When Jamie Slone was looking to establish a tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara for his inaugural line of wines, he liked the cluster of three tasting spots at the city’s historic El Paseo complex and was looking to join them.
“But I knew from experience they didn’t have critical mass,” Slone said. “They needed more tasting rooms there to be able to grab the consumer’s attention.”
Margerum Wine Co., Au Bon Climat and Grassini Family Wines were already well-established at the Spanish colonial-style center on Anacapa Street. Three new tasting rooms have opened there since May, and the six have formed a marketing alliance called The Wine Collection of El Paseo.
“I think now what the consumer is finding is that we are an alternative to the Funk Zone that is very different,” said Slone, who opened Jamie Slone Wines at El Paseo with his wife, Kym, on Aug. 31. Slone said El Paseo, nestled in an area of upscale shopping and fine dining, is an ideal place to showcase the small-lot, high-end wines of the six tasting rooms.
Slone said Doug Margerum offered to let him pour Jamie Slone wines at MWC32, a second tasting room that Margerum opened last May near Margerum Wine Co. But Slone said he wanted to open his own tasting spot and also find another wine tenant for El Paseo. That led to Happy Canyon Vineyard, owned by the family of Colony Capital founder and Chairman Thomas Barrack Jr., opening its doors there on Sept. 19.
The Wine Collection’s prospects as a destination are bolstered by the involvement of two widely known winemakers. Jim Clendenen, founder and winemaker at Au Bon Climat, is among the most recognized wine industry figures in Santa Barbara County. His El Paseo tasting room is very much a wine library, offering the chance to taste and buy many older vintages as well as current releases.
Doug Margerum has focused on making handcrafted, small-lot wines, and he has been an owner at the Wine Cask restaurant at El Paseo for most of the years since 1981, when his parents bought it as a beer and winemaking supply shop and quickly added dining and a wine bar. Margerum is the winemaker for four of the six El Paseo tasting rooms: Margerum Wine Co. at the Wine Cask and his MWC32, plus Happy Canyon Vineyard and Jamie Slone Wines.
Margerum said he began making wines for the Barrack family soon after he met Tom Barrack when their children went to preschool together. He recently teamed with Jamie Slone after Slone interviewed several winemakers for the position.
Margerum said he learned a great deal about wine-making from Santa Ynez Valley wine pioneer Fred Brander and later under the direction of Clendenen at Au Bon Climat and Bob Lundquist of Qupé Wines when he partnered with them in a brand called Vita Nova. He started Margerum Wine Co. in 2001.
Margerum makes all the wines in different styles, so visitors can try sauvignon blanc, for example, at three tasting rooms and experience three different wines.
Happy Canyon Vineyard’s debut at El Paseo marks a huge jump in the public profile of the brand, which offered its first commercial wine in 2003 but had no tasting room until the beginning of this year. It opened at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill in Santa Barbara’s harbor area in February, but general manager Sean Pitts, who joined the Barrack family when he married Jodie Barrack, said the family was not able to tell its story to the consumer in that shared space.
Happy Canyon’s El Paseo tasting room showcases the family’s passion for the sport of polo and for the 58-acre vineyard on its Piocho Ranch in Happy Canyon. That viticultural area, where the county does not permit tasting rooms, is known for its Bordeaux grapes and also is the home of Grassini Family Vineyards.
The Barrack family has two regulation-size polo fields on its ranch. Visitors to El Paseo can view displays of polo mallets, riding gear, team uniforms and photos from polo matches held on the ranch while they taste Happy Canyon cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Bordeaux blends.
Jamie Slone traces his passion for wines to an extended tour of France and Italy and to frequent visits to wine country from Sonoma Raceway when he was a professional race car driver. He is best known for racing Ford Mustangs and open-wheel Formula Mazdas. He brings business and marketing experience to the table from managing five radio stations in Arizona that his family later sold during the industry’s consolidation.
Slone offers a broad choice of wine varietals, from Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundian to a super Tuscan coming out soon, all from a wide representation of Santa Barbara County terroir.
Margerum said the Wine Collection of El Paseo is a destination that consumers can consider among others in Santa Barbara County including the Funk Zone, Foxen Wine Trail and Lompoc Wine Ghetto.
“I think everyone is trying to find their niche,” he said. “The beautiful thing about being in the wine business in Santa Barbara County is we never think we’re competing with each other. We’re all doing work together to promote Santa Barbara County as a wine-growing region.”
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected].