Everyone who has ever driven along California's State Route 101, north of Santa Barbara and up into the Central Coast wine country, knows Buellton. You most assuredly have stopped there, even if you didn't know where you were at the time. "Pea Soup Andersen's" is a roadside marker better than any you'll find on a map. But to most people who pass through the junction of Highways 101 and 246, that's about all there is. Even to wine lovers, it was mainly a place get off the freeway on the way to Solvang or the Santa Rita Hills.
Recently I thought that on our next trip to that area my wife and I would pop in and see what was going on at a place called Terravant. This winemaking facility has been down at the end of a cul-de-sac called "Industrial Way" for several years. The street is actually a little more picturesque than the name might lead one to believe, but nobody's driving down there expecting to find wine heaven. What's there is pretty close to that, though.
All the way down that unfortunately-named thoroughfare is Terravant's tasting room, Avant Tapas and Wine. The building is plainspoken and presentable, but it seems a little large for a tasting room. That's because it's a lot more than that.
There's an interesting piece of art on the face of it, an almost-abstract wire representation of a wine bottle. Inside is a small lower lobby with stairs and elevator. Once on the second floor, I completely forgot I was a stone's throw from Andersen's Pea Soup.
Laid out before my eyes was a rather large space of mahogany and burgundy, spanking new and decorated in as beautiful a version of wine country moderne as I had ever seen. The bright windows along the left wall looked out to the Santa Rita Hills. The interior windows down at the far right looked into the vast wine production area, a huge tank room. I walked immediately to the window that overlooked the tanks and saw, a hundred-fifty feet away, a man with a baby riding in a seat that he carried on his back. The man held a wine glass up to a spigot, drew some wine from the tank, swirled and sampled it. After he evaluated it, he held it up where the child could reach it and allowed the tot to dip a few tiny fingers into it. It was another generation being introduced into the world of winemaking.
I later learned from Nick Morello that it's not unusual to find local winemakers roaming the facility. In fact, the tasting room has become something of a hangout for the 32 vintners who have wine in the works at Terravant. "They come in to socialize with each other, or to do some work on the laptop while gazing out at the Santa Rita Hills," Nick said. "It's also quite common for vintners to come in and pour their wines for patrons while talking about their winemaking philosophies."
All these were wonderful discoveries, but wait - there's more. Avant has a kitchen that turns out some really tasty tapas, too. The food is so good that many winemakers do food and wine pairing events here. For more on the culinary aspect, I refer you to my wife Denise's Middle Crescent Kitchen.
By the way, Avant's tasting facility is a wall-long automatic wine dispenser which can handle around three dozen different wines. You access the wines - by pour, half-glass or glass - with a plastic card which records all your purchases. You pay for them when you are ready to leave. Naturally, all the wines featured in the dispenser are wines that are produced by the vintners who utilize Terravant's facility. All the wines are available by the bottle, too. This is good news, because many of them are rather hard to find. For serious tasters, there didn't seem to be a spit bucket, although I'm sure one can be scrounged up when needed. The tasting bar is huge, so having some elbow room shouldn't be a problem even when it's crowded.
I don't remember when I've been so surprised to find something unexpectedly. Avant Tapas and Wine goes beyond being simply another wine country tasting room. This is an immediate strong link in the Santa Rita Hills wine community. Not only that, but it turns Buellton into a genuine destination. People go to Pea Soup Andersen's because they are in Buellton. People will come to Buellton specifically to go to Avant.
Here are the wines I sampled at Avant:
Alere Vinyard RVG 2006 Santa Barbara County - This Rhone-style blend of 55% Roussanne, 30% Viognier and 15% Grenache Blanc is full of minerals with a light fruitiness that probably goes well with nearly everything they serve. I know it goes with the shrimp.
Daniel Gehrs Gewurztraminer 2008 - Monterey County grapes form a floral and sweet wine that is extremely fuity and quite enjoyable.
Hitching Post Generation Red 2006 -Bordeaux, Rhone and Northern Italy meet and become friends in this blend: 36% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot, 23% Syrah and 8% Refosco. It's bursting with cherries on the nose and palate.
Summerland Syrah Bien Nacido 2007 - Muscular, but easy to get along with. Great finish.
Westerly Merlot Santa Ynez 2006 - Lots of minerals come through here for a very earthy taste. Spicy with a good finish.
Avant has an always-changing tasting menu which features wine and tapas. During our visit the menu offered five wines to be paired with tastes of tapas:
Daniel Gehrs Chenin Blanc 2008 - Try this with the grilled shrimp
Alma Rosa Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County 2008 - Taste this with the prosciutto
Hitching Post Pinot Noir Cargasacchi 2006 - Match it with the duck confit
Ovene Cabernet Sauvignon, San Antonio Valley 2006 - Manchego, anyone?
Sort This Out Cellars, Vino Nostra, Secret Blend 2006 - Give this a go with the pizza