Of the uncountable things Santa Barbarans have to be proud of, it’s easy to forget that our city’s name also represents a world-class wine industry. But even for those who’ve delved deep into Santa Barbara wine country, the industry’s constantly evolving nature can take a lot of time and energy to truly get to know. Luckily for all of us, the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Festival has brought all of the region’s best wines together in one place at one time every year since 1983, when just over a dozen wineries attended.
This year’s festival on Saturday, April 17, is perhaps the most important event of the year for Santa Barbara wineries and wine devotees, and attending it is one of the only two criteria the Vintners’ Association requires of its members. The other requirement — that 75 percent of each member’s fruit must come from Santa Barbara County — sets the association apart from other regional organizations, which typically have more lenient requirements. As a result, the festival remains a very unique event, and one that most other wine regions around the world have yet to pull off. Indeed, while wine novices will find the experience immensely enjoyable, the festival is almost imperative for Santa Barbara’s wine fanatics.
The association’s executive director Jim Fiolek admits that the high volume of wines within the span of the three-hour-long festival may seem daunting. “I’d probably have you arrested if you tried to taste everything there,” he warned. “You can’t do it.” Instead, he suggests devising a “game plan” prior to heading to the festival, such as tasting only 2007 pinot noirs (a particularly exceptional vintage), or even one as arbitrary as only tasting from wineries whose names begin with a particular letter of the alphabet. Beginners, however, should taste as many varietals as possible, advised Fiolek, “especially ones you can’t pronounce.”
Like last year, the festival’s setting is Lompoc’s picturesque River Park, which straddles the Santa Ynez River and is nestled amid the Santa Rita and La Purísima hills, where many of the county’s most celebrated grapes are grown. Driving to the festival from Santa Barbara will provide majestic views of rolling green hills strewn with wildflowers, providing a visual pairing for all the wine-soaked pleasure. “Let’s face it,” said Fiolek, a major proponent of the River Park site, “there are some people in Santa Barbara to whom the word ‘Lompoc’ has an entirely different meaning.” By showing off the area’s beauty, Fiolek believes the festival is helping to improve Lompoc’s not-so-favorable reputation with folks from the “big” city.
Aside from the setting, there will be 30 restaurants serving samples, two bands performing live music, and six artists showcasing their works. Attendees can also bid on such items as signed magnums during a silent auction that will benefit a number of charities, including college scholarships for high school seniors, the FoodBank, the Unity Shoppe, and People Helping People.
Adding to the usual excitement are the brand new and elusive wineries. “A significant number of our wineries are not only mom-and-pop, they’re mom-or-pop,” said Fiolek. “They’re so small that they’re run by one person. … You don’t see them in stores. They don’t even have tasting rooms.” With no time for snobbery, the fest provides a down-to-earth tasting ambiance with pourers who are, if not the winemakers themselves, often directly connected to the production of the wine.
Though the festival only lasts a few hours, the entire weekend is buzzing with events, with wineries from downtown Santa Barbara to Lompoc offering open houses, longer hours, and gastronomic goodies, such as barbeques and cheese to accompany tastings. The best way to take advantage of these happenings is by buying the Vintners’ Visa, a weekend-long pass that costs about as much as two tastings but allows holders 12 free tastings at any of the at-least 40 participating wineries.
Although the Vintners’ Festival remains unchanged in many ways since 1983, it still revolves around the dynamism and evolution inherent in Santa Barbara County’s array of wineries. Speaking excitedly about how the event brings all kinds of people together, Fiolek explained, “The great thing about the diversity of Santa Barbara County [wine] is that it matches the diversity of the people who come to taste.”
For tickets, see sbcountywines.com or call 688-0881.