Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Women winemakers of Santa Barbara County celebrate International Women's Day
It is not uncommon for Jessica Gasca to pour a glass of the wine she makes at an event and hear the question, “Who is the winemaker?”
“The answer is, ‘I’m the winemaker,’” she told me at the Women Winemaker’s Dinner on March 8. “And it’s interesting to see the expression change.”
Gasca, winemaker and owner of Story of Soil winery, was one of more than a dozen women winemakers who gathered on International Women’s Day in Solvang for a unique event honoring local women and their wines. The celebration was held at K’Syrah Catering and featured an eight-course meal prepared by Chef Pink DeLongpré of Bacon and Brine and Chef Brooke Stockwell from the 1880 Union Hotel. Proceeds from the event went to the Women’s Fund of Northern Santa Barbara, which funds organizations that provide educational, health, and other services to women and children.
Like many of the women pouring that night, Gasca is used to the surprised looks. In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion in the number of women taking charge as winemakers and owners at successful wineries throughout the region.
Gasca began making wines in 2012, after a career change and love of wine brought her to Santa Barbara County.
“We have great camaraderie here and we have a lot of support, not just from other women but from the men who are winemakers as well,” she said. “I think we’re very fortunate to be in a community where we have so many female winemakers.”
Denise Shurtleff, winemaker at Cambria Winery, said she too knows what it’s like to catch unsuspecting parties off guard with her knowledge and expertise in wine.
“I don’t come to work every day and think, ‘I’m a woman,’” Shurtleff said. “I don’t think twice about it. At the same time, every so often, I’ll meet somebody and tell them what I do. And they’ll say ‘Oh, you work in the tasting room?’ I tell them I work in production. They say, ‘Well, what do you really do? Who makes final decision?’”
Along with Cambria and Story of Soil, other winemakers featured in course pairings at the event included Bevela, Buttonwood, Casa Dumetz, Cebada, Dreamcote, Fiddlehead Cellars, Harrison Clarke, Kitá, La Montagne, Lepiane, Lumen, Nagy, Rideau, Rusack, Sanford, Terravant, and William James Cellars. If you skipped cardio this week, just try memorizing and saying all those winery names to make up for it.
Kathy Joseph, proprietor and winemaker at Fiddlehead Cellars, poured her 2014 gruner veltliner, an Austrian white wine, to accompany the first course of cheese plates.
“I’m here with my comrades in crime,” said Joseph. “We make our mark in the world of wine, and we’ve all come together with the wines we spend a lot of energy creating to make something special.”
She said the night was about commemorating the diversity of winemaking in the region and coming together as one united front.
“We celebrate each other’s successes,” Joseph said. “We put to bed any marketing competition and come together in celebration of the energy it takes to make great wine.”
While women and their groundbreaking achievements were a focus of the event, it was the food and wine they created that everyone was eager to sample. And they certainly didn’t disappoint.
Hors d’oeuvres served on the patio included smoked salmon and goat cheese with pickled cucumber on a house-made potato chip and a surprise offering of sea snail, served with chanterelle mushrooms. Sea snail is a bold choice for an appetizer, and dressed in garlic butter, it was almost enough to make me almost forget my (probably irrational) loathing of mushrooms. As the party moved inside, diners were offered a delicately fresh and refreshing salad for third course.
But it was the fourth course that stood out as the grand dame of the evening. A brilliantly refined soup of smoked pear and celery root, served with a carrot top pistou and a small portion of crisped Gouda cheese. It was the perfect balance of flavors in one restrained dish. Had I not been surrounded by some of the most influential and successful women in the local food industry, I might have just licked the bowl clean. (Come to think of it, they probably would have applauded my show of hedonism.)
A play on potato latkes for the fifth course included an uni butter, made from local sea urchin. Sixth course was an unusual plating of smoked pork cheeks braised in bonito and served with collard greens and crunchy sticky rice. Taken as one fully composed bite, the dish unlocked something magical, the perfect combination of sweet, salty, and spicy with an eccentric diversity of texture.
Aside from the soup, the other major highlight was an oxtail croquette, served as part of a beef trio for the seventh course. Oxtail, when cooked properly, is one of the most delicious, unctuous dishes on the planet and a favorite of mine. This dish was no different, and the decision to serve it to a large group after a lengthy progression in courses was smart, especially when paired with a beef tartare.
There were more than 30 different wines from the many winemakers who took part, with as many as four different pairings with each course. If that seems like a challenge, we fine women were up for it. I tasted and lovingly surveyed as many as I could without completely losing my senses. Story of Soil’s Larner Vineyard syrah with the pork cheeks was one of my favorite pairings of the night, along with Cambria’s 2015 viognier and that legendary smoked pear and celery root soup.
Chef Pink, who thanked diners after the last course, said the timing of the event was important and necessary due to the political climate.
“Everyone is feeling repressed, scared, and anxious,” she said. “Women have always been the first people to band together whenever there is something that needs to be done, to make sure everyone is fine in community.”
“These are strong women, phenomenal women, entrepreneurial women,” said Gasca, who plans to open her own tasting room soon. “To be considered to pour my wines among these passionate winemakers is very humbling to me.”
Rebecca Rose is a woman who deeply loves her wine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Things started to warm up this week, and all of us hibernating Santa Marians came out of our shell at long last. I’m planning for some big events sandwiched between long nights at home enjoying all the new wines I learned about at the Women’s Winemaker Dinner. Here’s what I’m excited about this week:
• The Bear and Star restaurant is opening in April in Los Olivos at 2860 Grand Ave. Headed up by the famed Chef Jon Cox along with Chef Jeremy Tummel and Sous Chef Trent Shank, the new ranch cusine venture is described as “intrinsically intertwined” to the Fess Parker Home Ranch on Foxen Canyon Road. The name signifies a merging of California cuisine (the “Bear”) and foundations of Texas grub like barbecue (the “Star”), both of which Cox has a strong background in. Word has it that Cox is going to use a 30-foot custom reverse-flow Texas smoker for those Lonestar State-inspired dishes. We’ll see how it measures up to my Texas memories.
• Speaking of barbecue, I’ll be one of the guest judges at the Presqu’ile Winery second annual Tri-Tip Cook-Off on March 18. Chefs will serve up their own unique take on the Santa Maria staple while I stuff my face and try to help pick a winner. The event goes from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with judging starting at 11 a.m. The winery is located at 5391 Presquile Drive in Santa Maria.
• One more note about the Women Winemakers Dinner! The cheesemonger featured at the event was Janelle McAtamney (pictured right) of Cailloux Cheese Shop, who brought an array cheeses including a creamy Brillat-Savarin, which is 75 percent milk fat and aged two weeks in Normandy, France. Earthy with a slight sourness, this was one my favorite bites of the evening. McAtamney is planning to open a brick-and-mortar shop in Solvang soon, but in the meantime, you can order a crate or join her Cheese of the Month club by visiting caillouxcheeseshop.com. She also offers cheese classes such as French Cheeses and The Blues.
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