It Takes a Tribe: Chumash Make Splash with Wine Label

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photo by Miha Maheil & Jeremy Ball
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/7/15

The significance of her role is not lost on Tara Gomez:  she heads the only Native American wine label in the country whose winemaker is, herself, a tribal member.

Kita corks (Maheil)
“The tribe – they’re the ones who helped me with my wine education early on,” she tells me, referring to their financial backing.  “So I see it as paying it forward, because now I’m introducing many of them to wine and many members of the tribe are also involved in the process.”

The Chumash tribe’s foray into winemaking didn’t unfold without controversy.  It was soon after Fess Parker passed away in 2010 that it was announced that the vintner, developer and TV star had sold his Camp 4 property to the Chumash.  The tribe, whose reservation abuts Santa Ynez and whose enterprises include an eponymous casino resort along Highway 246, already had a challenging relationship with its neighbors.

Winemaker Tara Gomez at Camp 4 Vineyard (Ball)
But as some balked, Gomez started making wine.  While the Chumash are eyeing to develop part of Camp 4 for housing –- “With the new generations, we are outgrowing our reservation,” Gomez says –- the winemaker gets dibs on the vines.  Just over 200 of Camp 4’s 1400 acres are planted to 19 different varieties of wine grapes.  The Fess Parker label still has contractual access to several acres, along with more than 60 other buyers from Ventura to Napa.  But Gomez is earmarking more and more of those grapes for the Chumash’s own label, Kita Wines.  The wines hit the marketplace in May of 2013.

“Kita means ‘Our Valley Oak” in our native Samala language,” Gomez tells me, a point that’s driven home by the gold-edged oak leaf drawn on the label.  “It pays homage to all the beautiful oak trees on Camp 4 and to our own connection to the land.”

Kita Grenache Blanc (my pic)
I’d met Gomez for lunch; the seafood options at Sly’s Restaurant in Carpinteria are fitting for the pair of white wines we’re about to share, especially on this sun -drenched afternoon.

Kita's T'Aya blend (my pic)
The Grenache Blanc ($22), which we sip alongside linguine with clams, is vibrant and clean.  There are flowers on the nose and the flavors lean toward peaches, pears and lemon peels.

The white Rhone blend is labeled T’Aya ($22), which means abalone shell, so Chef James Sly’s famous local abalone dish, served with a tomato herb sauce and mixed green salad, fits.  The wine is marsanne-based, with a 39% roussanne and just a splash of grenache blanc.  A bouncy minerality makes this is a great summer food wine.

During harvest, Gomez picks early “to preserve the freshness and natural character of the grape, and to retain natural acidity,” she tells me.

Kita reds (Matei)
She also labels herself “a purist.”  Her single varietal bottlings – sauvignon blanc ($24), grenache ($30), syrah ($30), cabernet sauvignon ($40) and pinot noir ($60) – contain no blenders.  They are 100% the varietal on the label (wineries are allowed to identify a wine by a grape variety as long as it contains 75% or more of that variety).  “It’s how you show a grape’s true colors,” she says.  All of the wines are sourced at Camp 4 except for the pinot, which comes from Hilliard Bruce Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills.  The label’s best seller thus far is the cabernet.  “We’re five or six miles from the Happy Canyon AVA,” she says, referencing the sunny eastern stretch of the Santa Ynez Valley where warm-weather grapes reign supreme.  “So our cab needs to hang a little longer to ripen during the growing season,” she adds, for sugars and flavors to mature well.

But she admits that blends are her creative outlet, since they allow her to best pay homage to the four phases of life: water, land, air and fire.  The T’Aya we’re still sipping represents water.  The Spe’y ($30) is a red Rhone blend that represents land; the Samala word for “flower” highlights the floral character of grenache.  The Bordeaux blend, “S’alapay, which means “from up above” represents air.  “And fire is the natural sunlight, which is involved in everything,” Gomez says.

Kita is just the latest viitcultural chapter for Gomez, 42.  And “it’s like coming full circle for me,” she says.  Fess Parker Winery, it turns out, was her first wine internship back in the 90s, while as she earned an enology degree at Cal State Fresno.  She was also their enologist for a year before running the red wine program at J. Lohr in Paso Robles.  And yearly working trips to vineyards in Europe – Spain, France, Germany – have given her an appreciation for “Old World flavors and techniques.”

She brings the conversation back to sustainability often.  During crush, she tells me, she trucks grapes from the vineyard in Los Olivos to the winery she’s leasing in Lompoc as often as she drives skins and pomace back to be used as compost.  “It’s trying to give back to the land for everything we take.”  Her dad’s usually the one behind the wheel; until he retired last month, he was one of the 132 elders of the Chumash tribe.

Camp 4 Vineyard (Ball)
Kita wines are poured at the tribe’s properties – Root 246 and Hadsten House in Solvang and the Willows Restaurant inside the Chumash casino (which is reopening toward year’s end after a revamp).  They’re sol through Kita’s three-tier wine club and its website.

Learn more at www.kitawines.com.


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