On a chilly Wednesday last November, a crew of local wine lovers braved the chaotic Santa Ana winds tearing up Santa Clarita’s Main Street to attend a tasting at the Newhall Press Room. The space, a patchwork of tables split down the middle by a narrow walkway, was overflowing with regulars and newcomers alike, each with a tall wine glass close at hand.
Unlike the Press Room’s normal wine tastings, this particular evening was intended to be a landmark event. Customers were treated to rare offerings from ONX Wines, out of Paso Robles, paired with a high-concept tasting menu meant to elevate the evening, and the wine. Executive chef Sabina Fetter, who started at the Press Room in February 2021, paired ONX’s 2021 bottling of Field Day — a “tropical” sauvignon blanc-meets-viognier meant for warm-weather sipping — with wild mushroom polenta bites, the sweetness of the drink mellowing out the mushrooms’ pungent natural umami. Next, morsels of pork belly were met with ONX’s smoky, slightly fruity 2017 Indie Rebel, and a final steak frites salvo was married with a red blend reminiscent of blueberry and black currant. At the conclusion of the night, unanimously and without prompting, the buzzed crowd clapped and cheered.
The attendees’ excitement was the culmination of six years of work by the Newhall Press Room, known to its regulars as NPR, to reach the forefront of Santa Clarita’s newly booming wine scene. When Charles Potter, Dan Zebrowski, and Don MacNeil opened the room in 2017, the Santa Clarita Valley’s wine scene was still in its relative infancy. At the time, only two neighboring vineyards, Reyes Winery and Agua Dulce Winery, produced commercial wines anywhere in the greater Santa Clarita region. Despite being the third-largest city in Los Angeles County (behind LA proper and Long Beach), Santa Clarita could never seem to support more than one or two tasting rooms, like Wine 661 and All Corked Up, at a time. Newhall, the historic neighborhood at the southern tip of Santa Clarita, was a particularly sleepy stretch, even after the arrival of Steve Lemley and Nate Hasper’s Pulchella Winery, which opened as Main Street’s first tasting room in December 2010.
Fetter, who moved to the SCV in 1974, never imagined that the Newhall she used to know would become a wine tasting destination. Back then, it was all about the Walk of Western Stars, old-timey jailhouses, and people who retreated into their single-family homes at dinnertime. “The area was crappy,” she says. “There were random places, but every time a bar or a club would open up, Santa Clarita would shut it down.” There was no real local audience for what Fetter was after, so for decades she resorted to driving into Los Angeles proper for any kind of high-quality wine; the good stuff simply wasn’t around in Santa Clarita. “There was absolutely zero,” she says with a laugh.
Just a block away from the Press Room sits Double Trouble. Also opened in 2017, the tasting room was co-founded by Gib Pagter and the late Scott Page-Pagter, of Pagter Brothers Winery, and Doug Minnick, of Hoi Polloi Winery. According to Minnick, Double Trouble emerged as a winemaker partnership after a long day of pouring bottles for friends and family at the annual Garagiste Wine Festival. Minnick had co-founded the festival — a roving celebration of handcrafted and typically undiscovered wines made by “garagistes,” or small-lot producers — with actor-turned-winemaker Stewart McLennan in 2011, and Minnick figured that he and his partners could bring some of that event’s energy to Newhall by way of a tasting room.
The goal was to create a “Cheers for wine,” says Minnick. Double Trouble would front as a standard bar-style tasting room while also offering live music on weekends and an expansive patio for shooting the shit. The wine would be far better than the run-of-the-mill grocery store labels, with Minnick only stocking “truly artisan, truly handmade, truly products-of-passion wines,” he says. Of course that included bottles from Pagter Brothers and Hoi Polloi, including the latter’s signature “Touch of Evil” cabernet sauvignon 2011.
Such a proposition was still risky at the time, at least outside of California’s known wine hubs north of San Francisco or along the Central Coast, where the first Hoi Polloi vintages were grown. “We might as well have been a Foreign Legion outpost,” Minnick says of Double Trouble’s space at Main and 8th Street. “Nobody came up to that block. [Scott] and I were like, ‘Oh, this is dangerous.’”
Those concerns didn’t last long. Thanks to the Old Town Newhall Specific Plan, a revitalization project undertaken by the city of Santa Clarita in 2005, a barrage of mom-and-pop restaurants, boutiques, and even a Laemmle movie theater had slowly begun to drive foot traffic to the quiet strip once again.
Both Hoi Polloi and Pagter Brothers wineries snatched the opportunity to embed themselves even more deeply into the community, moving the labels’ wine production to the SCV Custom Crush Services facility in nearby Stevenson Ranch. There, Lemley and Hasper, of Pulchella, had quietly begun to produce wines for dozens of area wineries, turning grapes grown across California into ready-to-sip wines at some of LA’s hippest restaurants and tasting rooms. By centering Hoi Polloi’s production locally, Minnick says, he was trying to help bring a “rising tide floats all ships” mentality to the area’s wine scene. Soon the city of Santa Clarita itself began to tout Main Street as having “some of the best gastropubs, wineries, and bistros in Southern California.”
By 2020, local drinkers had their choice of places to sip and swirl, from Double Trouble, Pulchella, and the Newhall Press Room to sparkly new entrants like Old Town Junction and Newhall Refinery, each with its own distinctive wine program. Today, Old Town Newhall is a rich mix of retained Western history and modern revitalization, with food and drink at the core. Both Minnick and Press Room’s Fetter credit city officials for helping to drive the new crush of businesses, especially in the face of two-plus years of the pandemic and its related shutdowns. The energy is more electric than ever.
“It’s amazing to me how often people who have lived in the Santa Clarita Valley their whole lives say, ‘Main Street’s really changed! I had no idea,’” says Minnick. “There are so many people who still don’t know what’s going down in Old Town, which is encouraging.”
That said, finding a free Friday night seat in one of Newhall’s tasting rooms is nearly impossible these days. Just ask Robert Reyes, who opened the area’s latest wine-focused destination, Reyes Winery on Main, in 2022. The Dominican Republic-born Reyes is no newcomer himself: He founded his eponymous winery in the Agua Dulce area in 2011 after moving to the Santa Clarita Valley in 2002. Though Reyes was an amateur winemaker at the time, his small vineyard prospered in the sun-hardened terroir, with the winery winning hundreds of medals and awards for its bold, fruity syrahs, fizzy muscats, and cabernet sauvignons. Decades in construction and real estate helped Reyes to recognize the recent success of his fellow vintners as a harbinger of massive change to come. Reyes Winery, he says, felt obligated to participate.
“Main Street Newhall is now gaining the momentum of exponential growth,” says Reyes. “I see something like the Santa Monica Promenade or Old Pasadena happening here.”
The bustling Reyes Winery on Main is part tasting room and part restaurant, complete with a seafood- and steak-heavy menu programmed by chef Daniel Durfort, along with a dazzling rooftop patio that overlooks much of Newhall. The business pours lots of wine, but also keeps beers made by Santa Clarita’s own Brewery Draconum on tap. As a transplant to the Valley, Reyes says that offering only locally made drinks was one of his core missions. “This is a community that I have adopted and which has adopted me,” he says. “Santa Clarita is where we grow our grapes, it’s where we make our wine, and it’s where we live.”
Reyes Winery on Main’s 2023 calendar is already booking up fast, with cigar nights and wine pairing dinners meant to match or even outdo that applause-worthy meal at the Newhall Press Room last year. It’s clear that the Santa Clarita Valley’s wine community is responding to all the newness with fresh excitement, filling rooftops and outdoor patios (whenever those pesky winds cooperate, that is). If Reyes is right, the massive recent crowds portend a bountiful future not only for his winery, but for each of the wine-focused restaurants and tasting rooms on Main. “The potential for this place is awesome,” says Reyes, “and I want to be a part of that growth.”