s done a verdelho-zinfandel blend,” admitted Miles, who also oversees Oreana’s mass-produced brands, Mission Point, Project Happiness, and Question Mark, which account for about 90,000 cases per year, sold at Trader Joe’s and other chains.
As for the Funk Zone itself, Miles is more shocked than anyone at how much it’s grown. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “We started with two wine barrels and a plank of wood with an old cash register,” he recalled. “We were happy when two people walked in.” These days, especially on weekends or during one of the many nonprofit fundraisers that Oreana hosts, the place is packed with people who manage to sip wine and smile at the same time.
Oreana Winery and Tasting Room is located at 205 Anacapa Street in the Funk Zone. Call (805) 962-5857 or visit oreanawinery.com for info.