Like a lead singer with a side solo project, AVA Santa Barbara is winemaker Seth Kunin's side gig. Because Kunin Wines is a well-established, Santa Barbara County-based brand -- known for its Rhone-style blend, syrah and zinfandel -- Kunin decided to create another label, AVA Santa Barbara, to explore and make smaller batches of other varietals rather than dilute his well-known, "personality-driven" Kunin Wines label.
Opened in February, AVA Santa Barbara's glass-and-steel, very contemporary-looking tasting room in Santa Barbara's low-rise Funk Zone is the only place to find Kunin's small-batch production of varietals like chardonnay, cabernet franc and grenache. Taste the bright 2010 Los Alamos Grenache and then look up to see where it's from -- the tasting room's entire wall is covered in a vivid, chalkboard map that creatively illustrates the Santa Barbara wine country, its various microclimates and American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) with a few harbor seals frolicking offshore thrown in.
Close to the beach, the Funk Zone -- an area of industrial-style buildings and businesses between the 101 Freeway, train tracks and the beach -- is a very cool place to taste wine. Although, as Kunin explains, this wasn't always the case.
Designated for ocean commercial, marine or tourism-related businesses, the eight blocks between the beach and 101, bordered by State Street and Garden Street, are a mix of commercial concerns (one guy dries sea cucumbers), dive shops, restaurants, galleries and user-friendly wine tasting rooms such as Dave Potter's Municipal Winemakers. Scheduled to open soon are the Figueroa Brewing Company, the Lark restaurant and Caveau Wine Bar, which will further popularize the zone.
Unlike most of Santa Barbara, the city is "very pro-development down here," explains Kunin. The AVA Santa Barbara tasting room's look is very un-Santa Barbara, too: There's not a red tile or Spanish Revival-style architectural motif in sight. Instead, the minimalist, industrial space feels like an art gallery, mostly because of the wall-sized mural by L.A.-based environmental artist Elkpen.
"When you look at the map, you can connect the dots and understand where the AVAs are and what we are doing," says Magan Kunin, who works alongside her husband at the winery.
The map not only vividly shows the valley's ecosystem -- for example, how the marine influence affects the growing season -- but also draws in the natural environment: the Sierra Madre mountains, the cooling wind, the Santa Maria bench (a 6-mile-long ancient deposit of alluvial soils that rises above the valley). "There's a lot of information, and it's kind of like the Where's Waldo of microclimates and AVAs," Seth Kunin says.
Kunin has been buying fruit from Stolpman Vineyards and others in the area since 1999 and is expert in the area's climate diversity, soil conditions and local restaurants (He's a fan of Julienne.) He uses the map to make a point when pouring wines like the Los Alamos Grenache. Because Los Alamos is cooler than nearby Santa Ynez, the grenache is very approachable, with a touch of acid spice, and is true to the varietal.
In addition to the daily tastings, the Kunins will be offering classes in wine education, mapping and other topics in the months to come. And as things change in wine country -- the new Ballard Canyon AVA should be approved soon -- the map will be tweaked. "It's almost like it's a living thing," Magan Kunin says.
AVA Santa Barbara is open daily from noon to 7 p.m. for wine flight tastes. There are three seasonal wines on tap: AVA Santa Barbara's rosé of pinot noir is one of the current pours.
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