LOS OLIVOS, Calif — Blasts of unseasonably chilly winds disrupted the garden party atmosphere but failed to cool the enthusiasm of hundreds of wine lovers who converged upon rolling ranch country for the third annual Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival.
The weather was so icy that white wines needed no chilling and red wines were colder than usual. "It was a little brutal for a while," agreed Deborah H. Kenly Brown, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintner's Assn. and festival coordinator. "But for wine tasting, and some of the cheeses, that actually is better than a hot, hot day."
Wine fans came from as far as San Antonio, Texas, to test the output of this explosively developing area, now home to 23 wineries. Demand for the $25 tickets was so great that the event was sold out five weeks in advance. "All of a sudden, this area has gained a good reputation," said Kenly Brown, whose husband is Ken Brown, wine maker at Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos.
The newness of the industry is part of its fascination. Wineries range from state-of-the art to cottage industry operations. "The majority have started up in the last two to three years. What is happening is happening very quickly," she said.
The tasting took place on the grounds of the Dunn School, a country-like, nonprofit private school located near Los Olivos. The school will receive a share of the money from ticket sales. Other proceeds will go into a scholarship fund for students from Santa Barbara County who want to take up enology.
Wine was not the only attraction at the festival. Area restaurants and food purveyors were there to provide sustenance. Fortuitously, John and Alice Elliot of the Ballard Store Restaurant in Solvang chose to serve French onion soup rather than the cold gazpacho they brought to last year's event. "Very, very hot," warned Elliot as he handed out cups of the steaming soup. Those were welcome words to lightly clad festival guests who wished they had brought ski gear and mittens.
Also very hot, but in another sense, were foods that would appear only at a Southern California wine tasting-- chili cheese, hot pepper Jack cheese, fat green olives stuffed with serrano chiles, tortilla chips, salsa and fajitas. The fajitas-- grilled beef tossed with tomato, onion, green pepper and hot chile and served on a flour tortilla--drew a long line to the booth operated by Federico's Mexican restaurant of Buellton.
The Santa Barbara Olive Company displayed not only the chile-stuffed olives but olives cured in red wine and in vermouth. The latter were designed for martinis, a beverage that commanded little interest at this event.
Other attractions were goat cheese from Atascadero, Chinese chicken salad sprinkled with black sesame seeds and red ginger, miniature beef Wellingtons, marinated beef salad, pasta salad and chocolate-topped pastries, all this eaten to the accompaniment of music provided by a guitarist and the Central Coast Chamber Music Society.
The Vineyard Kitchen in Lompoc displayed its line of wine jellies, most of which are custom made for wineries. Walt Brambir, who runs the company with his wife, Vi, said the jellies contain a little residual alcohol, which gives them more kick than other bread spreads.
Aside from cheese, the most common dish served was pate, ranging from elegant mousse de foie de canard au porto (duck liver mousse flavored with Port wine) from the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara to a health-oriented, low-fat mushroom pate produced by Meadow Mist Mushrooms of Solvang.
The Santa Maria Inn's duck liver mousse looked like a frosted sheet cake decorated with a pretty bunch of red grapes. The frosting was a pale mayonnaise chaudfroid into which chef Greg Watkins had set a design of sliced emperor grapes and vine leaves.
While the food attracted many, the main interest was the wine. And conversation was riddled with such breathless comments as "we finally found a good Gewurztraminer" (the one referred to came from Los Vineros Winery of Santa Maria) and "that white Zinfandel was awesome." The maker of the latter wine was easily identified, for the Santa Barbara Winery produces the only white Zinfandel in the county, according to wine maker Bruce McGuire. Red wine grapes are "not something real viable to plant right now," McGuire explained. "People are into white wine, not red."
A number of wineries displayed other types of pale wine made from red grapes. There were several Cabernet Blancs, including the flirtatiously named Rosalie Blushing Brunch of Cabernet Sauvignon, a product of Ballard Canyon Winery in Solvang. Au Bon Climat of Los Alamos showed a pale pink, lightly sweet wine composed of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Jim Clendenen, partner with Adam Tolmach in this two-man winery, claimed it to be the ideal wine to accompany Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes.