“The dream is to be able to have something to work on yourself,”
Peter Hunken explains while looking out at the nearly five acres of wine grapes he and his wife, Amy Christine, planted last summer on the western edge of the Sta. Rita Hills. “We feel super fortunate to have this opportunity.”
Fortune may have played a role in getting the 30-year lease on this slice of the Hayes Ranch off of Sweeney Canyon Road, next to Lompoc bean fields, near Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman’s Domaine de la Côte vineyards, and across the Santa Ynez River from the Radian and Bentrock vineyards of Rancho Salsipuedes. But hard work in all facets of the wine business is what got Hunken to this point.
The Chicago native, whose studies took him to Pitzer College before an interest in photography led him briefly to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara in the mid-1990s, worked in the Santa Barbara Winery tasting room (when Greg Brewer was assistant winemaker) and then at Wine Cask, where he met then-emerging winemakers like Seth Kunin and Moorman. He got a harvest job with Moorman at Stolpman Vineyard in 2001 and stayed there until 2008, handling everything from vineyard and cellar work to national sales.
Moorman and Hunken started the Piedrasassi (a mash-up of Peter and Sashi, essentially) project in 2003, as well as the second syrah-focused brand Holus Bolus, with an octopus label that became quickly popular. As Moorman’s empire grew into numerous brands, Hunken wanted to tighten his focus, so they split agreeably in 2008 and still work about 50 yards from each other in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. Moorman kept Piedrasassi, and Holus Bolus went to Hunken, who eventually put all his projects — including the more affordably priced Hocus Pocus, the Happy Canyon Bordeaux blend Genuine Risk, and the Café Society one-offs — under the Black Sheep Finds umbrella.
“It’s been very backward, our marketing,” admitted Hunken of their atypical branding strategy, which features very distinct labels rather than one main brand. But there are advantages, especially in restaurants. “Sometimes we have two wines on a list,” said Hunken, who also keeps prices comparably low. “There’s nothing better than finding a wine you like that you think is kind of a deal,” he said of that strategy.
Today, Hunken and Christine — who is a Master of Wine, or MW, and works for importer Kermit Lynch — make about 2,500 cases of wine annually, most of which is sold at restaurants and retailers, particularly in Los Angeles, where they live near La Brea Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. (Hunken splits his time between L.A. and Lompoc, depending on the season.) But they’re starting to sell more straight to consumers, thanks to the Lompoc tasting room they opened inside of their longtime wine-production space in January.
The first wines from their yet-to-be-named vineyard of pinot noir, syrah, and chardonnay grapes, some of which will probably hit the market in about four years, will mark the next phase of Hunken’s varied career. “We’re being bullish in this area, and it’s been exciting to see people planting farther and farther west in the last few years,” said Hunken, who’s tending to the vines with his own hands. “We’re trying to do most of the work that we can ourselves. It gives that added sense of connection.”
Black Sheep Finds is one of many wineries pouring at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival this Saturday, June 27, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. See sbnature.org for tickets and blacksheepfinds.com for more info.