About eight years ago, when Lee Lathouwers was managing Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, he got to know a customer named Tony Vincent. Vincent took a liking to the smooth, efficient style of the Chicago-born, Santa Barbara–raised Lathouwers and divulged that he was planting grapevines and building a winery down the road. “I give you my word,” said Vincent to Lathouwers. “If this project gets done, and you’re still around, you’re the guy.”
In 2014, with Vincent Vineyards about to leap the last of countless permitting hurdles, Lathouwers — then semiretired after four decades in the hospitality business — answered the phone to find Vincent offering him that job. “For how many guys in the world today is their word still their bond?” Lathouwers asked me in May, when I visited the almost-done winery. “There’s nothing he can’t do, but he held my hand, made me a promise, and made good on it. People like that still do exist in the world.”
That guy’s full name is Anthony Vincent Zehenni, a Lebanese octogenarian who’s built a fortune developing everything from Hawaiian hotels and Lake Arrowhead resorts to Los Angeles freeways and Nigerian bridges through his Aladdin Developers, Inc. Though turning 83 on September 19, Vincent is still reportedly as vital as ever, whether showing off the collection of vintage cars he keeps under his Sunset Strip high-rise office or reminiscing about the days he hung in Las Vegas with the Rat Pack. “Those were his regular running-around buddies,” said Lathouwers, pointing to a hanging picture of Sinatra, Sammy, and Dean on the wall of the winery’s VIP room.
Though Vincent remains a humble, private fellow — “he’s Old World,” said Lathouwers — he wanted to make his mark on the Santa Ynez Valley wine-tasting scene by creating an upscale experience on an impressive spread, starting with the ornate gates that drivers approaching Los Olivos along Highway 154 have noticed for years. “When you drive up to those gates, your aesthetic meter peaks,” said Lathouwers. “You have to keep it up inside.” That translates to high ceilings, sparklingly sleek but classic design notes, and sprawling patios whose walls are covered with wine-country frescoes, quite a contrast to the rural barn motif that rules the region. “It’s not really like a tasting room — it’s like a high-end lounge,” said Lathouwers. “No expense was spared.”
A considerable expense was battling for years with the County of Santa Barbara, which is clamping down on winery development — particularly of tasting rooms and parties — due to the concern of some neighbors. To get approved, Vincent Vineyards, whose first proposal was submitted in December 2009, gave up grander special-event dreams but became one of the first approved to do basic food service. “We do little bites and appetizers,” said Lathouwers, whose large but legally limited kitchen can also host licensed caterers. “With only wine, that’s just 50 percent of the experience.”
The benefit of the long road traveled is wine that’s enjoyed ample aging time. The 15-acre estate vineyard was planted in 2007 on a former walnut orchard by renowned grape expert Bill Kesselring, who opted for Bordeaux varietals of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, and a little bit of the Rhône grape syrah. The first harvest was in 2010, and those wines — which were showing quite fantastic the day I tasted them, despite such young vine age — were made by Etienne Terlinden of Summerland Winery and Cordon. He also made the 2011 and 2012 vintages before Mike Roth, of Lo-Fi Wines, stepped in for 2013 and 2014.
Then just recently, right in time for this year’s harvest and the August 22 opening of the tasting room, Roxie Ward was appointed as winemaker. She comes from the Terravant custom crush facility in Buellton, which is where Vincent wines were made until this year. “She has been with Terravant as the winemaker since our first harvest in 2010,” said Lathouwers. “That is great for us.” Production of more than a half-dozen bottlings — including the Vincent Black Shadow project, which Lathouwers said will be “our Screaming Eagle” — is expected to hover in the 5,000- to 7,000-case range once all pistons are firing.
Lathouwers said that Vincent is very hands-on, as is his wife, Tanya, who was sweeping the floors the day I visited. He credits this to their respect for old-school family values and hard work, explaining, “They treat people like people.” And he still can’t get over what’s transpired since that handshake. “It’s the most fascinating thing that’s happened in my life,” said Lathouwers. “We are standing in what was just a promise eight years ago.”
Now open to the public, Vincent Vineyards is located at 2370 North Refugio Road, Santa Ynez, off Highway 154. See vincentvineyards.com. The winery’s exclusive tour partner is Stagecoach Wine Tours, so call (805) 686-8347 or see winetourssantaynez.com to arrange for an even more unique visit.