Seth Kunin: Santa Barbara Wine Icon Passes Away

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/31/17

Update 11/7/17: A celebration of life memorial for Seth Kunin has been set for Monday, Nov. 13th at 1pm at Larner Vineyard. For info and to RSVP, click here.

Santa Barbara’s culinary community is reeling from the news that Seth Kunin, considered one of the area’s most talented winemakers, has died. Mr. Kunin passed away of a heart attack on Saturday night, in his sleep. He was 50.

“It’s unreal,” says winemaker and friend Drake Whitcraft, who’s coordinating efforts by several winemakers to finish Mr. Kunin’s work on the 2017 harvest. Mr. Kunin finished picking grapes a week ago, with 2017 marking his 20th wine harvest in Santa Barbara County. “We’re going to finish pressing and putting wine into barrel. There’s also wine to be bottled.”

Seth Kunin (photo by Bob Dickey)
Mr. Kunin leaves behind an 8-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and his wife and business partner of 10 years, Magan Eng. The pair run two successful wine tasting rooms in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, Kunin Wines and AVA Santa Barbara – The Valley Project, both of which his wife reportedly intends to keep open. Mr. Kunin’s eponymous label, which he launched in 1998, produces about 5000 cases a year and is well-known for world-class renditions of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, zinfandel and viognier wines, among others.  His Valley Project label features wines from each of Santa Barbara County’s AVAs, or wine growing regions; the tasting room on E. Yanonali St. is popular for the dramatic chalk mural that welcomes guests who come through the glass doors.

Mr. Kunin studied pre-med at UCLA before he was recruited as a manager by Santa Barbara’s Wine Cask in 1992. He became instrumental in building the restaurant’s famous wine program, which has won the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award for many years. “People will think of Seth as the gregarious, open-armed, super-mentoring guy that he was,” says Wine Cask owner and fellow winemaker Doug Margerum. “He was always in a good mood, and he always encouraged young people to enter the wine business. He was a really, really nice guy. I’ll miss him.”

Seth and Magan
Family friend and L.A.-based PR professional Katherine Jarvis remembers Mr. Kunin as pervasively positive and a friend to all. “He was positive about everything, did everything with full force and was full of joie de vivre,” she says. “And he loved his wife and daughter with that same passion, and he treated them like the most important things alive.”

He was crazy smart, quick-witted, wildly organized and wonderfully logical,” says fellow winemaker Morgan Clendenen. “ He always had enthusiasm for anything wine-related and knew how to boss sommeliers and wrangle them like no other helping to organize some of the greatest wine events in California. You could always, always count on Seth.”

Mr. Kunin was a member of the philanthropic Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation for many years. He had just completed designing and building a new winery in Goleta, which was going to allow him to leave the communal wine crush facility in Santa Maria he’d been using for many years and continue his craft closer to his Santa Barbara home.

Seth Kunin’s Facebook page has become a sounding board for friends and colleagues from around the world, who’ve been posting personal messages, stories and pictures ever since his wife announced his passing Sunday afternoon. His own final post came last Wednesday and referenced the tricky 2017 grape harvest in quintessential Seth Kunin style: “Bye, bye #harvest2017. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out."
Information about a celebration of life for Seth Kunin is forthcoming.


Wine Inspires Art: Upcoming Auction Benefits Unique Santa Barbara Studio

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/26/17

"Mountains" by Slingshot artist Wayne Dreyer
on a bottle of 2016 Willson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir
The wine label as a canvas. It can be effective, in the way it lures the eye, and it can be attractive. At SlingShot, it’s also a powerful thing.

SlingShot may well be the most special little art studio and gallery in Santa Barbara. It’s a creative outlet for close to 50 budding artists from throughout the county – men and women who come here to hone and showcase their talents, to interact with visitors and to sell what they create. These are some of our community’s finest who, despite their developmental disabilities, can use their knack for art to express themselves and to become empowered.
"Tumblers" by James Jasper

SlingShot is located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara and open Monday through Friday, and by appointment. It’s a creative extension of Alpha Resource Center, the nonprofit that offers life skill and training programs to developmentally challenged kids, teens and adults. They help more than 2200 local families every day to secure housing, train for jobs and find a multitude of creative and recreational outlets. SlingShot, which allows adults not only to create art but also to display it and sell it, is an Alpha success story.

“SlingShot is about the powerful ability of art to affect people,” says Tyler Willson, an Alpha board member. “For the participants, it gets them inspired and it gives them confidence in their art and in themselves."

Willson and his wife, Mia, were introduced to Alpha the day their beautiful daughter Mylie was born. Mylie has Down’s syndrome, a diagnosis her parents weren’t aware of until the day before she was delivered. “All the tests we took during the pregnancy came back negative,” Willson tells me. Mylie would see multiple hospitalizations and surgeries before age two.
"Lady" by Rachel MacKenzie

Alpha Resource Center became a lifeline for the Willsons – an immediate link to information, experts and resources to parents who found themselves totally in love with their second child but totally caught off guard, all at the same time. “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.”

Today, 9-year-old Mylie is thriving – a happy, playful, spirited young lady bursting with personality (and with a real flair for gymnastics).

So the Willsons have found a special and very personal way to say thanks.

The couple owns one of the very few vineyards in Carpinteria, a fertile half-acre plot in the back yard of their Sheperd Mesa home of Clone 777 pinot noir. They planted the vines themselves in 2009, and harvest each year since has always been a family affair. The wine – about two barrels’ worth each vintage, or about 20 to 25 cases – is made by Fabian Castel, assistant to celebrated winemaker Adam Tolmach at Ojai Vineyard.

"Blue Tulips" by Frank Quaranta
The Willson Family Vineyard wines have now become liquid assets for SlingShot. The family donates a barrel a year to the gallery, and the bottles it produces are labeled with diminutive versions of original Slingshot art. The wine label as a canvas. And for the artists, who see their artwork manifested in a fresh new medium and who now have a new vehicle to promote their talent, a powerful thing.

These bottles – assets as much for the wine they hold inside as for the art they feature outside – are the inspiration behind Wine & Art, a spirited auction that earmarks all proceeds for Slingshot. The funds go directly to the artists and to the studio’s operating costs. “The more we cover their costs, the more staff they can hire, and the more participants they can help with services and resources,” says Willson.

"Octopus Clown" by Megan Isaac

I’m proud to emcee this year’s second annual Wine & Art, and I hope you’ll join us. The fundraiser takes place Saturday, November 11th from 6pm to 8:30pm at SlingShot, 220 W. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara. Many of the silent auction items are a wine lover’s dream, including exclusive bottlings by Margerum, Grassini, Consilience, Ojai Vineyard and Liquid Farm. Winemaker Doug Margerum has donated a 3-liter bottle of the 1986 Pine Ridge cabernet sauvignon from his private cellar, a wine valued at more than $1000. And to adorn the Willsons’ pinot, original works by 12 Slingshot artists have been selected as featured labels; the wines will be featured as individual bottles, a select number of assorted six-packs and one grand prize case featuring all 12 art pieces.

Works by SlingShot’s resident artists will be featured, too. Lifestyle items range from passes to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and dinners at Barbareno restaurant and Joe’s CafĂ© to seafaring experiences from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center and tickets to upcoming performances of The Nutcracker by State Street Ballet. The Cork Pull – a $20 donation that guarantees a bottle of wine worth at least $20 – is back. And so is Chef Scott Wallace from SB Wine Dine Build, whose grilled sliders last year knocked it out of the park!
Tickets are less expensive if you buy ahead of time: $50, versus $60 at the door (with an attendance cap of just 120 people). If you’re a business or group looking for a fun night out, ticket bundles of six are $275. Check out
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New Santa Barbara Festival Combines Wine, Music and Polo

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 10/2/17

Santa Barbara is no stranger to wine festivals. It’s become a haven for polo enthusiasts, too. And a new fete set to premier this weekend brings the two attractions together in one of the area’s prettiest settings.
The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club
The Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival touts itself as the first of its kind in California. The open-air, all-day event features high-thrills polo matches, upscale wine tasting and a star-studded roster of music. It’s set to take place this Saturday, October 7th, from 11am to 7pm, at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club in Carpinteria.
“This event definitely draws from fans of all three -- wine, polo, and music,” says Joey Massa, one of the event’s organizers. “And all three are representative of the Santa Barbara lifestyle."
The festival, which aims to become an annual affair, is also presented by KCRW, a popular public radio station that’s been on the air in Los Angeles for more than 70 years. That helps explain the impressive lineup of musicians, which are scheduled throughout the day and includes Grammy winner Macy Gray, who takes the stage at 6:15pm. Her five opening acts, scheduled throughout the afternoon, include buzzy independent up-and-comers like rocker LP, songwriter Nick Waterhouse and Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka TourĂ©.
The wine angle is clearly Santa Barbara-inspired, with labels like Summerland Winery, Standing Sun and the new August Ridge Vineyards. Happy Canyon Vineyard will pour and host a VIP tent; the popular winery in Happy Canyon, on the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, is well-known for its own onsite polo field. Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company will provide beer.
The day’s thumping action will be provided by a cavalcade of horses. Two back-to-back polo matches are scheduled for 3pm, followed by pivot stomp. In the world of polo, matches are traditionally followed by a stomp where patrons flip over divots, or the chunks of turf kicked up by horses’ hooves, and drink bubbly and wine.
The goal of the event is, in large part, to combine multiple lifestyle activities – introducing wine lovers to the nuances of polo, for example, and vice versa. ““Polo is a sport that a number of people have never seen, and we want this to be a great introduction to that sport,” says Mr. Massa. To that end, organizers have created a website that highlights polo terminology – a “chuckker” is a period of play that lasts seven minutes, and matches can consist of four to eight chukkers – and suggested attire. There’s no dress code for the festival, but ladies are encouraged to wear stylish sundresses, hats and gloves while the gentlemen should sport chino pants or shorts and a polo or button-up shirt; men’s sports coats and fedoras are optional. Find out more when you buy your tickets at
The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club is one of the oldest in the Western U.S., dating back to 1911
Guests have several buy-in options. General admission is $75, with wine and food sold separately. VIP ticket holders ($185) get access to a private entrance, the indoor/outdoor VIP Polo Clubhouse and stage area, VIP bathrooms, private bars, the Happy Canyon Vineyard tent and areas with extra shade. VIP Box and Cabana Seating ($265-$290) come with extras like a bottle of Champagne, valet parking and wait staff service during the polo matches.
General parking is $10 and VIP parking costs $40.
One dollar from every ticket sold is earmarked for Notes for Notes, a nonprofit group that outfits Boys & Girls Clubs with recording studios so that the clubs’ after-school youth can produce music for free.
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