Stumbling upon Armada Wine & Beer Merchant (1129A State St.;  770-5912; armadasantabarbara.com) is like discovering a secret Old World tavern. Tucked into a back corner of San Marcos Plaza, it’s a reliable escape from the bustle of State Street or the hustle of your downtown office, yet steadily buzzing inside with friends who work and live in the neighborhood. There’s plenty of Central Coast wine and beer to be had, but it’s also an ideal place to educate your palate by trying a new wine from Europe.
A major reason why Armada’s Santa Barbara-born sommelier Carlos Mascherin, who can rattle off a stunning amount of history and technique behind each grape and bottle. “How adventurous are you feeling today?” he’s known to ask his customers. If you answer “very,” this is what you might get.
Riva Leone Gavi 2013: Fresh and light yet complex with tight melon and white florals, this Piedmont white wine is good to pair with calamari or shellfish, Mascherin suggests, explaining, “I think of it as a sauvignon blanc without the green pyrazine note.”
Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2011: Lush, smoky, and attention-grabbing, this is not the dusty sangiovese blends of yesteryear, evidence of Italy’s modernist movement. “There’s a real resurgence of producers trying to take sangiovese back to its roots and put it in the center stage,” said Mascherin, who showcased this wine a while back during one of the quarterly wine dinners offered, which explore varietal expressions from around the world.
Zlatan Crljenak Kaštelanski 2010: Rich with red and purple fruits but with bright minerality and firm tannins, this Croatian grape, grown on the island of Hvar, is the true root of what we Californians call zinfandel (and what Italians call primitivo and what UC-Davis-professor-turned-winemaker Carole Meredith is now bottling as tribidrag). It’s a fascinating wine to sip while listening to Mascherin detail the decades-long search for the popular grape’s origins.