Montecito & Santa Barbara Wine Makers

I'll be providing a series of profiles on the winemakers who craft some of the local wines you have made popular at the Montecito restaurants you frequent. This week it is Christian Garvin whose Oreana wines are crafted in Cellar 205, just a mile or so from the Montecito border, around the corner from the Pierre LaFond-owned Santa Barbara Winery.

Christian was raised in New York. Half his family is Italian, which means wine on the table every night. The other half is Irish, and each uncle owned a restaurant and/or bar so booze flowed freely. He discovered Santa Barbara after following a girl to UCSB. The girl didn't work out, but Santa Barbara did. While working as a bartender at a wine bar long out of business, he discovered the wonders of the Santa Barbara wine industry.

Young Old-Timer

“I'm young in years compared to my peers, yet I feel like an old veteran simply because there were thirty-five wineries when I started working for minimum wage at Fess Parker winery, my first gig,” Christian says. Now, there are 85 registered wineries and many more labels and small operations that don't make the map. “I look back on those early days,” he continues, “and always felt that I came late to the party.

“Now people want my advice, not often, but it still makes me laugh every time. I'm the guy whose first job was Bottling Line Mechanic at Fess Parker Winery. I remember calling my mom to give her the news that I had scored a job at $6.75 per hour after just completing my bachelor's degree from a University of California school. She said, ‘But honey, you don't know anything about the machines.’ I said ‘I know, but the best part is neither do they!’

That job led to the harvest of 1997 when Christian worked in the cellar and lived in a trailer with two other cellar rats and a vineyard dog. After harvest, Christian joined his college pal, Andy Kahn, who was working at Fess Parker Winery as assistant winemaker, and together they launched Kahn Winery. With on-the-job winemaking training from Eli Parker, himself mentored by Jed Steele, Kahn Wine became known for first-rate Syrah, leading to a joint venture with the Frank Sinatra Foundation and a wine called Cab Frank.

“I had some small lots of wine so I quickly created a brand called Oreana just to sell the small amount of wine,” Christian recounts. “There wasn't even a label yet, just bottles. I wasn't sure about doing another winery and spent some time just driving around. In this case, the facility made the business, rather than the other way around. The abandoned tire shop at the corner of Anacapa and Yanonali sat like an open sore in the downtown funk zone, right across the street from Santa Barbara Winery. Noting that Jaffurs had successfully moved downtown a few years before, I decided to go for it and lease the building.”

It was more space than he needed at first, so Christian invited other small vintners to join him in a co-op environment. That was the first phase of the business at Cellar 205, named that because it was quite literally the cellar at 205 Anacapa Street. Within this structure, he made Oreana while Carr Winery and Bargiel Cellars also made their handcrafted wines.

Cellar 205 is now bursting at the seams, says Christian. “Carr founded his own facility on Salsipuedes Street which opened this year,” he points out. Christian is now slowly switching the whole facility over to be known as just Oreana. “We've leveled off production to fit the facility and now I just focus on making everything better, from this year's Viognier to the molding in the bathroom,” he says.

Cellar 205 is now a fully functional winery and tasting room, as well as a wine, gourmet, and gift market with some of the best parties going (get on their mailing list through the website and you'll see). An example was the Thursday Nite Harvest Party in late September when they opened the doors and invited locals down for a chance to see the sights and smells of winemaking during the harvest with gourmet nibbles, local music, and of course, wine.

Christian's Oreana wines are primarily devoted to Pinot Noir, Syrah, and micro-batches of sparkling wines. I asked about his Oreana 2004 Pinot that scored a 92 rating from Wine Spectator. Christian remarked that the 92 score in itself is not that great; there were plenty of 94s and 95s in the same issue and plenty of 92s, but the phone rang off the hook. “I couldn't figure it out until I saw that ours was priced about $20 cheaper per bottle than the rest,” Christian recalls. “That got a lot of new distributors to take a look at the whole portfolio of wines and increased our market share.”

Oceana's most popular wine is the Question Mark Red that Christian describes as, “an easy drinking red blend that has a big orange question mark on the label.” It retails for under $10 at Trader Joe’s and the tasting room.

Christian may be finding his way into your home as well as your wine glass as a frequent contributor to Barron's, where he writes about investing in wine, automobiles, and luxury goods (of which he admits he owns none). If you've seen Christian, you know his great omnipresent smile.

His secret? “I love the wine business. It is a one-man show and there is never the same day twice,” he says. “Tuesday I am in boots,” he continues, “in the cellar doing manual labor that is the same in any business, from wine to pickles. The next day I may be in Manhattan, dressed in coat and tie, presenting wines to the finest restaurateur in the city. It's always different, day by day, year by year.”