Less than a decade ago, Kimberly Smith was a very large woman with diabetes who couldn’t control her weight, no matter how much she exercised or how healthy she ate. The Santa Maria native enjoyed the occasional glass of pinot noir with her husband, Theron Smith, owner of a major Santa Ynez Valley waste hauler/recycler, but quite frequently found even $50 wines unpalatable.
“I’d just throw them out because they were one-dimensional and not worth swallowing,” said Kimberly, who was born with a “geographical tongue” and considers herself a gourmet chef. “If I ever got out of that unhealthy body, I vowed to go back to school and figure out why.”
After 11 often bedridden years, doctors at UCLA discovered a 70-pound cancerous tumor in the mother of four’s gut. Fifteen surgeries later — “I died three times on the table,” she said — Kimberly was 200 pounds lighter and in good health. “Husband,” she said to Theron, “I’m going back to school now to find out why I love pinot noir.”
Her sole intent was to learn more via classes at Allan Hancock College, but then she met wine guru Wes Hagen at a party, and he taught her how to make wine for three years at his family’s Clos Pepe Vineyards. In 2010, Kimberly made her first barrel, and it won double gold in a Wall Street Journal contest. (So did her 2011s.) “I never set out to make wine,” said Kimberly, who graduated from Santa Maria High in 1979. “I’ve been a mommy my whole life, and I just parented this little project out of my love for pinot noir.”
She christened the project LaMontagne Winery after the grandmother of Theron, whose true lineage Kimberly discovered by tracking down his birth father, Joe Smith. Joe had gone to fight in Vietnam when Theron was just 3 months old. Upon Joe’s returning, Theron’s mother had married someone else who adopted Theron, so Joe went back to his family home in Maine, only to be happily called out of the blue by Kimberly in 1996. When the Smiths, who will celebrate their 31st anniversary on October 10, renewed their vows in 1999, Joe was Theron’s best man.
Today, with the help of her sons at a facility in Paso Robles, Kimberly makes about five vineyard designate pinots (mostly from the Sta. Rita Hills) as well as chardonnay, pinot blanc, tempranillo, and malvasia bianca, with some barrels of syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre awaiting a blending decision. Her aim is “multilayered,” unadulterated wines. “I try to make wine that is as pure as possible right out of the vineyard,” said Kimberly. “I learned long ago that food and wine are your biggest medicines and to be very careful with what you put in your mouth.”
Visit LaMontagne Winery’s tasting room at 1509 East Chestnut Avenue (lamontagnewinery.com; 805-291-6643) or stop by during the Santa Barbara Vintners’ Celebration of Harvest on October 11 at Old Mission Santa Ines. See celebrationofharvest.com for tickets.