Mike and Chris Brown's story of Cantara Cellars starts as many success stories do: with a humble beginning. Back in 2002, the husband and wife team started off with just 250 pounds of chardonnay grapes that had been hand-picked from Mike's parents' vineyard in Lodi, which eventually transformed into their first 18 gallons of wine. And like most creative endeavors, the winemaking was a labor of love, something the couple doted upon, developed, and refined over the coming years. In 2007, once they had accumulated a huge amount of knowledge?and inventory of wine?the tasting room opened to the public, where visitors could relax, snack on small plates, and enjoy vinos by the ounce, full glass, or bottle. These days, Cantara works with more than 50 tons of harvested grapes each fall, and crafts more than 10 varietals throughout the year.
According to the clever folks at Giessinger Winery, the best wine is the one you like. Following that logic, they invite visitors into tasting rooms to sample the winery's many varieties and figure out which most agrees with their palate. Bestowed with the honor of Santa Barbara's Best Winery and Best Tasting Room in Santa Barbara by the U.S. Commerce Association in 2013, resident winemaker Edouard Giessinger and his associate Justin Tatum also lead groups through the nuanced process of crafting wines during comprehensive classes, wherein visitors can learn how wine is made, visit the production facility, and even taste wines.
Sort This Out Cellars combines the wine selection of a boutique specialty store with the aesthetic of a Vegas diner in the 1950s. Chrome and red stools line up at the bar, and sleek vinyl loveseats are juxtaposed against wine barrels in the lounge. The winery’s aesthetic was inspired by a 1961 Rat Pack photo that recalled times of unapologetic fast living, glamour, and gambling. Because the founders wanted to avoid the sleepy, pastoral vibe of most wineries and all roadside hay-petting zoos, they embraced the rockabilly aesthetic to ensure that their digs were as exciting as their customers and wines.
Those small-batch wines are created from grapes purchased from Californian vineyards and crushed by Sort This Out’s proprietor. “This means,” a writer for Wine Country This Week noted, “he can search the state for the best grapes to crush, or in some cases the best juice from another winery to purchase, and then finish it into his own wine.” The aesthetics surrounding the wine are also important. Mid-century gentlemen’s playing cards inspired a line of bottles with pin-ups on the label matched to flavors within. Other elixirs borrow their names from poker and Vegas table games, hinting at inventive combinations of pinot grigio, viognier, and sauvignon blanc grapes. Some evenings, toasting glasses punctuate the sounds of live music. True to form, the guest bands play oldies and rockabilly tunes.
The first chapter of Brett Escalera’s and Tom Daughters’ foray into the wine industry begin in 1999 when they released their first varietal under the Consilience label—a 1997 Santa Barbara County Syrah. Eight years later, they partnered with Tom's brother Ken to found the sister label, Tre Anelli. Comparatively speaking, the two labels are very different, with Consilience drawing upon the intensity and depth of Rhone varietals and Tre Anelli emulating flavors from Italy and Spain. Both, however, are produced with grapes sourced from Santa Barbara County's top vineyards. At their shop, Brett, Tom, and Ken host daily tastings and dramatic recreations of famous spit-takes within their spacious, dog-friendly tasting room.
Quaint stone buildings, cool dark cellars full of oak barrels, and fertile fields of grapevines—these are the images that Carina Cellars hopes to evoke with its European-style wines, which celebrate grapes that originated in the Rhone region of France. The winery sources its favored grapes from vineyards all along the central coast, especially Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. In the late 2000s, Carina also purchased 83 acres of land it called Rancho del Cielo—“ranch of the sky,” after its steep slopes—to grow its own vines of viognier, syrah, grenache, and other grapes. Though Carina Cellars’ wines are manufactured using Old-World techniques and grapes, the terroir of California’s central coast shines through to define each style. Its whites feature a smooth 2006 viognier from Stolpman Vineyard, whose limestone soil adds a hint of minerality to the flavors and aromas of fruit before a butterscotch finish. In addition to several single-vineyard reds and carefully harmonized red rhone blends, Carina Cellars cultivates a list of reserve wines that includes Iconoclast, its rich flagship blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Iconoclast's initial earthy aroma gives way to lush currant notes and a mocha finish, showcasing the care with which it was aged in small batches. Vintner Joey Tensley found his calling at the tender age of 12, when a radioactive wine bug bit him in a Bordeaux winery. He broke into the business 10 years later in 1993, eventually establishing his own brand that exclusively creates vineyard-designate syrahs. In 2002, he partnered with longtime enophile and businessman David Hardee to create Carina Cellars.
The impressionist painters who inspired winemaker Bion Rice raised shimmering mirages in which soft-edged daubs of paint seem to grant motion to ballerinas or swaying river rushes. At Artiste, Bion draws inspiration from their work, attempting to raise distant landscapes with grapes rather than rough brushstrokes. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes call up the sun-steeped fields of the Napa Valley, and chardonnay grapes carry one away to the Russian River Valley on straw-hued sweetness. Bion calls the blends “impressionist cuvees,” and he produces small batches of them, their corks sealed beneath thick, hand-dipped cloaks of crimson wax.
The bottles are labeled with colorful impressionist paintings, and in a tasting room and studio, the harmonious relationship between wine and art is even further cemented. The whisper of brushes on canvas drifts from paint-dappled tables, where guests bring to life sweeping forest vistas or criminal lineups of pine trees. A rotating array of paintings lines the walls, including works from artists such as Aldo Luongo, an Argentinian artist whose contrasting colors and rippling brushstrokes seem to gaze up from a clear lake. Wine glasses chime together, punctuating the lilting rhythm of classical guitarists or the constant weeping of trombone players during live music events.