Editorial: Tipping

We have noticed a new phenomenon, a bit concerning, on our last few wine-tasting trips in California, both in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County.  Evidently, the servers expect to be tipped.  Sometimes that expectation is subtle; the server may bring up tipping and then say it’s completely at our discretion.  In other cases, they have let us know that a little something extra was what most tasters left behind.  In one case, shockingly, a tip was added to our check without asking us and without our approval.

We have been visiting wineries and tasting for decades and tipping is new to us, limited so far to California as far as we can tell.  We expect that servers are fairly paid and that a tip is unnecessary.  Why is this happening now?  It seems to be linked to software on tablets used to generate bills that have a button for tips of various percentages.

Some might argue that we would tip a bartender so why not a server in a winery’s tasting room?  Well, a bartender pours us a healthy drink, not four little sips.  He doesn’t try to sell us a bottle or a case of wine and he doesn’t try to convince us to join the bar’s club.  He leaves us alone if we want to enjoy our drink in peace and chats if we initiate the conversation.  A bartender’s purpose is service.  Servers in tasting rooms are salespeople.

We find the advent of tipping to be just another way wineries try to intimidate their customers.  The whole rationale for Power Tasting, as our masthead states, is “to empower the visitor to get the maximum advantage out of each visit, not to be intimidated by wine snobs on either side of the bar”.  We understand the need for wineries to charge tasting fees; labor, real estate, electricity and taxes have to be paid somehow.  But tipping on top of that is an insult to the people who try and buy their wines.

So our advice is that when presented with one of those tablets or even a check on paper, tap the button that says, “No tip”.  We would very much like to hear readers’ opinions on this matter.  Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

There’s something wonderful about tasting wine in sight of the vineyards where the grapes were grown.  But it can also be a lot of fun to visit tasting rooms in a city or town, near the countryside.  No city that we have ever visited has more opportunities for urban wine tasting than Santa Barbara.  The official count is 25 tasting rooms, primarily in three districts.

Power Tasting has reviewed several wineries’ tasting rooms in Santa Barbara in the past.  The fact is that what we wrote previously has in some instances become inaccurate.  There are new wineries represented, existing ones have disappeared and others have relocated, creating new wine tasting experiences. 

The courtyard of El Paseo, with the Grassini Family Vineyards tasting room under the flags.  There are four other tasting rooms scattered around the courtyard.

To the best of our knowledge, there are no vineyards within the city limits of Santa Barbara.  But there are many of them in Santa Barbara County, with a good cross-section represented in town.  Moreover, there are other winemaking regions within the southern end of California’s Central Coast, including Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Counties, available for tasting in Santa Barbara.  (There are a lot of saints in California.)  Wines from all those regions can be tasted in the city’s tasting rooms.

We used to associate Santa Barbara with Burgundy-style wines, i.e., Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  While this is still true, the broad Southern California region has many microclimates and terroirs that support Bordeaux and Rhône-style grapes as well.  This makes a wine tasting visit to Santa Barbara a more varied experience than in the past.

There are three districts within the city where the tasting rooms are concentrated and each presents its own personality.  Uptown, where the better stores line State Street, there are ten of them.  The Sanford Winery has moved out and now offers tastings at their vineyards.  It has been replaced by a husband-and-wife team of Barbieri and Kempe, each with their own tasting lists in the former Sanford facility, located in a classy shopping mall.  There are five tasting rooms in a passage called El Paseo, the best-known of which is Au Bon Climat, where you can get your Pinot Noir/Chardonnay kicks.  Finally, Kunin Wines, which used to be in the Funk Zone is now on the outskirts of the uptown tasting area.

Easy tasting at Paradise Springs Winery, in the Funk Zone.

In the so-called Funk Zone, the ten tasting rooms are not as classy (with some notable exceptions, like Margerum, which is reviewed in this issue).  That is not to say that the wines available to taste are inferior; we were quite impressed with some of them.  If you do go there, try to do so between Monday and Thursday, if your intent is some serious wine tasting.  On the other hand, if you want to party hard, the weekend is for you.

Finally, on Santa Barbara’s east side, an area of light industry, there are five tasting rooms.  They’re rather spread out, so going by car from one to the other is called for.  To our surprise, there was some quite creditable wine being pressed and aged there, for instance at Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  Wine tasting in this sector is a different experience than we have ever had elsewhere.  Wine is wine; you just need to be prepared for the factory atmosphere you’ll find there.  We weren’t, but will be the next time.

Too Many Tasting Rooms?

As reported elsewhere in this issue, there are 25 wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara.  If you live there or nearby, you can take it easy on a weekend afternoon, stop in one or two of them, have lunch, visit the sights and head home.  But for those of us for whom a visit to Santa Barbara is either a vacation or the extension of some other trip, we don’t have the luxury of trying lots of wineries over an extended period of time.  Whatever wineries we’re going to stop at, we’re going to have to visit over just a few days.

The bar of the tasting room at Happy Canyon Vineyard.

So many wineries, so little time.

Here are a few tips for optimizing your time, in Santa Barbara or any other in-town tasting destination.

  • Start with a winery you know.  At the very least, you’ll be assured of finding at least one spot where the wines are familiar to you and, we assume, that you like.  For example, we began our most recent excursion at Au Bon Climat, where we have been before and whose wines we often buy.  And then the big question: We asked our server where else she would recommend in the area.  Her tastes might not be the same as ours (they weren’t) but at least we weren’t picking places at random.
  • Leave some time for serendipity.  Now for the contrary advice.  If you are in a region where all or most of the wines are unknown to you, pick one and try it out.  So, for instance, we were at that point in the day when we’d ask ourselves, “One more or call it a day?”  Opting for the first alternative, we passed Longoria on State, which has more of a vibe of a night club than a tasting room.  We enjoyed it greatly and will publish a review in a future issue.
  • Too many is too much.  Just because there are ten tasting rooms within three blocks of each other doesn’t mean you have to try them all.  In fact, if you did try ten in a day you’d be a menace to your own health and to those around you.  For goodness sake, don’t get behind the wheel of a car.  Or jaywalk, for that matter.  Even if you’re walking from place to place, set a limit on how many tasting rooms you’ll enter and the stick to your intentions.
  • Enjoy the ambience as well as the wine.  Whether you’re relaxing in a well-appointed room, such as at Happy Canyon Vineyard, soaking up the sun on a terrace or partying in the Funk Zone, you don’t have to bolt as much wine as you can as fast as you’re able.  The whole premise of Power Tasting is that the experience of wine tasting can be as important as the wines themselves.
  • Take advantage of the rest of what the city or town has to offer.  Yes, you’re there for wine tasting, but have a nice lunch and see the sights.  And don’t soak up so much alcohol during the day that you haven’t got the room for a good bottle of a local wine with your dinner, if you’re staying over.

Margerum Wines

Power Tasting reported on wine tasting in Santa Barbara several years ago; this edition is an update of sorts.  At that time, we visited the Margerum tasting room, then at the El Paseo complex.  The wines were enjoyable but the room was on a dark alley and it was dark and uninviting inside as well.  Power Tasting’s policy is that we don’t print bad reviews; we believe that silence is the best way to deal with wineries that we couldn’t recommend.  So we never said anything about Margerum at that time.

The entrance and one of the patios at Margerum Wines.

Margerum (https://www.margerumwines.com) has moved, somewhat surprisingly, to the Funk Zone.  But their tasting room in Santa Barbara is anything but funky.  (They also have a tasting room in Los Olivos that we haven’t visited.)  From the elegant, soaring entrance to the broad, capacious room inside, the message is: “Margerum makes serious wine and should be taken seriously”.  [Is the Funk Zone evolving?  Time will tell.]

The interior of the tasting room at Margerum in Santa Barbara.

The overall ambiance is that of Spanish-accented lounge at a fancy resort.  There is a wide bar, terraces in front and on the side, and a separate section above for groups and parties.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it a restaurant at resort, because Margerum also has a rather extensive menu.  Many wineries will offer a cheese and charcuterie plate, as does Margerum, but this one also has a lengthy list of hors d’oeuvres, sandwiches, salads and pizzas, all prepared on the premises.

All of this would mean nothing if the wines were subpar.  While Power Tasting doesn’t review wines as such, we can say that there were several that we enjoyed quite a bit.  While Margerum does offer Pinot Noirs and several Sauvignon Blancs, their specialty is wines made from Rhône-style grapes.  Our favorites were the Pinot Noir from the Sanford-Benedict vineyard, their Reserve Syrah and particularly their Mourvèdre.  The Margerum Rosé is also quite Rhône-like.

Doug Margerum, the winery’s founder, is a Central Coast wine pioneer and continues to advocate for and consult to other vineyards in the area. He has started a second label, Barden, using his middle name for these wines.  The intent, according to their web site is “an exploration of cold climate grapes grown in and around the Santa Rita Hills AVA”. We didn’t enjoy them as much as the Margerum-labeled wines. We visited the new tasting room on a weekday and so can’t speak to the weekend when the Funk Zone fills with partiers.  We were told by our sever that weekends get quite crowded.  We don’t understand why the decision was made to relocate to an area better known for high times than fine wines.  We prefer to taste wine in an environment that to some degree replicates the atmosphere of a dinner party in our home: a happy buzz of conversation but not the clang of a wild night of drinking.  We can only advise that wine lovers visit Margerum and do so on the days of the week that best fit their temperaments. 

Santa Barbara

For wine lovers, Santa Barbara is paradise.  So many tasting rooms in such a concentrated space!  We address the wine tasting aspect of the city elsewhere in this edition, but even if you are not planning to go wine tasting there – or even if you are – the city of Santa Barbara has a great deal to offer the visitor besides wine. 

A Santa Barbara street scene.  The tower in the background is a movie theater!

For one thing, it is a particularly beautiful city.  Much of the architecture harkens back to Santa Barbara’s colonial past, as a part of Mexico.  Scrubbed white walls and tiled roofs are evident throughout the city.  In another direction, there are also many beautiful Victorian buildings.  Power Tasting doesn’t recommend hotels, but our favorite one, the Upham, is a jewel, erected in 1871, still maintaining its original form and is worth a look.

Even, perhaps especially, when you get off the main commercial streets and into the nearby residential areas, your eyes are still delighted.  The homes themselves may or may not have architectural interest, but the gardens in front of them are wonderful to see.  The Santa Barbarans love their gardens and fill the fronts of their houses with palms, cacti, succulents and a wide variety of flowering plants and shrubs.  Take a walk around just to enjoy these sights.

For a city with fewer than 90,000 residents, Santa Barbara is a remarkably cultured city.  On State Street, the main drag, there are several grand old movie palaces from a bygone era, still showing the latest films.  Moreover, there are several legitimate theaters providing live performances.  The most notable cultural magnets are its museums.  There’s a history museum, one for natural history and the gem is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.  It doesn’t have a huge collection – you can see it all in less than a day – but what there is is fine.  The highlight, to our eyes, is the museum’s collection of Impressionists.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Two other historical cultural attractions stand out.  The Presidio is today more of a district than a single attraction.  It consists of many of the buildings that the Spanish erected to govern and protect the city in colonial times.  (Not coincidentally, the military was there to conquer the Chumash people, who just happened to be living there at the time.)  The buildings are well-maintained and many are open for public viewing.  Happily, the Presidio is only a few blocks from the tasting rooms.

While the soldiers were occupying Chumash land, Franciscan monks were opening a mission to convert them.  What started as a modest farmstead grew over time into a cloister and a church.  The Old Mission Santa Barbara is open today for occasional masses and every day for self-directed tours.  It includes the gardens, the church, a museum and the cemetery.  The latter, originally intended for burial of the monks, has over the years outsiders become the resting place for other, some not even Catholic.

Add to all the above the beaches, resorts, fine dining and oh, yes, wine and you can see that Santa Barbara is an excellent place to visit.  One note about the weather.  December through March are months with particularly fine weather, warm for those of us facing real winter.  But starting late April and onward through June, the weather turns cool and overcast.  The locals say, “May grey, June gloom”.  Bring a sweater if you go in those months.