If You Don’t Know…Now You Know! 6 Santa Barbara Winemakers to Watch

| November 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

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Perhaps the most exciting thing about following Santa Barbara wine is watching good people and their labels develop before your eyes. There are always new folks to meet and new wines to get to know. In my first post on this new blog, I thought it would be fun to profile a few folks that are somewhat new to this forum.

I currently live in Oxford, UK, which puts a cramp in my usual style of researching and writing. I LOVE to meet face-to-face and talk to winemakers, taste their wines so I can get the full story, and witness their passion firsthand. I’ve been monitoring the chatter about these winemakers for some time via social media outlets. They are favorites in the local Santa Barbara wine circle, which is a true mark of respect. I’ve communicated with them via e-mail for weeks to construct this article.


THANKFULLY, I’ll be visiting Santa Barbara in December and am in the process of organizing a tasting with all these fine winemakers. I can’t wait to write that follow-up post! Without further ado, let’s get to it!

Jessica Gasca
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Jessica during the first bottling of her wines

I first met Jessica at the Tercero tasting room in Los Olivos. She was the Assistant Winemaker at Sanguis then. Shortly after, she invited me to help bottle at Sanguis. Jessica was all business — focused and passionate. I could tell she was going to be a great winemaker.

Jessica recently bottled her first vintage of ITER (Latin for, “The Journey”). She is making a syrah from the Larner Vineyard (one of Ballard Canyon’s best vineyards in my opinion) and a pinot from Gold Coast Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley.

Did you take any classes for winemaking (college, community college, etc)? If so, where?
I got my degree from Cal State (in a completely different field). Once I moved up here, I did take a viticulture class at Alan Hancock to learn more about the vineyard side of things.

What got you into wine? . Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
Oddly enough I was living in New York for a brief time and was working as a bartender at a nice French restaurant on the upper west side and didn’t even drink wine. We had a sommelier give us wine classes every Tuesday and I was fascinated by his knowledge. I was the dork at the table asking all the questions and taking notes. I don’t remember the exact wine but he poured a Barolo and I was like “GOOD GOD- Now I get it!”

What was the first vintage you worked and who did you work with?
I worked the 2009 Harvest with my Uncle Gary Burk (Winemaker) at Costa De Oro.

Who is your biggest mentor…in life, and in wine?
My Parents are definitely my mentors in life. I am where I am today because of them.
My mentor in wine would definitely be my uncle. I so respect his knowledge and experience in the wine industry. I am lucky to have him helping me through this process every year.

I obviously know about Sanguis, but where else have you worked?
I worked at Grassini Family Vineyards, Fess Parker for a harvest, and now working for Dragonette.

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
I haven’t done much traveling into other countries for wine. This next year will be my first time traveling into France; I cannot wait!

What “style” would you say your wines are?
My wines are made light and lean. My palate currently appreciates the wines that are more delicate. (low alcohol, no new oak, no heavy extraction.)

What other passions do you have? Hobbies/interests?
I am a runner and I love it! Running is one of the hardest disciplines but it also one of the most rewarding.
Music is also one of the loves of my life. There is just something in the way music communicates with my soul, with all of us; we all know the impact of a great song.

What motivates you? Gets you through rough days?
I am motivated by love; my family and my friends. These are the things that get me through rough days. We are all on our own journey and I have immense amounts of gratitude for each and every day.

Jessica just launched her website! The address is http://www.iterwine.com/

Second winemaker up is Kyle Knapp.
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Kyle is from Lompoc but has traveled all over the world. “I spent a lot of time in SB and the Valley trying to get away but in the end the surf brought me back, and in the end so did the wine”. As for wine, Kyle focuses on Rhones, producing a roussanne, grenache, syrah, a grenache rose, and a Rhone blend. Kyle is also going to add sangiovese and tempranillo to the portfolio.

Did you take any classes for winemaking (college, community college, etc)?
I did not go to college for winemaking. I started at the bottom as a harvest intern and loved it and worked my way up.

It looks like you got into wine through Los Olivos Grocery. Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
I guess I just liked wine right away. I was fortunate to be around a few winemakers early on and tasted many wines. But after a few years the wine that stuck was a Cornas from France, I loved the spiciness and minerality

What was your first job in wine?
My first job was at Beckmen in Los Olivos, CA.

Who is the the first person to give you hands-on training in wine?
In 2005, Steve Beckmen was the first winemaker I worked with.

Who is your biggest mentor…in life, and in wine?
My mentor in wine I’d say was Sashi Moorman while I was at Stolpman for 3 years. Up to starting at Stolpman I had only done harvest so those 3 years finally working on all aspects of the process sort of set the stage for me so to speak. Things started clicking and the attention to quality was top notch.

My mentor in life?? Travel? Traveling. The ocean? Never really had a mentor I don’t think. But I really do think visiting other cultures and spending time with people native to a foreign country can open your eyes if you have an open mind. Putting miles on foreign ground and foreign water is a unique feeling. I have always traveled alone, that way I can decide on a whim to go or stay or whatever.

Have you worked at any other labels?
The list is long:
Beckmen Vineyards
Flying Fish Cove (Australia)
Fiddlehead Cellars
Stolpman Vineyards
Palmina
Kaena
Casa Cassara

Below are labels I worked on while at Stolpman:
Evening Land
Piedrasassi
Parr Selection (Raj Parr)
De Su Propia Cosecha (Chris King)

Keep in Mind I was at Stolpman for 3 years and now have been at Beckmen for the last 4 years. I have done a lot and worked on many projects in a relatively short time.

Sounds like you have traveled a lot. Did you work some harvest in Australia?
For a while there, I left for at least a month at a time each year. Did harvest in Western Australia and was there for 3 + months. Have been to Indonesia 3 different times , for over 4 months combined. Morocco, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Hawaii. And I’m nowhere near done.

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
I’ve been to western and south Australia, central Chile, Napa. I want to visit the Rhone, Burgundy, Italy, among others.

What “style” would you say your wines are?
Rustic, personal, wines with character . Unfined, unfiltered. Pushing the limits.

It looks like you have a son, and enjoy surfing. Do you have other interests or hobbies?
I have a thirteen month son, Milo. It’s awesome. I enjoy playing hockey, I do crossfit work outs to stay in shape cause I’m not surfing as much these days. Love seeing live music. Mostly my free time is spent at the beach with my family.

What motivates you? Gets you through rough harvest days/nights?
That’s a good question. I get excited when we receive the fruit and see it through fermentation. It’s a pretty cool thing we do, making wine from fruit. Music helps a lot. I enjoy what I do.

If you would like to check out Kyle’s label, his website is http://www.pressgangcellars.com/home.html

Third winemaker is,

Zac Wasserman
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Zac is on a roll. He is a Santa Ynez Valley local, and is teamed up with one of best winemakers in the valley. He is currently the Assistant Winemaker at Tensley Wines. Zac’s wines caught my eye when his 2011 vintage was scored. Jeb Dunnuck has rated his wines from 90-93 over three vintages.

Zac also focuses on Rhones, making a viognier, grenache, syrah, and a GSM blend.

Did you take any classes for winemaking (college, community college, etc)? Looks like you have your degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics. Are you able to translate to winemaking?
Got a degree from Cal in genetics. Worked in a lab for a bit, didn’t enjoy it. In terms of my education translating to winemaking….I understand fermentation ;). Always been intrigued in the transformation of things, the interaction of energies.

What got you into wine? Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
My sister Almond is the catalyst to my discovery of wine. She worked in the industry prior to me. Almond made a barrel of SYV syrah in 2006. She did the wine making with Joey Tensley. Paid off her winemaking fees by working in the Tensley tasting room.

When I graduated from university I wanted a break from the academic path…she told me to work a harvest with Joey.

The “light” so to speak is the balance of the profession. It’s grounded in the earth and sciences, drenched in business and marketing, very physical, very delicate. My first vintage with Joey was my first vintage of Frequency. I crushed my first syrah 3 weeks into the job.

What was your first job in wine?
Tensley cellar hand, 2010

Who is your biggest mentor…in life, and in wine?
In life, my sister. In wine, Joey.

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
Rhone. Lyon down to CdP. St. Joseph, Cornas, CdP some of the wines I drink the most.

Honestly want my next wine trip will be domestic…Washington/Oregon. Would love to check out those scenes. Chile would be interesting as well. Burgundy and Bordeaux are no-brainers for the history of it all.

What “style”would you say your wines are?
Fruit-driven rich Santa Barbara Rhones.

What other passions do you have? Hobbies/interests?
Soccer. Watch, play and coach soccer when not making wine. Joey and I coach his 12 year old son’s soccer team together. I have been playing since I was 4. In April Joey and I went to London to catch some English Premier League. Saw Chelsea (my fav). Surreal experience being at those games.

Also practice lots of yoga. Have been interested in the integration of eastern psychology into my everyday life since college. There is lots to be learned about our mental processing thru a deliberate physical practice.

What motivates you? Gets you through rough harvest days/nights?
The satisfaction of creating a product with my hands to share with others…knowing that I am working hard to help support those I love.

Zac just opened a tasting room in Los Alamos! Here is the address:
448 Bell St, Los Alamos, 93440. Open Thursday through Sunday, 12pm-6pm

As for his website, the address is http://www.frequencywines.com

The fourth winemaker…

Aaron Watty
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Aaron is the Superman of winemaking. Buttoned up waiter at bouchon by night, superhero Assistant Winemaker to one of the legendary winemakers in Santa Barbara by day. Aaron has been working with Rick Longoria for a while now. He has learned from one of the best. Aaron’s project is making a little over 350 cases. His current release includes a McGinley Vineyard (from the warmer, east AVA of Happy Canyon) sauvingnon blanc, Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir, Happy Canyon cabernet sauvingnon, and a Three Creek Vineyard (also in the Happy Canyon AVA) sangiovese.

Looks like you are from Incline Village, Nevada. But I’ve heard you’ve lived abroad, true?
Yes I grew up in Incline Village. Spent middle school years in Paris, France, and returned to Tahoe for high school

Did you take any classes for winemaking (college, community college, etc)?
After the 2006 Harvest at Sunstone Winery, we are old family friends with the Rice family, I attended Allan Hancock in Santa Maria.

What got you into wine? . Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
I moved to NYC, after attending UCSB, to pursue a career in fashion. After working & traveling throughout Europe and the US, I decided that fashion wasn’t for me… I started working in a restaurant, Silverado Grill, and was hooked on the business after a few months. I spent 11 years in NYC, and Miami as a Maître D’, and Sommelier so wine was always around. Mostly drinking and pairing wines with food. After a few years I was intrigued by the winemaking side. I wanted to know more about the process, and how the final product was achieved. How much did the terroir, farmer, winemaker have on the final product. Only to find they all have effects.

My aha moment was a bottle of 1989 Muller Catoir Scheurebe. I can still taste the toasted pineapple, and bright acid. Amazing wine!

What was your first job in wine?
Silverado Grill 1993-94 as a server was my first real job working with wine.

What was the first vintage you worked and with who?
I was an intern at Sunstone vineyard & winery in 2006.

Who is your biggest mentor…in life, and in wine?
I am not sure I have one person I can attribute as a ‘mentor’, but my mom has had the biggest influences on my life. She recently retired from education, and watching her go to work for 40 years and giving her all everyday is very inspirational. The same can be said in wine. I have worked for many great people in the wine business, and have taken a little bit from each of them to form my own ways.

Have you worked at any other labels?
Sunstone, Margerum, Cimarone, Sans Liege, and I just finished harvest work as the Assistant Winemaker at Longoria winery.

Have you done harvests in other countries?
Not yet, but exploring the possibilities of a Southern Hemisphere harvest, and trying for Europe in 2015

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
Growing up and traveling throughout Europe I have explored many winemaking regions there; Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Rhone & Rhine valleys, Loire, Rioja, Priorat, Tuscany, Piedmont, Germany, Austria, I would like to explore New Zealand. Coming from the mountains hiking and exploring is in my blood.

What “style”would you say your wines are?
Style is hard to define. Finding the right grapes and farmers is what I have been pursuing lately. They do all the work. I do prefer wines that are higher in acid & food friendly so I guess that is my current ‘style’.

What other passions do you have? Hobbies/interests?
I enjoy golfing, although harvest really messes with your swing.

What motivates you? Gets you through rough harvest days/nights?
As I have come to winemaking later in life I find that harvest is a time of excitement, stress, discovery, and the unknown, no matter how much planning you do. The people I have met & worked with during harvest are some of my greatest friends in life. It’s hard to explain to somebody who’s never done a harvest how great of a time it is. Waking up early, getting a face full of CO2 while doing punchdowns, cleaning a press for the umpteen time, stained hands while you eat lunch and everybody looking you, wondering how you could eat with those hands, last minute grape arrivals. Or early for that matter, harvest 2014.

I have found a job that I enjoy & that I want to work hard to succeed. I enjoy that everyday I learn something new. It’s not a job for everybody, it’s very hard work, but at the end of the day I am happy for a job well done.

Aaron is working on his website. Please visit Big Tar Wines Facebook Page for updates!

Fifth up is,

Drake Whitcraft
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Drake (middle) with two of his best friends and mentors, Burt Williams (left) and Richard Sanford (right). Photo courtesy of Bob Dickey

Drake really isn’t a stranger to this site. Do a search and he comes up. I feel more eyes need to be put on his work though. Drake is doing an amazing job. He is very diligent and follows his philosophy to a T. He has grown up around fermenters where Whitcraft Winery was being made by his legendary father, Chris Whitcraft. But Drake has been making all the winemaking decisions since 2007, and doing EVERYTHING since 2008. He’s really hitting his stride. He also has a very exciting project called, “Mes Amis”. You can find a dry riesling and albariño under this label.

What got you into wine? . Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
​I grew up in wine so it got into me really, but I could never see myself doing anything else. Its challenging and rewarding, and I love to drink wine so it works out. My father got me into wine. I consumed myself with it though starting in 2004 really, after working full time since 2001​

What was your first job in wine?
​Stomping fruit when I learned how to walk, first paying job was filling bottles at 10 years old on my Dad’s bottling line​

What was the first vintage you worked and with who?
1985, Chris Whitcraft​

Are there some other labels you worked for?
The Carlei Estate in Australia​

Have you done harvests in other countries?
Yes, 2005 and 2006 in Australia​

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
All of California, the Yarra, the Mornington Peninsula, Alto Adige, Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, Greece. I need to go to Chablis and Burgundy, NEED to.​

What “style”would you say your wines are?
​An Honest style, no adulteration or manipulation of ANY kind. I pick when its ready which to me is not a raisin and I like acidity, and whole cluster.​

What other passions do you have? Hobbies/interests?
Playing Guitar and going to the beach and hiking and skiing. Food, beer….​

What motivates you? Gets you through rough days?
Gratitude, and the desire to help since I have been blessed. If you have a bad day in Southern California, regardless of what you do, you’re an idiot. You live better than 90% of the world, so get over it.

Drake has a tasting room at his winery:
36A S. Calle Cesar Chavez, Santa Barbara, CA 93103. Open Friday through Monday, 12pm to 4pm. Rest of the week, appointment only. His website address is http://www.whitcraftwinery.com/Home.html

Last, and late addition to the story,

Rachel Silkowski
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While putting the finishing touches on this story, an update to my Facebook news feed came across my browser about a new release of a pinot from a very small producer. I quickly sent messages to a few folks, they said the winemaker and wine is legit. Friend request sent, quickly accepted, and now we have a profile for someone who is about to release their inaugural vintage! The timing was just too perfect not to include in the article.

Rachel’s last name is familiar to the Wine Berserker community. I didn’t know a daughter of a prominent contributor was “ITB”. I apologize for my naivety! Rachel’s RASI pinot has two amazing vineyard sources from the Sta. Rita Hills. Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi, and one vineyard named, Aubaine. This vineyard is located in San Luis Obispo County. I gotta try this wine in December. Here is more info on Rachel:

Did you take any classes for winemaking (college, community college, etc)?
I transferred from CSUF to Oregon State University after realizing I wanted to pursue a career in winemaking my freshman year of college. I majored in Agricultural Business Management.

What got you into wine? . Do you remember the wine that turned the light on (i.e. “epiphany wine”)?
I didn’t have an epiphany wine, or at least I don’t remember one, but there was always great wine at the dinner table. I was very fortunate to be exposed to some outstanding wines from WA, OR and CA; I couldn’t help but be completely captivated.

What was your first job in wine?
Funny enough, my first real introduction into winemaking was at Loring Wine Company. As soon as I started expressing an interest in wine, my realistic parents suggested that I get some hands on experience in the industry. I initially sought out an internship at Loring Wine Company based on Brian and Kimberly’s reputation as producers of excellent pinot noir. After a couple weeks of “helping out” as an intern, I was hooked. I was 19 at the time, and applied for Oregon State the following Fall.

What was the first vintage you worked and with who?
My first harvest was in 2008 at Loring Wine Company. Before that I had just been washing empty glasses at tastings or packing boxes on the bottling line. I wasn’t able to work the full harvest season since I was attending Cal State Fullerton at the time, but I would drive up from the OC on the weekends to help out in anyway I could.

Who is your biggest mentor…in life, and in wine?
My parents were a big part of my introduction into wine. Now my education at Loring Wine Company has been the leading influence in my professional life. There are many people in the wine industry that I look up to, and a few I have even had the pleasure to meet.

Have you worked at any other labels?
While attending Oregon State, I would help out in the tasting room of Trinity Vineyards, a family friend’s winery in the Willamette Valley. I was also working at E&J Gallo at the time the Lorings offered me the position of Assistant Winemaker. I had been trying to make my wine and desire for city life merge, but the opportunity to get the in depth and well rounded training I knew I’d receive at Loring was what ultimately led to my decision to move to Lompoc.

Have you done harvests in other countries?
No, but I would like to and hopefully will in the near future.

Which wine regions have you been to? Which one would you really like to visit?
I love visiting the Willamette Valley in Oregon because it still feels like a developing region- there’s a new and exciting energy about it. I have not yet been to Europe but would particularly like to visit the Duero River Valley in Spain and Burgundy France, especially to tour some of the cooperage houses.

What “style” would you say your wines are?
I choose to name my wine company RASI (pronounced “racy”) because that is the style of wine I set out to make. The definition on the back of each bottle: full of zest or vigor; having a strongly marked quality; piquant; risqué, suggestive; having the distinctive quality of something in its original or most characteristic form. The unusual spelling comes from a play on my initials.

What other passions do you have? Hobbies/interests?
Like most people who love wine, I love food. I probably try at least one new restaurant a week in LA and before every sales trip (I work with various U.S. distributors for the better part of 3 months), I eagerly research the best and new and weirdest restaurants in the city. I also love being in the kitchen and holding dinner parties for friends.

What motivates you? Gets you through rough harvest days/nights?
The beginning of harvest is an extremely exciting time in the winemaking process, especially at a winery that doesn’t grow, but purchases all of the fruit. It’s our first glimpse into what the vintage will be like. I anxiously await the arrival of new fruit. I’m not saying harvest doesn’t start to wear on me after 6 weeks but I can’t imagine doing anything different.

Rachel’s website is http://www.rasiwine.com

There have been some great articles about other winemakers and projects recently.

This article by S. Irene Virbila of the L.A. Times about Eric Carucci. Eric is making amazing wines, especially his Thompson syrah. Might be one of my all-time fav’s coming off that vineyard. Click Here

This article from Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent is about Kimberly Smith of LaMontagne Winery. Kim’s wines are BEAUTIFUL! Feminine, graceful, and full of life. A must try if in the Wine Ghetto. Click Here

Good friend Laurie Jervis of Central Coast Wine Press wrote recently about Anna Clifford and Brittany Tanquary Zotovich’s new wine project, Dreamcôte. Very excited to try these wines. Click Here

George Yatchisin of KCET recently wrote about Clarissa Nagy and women in winemaking. Clarissa is a super talented winemaker for her own label, Nagy, and Riverbench. Click Here

Gabe Saglie of Travelzoo posted on his blog about Brave & Maiden. This is a BIG new project in the Happy Canyon. Paul Hobbs just joined as Consulting Winemaker. Click Here

Finally, this just hit my news feed on Facebook. Kathy Marcks Hardesty just posted this on SantaMariaTimes.com. A beautiful article about Ryan Deovlet. Ryan is such a killer winemaker. He makes wine under his own label, Deovlet, as well as Refugio Ranch, and Biddle Ranch Cellars. Click Here

Category: Featured, Santa Barbara Wine Talk, Wine Articles

About the Author ()

Hello, and welcome to “Santa Barbara Wine Talk,” a blog dedicated solely to the wines of the Santa Barbara area. Santa Barbara has so much to offer the wine world. The area is relatively young compared to its Northern California counterparts, but its fame is skyrocketing. Pioneer Richard Sanford planted the first Pinot vines in the diatomaceous earth of the Santa Rita Hills in the 70’s. Around that same time, Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist, and Adam Tolmach worked together at Zaca Mesa on the Foxen Trail and established the fabulous Rhone varietals in the area. Fast forward to today, where Manfred Krankl’s wines garner a hundred points and a bunch of young guns are making world-class wine. The Santa Barbara growing region is incredibly diverse. From cool climate sites like Watch Hill, Thompson vineyard, and the aforementioned Santa Rita Hills, to the warmer Santa Ynez Valley and new American Viticulture Area (AVA) Happy Canyon. There is also the only north-south valley in California, the Ballard Canyon (the NEWEST AVA), Santa Maria, and perhaps the most famous vineyard, Bien Nacido. The towns of Los Olivos, Solvang, and the Lompoc Wine Ghetto have seemed to double the number of tasting rooms in the past few years! Happily for those with full tasting schedules, most sites are within twenty minutes of each other (at least when I’m driving!). As for me, I’ve had a passion for wine since 2004. In the grand scheme of things, that is a mere blip in the wine game. It wasn’t until my wife and her parents took me to Napa/Sonoma that I realized, “I love this stuff!” Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest to learn as much as I can about wine. I don’t think my wife’s family knew they were going to create such a monster… After a few trips to Sonoma/Napa, my wife and I decided to give Santa Barbara a try. Not expecting much, we woke up early to beat the LA traffic and headed up the coast. We had the great pleasure to meet with Greg Brewer at Brewer-Clifton. His chards and pinots left us speechless. Next appointment was with Larry Schaffer. Anyone who spends five minutes with Larry will be ready to run through a wall, jacked to try some Rhones. I’d never had a Grenache before…or a Syrah from a cool climate site and in neutral oak…again my mind was blown. A tour around Clos Pepe with Wes Hagen was an absolutely amazing experience and taught me the uniqueness of the Santa Rita Hills. Jaffurs was the last stop before we headed back to San Diego. I instantly fell in love with their wines. I couldn’t believe how amazing they were. I’ve been hooked ever since. As good as the wine is in this region, the people and the hospitality are even better. I’ve never had so much access to winemakers, facilities, and wines, and all are shared with great enthusiasm and passion. It’s because of this that I felt a need to share this special place with as many people as I could.

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