Star Quality: Vintner Kurt Russell to Headline Bacara Fete

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/29/15

Actor/Vintner Kurt Russell
Actor Kurt Russell thinks making wine is a lot like making movies.

“You put all your heart and soul into it,” he says.  “It ‘aint easy, but it’s fun and exciting to see other people enjoy something you’ve put so much time and effort into.”

On the acting, of course, Mr. Russell, 64, is a pro.  He was a child TV star, and he was a golden boy for Disney for many years, before he went on to star in films like Overboard, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone and, more recently, The Art of the Steal.  Then there’s his 30-plus-year relationship with fellow actor Goldie Hawn, which has Hollywood royalty written all over it.

But when Mr. Russell headlines the 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend at Bacara Resort next month, the public will see the curtains pull back on his newest endeavor: making wine.  The four-day culinary fete, which runs April16-19, will feature seminars, demos and tastings.  It culminates with a Saturday night wine dinner featuring Mr. Russell’s GoGi label and the Hudson-Bellamy label by his step-daughter, actress Kate Hudson.


Kurt Russell in the vineyard (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
The seeds for Mr. Russell’s passion project were actually planted in the late 1980s, “when Goldie and the family and I started taking bike trips through France and Italy,” remembers Mr. Russell, who spoke with me from the Colorado set of Oscar-winning director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight.

“Biking through all those vineyards, I discovered I loved drinking wine well before getting the inclination to make wine,” he adds.  “But it was visiting Burgundy – that’s when I realized how much I love those wines.”  In fact, Burgundian reds – lighter, more delicate and balanced pinot noir wines – would become the gold standard for Mr. Russell.  And it would be serendipity – biking through the vineyards of Santa Barbara County, this time – that would allow those seeds planted long before to bloom.

Back in 2007, “I was driving through the Sta. Rita Hills and discovered that a lot of pinot was being grown there.  I kept coming back to this same spot on Highway 246, and I’d just park there.  And when I tasted their wines, I started to pick up on this regional taste, a lot like what I’d tasted in Burgundy.  As luck would have it, my friend (and celebrity photographer) Greg Gorman, when he saw I was really get into this, said to me over dinner one night, ‘You should meet Peter and Rebecca Work at Ampelos.’

“And you know what?  Theirs was the vineyard I’d been parked next to all those times!  Weird.”

The Works, actually, had just recently established Ampelos, an 82-acre sprawling estate in the heart of the Sta. Rita Hills wine growing region, near Lompoc.  Vines of pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and viognier grapes flourish here.  It has since become the first vineyard in the U.S. to be certified organic, biodynamic and sustainable.


Ampelos Vineyard (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
“That’s what I liked – their old school way of making pinot,” Mr. Russell recalls.  “Serious farming, and that mindset that takes you back to a time when making wine was hands on, with as little machinery as possible.  It stops you from cutting corners.”


Russell thieves (credit: Joe Mozdzen) 
The Works don’t dabble in private labels, and they’ve never taken on partnerships.  So when they agreed to work with Mr. Russell to develop a wine label, “it was so amazing to me that they took me on,” the actor says.  To this day, Mr. Russell described himself as the Works’ “apprentice."

“I guess Kurt was speaking with [a fellow actor] recently, talking about how things are going, and he actually called me his winemaking mentor,” says Peter Work, humbly.  “Truth is, we are happy working with Kurt because he’s a really cool guy and we’re helping him on a real journey.  It’s his engagement, and seeing how dedicated he is.”

Russell measures
GoGi Wines was founded in 2008, a nod to Mr. Russell’s childhood nickname (pronounced GO-Ghee).  “I wasn’t interested in just slapping my name on a label,” he says, recognizing that celebrity can quickly turn a wine label into a marquee.  “I’m interested in [consumers] who want to know they are drinking a wine that’s painstakingly created in an old school fashion.  That’s where there’s integrity in this wine.”

Mr. Work, who makes the wines for his own Ampelos label, is the winemaker for GoGi, too.  But that has not precluded Mr. Russell from intimate involvement, both out in the vineyard and inside the winery.  His pinot noir is made entirely from Ampelos estate fruit and, every year, “he prunes and works harvest, he does punch downs, he works the bottling line, he even waxes the tops of the bottles,” says Jami Way, Mr. Russell’s younger sister, and the business mastermind behind GoGi.  “He’s obsessed.”


Russell blends
The part of the process that appeals to Mr. Russell most is blending: tasting through wines made from different pinot noir clones grown at Ampelos – they have names like Clone 777, Clone 115 and Pommard 4 – and determining the winning formula that’ll go into the bottle each vintage. 

“We’ll spend at least two days with Kurt, and we’ll go barrel to barrel, before he does the blendings,” says Mr. Work.  “He’s very good at differentiating the wines from different clones, and he’s a very picky guy who knows exactly what he wants and doesn’t want.”

“I’ve been able to formulate my own taste,” adds Mr. Russell, “and it’s blending that is the most challenging and yet the most rewarding.  I want to make a wine that has world-class aspects about it, but I also want it to be my own signature – my wine.”

Kurt & Jami (credit: Joe Mozdzen)
For Mr. Russell, it’s important that his GoGi project be all about family, too.  “Seeing how much fun her dad was having,” says Mr. Work, actress Kate Hudson launched her own wine label, Hudson Bellamy, with former fiancĂ© and musician Matt Bellamy.  The wines are made by Mr. Work, too.

Aside from managing the business, Ms. Way also runs the Wine Saloon inside The 1880 Union Hotel in Los Alamos.  The rustic wine bar, open Friday through Sunday, pours the wines of GoGi, Hudson Bellamy and Ampelos, exclusively.  The tasting flight poured at the bar is called “La Familia.”

“They always say you shouldn’t mix business with family,” Ms. Way says, with a laugh, “but we’re not your typical family.”

With a yearly production of just a few hundred cases, the GoGi wines, themselves, pay homage to Mr. Russell’s family, too.  The name on the pinot label, for example, changes with each vintage.  The 2011 Pinot Noir ($75), currently in the marketplace, is dubbed Angelbaby, after Ms. Way’s childhood nickname.  Previous vintages, with designations like Bosty Boy for son Boston, Jillybean for sister Jill and Forbaz for sister Jody (whose nickname is Baz), have already sold out.

The 2011 Gogi Angelbaby Pinot, and its namesake
The appellation on the GoGi chardonnay remains the same with each release – Goldie – and is a tip of the hat to Mr. Russell’s longtime partner.  The 2012 Chardonnay ($50) blends fruit from three vineyards – Huber, Turner and Zotovich – all in the Sta. Rita Hills.

Mr. Russell also produces a Viognier, named Lulu, in honor of his mother, Louise.  “Viognier is her absolute favorite wine,” says Ms. Way.  The wine is made solely for its namesake and is not available commercially, although it will make a rare appearance during the April 18th wine dinner, starring Mr. Russell, at Bacara Resort.

Cheers!
“This is going to be fun, because it’s serious food and serious wine,” says Mr. Russell of his taking center stage at the upcoming culinary showcase.  “It’s high-end, which is where I want to be and where I want my wine to be used, perceived and drunk.”

The Saturday evening dinner ($199) will feature wines by GoGi, Hudson Bellamy and Ampelos.  The 2nd Annual Santa Barbara Food & Wine Weekend features a cavalcade of other gourmet events, including a Saturday lunch with celebrity chef Suzanne Goin ($59) and a variety of seminars, workshops and intimate foodie conversations.  VIP all-access passes cost $599.

For tickets to the Food & Wine Weekend at Bacara, go to bacararesort.com.

For more on GoGi, check out gogiwines.com.


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