The Gainey Vineyard is one of the oldest (founded in 1984), easiest-to-find (right on Highway 246), and most well-known (host to countless concerts, weddings, and farmers’ markets) brands in the Santa Ynez Valley. Yet over the years, those distinct advantages have given many the impression that Gainey is either a very large producer or one that’s not focused on quality wine.
At about 25,000 annual cases, Gainey certainly isn’t boutique, but it’s definitely not big when compared to regional producers topping the 100,000-case mark, and the many more statewide producing millions. As for quality, a quick chat with relatively young but thoroughly experienced 35-year-old winemaker Jeff LeBard reveals that Gainey is more dedicated to crafting fine wine than ever before, whether its merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, Riesling, and sauvignon blanc from the original Home Ranch or pinot noir and chardonnay from the more recently acquired Evan’s Ranch and Rancho Esperanza vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills. That quality-minded reality got an extra boost in May 2012, when veteran vintner John Falcone (who previously ran Rusack for a decade after 13 years in Napa and Monterey) was hired as general manager.
“We’ve really made some big strides toward elevating the brand and making it more relevant and more consistent,” said LeBard last week, surrounded by grapes almost ready for picking. “We’ve brought back some youthful expression to the wines, and we’re opening a lot of eyes.” The two well-tested men — LeBard is on his 19th harvest, Falcone on his 39th — form a strong pair. “I bring the gas pedal to the table, and John’s the clutch and brake,” said LeBard. “John really encourages research and development, which is the first thing that people cut back on. He tells me to go for broke, to continue pushing our limits while trying to make the best damn wine in the world.”
But unlike Falcone, who followed a more traditional route to the wine business, the Ventura-born, Santa Maria–raised LeBard was essentially forced into the industry when, nearing high school graduation, he found out he was having a baby. “I just needed a job,” said LeBard. “It wasn’t much more thought out than that.” At 18, he was working at Fess Parker Winery and then at Central Coast Wine Services, where he rose from “grunt cellar work” to a facility management role. Though he wasn’t making wine himself, he worked alongside winemakers like Lane Tanner, Craig Jaffurs, Chris Whitcraft, and Chad Melville. “I became fascinated with what everyone was doing,” said LeBard, who would sneak into the lab and taste their wines when they left. “I totally got what they were talking about and thought, ‘I can do this.’”
So LeBard took an assistant winemaking job at Rancho Sisquoc and worked there for a year and a half until realizing he may have to move north for the salary needed to support his family. After a scouting trip to Napa, he was hired as an assistant winemaker in 2000 by Mitch Cosentino but realized his role was quite redundant. “I felt like I was replacing someone who hadn’t left yet,” LeBard recalled. “Something wasn’t adding up.”
It turned out that the season was really a working interview, and Cosentino offered him the lead role in developing the new brands, The Zin and Cigar Zin, but out of a new facility in Lodi. “Where the hell is Lodi?” asked LeBard, who’d never been to the Central Valley. He took the job when he learned that he’d still have some Napa cab to play with, but the shock continued upon his late-night Lodi arrival. “You can imagine my surprise when I woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning, walked outside, and in every direction as far as I could see, it was flat,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘What did I do?’”
What he did was build the brands from 20,000 cases to 140,000 over seven years while also designing two cutting-edge production facilities. When the money seemed to be running out, as happens routinely in the wine biz, LeBard came home to Santa Barbara County and found himself the subject of another working interview during the 2007 harvest at Gainey. He started as winemaker soon after and has been there ever since.
Today, LeBard makes about 20 different wines from the three estate vineyards, quite a change from his past days of making lots more of just a few wines. “It’s working perfect with my personality,” he said. “I like to switch hats and do tons of research and development. It keeps me from going stir crazy.” When he’s not in the winery, he’s riding mountain bikes, hiking, hunting, or fishing. “When I’m not there, I’m out in nature,” he said. “That’s what makes me tick.”
As for his daughter, she recently turned 16, so LeBard bought her a car, which is probably the least he could do. Explained LeBard, “She’s responsible for all this.”