There is little I love more than escaping to the country. Give me sunshine, the perfume of freshly mown hay, a view of planted hills rolling peacefully into the distance, top it off with great food and wine, and throw in a massive pile of lobster I'm about to dig into. There is no better place on a spring day than this vineyard spot.
At the Sanford Winery & Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County, we're not merely tasting wine; we're diving into our own wine-making experience and immersing ourselves in pure indulgence at an old-fashioned lobster boil paired with a modern Pinot-blending party.
My husband, Bill, and I try to visit the Central Coast wine country in spring and fall, roaming through Santa Barbara wine country, San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles. Over the years, Bill -- nicknamed "the wine god" by my friend Nancy -- has joined half a dozen or so wine clubs to ensure a constant flow of premium wines, at a discount, to our home.
This spring, we took advantage of another membership perk, wrapping a weekend around Sanford Winery & Vineyards' annual lobster feast, one of a growing number of wine country events that are more than just simple tastings. It is a full-blown celebration of spring, wine, food and the camaraderie of like-minded travelers.
As a member of Sanford's wine club, Bill pays $90 for each of us for the day's activities, and he may bring friends, who pay $105 each as nonmembers. So we invite Nancy, Jim, Jane and Kevin to join us.
One drawback to living with a wine aficionado: We must take a separate car instead of pooling with our friends. Before the weekend is over, the back of our Ford Explorer will be crammed with cases of wine, so there is no room for luggage or passengers.
Kevin and Jane can't come until Saturday anyway. We leave Friday morning and rendezvous with Jim and Nancy for lunch at the Beachside Bar-Cafe on the sand at Goleta Beach. There, we watch waves lapping the pier and discuss which wineries to hit this afternoon. It's 30 minutes or so up U.S. 101 to the greater Buellton area, our base for the weekend.
We head first to Rideau, whose New Orleans-born owner has restored El Alamo Pintado Adobe (circa 1884) and imbued it with a pinch of Southern charm. The tasting room features cascades of Mardi Gras beads spilling from baskets, and what other winery gift shop would sell Cafe du Monde and pralines?
It's quiet as the four of us sample the estate Rhone varietals. But owner Iris Rideau often throws parties, such as her September birthday celebration for 300 people, complete with authentic New Orleans cuisine and live music. Back at our hotel, we take a relaxing soak in the spa and, as the sun sets, have dinner on the sun porch overlooking a broad lawn at Brothers' Restaurant in historic Mattei's Tavern. The early fresh pea soup with mint tastes like country on my tongue.
The next day, we drive up scenic Santa Rosa Road to Sanford's winery at Rancho La Rinconada, about 10 miles west of U.S. 101 in Lompoc. There, cellar master Agustin Rodriguez ushers us into the coolness of a building whose 30-inch-thick adobe walls ensure a temperature of 55 to 65 degrees year-round.
We sit at one of about 20 round tables, where we'll spend an hour blending bottles of Pinot Noir. Each person will create a blend; then each table of eight will select a favorite to enter in competition.
Winemaker and general manager Steve Fennell explains that we'll be using two Pinots from the La Rinconada Vineyard, and two from Sanford & Benedict, the oldest vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills appellation. Each vineyard is divided into blocks, and the wines that come from different blocks can be very, well, different. Thus, "the art of winemaking comes with the blending," Fennell tells us.
We each pour four glasses and set them on our place mats inside stenciled circles labeled 1, 2, 3 and 4 -- so we don't get confused about which is which. In just a few minutes, our table is laughing, tasting, passing around pitchers of the four wines and mixing our blends in calibrated test tubes and beakers -- stopping often to taste.
I keep things simple, using only my two favorites, mixed half-and-half. Surprisingly, mine wins the table's vote.
We pour a few mouthfuls into a small bottle for the Sanford staff to judge. Then each of us bottles his or her concoction, designs a label (these will be judged too) and has the thrill of seeing the bottles professionally corked, waxed and foiled.