Though often cast aside as the bastard stepchild of Santa Barbara County, there’s plenty of peace and beauty to be found in the Cuyama Valley, which drops from the pine-studded mountain passes of Los Padres National Forest down into the sandy washes, carrot plantations, and pistachio orchards along the bone-dry Cuyama River. But high desert tranquility isn’t the only reason to make the two-plus-hour drive-fine wine and hearty dining also await at Sagebrush Annie’s, a roadside restaurant and tasting room located in Ventucopa on Highway 33.
Owned and intimately operated since 1989 by Larry Hogan and his wife Karina, Sagebrush Annie’s is destination dining at its most sincere, a place where eating and drinking are merely portals into the deeper experience of listening to and learning from the charming couple. As the restaurant’s only employees-save for the occasional helping hand of a good friend-the Hogans have no choice but to get to know their customers, a reality further guaranteed by their policy of only one seating per evening in their eclectically decorated, 28-person-max dining room. And since Larry personally escorts wine grapes from the vine to his award-winning bottles to your glass, very few tasting situations can compare. “I take care of my own vines. I’m the winemaker, I’m the barbecue chef, and I’m the dishwasher,” said Larry during my visit on a Sunday in May. The formula-only available on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights-is even recession-proof. “We’ve been full every Saturday night except one since February,” said Larry, as Karina, who prepares every dish that’s not barbecued, explained that business actually is up about 30 percent this year.
Karina is a story all her own-a classically trained musician and health-conscious chef who’s liable to stop cooking for a turn on the grand piano or viola-while Larry is a former cattleman who won’t stop playing the wrangler part, with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat framing his no-nonsense face, shiny belt buckle holding up his faded blue jeans, and weathered leather boots clicking when he walks. Though he’ll be 75 come July 14, Larry doesn’t look a day past 60, and his fit, trim build would be the envy of most folks 30 years younger. His secret? “Well,” he joked, while holding up his half-empty wine glass, “I’m pickled!”
His preferred pickling juice comes straight from the increasingly respected vineyards of Cuyama Valley, where Larry pioneered grape-growing by planting the region’s first commercial vines in 1982 under the name Barnwood. He sold that property in the late 1990s to businessman Selim Zilkha (who later purchased Laetitia Vineyard & Winery in Arroyo Grande), and planted another vineyard called Stone Pine Estates up nearby Quatal Canyon where he lives. Today, Larry makes two brands of wine: Sagebrush Annie’s, which uses grapes from Barnwood (now called Santa Barbara Highlands), and Stone Pine, which uses the Quatal Canyon grapes and happens to be one of the only wines grown entirely in Ventura County (the vineyard is just over the border from S.B. County).
This is what you gather in the first five minutes at Sagebrush Annie’s, as Larry leads you on a tasting tour of his cabernets, which have garnered double golds, best-in-show, and other accolades from international wine competitions in San Francisco, Florida, and beyond. Among others, there’s the easy-drinking 2003 Stone Pine, which Larry and Karina prefer while watching sunsets; the 2004 Sagebrush Annie, the only double gold winner during the 2007 S.F. competition, now selling for $110 a bottle at a Malibu restaurant; and his latest release, the fast-maturing 2005 Sagebrush. Larry’s also recently delved into other varietals, so the tasting features a 2007 Sagebrush zinfandel, which was named top zin at a Florida competition, and a merlot of the same vintage, which he’s happy with even though he harbors a “little disdain” for the notoriously dull grape.
When your appetite is properly lubricated, the attention turns to the menu, a smorgasbord of meats grilled out back by Larry, from the nine-ounce filet mignon and 22-ounce “cowboy cut” rib-eye to chicken, salmon, and hamburger steak. Salad entrees tend to be topped with charred vittles, save for the cobb, and side dishes range from potatoes-baked or “cowboy” (yesterday’s baked ones cubed today with peppers)-to beans and rice pilaf. But don’t let the standard fare fool you, for Karina’s culinary expertise shines in her from-scratch soups, homemade salad dressings, and specially prepared entrees, which she’ll happily prepare with enough advance notice.
During my visit, my wife and I started with a grilled portabella, which proved a warm, nutty complement to the glass of 2004 Stone Pine cab that I’d chosen after the tasting.
I then enjoyed the broccoli-Tillamook cheddar soup before a great ranch dressing-ed green salad and hefty rib-eye, and my wife-after consulting with Karina beforehand about her generally meat-missing diet-found solace in a lentil stew and plate of grilled veggies. Since we’d arrived slightly later than the other tables of guests, personal time with Larry and Karina only increased during our dinner, and more wine-including the deservedly celebrated 2005 Sagebrush-kept finding its way into my glass and, of course, Larry’s.
In between bites of my plate-sized steak, I listened to the proud vintner explain that the food was but a foil for his wines. “The restaurant is rather a complement to the wine business,” said Larry as classical music played in the background. “It’s a vehicle to merchandise wine.” Though he’s been selling his wine since the first vintage came off the vines in 1985, the real “aggressive push” didn’t come until a few years ago, when his wines started winning awards and the Cuyama Valley began catching some notice. “It’s unfortunate we don’t have a common appellation,” Larry said, explaining that there was a movement to get an official designation for the region, but that currently is stalled in federal bureaucracy. Though the wine grapes are grown straddling the Ventura-Santa Barbara counties’ lines, Larry makes his wine at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, producing about 500 cases per year. Almost all of that is sold via Sagebrush Annie’s, where people have been known to drive nearly 300 miles roundtrip in a day just to visit.
The longer you stay-and more wine you brave-the deeper you get into the fascinating biography of Larry, who attended high school in Bakersfield and was working a feed lot south of that city when he purchased a “little” 1,800-acre ranch in the Cuyama Valley in 1971. “The reason I moved up here primarily was to get my kids into a smaller school system,” he said, explaining that he didn’t want his kids exposed to the drugs and racial prejudices that ran rampant in Bakersfield then. His two daughters are now fully grown-one is 50, the other is in her forties-but his son died at age 25 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “That was a tough one,” Larry said. And that wasn’t the only time tragedy struck: In 1998, after being married to his wife for nearly 41 years, she also died from cancer. He met Karina a couple years later, when she came in for dinner at Sagebrush Annie’s, and they were married about nine years ago.
While he’d escaped the beef business in the late 1970s when “it got too complicated to fly”-his job included many cross-country trips to purchase cattle-and was deep in wine by the mid ’80s after a two-year stint in Malibu, Larry didn’t get into the restaurant biz until 1989, when he purchased what was then the Diamond Belle, a somewhat rough place with a pool table, shuffleboard, beer, burgers, and biker crowds. He went to work turning it into Sagebrush Annie’s-the moniker was the family favorite out of a brainstormed list that also included Watering Hole Number Three, the Paradise Inn, and Gunsmoke Jones-doing most of the construction himself, and all of the masonry. “Every rock that’s here I put in place myself,” he said.
In recent years, Larry and Karina have turned their attention to protecting the Cuyama Valley, a sparsely populated place where Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Kern counties enjoy dumping such destructive practices as mining, which destroys the landscape, and industrial agriculture, which sucks unsustainable amounts of water out of an already overtapped aquifer. Grapes, Larry points out, use much less water than the surrounding crops-especially carrots and alfalfa-and, with increasing popularity, could be a good solution to making the region more prosperous.
As for Sagebrush Annie’s, Larry and Karina are satisfied with the popularity as is. “We try to keep it to a dull roar,” said Karina, noting they had to turn away a group of 35 people the night I visited. We finished our meal with a dessert triad of lemon chiffon pie, chocolate pecan pie, and triple-berry pie, all washed down with more glasses of locally grown wine.
“I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of the area becoming such a wine grape-producing area,” Larry later told me when I asked what he was most proud of. With a modest chuckle only an authentic cowboy could pull off, he added, “It’s an ego thing, I think.”
Reservations are required at Sagebrush Annie’s, which is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at 4211 Highway 33 in Ventucopa. Wine tasting is available on Saturdays and Sundays. Call (661) 766-2319 or see sagebrushannies.com.