Here’s a dirty secret about the seemingly rootsy and artisan life of a winemaker: Aside from jamming around the clock during harvest, many spend the rest of the year on the road, hitting markets across the state, country, and world to peddle their bottles in a cutthroat market that’s ever-demanding of their time and increasingly competitive with a steady stream of new brands both big and small. The grind got so wearing for veteran vintner Lane Tanner — who started at Firestone Vineyard in 1980 and then made Zaca Mesa and Hitching Post wines before starting her eponymous brand in 1989 — that she retired her historic pinot noir brand in 2009. “I wasn’t having fun anymore,” she explained.
Thankfully for those of us who enjoy Tanner’s clean and bright style of pinot and chardonnay, the good times have returned, all thanks to her new business partner, Will Henry, whose father founded the Henry Wine Group, today one of the largest distributors in California. With his sales and marketing acumen — “I have a really good background on how to do things right,” said Henry, “and how not to do things wrong” — Tanner can focus solely on the winemaking of their brand, Lumen Wines, whose inaugural 2012 vintage is by-the-glass at many restaurants in Santa Barbara, including Sama Sama, Petit Valentien, and San Ysidro Ranch.
Lumen’s pinot and chard are from Sierra Madre Vineyard, where Tanner started working on a low-key project for the property’s owner, Doug Circle, in 2012, after her two years of retirement. But then Circle decided against founding his brand, so, as Tanner explained, “I had this beautiful wine with no home.” Henry serendipitously came knocking. “I was wanting to do a certain style of wine, and I’ve really been turned on by the low-alcohol movement, which is really more of a low-sugar-at-harvest movement,” he explained. “She’s always made wines along those lines and never changed to appease the critics.” After failed attempts to hire her as simply winemaker, he offered her a partnership, and she agreed.
Today, they are making about 600 cases of pinot and 600 of chard in a warehouse facility that they’re calling the “Santa Maria Projects” (also home to Tantara, Luminesce, and other small brands), and they’ve added some grenache blanc and grenache to the mix, as well. That’s because Henry was “floored” while drinking A Tribute to Grace grenache a few years back. “It was almost pinot-like,” explained Henry. “I was really fascinated by the different flavor profile but with the same food versatility and lighter body. And it has its own set of challenges that also make it like pinot.” Tanner was reluctant at first — “I’d never tasted a grenache that I really fell in love with,” she relayed — but now is also enthused by the grenache (“It’s the prettiest smelling grape we’ve gotten this year”) and grenache blanc (“I love flowery whites”).
Altogether, they’ll stick to about 2,000 cases tops, and the prices right now are low compared to similar brands — just $28 for the pinot and $25 for the chard, which Henry is aiming at restaurants. (There’s also a reserve pinot that will come in closer to $50.) “These are the same wines I was making under my label, but those were $40,” said Tanner, who aims to make “healthy” wines with low tannins, almost no sulfur, and completely without methanol (though she won’t divulge how she fully extracts that). “This is a screaming deal.”
Boasting short hair a Halloween shade of orange and joking frequently about Henry’s admirable six-pack abs, Tanner is happier than she’s been in a long time, and you can almost taste that energy in the glass. She explained, “We are two of the luckiest people you know.”