The 1880 Union Hotel in Los Alamos is the kind of place Old West gunslinger Wyatt Earp might have moseyed into back in the day for a cool drink on a hot, dusty afternoon.
It seems fitting that a certain Hollywood star, one who famously portrayed Earp on the big screen, can occasionally be seen behind the bar at his new Wine Saloon in the historic hotel.
“Yeah, let’s face it, there’s some sort of connection there that works for me,” said movie star and winemaker Kurt Russell, who recently opened a wine tasting room there, in which to sell his wines.
“I always loved that time period. I loved the movie we did with Tombstone, and I thought the whole idea and feeling of having a saloon that only served wine was a great idea,” Russell told the Sun.
The 63-year-old actor has been coming to Northern Santa Barbara County since he was a child. He fondly recalls racing go-karts in Lompoc as a kid.
He traveled to Los Olivos throughout the decades to visit his longtime friend and former Disney colleague, the late Fess Parker.
Fast-forward to 2006 when Russell spent six weeks in Buellton and Lompoc shooting Quentin Tarantino’s film Death Proof, and discovering the excellent pinot noirs produced there.
For the last six years, in between movie shoots, he’s frequented Ampelos Cellars in Lompoc where his mentors Peter and Rebecca Work taught him the ropes of winemaking.
Today Russell hand crafts 1,500 cases of high-end pinot noir and chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills grapes under his label, GoGi Wines.
“It’s got its own cult following now,” Russell said. “Now that we have the Wine Saloon, it’s just been so much fun to watch people react to it.”
Hotel owner Dan Thompson said Russell came in and had an affinity for the Union Hotel, and it was Russell who suggested they turn one of the hotel’s bars into a wine saloon, selling three labels exclusively: GoGi, Ampelos, and film actress Kate Hudson and musician Matt Bellamy’s Hudson-Bellamy rosé, also made at Ampelos.
“It’s been profitable for us and them,” Thompson said. “It’s a very good relationship.”
Thompson described Russell as “easygoing, extremely low maintenance, and very creative.”
Russell’s sister Jami Way manages The Wine Saloon; it’s open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Russell and his longtime love, actress Goldie Hawn, spent Valentine’s Day there. (Hawn’s charity MindUP receives 10 percent of GoGi proceeds.) He seems almost as smitten with Los Alamos.
“Look, it’s just an opportunity that you look at and say, ‘Why not? Why not do this?’” Russell told the Sun. “Why not come in here and become part of a wonderful little town that I think is kind of a hidden gem, and see if we can’t become part of something really good here?”
He knows ‘The Way’ to L.A.
Russell isn’t the only movie star frequenting Los Alamos these days.
Just a block down Bell Street from the Union Hotel, actor and filmmaker Emilio Estevez spent numerous winter weekends serving craft beers to customers at Babi’s Beer Emporium, the brainchild of his enterprising fiancée Sonja Magdevski.
“He has been an absolute dream. I was really nervous to open this, because I thought, ‘How can I do it? I’m already stretched so thin with the winery and the tasting room and trying to run everything,” Magdevski said.
The Malibu couple had visited Los Alamos for years before opening their Casa Dumetz wine tasting room on Bell Street in 2011. They’ve since expanded to a larger location one block away.
Then, four months ago, when she decided to open a craft beer tasting room in her original location, Magdevski enlisted the assistance of her movie star beau.
“I said, ‘I need your help. Will you please help me?’ And he said, ‘OK!’ And he’s been so tremendously generous and giving, and he’s had a ton of fun, which has been really great,” she said.
With events like Los Alamos’ Third Saturday Evening Stroll and Magdevski’s popular Friday Night Speaker Series at Casa Dumetz, the dynamic winemaker has helped invigorate the little Western town.
“There are so many different people that come through this town, and the beauty of it is that they come through and feel as if its been their own discovery when they come in: ‘Wow! I stopped for gas. I can’t believe it! What’s going on here? This is amazing!’ And then they want to share that,” Magdevski said. “We have a lot of unique characters here and an amazing community that supports that.”
One of those characters always wears his trademark cowboy hat and a smile: Jamie Gluck, owner of Bell Street Farm restaurant, which opened in 2011, serving splendid rotisserie chicken and pork, satisfying soups, hearty sandwiches, fresh local salads, and more.
The genuine article, Gluck could teach a master class in hospitality; he’s an expert at warmly welcoming and accommodating each and every customer who walks into his gourmet eatery—a skill he likely learned while growing up working in his family’s upscale French restaurant.
In February, his customers repaid his graciousness by writing so many rave reviews that Bell Street Farm landed on Yelp’s list of the “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S.,” coming in at No. 84, the only restaurant in northern Santa Barbara County to make the list.
“It has worked out very well for us,” Gluck told the Sun. “And I’ve got plans. 2014 is a good year. It’s a good time. … It’s busy. We’re busy.”
The experienced restaurateur and former Los Angeles fashion advertising director explained why he believes so many people have embraced Los Alamos as of late: “You get people who want to venture. It’s a destination. People are looking for a culinary experience; they’re looking for a beer and wine experience.”
Los Alamos business owners like Gluck strive for and achieve the highest quality possible; they’re dedicated and sincerely care about this charmingly authentic town, a place they consider home.
“I feel like there’s a certain like-mindedness that happened here that in a progressive way wants to talk about food, wine, and beer, and in a conservative way wants to preserve pioneer, cute Los Alamos,” Gluck said. “And I think that it’s a delicate balance, but it’s not that delicate when everybody is thinking the same way.”
Even celebrities are making the trip up from L.A., hanging out in “Little L.A.,” where the locals respect their privacy, and the paparazzi don’t venture. Some Hollywood heavy-hitters like it so much, they’ve taken up residence.
“I have friends who have built homes in this town who are very powerful established entertainment executives that want to run around in their sweatpants and not shave, and they’ll pop into Bell Street Farm and there’s another entertainment executive, and they’re like, ‘I cannot believe you’re sitting here,’” Gluck shared. “So the days of just running around town and not running into anybody you know—those are over.”
One former Hollywood executive, Bob Oswaks, has been sojourning to Los Alamos for many years to get away from it all.
Oswaks spent 11 years with Sony Pictures Television, most recently as president of worldwide marketing, launching everything from Seinfeld to Breaking Bad to Jeopardy.
When he lost his job at the height of the recession, Oswaks started baking bread at home while waiting for the phone to ring.
Instead, he found a new passion.
Demand is so great for his organic artisan breads that this summer he’s planning to open the highly anticipated Bob’s Well Bread Bakery and Cafe in a vintage gas station on Los Alamos’ Bell Street.
“We will service the community … and neighboring communities, which are desperate for a great bakery,” Oswaks said.
He gives credit to the men and women who believed in Los Alamos early on and took a chance opening businesses there years ago and hung in during the lean years.
“Clark [Staub of Full of Life Flatbread] started a revolution in the town, and Jamie [Gluck], Sonja [Magdevski], Theo [Stephan of Global Gardens and Caliterranean Cafe]. I think people like this town. I think it has an opportunity to be something truly unique and authentic,” Oswaks said. “As a food and wine enthusiast, I think of it as an explosion. We’ve been in this town for 12 years and waiting for something like this to happen.”
Fine art, fine cuisine
Chef Jesper Johansson arrived in Los Alamos 15 years ago, when the historic downtown was more of a ghost town than a boomtown.
The Sweden native is the chef at Café Quackenbush, a charming breakfast and lunch spot attached to The General Store, an art gallery housed in one of Los Alamos’ oldest buildings.
“Our business is up,” Johansson said. “We’re doing summer numbers in March, so go figure.”
He’s noticed more people patronizing the café since Russell brought his star power to town.
“For sure! And I really think Sonja [Magdevski] has brought a lot of energy to town, and I think that one of the reasons Kurt [is here] is because she started this little buzz about Los Alamos.”
Johansson said the town’s merchants are supportive of one another.
“I think the more the merrier,” Johansson said. “A lot of the L.A. crowd and wine tasters are now coming to Los Alamos, and I think we all benefit from that. If they go to [Bell Street Farm] for lunch, they come to me for breakfast, then they go to Flatbread for dinner.”
Russell echoed that sentiment: “With Clark at Flatbread and Jamie at Bell Street Farm and the boys at Quackenbush, there are some good places to eat. The Depot, the antique place, is fantastic. And we felt there was an opportunity here to join the feeling of what Los Alamos has to offer and become part of what we feel is a wonderful, seriously historic little town.
“We want to preserve this place,” Russell added. “We don’t want to change it. We wanted to ‘wine it up’—you know what I mean.”
A local’s perspective
Los Alamos resident and local business owner Laura Kath, president of Mariah Marketing, helps write and edit the community website LosAlamosValley.org.
She keeps close tabs on all things Los Alamos.
“There are probably as many opinions about Los Alamos growth/development/change as there are people in Los Alamos (2010 census found 1,890 population),” Kath wrote in an email to the Sun.
“I’ve lived here since 2001 and am proud of the blend of historic, Old West traditions of caring neighbors and hospitality combined with the new energy of entrepreneurial businesses in art and food,” she added. “Measured change for positive economic growth is good, yet not at the expense of those Old West style values.”
Contributing columnist Wendy Thies Sell writes the Sun’s weekly wine and food column. Contact her at [email protected].