(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on July 8, 2012)
Youth has always been synonymous with Santa Barbara wine country. It is, after all, one of the newest wine grape growing regions in the state, with experimental plantings beginning in the late 1960s and significant winemaking in effect for the last 35 years ago. Comparable ventures in places like Napa and Sonoma have been underway for at least three times as long.
Pioneers still make headlines here, with recognizable names like Sanford, Longoria, Brown, Brander and Lindquist. Their wines still draw accolades. And their tasting rooms still draw crowds.
But there’s a fresh energy budding in Santa Barbara’s vineyards. A new wave of talent is taking root. They are younger winemakers – some women, mostly men – who are tipping their hats to their predecessors but who are also staking a territory all their own. They are focusing on innovation – new techniques, new growing regions, new grape varieties – while embracing a tradition some 35 years in the making. Here’s a look at 10 of them – all age of 35 and under – whose wines, and whose vision for the future of Santa Barbara winemaking, are quickly creating a buzz.
Name recognition has helped Drake Whitcraft gets his start; his father, Chris Whitcraft, after all, remains one of the most treasured names in local winemaking, with some of his first stellar chardonnays dating back to the late 70s. But the Whitcraft label’s recent triumphs – the younger Whitcraft has been producing the entire portfolio since 2008 – have to do with a knack all his own. At 30 now, Whitcraft admits that entering the winemaking scene happened “a lot sooner” than he expected; he plunged into the family business when a series of health crises forced his dad to pull way back. But he’d always known he’d be making wine – he started helping in the winery at age 11 – and what he brings to the table is a fresh new focus for a longstanding brand. A wider variety of reds are in Whitcraft’s future – syrah, grenache, nebbiolo – and leaner production numbers.
But the famous Whitcraft spotlight on pinot noir is not going anywhere, thanks in part to more high-end fruit sources coming online. “When my dad was around, there were three or four good vineyards, and now there are so many more,” Whitcraft says. “Pinot is the most terroir-driven wine there is and they all taste totally different here.”
He credits his father with instilling an uncompromising focus on hands-off winemaking, and winemakers like Rick Longoria and Foxen’s Bill Wathen for showing him the “right kind of camaraderie” among winemakers.
The Whitcraft tasting room is located at 36 S. Calle Cesar Chavez in downtown Santa Barbara. www.whitcraftwinery.com.
Name recognition won’t hurt Tessa Marie Parker, either. Her grandfather, Fess Parker, gained fame on myriad fronts – from film to wine – and her father, Eli Parker, has long garnered accolades for his Epiphany label. So Ms. Parker admits her foray into making wine was “a natural evolution.”
But her label, Tessa Marie Wines, is gaining singular attention for wines that are very personal to the winemaker. “I’m a true California girl so I like my Cal-Italian wines, and sangiovese is my love” she says. Ms. Parker bottles a sangiovese and a blend dubbed Coquette that features a sangiovese-syrah blend. She’s also one of the very few local winemakers producing a vermentino. “My pride and joy,” she calls it.
The young vintner worked her first harvest at age 17, launched her label in 2005 and opened her Los Olivos tasting room – at 2901 Grand Ave. – two years ago.
She’s aware women are outnumbered in the local winemaking scene, but undaunted. “It’s a man’s world, but we’ve got a softer touch and bring something different to the table to spice things up.” Her attention, instead, is on the future.
“This area allows young people to get a start,” she says. “I even see it in some of the high schools, where students can tend their own grapevines. You can catch the bug and learn to do things a little bit differently than everyone else.” www.tessamariewines.com.
Gavin Chanin was at the right place, at the right time, when he took a summer job between high school and UCLA. He got a volunteer gig at Au Bon Climat and Qupe, and learned the ropes from winemaking legends Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist. “When I was doing the drive up from L.A., I didn’t have it in mind to be a winemaker, it was just a fun summer job,” he recalls. “But two weeks in, I realized I was in a special place and I fell in love with the work.”
Chanin has quickly become one of the more buzzed-about winemakers in the county. Just last year, for example, Forbes put him on their “30 Under 30” list of names in the U.S. culinary industry to watch. “The goal was never to get a bunch of press,” he insists. “It just happened as a result of hard work in the vineyards and the cellar.”
The work has a clear focus: pinot noir and chardonnay only, “and wines with balance and elegance,” he says. In fact, “pinot is the ultimate grape through which to manifest a vineyard,” he declares, and believes there are many prime sites for growing it even in Santa Barbara County that are yet undiscovered.
Chanin Wines launched in 2007, when its namesake vintner was just 21 and had just returned from wine immersion trips to South Africa, New Zealand and Europe. The wines – Chanin produces 1000 cases annually – are made in a new facility built on Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria. Chanin also launched a partnership with well-known investor Bill Price; their label is yet unnamed, but “the impetus are the vineyards we source,” he insists, “not the brand.” www.chaninwine.com.
Trey Fletcher has only lived in Santa Barbara County for a year, but he marvels at the “tremendous amount of camaraderie” that exists among local winemakers. “There is competition, but not without mutual respect,” he says. “And we’re all freaks,” he adds with a laugh, “completely obsessed.”
Fletcher’s burgeoning career has taken him to the vineyards of Argentina, Switzerland and New Zealand. Last year, he left the cellars at Littorai in Sonoma – a premier producer of pinot noir and chardonnay in the world – to make wine under the personal labels for Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills. The names have long been coveted grape sources for winemakers locally and across the country. Now, the Miller family of Santa Barbara, which owns both vineyards, earmarks acreage on each for their own private labels.
Fletcher considers the chance to work with such famous fruit, “humbling and exciting.” The combined annual production is 1000 cases: chardonnay and pinot from each property, as well as syrah and grenache from Bien Nacido. The 2011 vintage is in barrel now; the 2010 chardonnays and 2009 pinots and syrah will be debuted this fall.
Fletcher strives for “wines that are true to the vineyards” and a style that is “terroir-focused.” And he believes in a minimalist winemaking approach. “It’s having the guts to fly into the black hole, for sure,” he says, “but it’s not really a gamble if you have good farming practices.” www.biennacidovineyards.com.
Storm studied winemaking and worked two vineyards in his native South Africa before moving to California in 2003. “I wanted to explore wine in the Northern Hemisphere,” he recalls. He made wine in Northern California before the Firestone family hired him in 2005.
Storm admits he’s drawn the cooler grape growing climates; his native country and Santa Barbara share similarities in that respect. “But the soils here are different,” says Storm, “and there are many microclimates within the one large area.” In fact, Storm predicts the next few years will see several appellations break out from within the Santa Ynez Valley and even the Santa Rita Hills.
When the Firestones sold the Firestone wine label in 2008, Storm took over winemaking duties at the Firestones’ Curtis label, under the tutelage of Chuck Carlsson. He works simultaneously on his own eponymous label – Storm Wines – which dates back to 2006 and allows Storm to “really go extreme with my philosophy, making wines that are unmanipulated, with lower alcohols, that have personality of vintage and site, and that are food-friendly and balanced.” His annual production, with a focus on pinot noir and an increasingly sought-after sauvignon blanc, is 500 cases.
Storm admits he, and other younger winemakers, are “pushing the envelope” of winemaking. And “it’s nice to see,” he says, “that a lot of the region’s pioneers are embracing us.” www.stormwines.com.
When he was 16, a summer job at Santa Barbara Winery was just a way to make money for Graham Tatomer. “It was my first paycheck!” he recalls. But a post-graduation full-time job under then-assistant winemaker Greg Brewer got him hooked.
Today, Tatomer oversees production of all of Brewer’s celebrated labels: Melville, Brewer-Clifton and Diatom. But his spare time is dedicated to his own namesake label – Tatomer – which is quickly winning praise for a focus very much unique to Santa Barbara: dry riesling.
Tatomer’s passion for Alsatian wines comes from several vineyard stints in Austria. Between 2003 and 2008, he traveled back and forth several times between Santa Barbara County (where he’d land periodic stints with winemaking phenom Adam Tolmach) and the Danube-adjacent Wachau valley. By 2008, the decision to settle locally rather than oversees was driven by the discovery of Kick On Ranch, a cool climate vineyard near Vandenberg Air Force Base. The 2010 release of his ’08 vintage riesling garnered immediate media acclaim.
This year, Tatomer is working on six Austrian-inspired wines – four rieslings and two gruner veltliners. Niche varietals that aren’t always an easy sell; in fact, Tatomer lightheartedly dubs them “the last of the true, noble, high echelon varieties that no one is taking seriously in America.” But his prediction is that Santa Barbara County will grow them in more and more “appropriate places” in the years to come. www.tatomerwines.com.
Today, Ryan Carr manages 15 vineyards – more than 100 acres of premium grapes throughout Santa Barbara County. He got into the business when he was 22. And back then, “I didn’t expect it to turn into winemaking for me,” he admits.
But Carr has quickly become one of the most buzzed-about winemakers in the area, with a portfolio that includes award-wining pinot noir, cabernet franc and syrah. He runs two tasting rooms, one in downtown Santa Barbara and a newly-opened storefront in downtown Santa Ynez.
His first commercial vintage was in 2000 and what drew him to making wine, not just growing grapes, was “Santa Barbara, itself,” he says, “and the uniqueness of the area. We have so many great microclimates that we can grow many varietals well, and I get to work with so many different locations, it makes it fun.”
Carr acknowledges the inspiration of older counterparts, like Chris Whitcraft, Craig Jaffurs and Daniel Gehrs. And while he admits winemaking has become much more competitive, Santa Barbara still offers nascent winemakers “an opportunity to get involved.”
In fact, he sees the area’s future hinging less on availability of talent and more on climate change. “The last three years, the weather has been a constant challenge,” he says, “and if things warm up, we may have to rethink the varietals we plant.” www.carrwinery.com.
Justin Willett’s foray into wine involved “buying some pretty inexpensive bottles with my roommates in I.V.,” recalls the UCSB grad. But stints as a bartender in Santa Barbara and, mainly, high-end restaurants in L.A. introduced him to wines that would eventually serve as inspiration. And today, Willett is quickly gaining high acclaim for his own red and white creations.
The self-declared “local boy” made his first wines in 2005 – just 190 cases – while he was assistant winemaker at Arcadian, under Joe Davis. Today, Willett makes wine for several clients – all in his own Lompoc facility – to the tune of some 2000 cases a year. His own label is dubbed Tyler (that’s his middle name).
Pinot noir and chardonnay have been his claim to fame thus far. For Tyler, his sources grapes from top-tier local wineries, like Clos Pepe and Dierberg. He’s also launching the estate program for the renowned La Encantada Vineyard (planted in 2000 by Richard Sanford) this year. And joint ventures with several renowned sommeliers from San Francisco to New York City have him branching out to other varieties, like chenin blanc and cabernet franc.
There’s no mistaking Willett’s philosophy: “It’s about properly conveying places through wine, and moving away from too much oak or ripeness or extraction,” he says. And he says he’s in the perfect place to do just that.
“Santa Barbara has the most potential than any region in California,” he declares. “There’s an aromatic profile here, and a freshness and a minerality that simply does not exist anywhere else.” www.tylerwinery.com.
It’s impossible to overlook the quirky labels on Dave Potter’s wine labels. “I take the craft seriously, but I also have fun with presentation,” says the man behind Municipal Winemakers, whose Funk Zone tasting room (as 22 Anacapa St.) has easily become one of the hippest spots to buy and sip wine in downtown Santa Barbara. The facility is open until 11pm some nights.
Potter’s produces his own label, which he launched in 2007, while maintaining duties as assistant winemaker at Fess Parker Winery. It’s inspired by Potter’s adventures in France and Australia, where he earned his enology degree. “My style has a French-Aussie vibe,” he says.
He makes celebrated blends, works with “odd ball, big Rhones” like cinsault and counoise and loves making riesling (he makes two). He sees riesling as a grape to watch, but admits its future locally may hinge on economics. “It’s very site specific, and the Santa Rita Hills is a great place for it,” he says. “But if you can get $20 for a bottle of riesling or $35 for pinot, what would you plant?”
He touts the area’s grape diversity but admits variety can also make branding a clear identity a challenge. “As a producer, though, it’s a lot of fun,” he admits. And he likes working alongside older counterparts. “The founding fathers of the area are still making wine,” he says. “You can’t find that in any other region as recognized as Santa Barbara.”
Potter’s yearly production is about 1200 cases, all sold direct through the tasting room. www.municipalwinemakers.com.
What Chase Carhartt lacks in experience, he makes up with unbridled enthusiasm.
Carhartt was just seven years old when his parents, Brooke and Mike, planted their Santa Ynez Valley vineyard. Early on in the family business, “I did things like punch downs and helped where I could,” he recalls. “But all the pieces didn’t come together until I took it seriously in school.” Carhartt graduated just last month from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a bachelor’s in agriculture with a sub-concentration in enology; he also completed a harvest internship in South Africa.
So now, the future is wide open for Carhartt, who plans on collaborating with his mother, the Carhartt label’s winemaker, and known for stellar estate sauvignon blanc, syrah and merlot. He likes that his family sells all their wine direct to consumer through their Los Olivos tasting room, at 2990 Grand Ave. “It’s taking wine sales back to its roots,” he says. And he’s already spending several days of the week there, engaging visitors and selling wine.
Carhartt’s biggest asset right now may be his fresh approach. “The wine industry has to humble itself and focus on promoting comfortability,” he asserts. And he touts the region’s wide range of growing conditions. “What’s cool is that we don’t have to outsource,” he says.
But there’s no escaping the call of his young age. With a laugh, he admits, “I want to work but I still do want to travel and find other ways to express my youth!’ He’ll be working harvest in France this fall. www.carharttvineyard.com.