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Checking in with wine at the Hotel Californian

By   /   Friday, January 24th, 2020  /   Comments Off on Checking in with wine at the Hotel Californian

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Santa Barbara’s downtown shopping district is struggling, but there’s plenty of vitality at the Hotel Californian, where the owners of three wineries have located tasting rooms.

Wes Hagen, winemaker and spokesman for the hotel’s newest wine tenant, J. Wilkes Wines, said the location is one of the most beautiful spots he’s ever seen for a tasting room.

“You can literally sit on the patio and look at Stearns Wharf and hear the ocean and hear 10 or 12 different languages,” he said. “We just love the energy of downtown Santa Barbara.”

J. Wilkes opened its tasting room adjacent to Finney’s restaurant in mid-December. It joins Melville Winery, the hotel’s first wine tenant, which began pouring its all-estate wines in April of 2018, and Margerum Wine Co., which opened last May opposite the hotel entrance.

Owners and winemakers for the three wineries have known each other for years and say each brings something different to the table. “And I think having a critical mass of tasting rooms is vital,” Hagen said.


J. Wilkes Wines is owned by the Miller family, which has been farming on the Central Coast for five generations. Miller Family Wines owns Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards in Santa Barbara County and French Camp Vineyard in the Paso Robles Highlands region.

The wines are site-focused, each identified on the bottle as coming from one of three American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs: Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills or Paso Robles Highlands.

The winery buys fruit from select vineyards in the three AVAs to go along with its estate grapes. The philosophy is to blend from different vineyards and harvest dates within an AVA to achieve the greatest expression of a winegrowing area.

Hagen said they want to bring as much of the vineyard experience as possible to Santa Barbara visitors. There’s a massive photo covering one wall that shows the French Camp Vineyard, and multimedia screens display other vineyard settings. Hagen plans to be on-screen via Skype from all over the country to talk about wines, and there will be educational videos and a live vineyard webcam feed. The tasting room will have soil samples from each of the AVAs.

Hagen said he and Marketing Director Jerry Ferraro noticed the many languages spoken by passersby, many of them coming from cruise ships.

“We’re going to make a specific leather-bound menu for Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, French and Italian and connect those cultures with their history of wine and alcohol to ours,” he said. The winery’s tasting menus and notes will be translated into each of the seven languages.

J. Wilkes had a tasting room in Los Olivos that closed in 2018. Hagen said they can reach a lot more people at the Hotel Californian location. Less than 5 percent of people who come to Santa Barbara go on up to wine country, he said.


Owner and Director of Winemaking Doug Margerum formerly had his two brands, Margerum and Barden, housed in a very small tasting room next to the Wine Cask restaurant that he owned for many years in the El Paseo off State Street. Barden remains there and Margerum moved his larger production (15,000 cases) label to the Hotel Californian.

The wine lineups from the two brands are very different. Barden wines are small-batch bottlings of pinot noir, chardonnay and cool climate Rhones from grapes grown in the Sta. Rita Hills, and Margerum wines have a broader palette featuring sauvignon blanc, distinctive blends and Rhones from Santa Barbara County. Magerum established Barden as a standalone brand with its own bond so he could have a second tasting room.

“We really liked the space we had at El Paseo, we really didn’t want to give it up, but we knew that Margerum needed a bigger venue and we really wanted to attract a larger group of people to the Margerum brand,” he said.

He loves his location directly across from the hotel entrance. When guests arrive and their room isn’t ready, they just need to walk across the street to have a taste of Margerum.

Many discover wines they never tried before, he said. “I mean most people have a sort of chardonnay arm and a cabernet arm, and we’re offering interesting things like mourvedre blends and sauvignon blanc and Rhone white blends. They taste these wines and they love them,” he said.

The tasting room has an outdoor patio in front and an airy private area on a mezzanine level above the tasting bar that is available for tastings, dinners and events. That element of the project led to months of delay in the opening as he dealt with a city well known for its cumbersome permitting process.

The city wanted him to install an elevator to accommodate disabled guests, and for a long time rejected his alternate solution of building a wheelchair lift.


Chad Melville, head winegrower at the family-owned winery and vineyards, said they were looking to open a satellite tasting room in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone when they learned that the Hotel Californian was seeking a boutique, family-run wine operation. The family thought the location was phenomenal, a block and a half from the beach and across from the train station, Melville said.

The winery headed by Chad’s father, Ron Melville, is one of the few that are 100 percent estate producers. All of the wines, primarily pinot noir, come from fruit grown on their 120-acre estate vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation near Lompoc.

Chad Melville said their philosophy is all about winegrowing. “It’s all about nurturing the land and being responsible farmers and growing the highest quality fruit you can,” he said. “And then basically don’t mess it up, like get out of its way, let it kind of make itself. And so the result is a reflection of purity in where it comes from.”

Melville said the best place to educate consumers is at their estate tasting room, where they can see the vineyards, tour the facility, taste flights and have a picnic outside. The Santa Barbara venue is more often about relaxing with a pre-dinner or evening glass of wine while learning something about it, he said, although they do offer flights.

They’re pleased with the turnout at their State Street venue.

“So we do, I think, a pretty good job down there of educating people about coming up here,” he said in a phone interview from Lompoc.

Ron Melville grew and sold grapes in Sonoma County before establishing the estate vineyards in Lompoc with his family in 1996, planting pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.

The revitalization of properties on State Street near the waterfront is super positive, Chad Melville said.

“It’s kind of funny because you kind of sit back now and you scratch your head and you’re like, why didn’t this happen 20 years ago or 30 years ago? Like this is crazy. It’s such a great location.”

• Contact Tom Bronzini at

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