Carpinteria, CA- Wine and music are longtime staples of outdoor festivals, but equestrian events usually don’t usually fit the bill. The inaugural Santa Barbara Polo & Wine festival Saturday, Oct. 7 changed that, celebrating the spirit of the community with local vendors and small-town warmth alongside a day of music and, unlike any other festival at the moment — two polo matches.

The century-old Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club in Carpeneria hosted the daylong event, which featured headliners Macy Gray and LP supported by Nick Waterhouse, Durand Jones & The Indications and Vieux Farka Touré.

The festival’s original headliner was the late soul sensation Charles Bradley — Durand Jones & The Indications dedicated a song to him — and Macy Gray stepped up to fill the headline slot.

Presented by KCRW, Santa Barbara Wine & Polo had no intention of being the Goldenvoice-powered festivals we’ve grown used to in Southern California. Spread across a few acres of grassy polo fields, the day got started leisurely and never rushed, allowing guests to stroll the grounds, shop at pop-up stalls from local boutiques such as Whiskey & Leather and sample all the wines with a festival-branded stemless glass provided to each person at the door.

Vieux Farka Touré at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Fesival 10/7/17. Photo by Sonya Singh (@Sonyacansingh) for
Vieux Farka Touré at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Sonya Singh (@Sonyacansingh) for

West African guitar hero Vieux Farka Touré, son of Grammy-winning Malian artist Ali Farka Touré, kicked off the day’s music with an impressive set that should earn him festival slots closer to sundown than the start of the day.

As he played, local wine sellers and vineyards — Happy Canyon Vineyard, Sanford Winery, Standing Sun Wines, Summerland Winery, August Ridge Vineyards, Argaux and Jardesca — set up camp along one side of the field, while Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and a handful of food and coffee stalls lined the other side. A Tesla Model X was being given away (for a weekend) next to the field’s private clubhouse, where those who opted for VIP admission could enjoy a reprieve from the sunshine and private bars with special themed cocktails.

I’ve never claimed to be a wine critic capable of singling out a “hint of youthful cedar,” really, but it doesn’t take a sommelier to realize the festival brought in some lovely wines — Sanford’s Gravity Flow, a 2014 pinot noir that retails for $50 per bottle, was an early favorite that still topped my list at the end of the day.

On the culinary side, downtown Santa Barabara’s own Barbareño was everyone’s favorite — three people recommended their tri-tip sandwich to me before I ever got near their stand. I couldn’t say no to that kind of endorsement and snagged one during KCRW favorite Nick Waterhouse’s winning blend of R&B, jazz and soul, and now I’m recommending it with just as much gusto. Vegetarians take heart: I may or may not have dreamed about their grilled avocado sandwich that night, too.

Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for
Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for

The fact that I could take my sandwich and find a shady spot near the stage to camp out for Nick Waterhouse was part of what made SB Wine & Polo so pleasant. While organizers must have been anticipating a much larger turnout, the open, laidback feel worked, and after working out the first-year bumps any festival experiences, this event could fit nicely into the local “adult festival” market gaining traction with events like last year’s classic rock wonderland, Desert Trip in Indio, and this summer’s Arroyo Seco festival in Pasadena, another pleasant weekend of community vendors and stellar musicians, including the late Tom Petty.

SB Wine & Polo is on a smaller scale than either of those, of course, and it carries a feel more distinctive to its host city. The dusty Vans and Converse of most festivals were traded for loafers; muscle-tanks and flower crowns for blazers, heels and polo shirts. That’s only fitting: The festival encouraged guests to get into the spirit of the day by donning their best polo gear, hats and parasols. It created a charming environment, a step out of the day-to-day and into that famous polo scene from Pretty Woman, which is, incidentally, where my knowledge of polo begins and ends, unless you count owning something made by Ralph Lauren?

Despite some overheard conversation— “Did you know this is where they filmed Pretty Woman? Yes, it is!” — it isn’t. If you’re interested in stomping some divots where Julia Roberts stomped, you’re looking for the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for
Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for

Thankfully, one of the players trotted out before both matches to explain the rules and field questions from the lay people like me, making the matches easier to follow and enjoy. As an event I wouldn’t likely seek out on its own, I was captivated. Polo is a game that so clearly requires a good deal of athleticism and precision, from both the players and the horses, but it’s also a social event rooted in traditions many sports don’t maintain today.

There’s something inviting about the mix of decorum and competition, even if part of the appeal is novelty for those of us who didn’t grow up around equestrian events. For those who did grow up in that world, polo holds a special place as a sport all its own.

Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for
Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for

“I like that women can compete on the same field as men and win plays against even some who’ve been playing their whole life,” says Jenny Alter, a player for Chateau D’esclans for that day’s match. “You can get good at it quickly. It’s competitive. I love animals of all kinds, so being able to incorporate having a horse and playing a competitive sport really makes it a passion of mine.”

Alter works in healthcare full time and has been playing polo as a hobby for two and a half years. She’s held a passion for horses and equestrian contests, though, since childhood through her family’s involvement in the racehorse industry. While she competed in barrel racing and other events, her family deemed polo too dangerous when she was young.

“Many times you’re the only woman on the field, when both teams are on the field. It’s what drove me to the sport because it’s more of a challenge for me,” Alter says.

“I think that’s pretty cool and honorable, and you work hard to get there and you hope at the end of the match there’s no injuries for the players or horses and you pull off a win.”

Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for
Atmosphere at Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival 10/7/17. Photo by Derrick K. Lee, Esq. (@Methodman13) for

Despite dealing with a few organizational and scheduling hiccups, the laidback combination of local wine, food, boutiques and polo with nationally-touring musicians could certainly work next year, especially when buoyed by perfect Santa Barbara weather, something few cities can boast in the middle of October.

An interesting departure from larger festivals was the use of tickets for all food and drink purchases. Tickets were sold in increments of $5, and everything was priced accordingly, with items ranging from one to three tickets. SB Wine & Polo didn’t suffer from the oversold atmosphere of Coachella at 9 p.m., so cash and card payments wouldn’t have slowed much down, but I couldn’t help but think of how useful that would be at other summer festivals.

One last nod to local business was tied to music itself — a portion of each event ticket purchased benefitted Notes for Notes, a national nonprofit that provides free music education for youth aged 5-18. It was formed in 2006 through co-founder Phillip Grey’s partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Santa Barbara, where Grey wanted to connect with his “Little” through their shared love of music.

“We do this because we love music and we’ve all been there as kids trying to learn something and be creative and have a safe space to express ourselves,” says Lindsey Waldon, program director at the Santa Barbara West Studio of Notes. “We want to provide that for future generations. We want to make the musicians of the next generation.”

Notes for Notes now has two studios in Santa Barbara and 17 across the country, and its Advisory Board includes Slash, David Crosby, Jeff Bridges, Carol Burnett, Joe Bonamassa, Jack Johnson, Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett and more.

Their goal, Waldon says, is to have one of their studios in every Boys and Girls Club across America, and local events such as the Santa Barbara Wine & Polo Festival are a key way to spread the word about a program that uses the power and universality of music to shape young lives.

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