Full Belly Files | High-Elevation Italian Wines at Via Maestra

A Somewhat Weird But Thoroughly Delicious Lunch; Plus, this Saturday’s Vintners Fest Kicks Off a Season of Wine To-Dos

Credit: Matt Kettmann

This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on October 7, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


Usually, when I’m invited to a meal under the guise of my job as a food and drink writer, I pretty much know what to expect.

If it’s for a restaurant article, I’ll be trying a few dishes while chatting with the chef, owner, or manager about the background on the business and its cuisine. If a winemaker is asking me out, we’ll enjoy the food, but the focus is on the wines that he or she is sharing, and our conversation revolves mostly around grapevines and cellar techniques.

If it’s a “winemaker dinner,” I expect to engage with the other diners in attendance and happily critique which pairing worked best as both the winemaker and chef take turns rambling on about this bottling or that sous vide preparation. And then there are those meals, most often as part of a conference or festival, where I am part of the show, tasked myself with rambling on about the wines on the table and winemakers seated around the room.  

But every so often, I get an invite where I can’t quite get a grip on what’s supposed to be happening in advance. And sometimes, upon arrival, the situation only grows more uncertain, with fine food and drink the only familiar handholds for the uncharted voyage.

That was me on Monday, during what would eventually blossom into an excellent lunch at Via Maestra 42 on Upper State Street. The beloved trattoria and marketplace, which was opened in the year 2000 by Italian good importer Renato Moisio, was recently acquired by veteran wine dealers Georges and Nicole Bitar, who managed the restaurant when it opened almost 22 years ago.

I’d been invited to the affair by my friend Daniel Berman, who recently launched his own wine brokerage called Rincon Wine Group. I tell people that I helped Dan find his way into the wine business many years ago, and I think that’s at least partially true. However he got there, he’s been surrounding himself with top-shelf bottlings for years now, recently helped put on the first Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation golf tournament, and is a respected player in the regional wine scene.

Dan’s new venture is mostly focused on selling and promoting smaller Central Coast brands like Lepiane, Story of Soil, Dreamcôte, Fennel Family, and others. These are, by the way, the sorts of wines that you should mostly be drinking if you say you support regional farming, small carbon footprints, and quantifiable sustainability.

But Rincon Wine Group also works with a couple of importers focused on small European brands as well, most of which are also environmentally minded. One such importer is Alex Dessouky of Barrel Down Selections, who scours high-elevation regions, mostly near the Alps, in Italy, Austria, Germany, and France. I know Alex a little bit, having interviewed him a couple of months ago for my forthcoming article on his development of Ysidro, a canned spritz made from sake, grapefruit, and sea salt that’s been running through my fridge all summer long.

“Matt,” said the email from Dan on September 8, “Working on a Barrel Down Selections tasting with Alex Dessouky at Via Maestra, and would love to find a day that you could attend and do a little piece on it. Possible?”

Credit: Matt Kettmann

This may sound weird to those not in this business, but my reflex when invited to almost anything is to find a polite and honest way to decline or, at the very least, to defer until a much later date. The reality is that I already have too much to write about, I don’t have enough time to do it, and adding anything new to my schedule in the near future tends to cause more delays on overdue deadlines.

But I wanted to support Dan, so I explained the stretched-out timing for a piece about this new wine pairing series at Via Maestra. “This would just be one event for now,” he responded. “Via Maestra would invite their top wine customers, and Alex would conduct a tasting over a family-style meal. Somewhat casual. No need to promote any successive tastings. Just more about Barrel Down Selections and Via Maestra.”

Seemed easy enough to me, if not the usual way things get done, so we batted around some dates and settled on this past Monday. As I walked up to Via Maestra, I saw a large table with about a dozen seats awaiting us and talked briefly to Dan before we sat down, squeezed between different parties who didn’t seem to know each other. Dan wasn’t exactly clear who anyone was either.

Credit: Matt Kettmann

As the seats filled around us with some couples, some friends, and some solo diners — I shared quick and casual introductions with most, though not all — I tried to understand who they were, why they were there, and what the point of the lunch was. I was never able to answer all of those questions definitively, but they appeared to be Via Maestra regulars and/or personal friends/business associates of Georges and they all clearly liked good food and wine. The hope was that they’d buy some of the Italian wines we tried that day and, presumably, spread the word about these wines and the restaurant.

There were certainly characters at the table: the stoic, slender man; the mustached builder who said he never tasted a Californian wine he liked; the boutique garden specialist; the inquisitive, multilingual woman with a chihuahua named Coco Chanel that wandered freely around our feet below the tablecloth. But once Alex started sharing his wines, the slight sense of awkwardness faded into epicurean delight, and the camaraderie only grew as the plates arrived.

Credit: Matt Kettmann

We sipped on zippy moscatos over salumi, cheese, and bread, one with a fizz, the other made in a rare still style. Then came fresh and vibrant dolcettos that worked well with both the zesty salad and the seafood risotto. Brawny barberas paired lock-and-key with penne alla bolognese, and we sipped on earthy nebbiolos assuming dessert was next. But then came tiny lamb chops in a rich porcini sauce, which kicked the nebbiolos into high gear, even as my stomach threatened to revolt at overstuffage.  

It was suddenly approaching 3 p.m., and I had to split — before dessert, if that did show up — to beat my daughter home from school. Even after two hours of banter, I still wasn’t sure of what exactly brought everyone to this Monday table. But I don’t mind a bit of awkward, especially when in pursuit of ingestible artistry.

Credit: Matt Kettmann

In this case, the prize was delicious food and eye-opening wines, which made for one of the more memorable meals in recent memory. And maybe Dan, who seemed at times as confused as me as to the format of the lunch, will get what he said he wanted after all: I am planning to write a more focused piece on Via Maestra someday soon as well as one on Barrel Down Selections.

In the meantime, sign me up for round two!


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Vintners Fest & Upcoming Wine Events

These were just some of the older wines that were enjoyed at the 2020 Wine Auction. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

This Saturday is the first actual Santa Barbara Vintners Festival in a few years, and I plan to be there at Mission Santa Inés to check out some wines and sample the gourmet treats. The event is just the first in a season of wine country to-dos, with the Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley coming that first week of November and then the biannual Santa Barbara Wine Auction happening on November 12.

Taste of the S.Y.V. kicks off with a wine tasting and dinner in the middle of Bell Street in Los Alamos on November 3 and culminates on Sunday, November 6, with a concert by the “honky-tonk hippie band” Lanco at Solvang Theaterfest. In between are dinners at vineyards and much more. Buy tickets and see the full schedule here.

These were just some of the older wines that were enjoyed at the 2020 Wine Auction. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

The Wine Auction, meanwhile, is a black-tie gala at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara that raises money for the Community Health Centers (CHC) of the Central Coast and Direct Relief. I hate to miss it — especially since this year’s chef is Daisy Ryan of Bell’s fame — but my cousin is getting married to a minor-league catcher with big-league potential up in Carmel Valley that same day, so someone else can snag my usual seat at Frank Ostini’s table. That’s where you’d usually find me diving into aged bottles of Hitching Post, Au Bon Climat, and other brands.

New this year for the auction is a series of $200 Friday Lunches at Pico (with Lumen Wines), Presqu’ile, and Samsara. With 50 percent of that cost going straight to the auction fundraising, they are a solid way to support the farm working community while indulging in a good and educational time.  

See all the Wine Auction details here.

(From L-R) Matt Kettmann in his bow tie and tuxedo before the 2020 Santa Barbara Wine Auction, and after the auction, enjoying Aperol spritzes at the Bacara bar, with Katy Rogers of Jackson Family Wines and Ruben “The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano. | Credit: Matt Kettmann

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