Though home to a vibrant wine industry for decades, Santa Barbara doesn’t have as many homegrown winemakers as you might expect. But if Justin Willett of Tyler Winery is any indication — and you could toss in winemaking friends Graham Tatomer and Drake Whitcraft as supporting evidence — the force is strong with natives who heed the call of the grape. Willett is one of the hottest names in Central Coast pinot noir and chardonnay right now, steadily earning 90-plus-point scores from critics, gracing the cover of Wine & Spirits magazine, and once even sipping a 1985 Guigal with hip-hop mogul Jay-Z.
“I’m not really interested in all that,” Willett, whose middle name is Tyler, explained of the critical acclaim. “I’m more interested in discovering the truth of wine and uncovering its subtleties and mysteries.”
That expedition started in earnest for Willett in 2005, when mentor Joe Davis of Arcadian Winery — where he apprenticed after attending University of the Pacific on a golf scholarship, graduating from UCSB with a history of art and architecture degree, and working restaurants in Los Angeles — suggested he go on his own. “Joe encouraged me to go do it, because I wouldn’t learn any faster unless I did it for myself,” said the San Marcos High grad, whose mom is a nurse and dad has run Village Pool Supply for 30-plus years. “I was 24, and it seemed like the thing to do at the time.” In 2006, he worked a harvest for Two Hands Wines in Australia and has been back here ever since.
Those first few barrels have morphed into about 2,500 cases per year, roughly split between pinot and chardonnay, half from the Santa Maria Valley, half from the Sta. Rita Hills, all sourced from the choicest vineyards, such as Bien Nacido, Dierberg, Sanford & Benedict, and La Encantada, where Willett was the first to graft a few rows of pinot grapes over to chardonnay. Though ranging in style from racy to more opulent, the wines all feature bright acidity and a restrained balance, largely because Willett tends to harvest on the earlier side of ripeness. “I’m finding pretty flavors and aromatics at lower brix levels,” said Willett of the grapes’ on-the-vine sugar amount. “There’s been no problem with color or density. They’re just light on their feet.”
In March, Willett opens the Tyler Winery tasting room, which is connected to the wine production facility that he moved into last year in Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto, and will have a grand opening celebration on April 19 to 21, to coincide with the Vintners Festival. But don’t expect him to make much more wine than he already is under the Tyler label, which, if it grows at all, will only be when he secures new pieces of renowned vineyards. “I’m not going to make more than I can do in a personal way,” said Willett, explaining that he is going for a similar aesthetic as that of the Arts & Crafts movement. “I like to get back to really making things that are sincere and of high quality.”
That said, Willett is also making wine for a few clients and is the winemaker behind the new label Lieu Dit, which produces sauvingon blanc, chenin blanc, and cabernet franc in the style of France’s Loire Valley. “Most people don’t focus on the Loire so much,” he admitted, “but they’re some of my favorite wines to drink.”
Willett is excited about the 2012 vintage, which he believes will turn into very “user-friendly” wines, and is meanwhile trying to keep it all in perspective. “This has got to be one of the oldest professions,” said Willett, appreciative of being one in a long line of vintners who dedicated their life to 30 or so vintages. “At the end of the day, this is just a beverage, and it’s supposed to taste good.”
Tyler Winery, which will open its tasting room the first weekend of March and host a grand opening during the Vintners Fest weekend, April 19-21, is located at 300 North 12th Street in Lompoc. See tylerwinery.com.