My lack of foresight and downright laziness in arranging details for trips, preferring the certainty of divine inspiration that must surely accompany the traveler, has me hatching wildly ambitious plans like going across state lines for a cheeseburger, a quick daytrip to Santa Barbara or even booking a flight across the country to see Yo La Tengo perform eight nights at Maxwell’s in Hoboken (still hasn’t happened!). This lack of due diligence over logistics, has burned me in the past, but also rewarded me greatly. A practioner of such quixotic thinking, I hatched the great idea of shepherding a buddy of mine a hair north of Santa Barbara—to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto—for some early morning tastings and lunch on a quiet Monday day off.

My friend had flown in from San Francisco to Orange County and the plan was to meet in LA around 8:00 AM to leave for Santa Barbara, maximizing our tasting during the abbreviated stay. Interjecting a lamb burger at Petros in Los Olivos that was highly recommended by another friend (and food blogger) living in the area, seemed easy to do before our return.

Behind from the start, my friend Kevin had underestimated Southern California traffic and made it to my apartment at 9:15AM. We took off immediately, wending up the coast on the 101 with a minor delay near downtown Santa Barbara, catching an otherwise smooth drive to the Ghetto.

Concentrated as a bottle of liquid smoke, and even more dense than the Silverado Trail of Napa Valley, the Wine Ghetto is a hotbed of winemaking activity—a destination! Some of the best wine makers in the area inhabit an industrial park, making it a dream for visitors/industry professionals to taste serious juice with relative ease.

Stretching our legs from the car ride, we made our way to the first tasting room. With so many cellar doors it was hard to pick a starting point, selecting Fiddlehead randomly. The door was locked. We thought we had the wrong entrance, so we searched for another door that yielded the same result. We decided to give up on Fiddlehead and moved nearby to Zotovich Cellars, only to find the same problem before Kevin spotted the hours on the door—wine ages on its own time, but the doors are barred in the Ghetto… through Thursday for most of the tasting rooms and we were virtually shut out of our agenda. It was a downer to read enough press back home to whet my palate and stand in the parking lot nearest to the action only to be forced to go window-shopping.

My planning was immediately questioned; an irritable friend had become peevish. I told him that I hadn’t done any homework (Surprise!) and to make matters worse, in full disclosure I actually admitted that I’d declined some of my reps’ offers to help arrange a trip due to the proximity of harvest.

I scrambled to find an alternative; summoning my inner Saint Christopher via my Yelp app. and Melville Winery appeared to be nearby and open, appeasement aplenty for my suddenly laconic friend. We took the car over to the scenic property and were able, straight-away, to taste a nice lineup of wines and peek into the just bottled 2011 vintage.

I had relayed our morning woes to the tasting room manager of Melville in my most self-deprecating manner, how I had blown the spontaneous trip to the Wine Ghetto. She was sympathetic, and made a call right after I mentioned Samsara wines—a project by Chad Melville (son of the owner Ron Melville)—to see if Lee would open up their room to let us taste some of those wines. Sensing a wind change, I decided to ask if the folks at Melville could also recommend a great burger, and without hesitation they insisted we try the Jalama Beach Burger for lunch. A forty-five minute wait before Lee would arrive at the Ghetto was enough time to taste at the adjacent property of Babcock Winery.

We ripped through an array of wines at Babcock—a stellar collection of Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir—before heading to the Samsara tasting room to meet with Lee. He welcomed us, showing us the facility before he lined the tasting bar with three bottles. Lee was a retired professional, and when he wasn’t surfing, biking or doing yoga, he was holding down the winery which entailed cleaning barrels, doing vat-punch downs and running the tasting room on the weekends.

Two Pinots and a Grenache Rosé lay ahead as we were handed a couple of Burgundy stems and some wrangled tech sheets to sort through, prior to tasting. The wines were excellent, richer and more giving than I remembered at the restaurant. The Pinots (both the Rancho La Viña and the Rita’s Crown Vineyards) were held up by firm acidity and lifted with fresh floral components that complemented their power.  Before more Pinot filled our glasses and the Syrah had the chance to make a how-do-you-do, we broke for an oenological lesson.

All of my classroom theory could only explain what was happening at stages, but actually participating in the punch-downs (cap management) was physically demanding and exhilarating as well as unexpected; to take part in something that was steeped in tradition, contributed to the production of wine and was necessary to the process was a lot of fun. Lee coached me through it, judging technique and giving suggestions to have me break into the juicy core quicker with a few heavy chest thrusts. Leverage was key.

One vat was done; successfully merging the grapes on top with the fermenting juice resting near the bottom, to extract color and tannin, creating a beautiful agitation. Better than watching clothes toss in a washer with a viewdoor. He sealed up the containers and we continued tasting the finished wines. From the last Pinot we segued into the Syrah’s, which gathered strength as we ran the gamut from the fruitier styles to the more robust and food-demanding efforts with heavier tannin. Our ambassador, Lee, had been very kind in showing us an extended lineup of the Samsara wines and provided a glimpse into daily life at the winery. And so our tale has to be split into another part from here. Stay tuned.