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.

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