Hip Pocket Favorites from Montecito’s Wine Managers

It’s tempting to regard a wine list like a racing form, relying on impulse or betting the crowd favorite. Consulting the wine manager or sommelier, however, is an engaging alternative. His or her craft and care goes into creating the list, and it can be an adventure. In anticipation of the coming food and wine season, we asked several Montecito wine managers to guide us through the hidden gems on their lists, and reveal their dark-horse favorites.

Soemi Caramel, General Manager, Tre Lune

Tre Lune is one of the few all-Italian lists in Montecito, a cellar of small-hectare producers that Soemi brings back from his Italian travels. How should we approach such a list?

“In the whites,” Soemi offers. “I would give the Arneis a try. It is fragrant and delicate with good body. Also the Gavi. A little more full-bodied, with spice and nice layers.” The dry Riesling from the Venice-Giulia region, “makes a good companion to tuna tartare.”

For a simple, delicious red, Soemi might move on to the Sicilian Syrah on his list. “In Sicily, the weather is like California, the wines there show a lot of fruit.” Or Barolo, a red wine from the Piemonte region. “An important wine. In Italy it is served with roast game and on special occasions. But in Montecito, our guests enjoy a bottle just as well with spaghetti and meatballs.”

Amarone is another special wine. The fruit is left to shrivel before the wine is made, making it very concentrated. “Perfect with earthy cheeses,” Soemi says.

Are there any surprises on Soemi’s list? “The 2002 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva ($36/bottle). Everyone loves it.” The wine garnered 90 points from Wine Spectator. “Customers ask me if they can buy a case.”

Soemi’s favorites tend to have a story around them. “The Sagrantino is a very small production wine I found last year.” On such annual trips, he looks for unique wines. Like Ribolla Gialla, aged in clay amphoras as in the days of the Romans, or Novacella, from a working abbey in the middle of a mountain.

The list is ever-changing, based upon Soemi’s finds. As he explains about the work of being a wine manager, “It is a pleasure, not a job.”

Jerry Lee, Wine Director, Plow and Angel/Stonehouse

Plow and Angel’s carte du vin reflects its international clientele. In six months, wine director Jerry Lee put together an award-winning list of European classics and under-the-radar stars from Santa Barbara County.

“Our guests want to explore the wines of our local appellations. Many have tried important names like Au Bon Climat, Babcock and Melville, and they want to taste others,” Jerry says.

Sea Smoke is one of the Pinot Noirs guests have heard about. “It has an almost cult reputation. The Pinots from Santa Rita Hills tend to be robust with dark fruit. Despite their prices, they are good values because they are so rare and much in demand.”

For a lighter European style Pinot, Paul Lato is a hidden gem. “Paul is from a European background, and he makes his wine in that style. Rave reviews, but not enough wine. I get all I can.”

Jerry was introduced to Paul Lato wines at Citronelle, where he served as wine manager until its recent closure.

For the adventurous guest, Jerry offered his recommendations:

“Always start with a lighter white wine, to cleanse your palate and set the stage for the richer and bolder reds. Rhone whites are very good value. The fruit of Marsanne or Roussane does very well in SBC. They create aromatic summertime pairing wines that are a good alternative to Chardonnay.”

Tablas Creek is another find. The owner brought vine clippings from the French estate of Beaucastel. Curran Grenache blanc. Or Melville’s Inox, Chardonnay that is 100% steel fermented. “On the European side, one of my personal favorites is Gruner Veltliner.”

And with dinner? “Try a beautiful white Burgundy, Puligny Montrachet, Bordeaux Blanc, or Condriu (French Viognier).”

For Pinot Noir, Jerry favors Westerly or Cunin, from Paso Robles. “Montecito has a strong base of Burgundy lovers. However, it is difficult to get red Burgundies now. People are buying them very fast, and the prices are ridiculous.”

With more than half the list in Pinot Noir, is Jerry a Pinotphile? “My favorite wine is Champagne. With Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, California sparkling wine, there’s enough diversity for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Eric Maldonado, Maitre d’Hotel/Wine Manager, Lucky’s

In the ironic film “Thank You for Not Smoking,” Eric Maldonado wears a gray morning coat and slicked back hair, circa 1960s. Like the film, Eric’s approach to the restaurant’s wine lists is both retro and pioneering.

Of Lucky’s rarefied and top-drawer Cellar list, he says: “I love the 1970’s wines. They are still that good that I won’t even order a steak with them. Just let them open up for 20 minutes and enjoy them. The 1970 Petrus half-bottle is one of my rarer wines. Also, the Chalon-Segur 1926 and 1928.”

One of the remarkable aspects of the list is the breadth of its half-bottles, which are hard to find. “The wines are good value because they are priced at market. I don’t raise the price after my initial markup.”

And provenance. The 1982 Moutons came from Baron Rothschild’s cellar. “The cellar master sold one of his cases. You’re drinking the Baron’s wine.”

Which wines are guests most likely to inquire about? “St. Estephe, 1928 and 1926. the last year of original root styles. These are epic vintages. It is still a 90-plus rated wine.”

Cachet, too, is a factor. Like the 1982 Margaux from the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz. Or the 1945 Lafitte. “You can taste the victory in the Lafitte,” Eric notes.

From the “regular list,” Eric likes discoveries such as Costa de Oro Chardonnay and Michael Grace Syrah, as well as revered classics like Charles Krug VS Reserve. “My dad used to buy Krug whenever he would find it. So I always include the V.S. Reserve in my regular list.”

If a guest wants a special evening without blowing the bank: “I would begin with the Silver mer de soleil Chardonnay ($67). 100% stainless steel fermented. Perfect with oysters, shrimp cocktail or the seafood platter.” Moving to a Pinot Noir, Eric suggests the Highland Estates, Pinot Seco, from Kendall Jackson’s master winemaker. “Distinctive,” he says. “From Santa Lucia Highlands fruit.”

Next, the Simi Reserve Cabernet from Alexander Valley ($90). “It displays every ounce of dollar and more. A fantastic Cabernet wine-making style.”

And for dessert, a Tensley Syrah Colson Canyon. “Possibly the best Syrah in Santa Barbara County.”

Lucky’s maintains private cellars for its diners. “If a guest has a collection of vertical Brunellos di Montalcino, for example, we will keep some of his wines for him. He knows we have the quality whites that will complement his collection.”

In this wine-friendly village, it seems, it isn’t a bad idea to “ask the sommelier.”