Full Belly Files | High Altitude Italian Wines at Via Maestra

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This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on October 7, 2022. To get Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter delivered to your inbox every Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.


Usually, when I’m invited to a meal under the guise of my job as a food and drink writer, I pretty much know what to expect.

If it’s for an article about a restaurant, I’ll try a few dishes while chatting with the chef, owner, or manager about the history of the business and its cuisine. If a winemaker asks me out, we’ll enjoy the food, but the focus is on the wines he or she shares, and our conversation mostly revolves around the vine and winery techniques.

If it’s a ‘winemaker’s dinner’, I expect to chat with the other diners present and happily critique which pairing worked best, as the winemaker and chef take turns talking about this bet in a bottle or this vacuum-packed preparation. And then there are those meals, usually at a conference or festival, where I’m part of the show, taking it upon myself to ramble on about the wines on the table and the winemakers seated around the room.

But every once in a while I get an invite where I can’t quite figure out what’s supposed to happen ahead of time. And sometimes, upon arrival, the situation only becomes more uncertain, with good food and drink being the only familiar catches for the uncharted journey.

It was me on Monday, during what would eventually turn out to be a great lunch at Via Maestra 42 on Upper State Street. The beloved trattoria and market, which was opened in 2000 by fine Italian importer Renato Moisio, was recently acquired by veteran wine merchants Georges and Nicole Bitar, who ran the restaurant when it opened nearly 22 years old.

I had been invited to the deal by my friend Daniel Berman, who recently started his own wine brokerage called Rincon Wine Group. I tell people that I helped Dan find his way in the wine world many years ago, and I think that’s at least partially true. However he got there, he’s surrounded himself with high-end bottling for years, recently helped put the first Santa Barbara Winemakers Foundation golf tournament and is a respected player in the regional wine scene.

Dan’s new venture is primarily focused on selling and promoting smaller Central Coast brands like Lepiane, Story of Soil, Dreamcôte, Fennel Family and others. These are, by the way, the types of wines you should mostly drink if you say you support regional agriculture, low carbon footprints, and measurable sustainability.

But Rincon Wine Group also works with a few importers focused on smaller European brands, most of whom are also environmentally conscious. One of these importers is Alex Dessouky from Bar down selections, which roams high altitude regions, mainly near the Alps, in Italy, Austria, Germany and France. I know Alex a little, having interviewed him a few months ago for my next article on his development of Ysidroa canned spritz made with sake, grapefruit and sea salt that has been running through my fridge all summer.

“Matt,” said Dan’s Sept. 8 email, “Working on a Barrel Down Selections tasting with Alex Dessouky at Via Maestra, and would like to find a day you could attend and do a little piece on it. Possible ?”

Credit: Matt Kettman

It might sound weird to those who aren’t in this business, but my instinct when I’m invited to almost anything is to find a polite and honest way to decline or at the very least reschedule a date much later. The reality is that I already have too much to write, I don’t have enough time to do it, and adding something new to my schedule in the near future tends to cause more delays on late deadlines.

But I wanted to support Dan, so I explained the extended timing for an article about this new wine pairing series to Via Maestra. “It would just be an event for now,” he replied. “Via Maestra would invite its best wine customers and Alex would organize a tasting around a family meal. A bit laid back. No need to encourage successive tastings. A little more about Barrel Down Selections and Via Maestra.”

Sounded pretty easy, if not the usual way of doing things, so we picked a few dates and settled in last Monday. As I walked towards Via Maestra, I saw a large table with a dozen seats waiting for us and spoke briefly to Dan before we sat down, wedged between different parties who didn’t seem to know each other. Dan wasn’t exactly clear who anyone was either.

Credit: Matt Kettman

As the seats filled around us with couples, friends and solo diners – I shared quick, informal introductions with most, but not all – I tried to figure out who they were, why they were there and what the lunch was. I was never able to answer all of these questions definitively, but they seemed to be Via Maestra regulars and/or personal friends/associates of Georges and they all clearly love good food and wine. The hope was that they would buy some of the Italian wines we tried that day and presumably spread the word about those wines and the restaurant.

There were certainly characters at the table: the stoic, slender man; the mustachioed builder who says he has never tasted a Californian wine he liked; the boutique garden specialist; the curious, multilingual woman with a chihuahua named Coco Chanel who roamed freely around our feet under the tablecloth. But once Alex started sharing his wines, the slight sense of awkwardness turned into epicurean delight, and the camaraderie only grew as the plates arrived.

Credit: Matt Kettman

We sipped moscatos zipped over salumi, cheese and bread, one with a bubbly, the other done in a still rare style. Then came fresh and vibrant dolcettos that worked well with the zesty salad and seafood risotto. was next. But then came tiny lamb chops in a rich porcini sauce, which kicked the nebbiolos into high gear, even as my stomach threatened to rebel against the excess.

It was suddenly approaching 3 p.m. and I had to split up – before dessert, if it came up – to beat my daughter home after school. Even after two hours of banter, I still wasn’t sure what brought everyone to that Monday table. But I don’t mind being a bit clumsy, especially when I’m looking for unmanageable art.

Credit: Matt Kettman

In this case, the prize was delicious food and revealing wines, making it one of the most memorable meals in recent memory. And maybe Dan, who sometimes seemed as confused as me about the lunch format, will get what he said he wanted after all: I plan to write a more focused Via Maestra article someday soon as well one on Barrel Selections down.

In the meantime, register me for the second round!



Winegrowers’ festival and upcoming wine events

These are just some of the oldest wines that were tasted at the 2020 Wine Auction. | Credit: Matt Kettman

This Saturday is the first real Santa Barbara Winemakers Festival in a few years, and I intend to be there at Mission Santa Inés to discover some wines and taste the gastronomic delights. The event is just the first in a season of things to do in wine country, with the Taste of Santa Ynez Valley to come this first week of November, then the half-yearly Santa Barbara Wine Auction occurred on November 12.

Taste of the SYV kicks off with a wine tasting and dinner in the middle of Bell Street in Los Alamos on November 3 and culminates on Sunday, November 6 with a concert by “honky-tonk hippie band” Lanco at Solvang Theaterfest. In between, dinners at vineyards and more. Buy tickets and view the full program here.

These are just some of the oldest wines that were tasted at the 2020 Wine Auction. | Credit: Matt Kettman

The Wine Auction, meanwhile, is a black-tie gala at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara that raises money for the Central Coast Community Health Centers (CSC) and Direct relief. I hate to miss it – especially since this year’s leader is Daisy Ryan of Bell fame – but my cousin is getting married to a minor league catcher with big league potential in Carmel Valley on the same day, so someone someone else can snag my usual place at Frank Ostini’s table. This is where you’ll usually find me diving into aged bottles of Hitching Post, Au Bon Climat and other brands.

New this year for the auction is a $200 Friday lunch series in Pico (with Lumen Wines), Presqu’ile and Samsara. With 50% of that cost going directly to auction fundraising, they’re a solid way to support the farmworker community while indulging in an educational good time.

See full wine auction details here.

(From LR) Matt Kettmann in his bow tie and tuxedo before the 2020 Santa Barbara Wine Auction, and after the auction, tasting Aperol spritzes at the Bacara bar, with Katy Rogers of Jackson Family Wines and Ruben” The Grape Whisperer” Solorzano. | Credit: Matt Kettman

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