Sta Rita Hills' Wine and Fire Festival Showcases the Best of Wood Fired Cooking

Hitching Post's Outdoor Grill  | Foodable Network

Hitching Post's Outdoor Grill | Foodable Network

At last weekend's Wine and Fire festival, hosted in Santa Barbara's acclaimed Sta. Rita Hills, local chefs and winemakers gathered to highlight the best of the area's wood fired culinary scene. Already world renowned for the area's Santa Maria style BBQ, the festival also demonstrated the region's wide range in styles and cooking techniques that incorporate an open flame. Sta. Rita Hills winemakers were also present to discuss the variety of local wine pairings that would complement the regional cuisine, demonstrating the principle of what grows together, goes together.  

Hitching Post - Santa Maria Style BBQ at its Finest

Local legend Frank Ostini of Santa Ynez Valley's Hitching Post had perhaps the highest pedigree of the attendees. Taking over for his father at the family's restaurant, the Hitching Post, in 1977, Ostini has been in the kitchen ever since. In 1986, Ostini opened the second Hitching Post location in Buellton, known locally as Hitching Post II, which won over locals with the restaurant's vast array of grilled meats, ranging from beef to poultry to wild game. 

With the restaurant's prominent feature in the wine film Sideways, the Hitching Post became much more than a culinary destination but a tourist one as well. Yet despite the changes over time, Ostini's cooking has remained consistent, serving up classic Santa Maria style BBQ cooked over red oak in a glassed-in pit located right in the restaurant's dining room.

For the Wine and Fire festival, Ostini prepared local heirloom vegetables and grilled duck that he cooked outside, over local oak. Before grilling the duck, Ostini described how he first cold smoked the meat for added flavor. "Cold smoking is a flavoring process, but is not cooking. I put the duck in a closed smoker that releases smoke but little heat," he explained.

The challenge for this cold smoking process, he furthered, is that the meat is kept in an unsafe zone for food and bacteria counts can begin to rise so the meat must only be cold smoked for a maximum of 30 minutes. Once this process has been completed, Ostini then scored the skin and then grilled the meat over high heat to render the fat and make the skins extra crispy. 

"The heat pushes the juice in the other direction, so we must turn the meat over a lot to not lose the juices," Ostini explained. 

In addition to Ostini's culinary prowess, he also makes wine alongside partner Gray Hartley and paired with his dish were two older vintage Hitching Post Pinot Noirs, dating back as early as the 1980s.

The Choice of Wood Matters

In addition to the smoking and grilling processes, the local oak the meat is cooked over is also an essential ingredient in the dish's preparation, Ostini explained. "The natives cooked this way before we got here and we continue to honor this way of cooking," said Ostini. 

Matt Toll of the local Tollhouse BBQ explained that the choice of wood to grill over is one of the most important aspects to consider when cooking over fire as the wood is one of the predominant flavor components that will influence the meat. "You change the flavor of the dish depending on the wood you use. Mesquite is the harshest wood, I will use it only on heavy meats," explained Toll. "I prefer to work with red oak." Serving up a maple glazed salmon alongside bacon wrapped shrimp cooked over a smoker rig built in Texas, Toll explained that working with a smoker has taught him much more than culinary techniques, it has also taught him patience.

"It's not about when you want to eat, but when the smoker tells you it's time."

Local Winemakers Join In

Local winemaker Steve Clifton, of Palmina Winery and Brewery Clifton acclaim, was one of the many winemakers present at the event, wearing not just his winemaker hat but proving his grill-master chops as well. Armed with the original oven from Los Angeles' Italian classic restaurant Mozza, Clifton served up a wood fired pizza topped with grilled shrimp and tomatoes. Debuting two new wines that will be released under a soon to be announced label, Clifton proved he is a force to be reckoned with.

Argentinian BBQ'd Lamb  | Foodable Network

Argentinian BBQ'd Lamb | Foodable Network

Celebrating his last vintage under the Clos Pepe label, winemaker Wes Hagen was also present at the event, pairing his wines with a perhaps unexpected, yet entirely delicious choice- Argentinian BBQ. With dish options including pork ribs, lamb, and grilled potatoes, Hagen explained that his Chardonnay can "act as a wet nap for your mouth" as the wine's brilliant acidity works as a palate refresher between courses. He further advised attendees to "Have fun with food and wine. The moment we think there is only one wine to go with each dish is the moment we forget what wine is about."

Another local winemaker/chef, Peter Cargasacchi featured perhaps the most talked about dish of the afternoon, serving up a tongue-in-cheek "authentic and natural woolly mammoth" slider, that poked fun at the increasing obsession with local food sourcing and consuming only natural foodstuffs, while at the same time tasting incredibly delicious. The actual pulled pork slider was paired with Cargasacchi's wine, bottled under his eponymous label, making for a delightful pairing.

Celebrating the Bounty of the Region

Newcomer to the culinary scene in the Valley, Chef Augustine of the newly opened Scratch Kitchen used the festival as a platform to highlight the region's immense potential to provide delicious, sustainably sourced ingredients for local chefs. "We serve the way our grandmothers used to - from scratch," said Augustine. "It's a labor of love. We never buy in bulk, we just buy what we use."

"At Scratch Kitchen, we highlight the bounty of the Santa Ynez Valley," he furthered. "Not just the grapes, but the produce and cattle as well."