The mudslides that devastated Montecito in January of 2018 ruined one of the top 100 restaurant wine collections in the world at the Stonehouse, San Ysidro Ranch.
The restaurant lost its inventory of nearly 12,500 bottles of fine wine when mud and rocks from nearby San Ysidro Creek crashed through the back door of the wine cellar, pushing all the way through the underground chamber on the morning of Jan. 9, 2018.
The restaurant had been recognized for four straight years by Wine Spectator magazine as an elite Grand Award winner. The award honors restaurants that show uncompromising devotion to the quality of their wine programs.
“These wine lists typically feature 1,000 or more selections and deliver serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages, a selection of large-format bottles, excellent harmony with the menu and superior presentation,” according to the magazine’s guidelines.
In a remarkable recovery, Stonehouse has won the award for the fifth straight year, Wine Spectator announced in its August issue. Stonehouse is the only tri-county restaurant to receive a Grand Award and one of 100 in the world.
Torrential rains pounded Santa Barbara County two weeks after the devastating Thomas wildfire was mostly contained. Mud and debris surging through Montecito on Jan. 9, 2018 killed 21 people, authorities reported. More than 100 homes were destroyed and hundreds damaged. At San Ysidro Ranch, a resort owned by Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner, three guest cottages were destroyed and 21 damaged.
Todd Smith, restaurant and wine collection manager, recalls that two weeks went by before he was able to get onto the property for his first look at the devastation. The force of the mud flow from San Ysidro Creek knocked down the heavy back door to the wine cellar and “just filled it up, and then there were bins that got knocked over like playing cards,” Smith said. “It was pretty messy down there. You could see some things were fine, probably could be salvaged, but it never could be resold.”
As instructed by their insurer, the entire valuable collection was destroyed. “I knew that since we’d lost power the wine was compromised for sure, because it was getting kind of swampy and the worst thing for wine is that fluctuation of temperature,” Smith said.
The cleanup, reconstruction and restocking of the wine cellar took nearly a year, and for a while it didn’t look like there was a chance of receiving a 2019 Grand Award.
“There were crews down there that were digging the cellar out physically for months,” Smith said. “And then they stripped everything to basically cement walls and the ceiling.”
Stonehouse improved the cellar by replacing plywood racks and bins with walnut shelving, installing LED lighting, eliminating a lot of dead ends in the storage configuration and adding more space for large format wine bottles.
“As far as the wine, I knew that we had this sizable cellar to replace and I just kind of mapped it out. We still had a copy of the old wine list, so basically I just deleted all the data in there and kept the headings,” Smith said.
He traveled to Europe and met with distributors to secure some older wine vintages. “And then I worked with some people in town who had private acquisitions in cellars and some people in Las Vegas. I used all the resources I could through our distributors and private collections,” he said.
California wineries that have long relationships with Stonehouse were generous in making library wines available for acquisition, Smith said.
He couldn’t take delivery of wines until staff was back on the property and the restaurant was open for business. “It was a big job. That whole task, there were some long hours definitely, a lot of late nights just inventorying, stocking and then all the back end had to be done, too,” entering point of sale data, he said.
Smith is grateful that Wine Spectator extended the deadline to submit the restaurant’s award application.
“And first I thought I wasn’t going to submit it because I would never submit it until it was ready,” he said. “I didn’t want to apply for an award that was less than the Grand Award.”
The restaurant reopened in January, initially on a limited basis. The wine list is 60 pages long and there are 2,000 selections to choose from. The inventory stands at more than 10,300 bottles. The resort fully reopened in late April after a few months of booking guests only on weekends during rebuilding.
“It’s bittersweet what we had to go through, but to get the award back was a big feat and I think a big accomplishment,” Smith said.
Seven restaurants in the Tri-Counties were among 1,244 worldwide recognized by Wine Spectator with a Best Award of Excellence.
The honorees are Angel Oak at Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara; Wine Cask, Santa Barbara; Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe; Olivella at Ojai Valley Inn; Mastro’s Steakhouse, Thousand Oaks; Lido at Dolphin Bay, Pismo Beach; and Hozy’s Grill, Santa Paula.
Wine Spectator also honored 2,227 restaurants worldwide with an Award of Excellence, including 12 in Santa Barbara County, six in San Luis Obispo County and one in Ventura County.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]