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Lessons from the Santa Barbara Vintners Festival

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Of course wine festivals are mostly about marketing, but that doesn't mean attendees can't learn a bunch amidst the revelry. That was clear at the recent Santa Barbara Vintners Food Festival and Grand Tasting held in Buellton on April 25. First, labeling it partially as a food festival wasn't merely a way to get the emphasis off alcohol consumption, in a hope to make a less mad MADD. It was also deliciously surprising to have good eats on hand. To offset the over 110 wineries pouring, there were 38 food purveyors of all sorts, including tasty start-up Cultured and Saucy sharing its probiotic dips and sauces, alongside Santa Ynez Valley stalwarts like the Red Barn, Hitching Post II, and the Ballard Inn & Restaurant.

Those wise enough to upgrade to the Connoisseurs Club had further delights to enjoy. One side of their tent featured a lavish spread from New West Catering and Industrial Eats. Think lobster deviled eggs with caviar or a toad in the hole of buttery brioche stuffed with quail egg and beef tartare. I couldn't help myself and stuffed my own hole with as many as I could.

Not to be outdone, at the other end of the Connoisseurs Club stood a bar featuring sparkling wine cocktails made by one of Santa Barbara's engaging new hot spots, The Good Lion. They had a tricky task, as the festival only had a beer and wine license, therefore excluding most of the best-known champagne cocktails, like a French 75. As so often is true, limitations spurred creativity. Turns out you can reduce Albariño into a luscious syrup, and if you add that to Lucas & Lewellen sparkling, fresh lime juice, and red vermouth, you end up with the refreshing Liquid Sunshine.

Of course, part of the fun of a wine festival is the joy of discovery -- a producer that's new to you, a producer you know working with a different varietal and developing a different blend. Sometimes all you need to do is show the right amount of curiosity to get your own sip.

One such moment happened at the Rusack Vineyards table with a bottle of Ballard Canyon zinfandel. I hadn't known anyone bothered to farm zin south of Paso Robles as it just doesn't seem to get warm enough for the grape to grow in Santa Barbara County. Turns out I was wrong -- there's at least one warm spot in Ballard Canyon for Rusack to make 210 cases of this black pepper redolent beauty blended with a bit of petite sirah. Even better, these vines originally came from some of the last plants on Santa Cruz Island, off the Santa Barbara shore.

So it's not just tasty, it's history.

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