Sampling My Syrah, Sharing Your Chardonnay

Spiritland Bistro's BYOB Wine & Dine Is a Smart Way to Sip

Leslie Thomas (shown here at Jaffurs Wine Cellars) organized the Wine & Dine program at Spiritland.
Paul Wellman

Learning about a new grape or style of wine can quickly prove a pricey endeavor, with winery tastings costing $10 or more, a glass at your favorite wine bar hitting $15, and decent bottles typically topping $20. By the time you’ve got a handle on what’s good about gew¼rztraminer or decent about dolcetto, you’re already $100 or so in the hole with nothing to show for it.

But what if you could taste 50 different wines of the same grape or style, listen to the relevant thoughts of an esteemed winemaker, and get an expertly prepared four-course meal, all for less than $50? Now you can, thanks to the Spiritland Bistro’s monthly BYOB Wine & Dine events, which for the past two years have been bringing wine lovers together under the same roof to share their personal cellar selections and then eat gourmet but good-for-you dishes from the Victoria Street restaurant’s organic-minded kitchen. And this coming Sunday, December 6, the BYOB gets holidazed with a special $15 dessert wine tasting, a casual afternoon affair from 1:30 to 4 p.m. featuring truffles from Jessica Foster Confections.

“Nobody else that we know of is doing this in Santa Barbara,” said Leslie Thomas, a Wave techie refugee who’s become the bistro’s marketing consultant. “It’s the perfect educational opportunity.” And it’s a popular one, too, with almost every one of the nearly two dozen events selling out. “We have quite a few people who attend half a dozen a year and a handful who attend every one,” said Thomas. “It’s the only event I’ve ever seen in Santa Barbara where a large portion show up early and, by starting time, 95 percent of the people are there. That’s how anxious people are.”

The night is just one example of how the restaurant has become more wine-focused in the nearly three years since it was bought from the original owners by current owner Joanne Hsian, who’s run Chinese restaurants in the region for years. A lot of that has to do with Thomas and her “partner-in-crime” Ken Morino-the bistro’s general manager/sommelier/”get-everything-done-that-needs-to-get done” guy-who both decided to provide pairing advice for every single item on the menu. Even better, thanks to a sophisticated bottle preserving system, they are offering half bottles of wine for half the price, which makes expensive offerings more palatable for your wallet and gives patrons who just want a little wine the ability to enjoy as much. Plus, you just might like it so much that you go for the whole thing. “You can buy one half and then the other half-there’s no penalty,” promised Thomas.

The BYOB formula, which I witnessed in full swing during an October pinot noir tasting featuring Tantara Winery’s Jeff Fink, starts when everyone brings in a bottle of wine to match the selected theme, which is usually associated by varietal. Your bottle is opened alongside the other 50 or so wines, which attendees then spend about an hour tasting and pairing with course one: C’est Cheese’s finest fromages. The tables are then set for dinner-an appetizer-entree-dessert sequence that does include meat dishes, despite a widely held notion that Spiritland is a vegan-only bistro-during which the attendant winemaker shares his or her thoughts on the style of wine and some inside info about what goes into that particular vinifying process. For anyone with the slightest interest in wine, food, or good conversation, the BYOB is, without exception, an evening to remember.

Usually, the series runs January through October, as November and December are dominated by holiday responsibilities. But this December, Thomas and Morino decided to offer a dessert wine afternoon and then sacrificed themselves to a tasting of Jessica Foster’s finest truffles. “We suffered through it for two hours,” laughed Thomas, who decided to break the room up into four categories-fortified wines, such as port; sweet sparklers, such as a moscato de asti; late harvest reds, and late harvest whites-and will pair each type with a Foster truffle, a non-chocolate dessert, a nut, and a fruit or cheese. In the middle of the room will be the palate-cleanser, likely puff pastry filled with cheese. “We’re trying to offer something savory as well as sweet so we don’t send anyone into diabetic shock,” said Thomas.

Unlike the other sit-down events, which max out at just more than 50 people, Thomas hopes the dessert wine tasting brings in closer to 100, and she expects people to come and go as they please. She isn’t even worried about duplicate bottles or people bringing splits, which is a common packaging for dessert wine. “That’s the good thing about dessert wines,” she said. “A little goes a long way.”

And after December’s desserts, get ready for next year’s schedule, which Thomas has nearly finalized. If early indications are any clue-New World syrahs with Bob Lindquist and sons; domestic sparklers versus French cremants; Alsatian whites; and Super Tuscans, to name a few-2010 only promises more experimental education about wines you’ll come to love.


Spiritland Bistro’s BYOB Wine & Dine holiday dessert wine tasting is Sunday, December 6, from 1:30-4 p.m., at 230 East Victoria Street. It’s $15 plus a bottle of dessert wine. Call 966-7759, email, or see


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