Grape Doesn't Fall Far From Vine: Winemakers Follow in Dads' Footsteps

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on June 7, 2012)


I was lucky to have been very close to my dad.  Although, as a child, I always thought I’d go into the medical field, too, I didn’t follow in his footsteps, professionally.  In the things that matter most, though, I’m lucky to have had the perfect model.

Chris and Drake Whitcraft
But in the local wine scene, a handful of young men and women have, in fact, taken a cue from Dad.  They’ve at least been inspired by their old man to consider a career in crafting wine.  We reflected on this when I joined Chris Whitcraft and his son, Drake, over a few glasses of pinot noir at Whitcraft Winery’s downtown Santa Barbara facility last week.

“Sometimes when you make wine with your son, you butt heads so much, you split up,” admits the older Whitcraft, a veritable pioneer in the Santa Barbara wine scene who’s been making the stuff since the early 70s.  He pauses to sniff and sip his son’s 2009 Morning Dew Ranch pinot, an elegant, Burgundy-inspired red with an explosion of rose petals on the nose; the fruit was sourced from the Anderson Valley vineyard of pinot luminary (and longtime Whitcraft family friend) Burt Williams.

“Wow, good job,” he says, sincerely.

“I just didn’t mess it up,” responds Drake, matter of factly.

In that sense, Drake is, in fact, a lot like his father.  They both have a very natural, hands-off approach to winemaking.  They opt for no chemicals, no filtering and no pumping.  They use only natural yeasts.  They sort by hand and stomp by foot.  And their 100% gravity bottling line is a reflection of a no-electricity philosophy that aims to produce the purest renditions of any wine.  “Wine should not be (messed) with,” declares Chris (using a far more colorful expletive than ‘messed’).  “Buy great grapes and don’t (mess) with it,” echoes Drake.

And he adds: “I’m a transparent winemaker, I make wines all the same,” asserts Drake.  “It’s Mother Nature that gives them their quirks.”

He says this as he pours us his 2009 Rancho Santa Rosa pinot, sourced in the Lompoc-adjacent Santa Rita Hills.  Same pinot noir clone as the Morning Dew, same winemaking technique.  But a totally different wine, with a comparatively soft, fleshy, rich mouth feel. Drake mentions he has only 20 cases of this wine left to sell.  His dad savors this wine, too, and enjoys it immensely.  And I can tell he’s proud.

When Chris opened his winery along Calle Cesar Chavez in 2006, he had a 10-year plan to grow his label.  But when severe cancer-related health issues hit less than two years later, projections were put on hold, and Drake intervened.  The now-30-year-old, who was introduced to periodic tastes of wine as a child and who started helping his dad with the physical demands of the winery at the age of 11, always intended to get into the family business.  “But it happened a lot sooner because of his health,” he admits.  The Whitcraft wines from the 2008 vintage and beyond are all the handiwork of Drake.

Yes, there has been some butting of heads, especially when it comes to the way business is run.  Drake, who describes his dad’s former approach to commerce as “old school,” has focused sharply on customer relations and promotion, doing outreach through multiple social media platforms and, just 2-1/2 years ago, launching a wine club that now ships regularly to some 250 members. 

He’s also shrunk production – a testament to varying yearly fruit yields and shifting consumer demand. Chris’ output averaged 3000 cases in the early 2000s, half of that chardonnay.  Drake made 1100 cases in 2009, none in 2010 and 500 in 2011, and he’s aiming to focus much more on reds, and reds the Whitcraft label has not historically produced, like syrah and grenache.

But in the essentials, there’s agreement.  Drake tells me, “Our wine is a hand sell.  You can’t expect people to always like you.  You have to work.”  And Chris nods throughout.

The Whitcrafts may be a quintessential father-child relationship in the young history of Santa Barbara winemaking.  But there are others.  Jennifer Gehrs launched her Vixen Wines line, with a Rhone focus, about a decade ago; she put the project on hold in 2007 after she got married and moved to Nebraska. But, all along, her mentor was her talented dad, whose Los Olivos tasting room – Daniel Gehrs Wines – still sells some of the remaining Vixen reds.  Ethan and Luke Lindquist of No Limit Wines can draw inspiration from their father, esteemed pioneer and Qupé winemaker Bob Lindquist.  And then there are the Parkers; vintner Fess Parker’s winemaker son Eli gains continued acclaim with his Epiphany label while winemaker granddaughter (and Eli’s daughter) Tessa is making a splash with her new Tessa Marie line of wines.

The Carhartt Family
While visiting the Santa Ynez Valley this past weekend, I spent time with the Carhartts, whose Los Olivos tasting room – purportedly the smallest in the world at just 99 square feet – is always buzzing.  Brooke who makes the stellar wine, and husband Mike, who manages the vineyard and pours regularly, are now being joined by son, Chase.  The 24-year-old is graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo this weekend and plans on putting his fresh enology know-how to work for the family’s label.  His dad watches on with pride as Chase speaks passionately about their wines with visitors in the charming outdoor patio.  “He never ceases to amaze me,” he tells me.

And at dinner at the Ballard Inn, I ran into Foxen co-founder and winemaker Bill Wathen, whose family feasted in celebration of daughter Riley’s return from the wine grape harvest in New Zealand, after having graduated from UCSB.  In such good spirits was dad, that samples of a couple of just-released Foxen wines --  a 2009 pinot noir and a 2009 Rhone blend, both balanced and luscious – kept making their way to our table.  Time will tell how the younger Wathen will put her newly gained skills to works on this side of the equator.

Drake Whitcraft, I find out, also spent time Down Under – in Australia in 2005 and 2006 – as part of his winemaking education.  He’s pouring a 2009 nebbiolo for me now, from a yet-to-be-labeled bottle; it’s made from Stolpman Vineyard fruit that has since been pulled.  Fruit-forward on the nose, tannic and delicious, it’ll be released to the public in about nine months.  I compliment him on it.  And his dad beams.


Gabe Saglie is proud of two accomplishments most – his sons Gabriel, age 6, and Greyson, age 4 – and counts them as blessings every day.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can reach him via email at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.

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