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Sweeney Canyon Vineyard

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Sweeney Canyon Vineyard


Sweet Sweeney Canyon

A Chat with Pioneering Sta. Rita Hills Winemaker Kristi Marks


In 1980, Chris and Kristi Marks were told they were crazy for attempting to grow their Sweeney Canyon vineyard so far west in the Santa Ynez Valley. Today, their property lies in the Santa Rita Hills — which has become one of the country’s most respected appellations and will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the “Wine & Fire” event, August 12-14 — and their wines are nearly impossible to find. But on July 27, winemaker Kristi will pour her ever-elusive wines at SpiritLand Bistro alongside a menu prepared by chef Edie Robertson. Here, Marks talks about the Sta. Rita Hills appellation 30 years ago, why she loves the industry, and how women make wine better.

What was it like starting a vineyard here in 1980?

No one really believed you could ripen grapes that close to the coast. We started planting the vineyard all ourselves — we set up all the ditches and irrigation, put all of the grapes in, and did all of the work. We didn’t have anybody. We started to get a crop and began selling it from 1984 to 2006, and it wasn’t until a few years ago we actually began making our own wines. During that time, we spent weekends taking every class UC-Davis had to offer in terms of enology and viticulture so we could actually learn how to do this stuff. We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants.

Do you feel like there’s something significant about being a woman in this industry? Are there any strengths women have as winemakers?

Oh, yeah. I really believe that women have better palates. I’m surprised there aren’t more women winemakers, because they are a little bit more sophisticated in tasting and in identifying strengths and weaknesses in wine. It’s probably just a lack of confidence that keeps a lot of women from doing this. You really do see so many more men than you do women in the wine business. But there is a difference — I think it’s a strength.

What about setbacks?

I haven’t really experienced any, but I’ve been very fortunate in that I never had to start out as a cellar rat in some big winery. It is more difficult for women to have to start out at a lower level and work their way up.

Do you think more and more women will start making wine in the future?

I absolutely do. We are going to see more women come into the industry over the next 10 years or so, because more women are starting to explore businesses, and the winery is a perfect place for women.

What are the pros and cons about growing all of your own fruit?

Chris and Kristi Marks
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Courtesy Photo

Chris and Kristi Marks

There are very few wineries that own their own vineyards anymore, and it’s unfortunate, because if you don’t have a stake in an area — if you’re just sourcing your grapes from wherever — you’re not as tied to the land. There are setbacks in the vineyard every single year, so we have to charge a lot for our wine, otherwise we can’t produce it. If you’re only sourcing grapes, you’re paying the same for your grapes each year no matter what. Although we are at a great advantage because we have a huge amount of consistency with our product. We only make wines from our own grapes, from our own vineyard, and we know that vineyard. It’s established, it has a history, it has a flavor palate, and we can be sure that — unless we really screw something up — the wine is going to be amazing.

What are the biggest challenges for you personally?

I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone — any woman — is really getting out there and getting your products out. The reception is good for women winemakers now, but it still is a really male-dominated field, and I don’t think women get as much — I don’t want to say respect, but we have to deal with a little bit of [gender inequality]. As in any profession, men tend to receive more clout. But it’s good that it’s changing and it will be for the better of the industry.

How do you think more women winemakers will change the industry?

We’ll have better wine, quite frankly [laughs]. We’ll have better, more consistent products because whenever women are involved in a food-based industry, they add a lot to the equation. It will shake things up a little bit and that’s always good for any industry.

What trends have you noticed happening in Santa Barbara County’s wine industry?

The U.S. is now one of the only countries consuming more wine than it’s producing; France is now producing more wine than it’s consuming, and used to be the largest consumer of wine. What’s really going to impact our wine business in the U.S. is the new generation of 20- to 30-year-olds. You’re going to see a lot more innovation and it’s going to be really fun to see the things that will come out of that. This generation is drinking wine at a much more sophisticated level than our generation did. It is a lot savvier, it tends to seek out good wines — not necessarily expensive wines, but good value wines. So, in addition to innovation, we’re going to see the quality of the product get better. The wine industry is going to do really well in the U.S. It’s posed for good years ahead — I’m hoping.

Assuming that Santa Barbara County is on its way to becoming a world-renowed wine region, how does it feel for you to have seen it gone from a no-name wine producing area to a wine producer comparable to Napa?

It’s really very exciting. It’s going to grow and grow and grow, and within the more knowledgeable wine circles, I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t know where the Sta. Rita Hills appellation is, and that’s going to filter down and it’s going to be even better for Santa Barbara County for years to come. We’re going to continue to produce phenomenal wines from this region, and we’re going to make a name for ourselves over and over again. It’s amazing for me — I can’t even believe I’ve been in this business for as long as I have. Seriously, it’s been very fulfilling to have been involved so early on in the conception of this region. Literally, when we planted our vineyard, we were the furthest west vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley — now there are so many vineyards west of us, it’s amazing, and it just keeps growing!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

When you’re at a wine tasting, nobody is unhappy, you meet interesting people, they’re there to have fun and really enjoy the moment. It couldn’t be a better industry to be in, because you’re providing people with exactly what they want, and that’s to feel better! And it’s also really, really fun to taste the wine as it’s maturing in the barrel.

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Kristi Marks will pour Sweeney Canyon wines with food cooked by chef Edie Robertson at SpiritLand Bistro on Wednesday, July 27. Call 805-966-7759 for tickets. The Sta. Rita Hills 10th anniversary Wine & Fire event is August 12 to 14. See staritahills.com for more info.

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