Wine as Art: Family’s Labor of Love Comes with Fundraising Potential

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos courtesy of the Willson Family
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/30/15

Tyler Willson at his Shepard Mesa vineyard
The Willson family harvested their pinot noir grapes last week, marking one of the earliest picks of the 2015 harvest in Santa Barbara County.

“And I’m glad we got it when we did,” Tyler Willson tells me.  “Some of the grapes were starting to split – because of the recent rains – and the bees were coming,” likely lured by the sweetness of the exposed sugars.

Willson Family Vineyard is unique on many fronts.  It’s in Carpinteria, for one: a half-acre of Clone 777 pinot noir that Tyler and his wife, Mia, planted in 2009 in the backyard of their home.   “We did it to see if we could,” he says, echoing the dream scenario for many budding wine enthusiast drawn by the notion of home grown vines.  Three of their neighbors have joined them, in fact, so that at least a couple of acres in the foothills of Carpinteria’s Shepard Mesa community are now growing pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.

Two miles from the ocean’s edge, just past the fog line’s edge and at an elevation of about 500 feet, the Willsons’ plot sees pretty dependable weather.  Highs hover consistently in the 70s, “and it never gets too hot during the day or too cold at night, like in Santa Ynez,” Willson says, so the growing season is steady and long.

The pinot noir these vines make is a genuine snapshot of the earth that breeds them.  It’s not Santa Maria, not Sonoma , not Burgundy.  It’s Shepard Mesa through and through, with snappy acids, a lean and bouncy mouth feel and bright flavors of cherries and berries.  I’ve tasted the WIllsons’ inaugural vintage, 2012, and the subsequent 2013 pinot, several times.

Tyler and Mia Willson
“I know terrior,” says Willson, who was a distributor for Henry Wine Group several years ago; he runs a language school today.  “You have to love and take whatever that terroir is giving you, whatever the climate or the soil happens to be.”

The call to plant pinot was made with the help of Willson’s friend, Brett Escalera, the winemaking mastermind behind the Sanger family of wines, including Consilience.  “Within reason, he told me, ’Plant what you like and make it work,’” the bidding vintner recalls.  “This was going to be for our consumption and friends, after all.”

The wine is made by Fabian Castel, the right hand man for celebrated winemaker Adam Tolmach at Ojai Vineyard.  The wines have been crushed and crafted at Four Brix Winery in Ventura for the last few years – the 2014 wines were bottled there just last week, after 10 months in oak.  But the 2015 vintage marks a move to Tolmach’s personal facility in the Ojai Valley.

11-year-old Tyson Willson helps with the 2015 harvest
Each harvest, though, and even much of the physical labor that’s part of the process, is totally a family affair.  Tyler and Mia, themselves, are the crew, often with the help of their 11-year-old son, Tyson.  And even their 7-year-old daughter, Mylie, likes to roll up her sleeves.  “It was so cool seeing her help clip grape clusters during harvest last week,” her dad says.

And with Mylie is where this story takes a heartwarming turn.

Mylie, a beautiful and vivacious little girl, was born with Down syndrome.  “All the tests we took during the pregnancy came back negative,” Willson tells me.  “We didn’t find out the diagnosis until 24 hours after she was born.”  Mylie would see multiple hospitalizations and surgeries even before age two.

Mylie Willson frolics in her family's vineyard during the 2015 harvest

Necessity (and, as it turns out, serendipity) led the Willsons to Alpha Resource Center, the Santa Barbara nonprofit  that empowers developmentally challenged kids, teens and adults through diverse life skill training programs.  They help them secure housing, train for jobs and find a multitude of creative and recreational outlets.  Alpha impacts more than 2200 local families every day.

“They are such wonderful people,” says Willson.  “Not just for what they’ve done for us, but also for what they do for so many other people who can’t do it for themselves.”

Mylie helps her dad with harvest
Among the group’s resources is SlingShot, a working art gallery and studio at 220 W. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara where dozens of program participants create and showcase their artwork in many forms.  Visitors get a chance to meet and mingle with the artists at work.  And proceeds from the sales of pieces on display here support Alpha’s ongoing work.

The Willsons bought a large painting from SlingShot a few years ago – a vibrant, energetic piece by artist Michael Constantine that they call “Impulse” and that now hangs prominently in their home.  “We looked at it and immediately thought, ‘That would make a great wine label!’” recalls Willson.  “And that’s when it clicked!”

Artistic inspiration, it turns out, would create a powerful way for the Willsons to give back.  “Impulse” became the label of the Willson Family Vineyards’ 2013 Pinot Noir, making each bottle eye-popping and special.  And with the ’14 pinot now in bottle, the Willsons are looking to select several other works of art – including a painting called “Poppy” by Alpha artist Megan Isaac – to grace the glass.

2015 pinot noir from the Willson Family Vineyard
So the Willson pinots have now become a powerful fundraising tool for Alpha Resource Center.  Wine tasting art shows have started to pop up all over town, most recently at Churchill Jewelers in downtown Santa Barbara.  And SlingShot is now part of First Thursday festivities in downtown Santa Barbara, drawing the public in off the street both with art on the walls and Willson pinot in the glass; the next event is Thursday, August 6th.

“We’re also working on a silent auction for next year,” Willson says, “where bidders can take home original works of art along with cases of our pinot that feature that same piece right on the label.”

For more information on Alpha Resource Center and SlingShot, visit


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story, Gabe! Thanks for sharing Maureen! Imagine starting a vineyard in your backyard and having it grow to this! Go Alpha Resource Center!