A few years back, when Doug Margerum sold his interest in the Wine Cask — the Presidio Neighborhood restaurant, one-time bottle shop, and critical incubator of Central Coast vintners that he’d run since 1981 — he never intended to get back in the restaurant business. But upon hiring Carolyn Kope to captain the tiny kitchen inside of the Margerum Wine Company tasting room down on Mason Street in June 2020, he suddenly slipped back into the culinary scene, with their food becoming as much of an attraction as his wines.
Using just a panini grill and double-batch TurboChef rapid-cook oven, Kope and Alex Osornio — the only other full-time cook — are pumping out a full menu of small bites, cheese and charcuterie, salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and desserts every day of the week, from 11 a.m. ’til 9 p.m. Then on special occasions, such as the intimate Supper Club that they offer monthly to wine club members in their upstairs lounge, Kope, Osornio, and Margerum develop multi-course dinners, paired with recently released and older vintage Margerum wines.
My visit on August 28 began with Marergum’s 2018 Sanford & Benedict viognier and passed appetizers, including a savory duck pate on crostini. Then we sat down for an uni-topped scallop with a dollop of creamy ponzu set upon a paper-thin slice of lemon, served with the 2015 Fonte white blend; a panzanella salad with the fresh ’n’ zesty 2020 cinsault; and two syrahs — the 2007 Colson Canyon and the 2009 Purisima Mountain — with a “kerchief” sheet of pasta folded beneath bolognese sauce and shaved parmesan.
It was an impressive spread, especially considering that Kope — while a veteran of all sorts of hospitality jobs — does not really come from a fancy-food background. An Orange County native, she worked a deli job at the Garden Patch Farmers’ Market in high school, then joined her brother at a massive Whole Foods in Tustin, where he made pizzas and she stacked sandwiches.
“I loved working there,” said Kope. “I thought I was gonna work at Whole Foods for the rest of my life.”
Upon graduating from high school, Kope moved to Santa Barbara to help open the Whole Foods here in September 2009. But she only lasted about a year, as our small store was not quite the buzzing scene she knew from the O.C. Then came “about 20 other jobs,” mostly front-of-house and/or management at Café Luck, Café Zoma, Via Maestra 42, Restaurant Roy, Creekside, and Ty Lounge at the Biltmore, among others.
In between those gigs, Kope studied small business at SBCC and in 2013 became a partner in the Red Sand Market & Deli on West Anapamu Street. But after six months of working 12-hour days — making paninis, hamburgers, hot dogs, soups, salads, etc. — she sold her interest to the other owners and eventually went back to working elsewhere.
That laundry list of establishments included some time at the Wine Cask, which is where she first met Margerum and his team. When the pandemic hit, Kope was working at the Hotel Californian, which is where the Margerum tasting room is located. The hotel job was “so stressful,” she recalled of those early COVID days when the world reopened for the first time. “Everyone was so needy and not understanding that we didn’t have enough staff. Cleaning all the chairs and talking to people in masks was a little overwhelming for me at the time.”
She quit, walked next door to Margerum, saw a manager she knew from the Wine Cask days, and asked if they were hiring. “When can you start?” came the response. “It was the best day ever,” said Kope of that June 2020 afternoon; she was itching to get back to cooking.
“When I started working here, they didn’t have a cook,” said Kope. “The sales associates were cooking the food.” But food service was required due to COVID rules, so the kitchen was super busy. “It was literally nonstop for that whole summer,” said Kope, who quickly took control of the kitchen and organized it so that every station was within arm’s reach. “It really comes in handy to have everything right where you need it right when you need it.”
As she got a handle on the flow, Kope began adding menu items, always keeping in mind what worked best with the wines. “By doing our limited menu with a lot of variation, it caters to a lot of people,” said Kope, whose guests range from Hotel Californian tourists to repeat visitors. “We have regulars who come in for lunch every week on the money. You know their name and you know what they’re ordering. It’s really fun to see that.”
The Supper Club idea was something that Margerum wanted to do even before Kope began, and she finally was able to pull the first one off in the summer of 2021. Dishes like fig-glazed duck breast, seared lamb chops, and beef bourguignon take incremental, expertly timed steps in such a small kitchen that never stops serving the usual fare. “Everybody has to be on the same page,” said Kope “The planning takes a couple weeks. But after doing it for a year, we’ve got it dialed in.”
When not at work, Kope doesn’t cook much, instead preferring to crochet, sit on the beach, hit the S.B. Athletic Club, and care for more than 60 fish in her aquarium. “I don’t eat fish for that reason, at least at home,” laughed Kope. “It makes me uncomfortable. It’s a little weird looking a fish in the eye and eating a bite of salmon.”
Luckily, there are no animals on display in the Margerum tasting room, where Kope is now even managing wedding receptions, corporate parties, and other buy-out gigs. “These are things we never thought we’d be able to do,” said Kope. “We have the right people on board and everyone is passionate and has a good attitude. Everyone helps make it possible.”
19 E. Mason St.; (805) 845-8435; margerumwines.com