Getting a taste for Santa Barbara's urban wine trail
In the urban wineries of Santa Barbara, California, a growing collective of producers are making some of the area's most exciting wines
"Wine is a silly business. I could give you more than three pages against getting into it and probably only three positive points fully in favour of it," declares German-born Matthias Pippig as he eyes up a glass of rich, peachy chardonnay.
Coming from anyone else that might seem like a reasonable statement – growing wine, making wine and selling wine is tricky stuff. The thing is, wine is exactly the business this man – neon yellow Puma kicks and all – works in. And that honey-gold liquid he's expertly swirling around the glass right now? Yeah, that's the product he makes; pressed, vinified and bottled just one room over.
Pippig owns Sanguis, a funky urban winery in a converted architects' office in Santa Barbara's 'industrial' district. The palm-lined sidestreet it sits on barely qualifies as industrial even in this blissful, picturesque city on the central Californian coast – which is just a 90-minute straight shoot down Highway 101 from Los Angeles, yet feels millions of miles away in spirit.
He set Sanguis up in 2004, buying in a huge variety of grapes from all over Santa Barbara county's Santa Ynez Valley, tasting blind and then experimenting with them in ways that would probably make an old-school winemaker faint. His approach to wine and words (more on which below) has proved pretty successful and most, if not all, of each run (that's around 2,000 cases of wine) is snapped up soon after its bi-annual release.
Everyone who's seriously into their wine in this already wine-crazed city seems to know Pippig's name. That might just be because of his unusual approach to making the stuff or perhaps it's because the bottles coming out of this striking, three-room winery in the middle of Santa Barbarian suburbia are so entertainingly quirky: spin a bottle of Pippig's wine around and, instead of the usual tasting notes on the back, you'll find a strict music playlist (or sometimes a film suggestion) to drink your wine to.
For Pippig, it's not what the wine tastes of, it's what it tastes like. The 2013 Misfit – a blend of syrah, grenache, petite syrah, viognier and roussanne grapes – apparently tastes "as serious as a Russian novel" and "as playful as a hummingbird", and is best enjoyed alongside his favourite Talking Heads song, 'Houses In Motion'. His 2013 syrah, grenache and viognier combination (known as 1/1) draws parallels with "the calm energy of snow falling softly on a Japanese village" and should be savoured while Johnny Flynn's 'Bottom of the Sea Blues' plays in the background. And his marsanne, chardonnay and viognier 2013 'Beekeeper' blend is reminiscent of lazy Sunday mornings spent making coffee while the sound of a Nick Cave ballad drifts through the air. Who's to say which side of the story has brought Pippig more acclaim in Santa Barbara's modern wine scene, but whatever it is, it's resulted in him becoming a bit of a legend in these parts.
Many local producers have come down from the hills to set up in the town centre
With all that in mind, then, "silly" seems like an odd choice of words for a man who's dedicated the better part of a decade and a half to creating wine to drink to David Bowie's 'Sweet Thing' and the early music of The Velvet Underground. But, as I duck my head into the final room – a chilly, 50ft by 30ft-ish space where the entire 2017 vintage lies in wait behind a strangely modern, strangely flimsy sliding plastic door – I get the sense that he's only playing. Yes, the press out in the back lot, which is only used for about two months a year, might have cost him "as much as a fine German automobile", but as I soon learn, it's the reward of being able to finally taste the hard work and dedication that's gone into making your own wine three, four years later that's got Pippig hooked.
And he's not alone in sharing this love. The county lays claim to some 220 or so wineries. For anyone who's visited the area (or at least lived it vicariously through Sideways, the 2004 film that put it on the map), that shouldn't be too much of a surprise. With its east-to-west mountain range, cooling on-shore breezes, south-facing coastline and Mediterranean-like climate, this section of the central California coast is perfectly primed for grape growing. And, as a result, up in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys, there are more than 50 different varietals taking root.
But what makes this place different from the rest of California wine country is the recent boom in local producers coming down from the misty, rolling hills – where land is, in comparison, far cheaper – to set up shop in the urban centre. Some, like Pippig, are buying grapes in and creating wine in the heart of the city, others are using the grapes they've grown themselves, while the rest are simply opening tasting rooms across Santa Barbara to showcase the final product. But what ties them all together is the way these producers have taken a step away from the traditional Californian wine tasting experience – cutting out the need for a car or an UberWINE account (yes, that is what you think it is) – to create a more modern urban wine scene down in the town.
There are now 30 of them dotted in and around this sun-beaten Pacific-coast city. That's a pretty heavy weigh-in; edging up to nearly 15% of the county's wineries. And that number doesn't seem to be slowing down. From the privileged vantage point of our hotel terrace – the newly opened Hotel Californian on State Street, one of the only buildings in Santa Barbara to creep over the strict, city-wide two-storey-high limit – you can get a pretty decent view of it all.
About a mile west, straight up State Street, there's the red-clay-tiled rooftops of the Presidio district – the heart of downtown Santa Barbara and home to most of the city's high-end winemakers. Down in the flower-filled Spanish-colonial courtyards and hidden walkways, you'll find about eight different tasting rooms, including an inner-city-outpost of Margerum Estate, the winery chosen to serve its 2014 Sybarite sauvignon blanc at the Obamas' White House State Dinner back in August 2016.
Far off in the distant east is the up-and-coming 'Haley Street Corridor' in Santa Barbara's sleepy industrial district, where Sanguis and fellow barrel rooms Carr, Potek, Whitcraft and Jaffurs rub shoulders with local craft breweries, empty lots and storage units.
Municipal – in pictures
And as for us? Well, we're bang in the middle of Santa Barbara's urban wine trail, looking down on the dusty rooftops of the Funk Zone, a bohemian, hipster part of town that's undergone a complete cultural turn around over the last few years. It's here – where the harbour and California's iconic beach-side palms meet reclaimed fishing warehouses and old industrial plants – you'll find the highest concentration of tasting rooms; most of which are within walking distance from one another.
We've made our way through a fair few of these already; kicking things off with an early morning sparkling wine flight around the corner at Riverbench's tasting lounge. By all accounts an 11am tasting is a pretty early start on a weekend, never mind on a Wednesday, but as I draw a chair up at the bar and start to make my way through a glass of Riverbench's self-described "Idris Elba of sparkling wines" (a confetti birthday cake-sweet 2015 blanc de blanc demi-sec) my group and I are quickly joined by a fair few others. It seems washing your sticky bacon and cinnamon breakfast buns down with five flutes of bubbles isn't such an unusual mid-week activity after all. And after I've seen off my flight and skipped off to the Santa Barbara Winery across the road, I find out exactly why.
According to John Harro, a wine-loving, retired tech guy now part-time worker at the Santa Barbara Winery's downtown tasting room, the explosion of tasting rooms and ready access to excellent, local wine has completely transformed the city's drinking culture. Instead of starting their night (or in our case, day) in a dive bar or at home, more and more people are coming to the Funk Zone for wine flights and snacks.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Municipal on Anacapa Street. At this hip tasting room in the heart of Santa Barbara's Funk Zone, fairy lights cross the rafters, board games (anyone for a round of Saved by the Bell trivia?) are stacked high in some rickety bookshelves, and bottles of wine are pulled from reclaimed, brightly painted filing cabinets behind the bar upon request.
I don't stay here long – although I could. It's full of youthful energy, the kind of place the undergrads at UCSB would hang out, and is the polar opposite of the elegant farm table and faux-fur-clad benches of Sanguis' stripped-back tasting room.
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That said, there's fun to be had in both tasting rooms and there's no doubt these two producers would get on. They're both experimental, albeit in very different ways: Municipal also uses grapes bought in from all over the county. The winery isn't located in the city, but the team age their wine in neutral French oak to create grenache blends that taste more like gingerbread than, well, gingerbread. Municipal's approach to sparkling wine is also just as intriguing and its 'Mubbly', an effervescent wine that comes in a cap-topped 500ml bottle, arguably owes more to the craft beer scene than it does to champagne.
I don't get to try it (one too many sips of daytime pinot noir has pushed me to the limit and I feel I need never imbibe again), but as I step out into the Cali heat, it starts to dawn on me just how just how many people in Santa Barbara are pushing the boundaries not just in wine, but also in space and place.
The number of inner-city wineries might be growing in London, but those involved would do well to look to Santa Barbara for a template of truly modern, urban winemaking.
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