Two years after selling the restaurant/wine bar/retail shop that was once the epicurean epicenter of Santa Barbara, Doug Margerum has returned to resurrect the Wine Cask. The former Wine Spectator Grand Award winner had closed in February after the former owner was evicted for not paying the rent.
Margerum has teamed up with restaurateur Mitchell Sjerven and plans to bring the business back to its bistro roots, with lower prices, "comfortable, casual" food, and a rejuvenated focus on carefully selected wines. "We want to be a neighborhood restaurant that people feel like they can come to often," said Margerum, who spent the last two years focused on winemaking, both for his own brand as well as a handful of labels from California, France, and Italy. He's backed in part by the property's landlords.
The restaurant made its name with one of the best wine lists in the country, but was also a popular hangout for local winemakers and was host and sponsor of the annual Santa Barbara County futures tasting. Founded more than 30 years ago by Ralph Auf der Heide and sold to the Margerum family in 1981, it became a hangout/classroom for up-and-coming winemakers such as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat and Adam Tolmach of Ojai winery.
Due to the acrimonious eviction of former owner Bernard Rosenson—a Los Angeles businessman who alienated customers by raising prices, cutting popular menu items and chopping down a historic tree in the courtyard—Margerum feared the worst for the massive wine cellar he spent 26 years building.
"It was a long process," said Margerum of the attempt to get the wine back. "Luckily for our sanity and emotional costs, neither Mitchell nor I were that involved with it." Attorneys for the landlord, SIMA Corporation, negotiated to get the wines returned. "We have most of the wine back," said Margerum. "There are certain wines I immediately looked for—the rare, older Bordeaux. I don't know if they were sold, but they don't seem to be around. And there is some stuff we got back that we don't want." As part of his outreach to the Santa Barbara community, Margerum plans to sell off those unwanted wines at an "incredible" value. "Some of it is very good wine," he explained. "It's just that there is too much of it."
Margerum and Sjerven also have big changes in store for the retail shop. "We want it to be much more dynamic and to have a real ability to work with our friends and people we have relationships with, instead of just bringing in and having wines that you would find at any other bottle shop," said Margerum. So he's putting together an alliance of winemaker friends from various regions and countries to stock the store. He also plans to pour his own wines.
The new format will also allow those Santa Barbara County wineries that don't have their own tasting rooms to occasionally showcase their wines. "We're looking to see if we can get cooperation from local wineries to get wine from them and be able to pour wine by the glass that hasn't been put in the bottle yet," said Margerum, explaining that there's an environmental bonus to less packaging as well. "It'll be just like if you went up to the winery and had it from the carafe that the winemaker brought to the table for lunch."
As such, the tasting room, tentatively being called the Alliance, will also take the place of the annual wine futures program, which Margerum started in 1989. If all goes as planned, those tastings, as well as lunches and dinners, will commence Nov. 1.