“I live hard and I party pretty hard too,” The Santa Barbara Independent’s senior editor Matt Kettmann tells me as we sit down for dinner at the Bacara’s Angel Oak restaurant. “As you get older you need to reassess both actions,” he elaborates, “which is what I’m doing during this sabbatical.” He is still working — writing an article a week for this paper among other projects — but Kettmann is currently taking a well-deserved six months off from his longtime editing role at The Independent.
Personally and professionally, I can’t think of a more influential and important person in Santa Barbara than Matt Kettmann. He is a true renaissance man: he’s been a news writer, a pop culture editor, a wine connoisseur and wine writer, a mentor, a reality checker, and a best friend to me and to many others in town. He’s a master at balancing his business and private worlds, a task that must take a toll on his psyche.
Concerning his recent sabbatical, he explains, “It’s good, but it’s really busy.” He’s had projects he’s been working on for at least five years, including a book on the Chumash revolt of 1824, all while continuing as a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast. For that magazine, he works 20 to 30 hours a week writing 150 to 200 wine reviews a month and covering the viticulture of California’s Central Coast and South Coast.
On the personal side, he’s going to work on the landscaping of his lovely Goleta home. He has a seven-year-old son, Mason, and a daughter, Madeline, who will be five soon and is starting kindergarten this fall, and he wants to spend quality time with them. He’s been working on taking this break for the past two years. “I was working 60 to 70 hours a week,” he said. “A slow week for me was 50 hours.”
This week, he’s on a barrel-making tour in France, and is heading to Banff in June, Seattle for the annual Wine Enthusiast conference in July, and Washington D.C. with Mason in August.
“Mateo” – as I love to call him – has written about wine and travel for the New York Times, and about many subjects as a news stringer for Time Magazine, including the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria, for which he served as Time’s main correspondent.
A fifth generation Californian out of San Jose, he came to UCSB in 1995 to study anthropology with a minor in professional writing. He tells me, “We were guinea pigs in that minor and one of the best things about the program was that they forced me to get an internship.” He started as an intern for the Independent in 1999. In his interview with Indy editor Audrey Berman, he asked her, “Do interns get to write?” to which, he reports, her answer was an emphatic, “No.” But then, on his first day, he was told the travel editor needed some research on a story about the new trend of buying airplane tickets on the internet, and he wrote a grammatically correct email with his research. He got his first byline on his second day as an intern.
“I never aspired to be a journalist,” he says, but he was a voracious reader of media growing up. “My dad always knew what was going on,” he explains. “I got the notion of being at the cutting edge of information from him.” Plus he was a good and fast writer, which he attributes to his Jesuit education.
After graduation from UCSB, he went to Europe for the summer. “I knew I wanted to stay in Santa Barbara; my main motivation was to stay in town,” he recalls. It happened that a proofreader was leaving The Independent; he took the proofreading test and passed. Proofreading paid by the hour, but writing paid by the word. Thus was he motivated to write.
In May 2000, he went full time into news reporting. “I caught the bug about writing news under Nick Welsh and Cathy Murillo’s mentoring,” he tells me. It was a window into how the whole world works – and “Mateo” had a front row seat.
During that time, he started to travel in a way that moved his career forward. The first trip was to Belize to write a story on the archeologist Dr. Anabel Ford. Other reporting trips to Bolivia, Costa Rica, Uganda, and India ensued. In 2004, a journey to the war-torn unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan launched him as a wine writer. He went there for a month with a photographer and the intention to report stories about the geopolitics of the situation. The story he found was about a millennia old winemaking tradition that had been disrupted by war. “I cold-pitched the story to Wine Spectator and they kept asking for more,” he says. “Wine freelance writing is a good market.”
He summarizes his keys to success this way: “I’ve been able to be both global and local in my writing, and I love getting those ego-stroking bylines.” Despite the fact he’s traveled all over the world, he still finds Santa Barbara an exciting place to live for its smalltown feel and big city sophistication.
In 2006, Independent founder and editor-in-chief Marianne Partridge asked him to develop the paper’s digital presence through this website, independent.com, and he’s managed it ever since.
As if that were not enough, he also co-founded the nonprofit music festival New Noise in 2009 and serves as secretary of the board for the nonprofit music education organization Notes for Notes, which builds and operates recording studios for kids to use for free from Santa Barbara to Brooklyn. He was also on the steering committee that started the revitalizing Downtown Santa Barbara program know as 1st Thursdays and, not surprisingly, advocated for wine and food to be included as part of that monthly affair.
Matt Kettmann is a dear and wonderful man who I admire deeply. It’s hard to imagine he’s only turning 40 on September 6, for he is wise beyond his years. “You may be kneading the pasta for a long time – but the deadline is sausage making time,” he shares with me as a parting mantra.
“Mateo” answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you like most about your job?
As a journalist, no day is ever the same, and the work can put you on the frontlines of everything, from concerts at the SB Bowl to inside the kitchen of the world’s top chefs to the actual frontlines of warzones. Our job is telling interesting stories about people, places, and issues that matter, to keep the public informed so that they can make better decisions about their lives, whether it’s which wine to try or how to vote. I can’t imagine a more engaging career.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Lazy weekend mornings with our whole family in the same big bed, with the sound of waves crashing outside and something fun planned for later that day.
What is your greatest fear?
Family and friends dying.
Who do you most admire and why?
My mom. In an era when women weren’t supposed to climb corporate ladders, she started as one of the first receptionists at Intel in Silicon Valley and wound up near the top of the corporation, managing HR, mergers & acquisitions, meritocracy, and other departments. Then when my dad died rather suddenly a few years ago at 63 years old, she didn’t retreat into sadness. She became the best grandma in the world and continues to travel around the globe, enjoy life, and enliven all around her. And thanks to a love of yoga and pilates, she should be doing that for a couple more decades!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel, expensive meals, and occasional purchases of Old World wine, although all three usually count as work, so I get to write them off on my taxes!
What is your current state of mind?
Overwhelmed but optimistic. I have a lot of goals planned for this six-month break from the paper (from writing to housework), and time is running fast, but I still have a few months left.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honest, open-minded curiosity about everything in life.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Know-it-all-ness. I actually know everything, and they clearly don’t.
What do you most value in friends?
I’m lucky enough to continue to be best friends with guys I knew as far back as first grade, with plenty of good draft picks (including some gals) through elementary school, high school, college, and post-college. All of them can pick up our usually hilarious, often deep, always knowledgeable conversations like they never stopped, and that’s what it’s all about.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Probably being gregarious. Though I was somewhat shy all the way through high school, I became a social animal somewhere along the way. Blame Isla Vista. So even if I don’t feel so hot inside for whatever reason (behind crushing deadlines, hungover after long weekend, often both, etc.), I manage to perk up and blab away.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Aside from a roster of very versatile four-letter words that I still have trouble not saying around my kids, I tend to overuse “sweet,” “cool,” “dude,” “man,” “awesome,” and all of that other stereotypical space-filling slang that you might expect from a fifth generation Californian.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Ability to play music and speak multiple languages.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I was more naturally inclined to exercise. Then I could lose 20 pounds and become a male model.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Ask me in about 15 years I’ll probably say my kids. But for now, working my ass off as a journalist to afford to stay in Santa Barbara all of these years.
Where would you most like to live?
I’ve traveled all around the world, and nowhere is there a place exactly like Santa Barbara: a stunningly beautiful small-town community but full of bigger city offerings, and close to my extended family.
More specifically, on a cul de sac with cool neighbors somewhere between Santa Barbara and Goleta, with a garage full of wine, a beautiful and supportive wife, two smart and spunky kids, their elementary school within walking distance, and two towering redwoods as well as avocado and fruit trees in my backyard. Aka, my current home.
What is your most treasured possession?
Memories. I’ve edited about 200 of these Questionnaires, and that is the correct answer. When you lose someone close, like I lost my dad, that’s all you’ve really got left.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My close friends give my kids a run for their money.
What is your motto?
I once coined the phrase “patience is the key to pleasure,” but then I had kids and lost all my patience. So I’ll go with, “Just make it happen.” Life’s too short to dwell on all the reasons why you can’t do something.
And this is more of a credo than a motto, but I’ve come to realize that you are going to remember that one day you skipped work to take your son on a hike rather than all those days you sat diligently at your desk. So get your job done and do it well, but remember to play hooky too — that counts for bonus points in the game of life.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I’d like to say Hunter S. Thompson, who inspired me and many another to pursue a career in journalism. But he probably did more drugs than me, wasn’t very reliable, and left a lot of pain in his wake, so we don’t really match up. Similar things could be said for Hemingway and Kerouac, who both inspired me to be a writer.
That leaves John Steinbeck and Jack London (who both wrote passionately about our home state) and Ryszard Kapuściński, the utterly curious globe-trotting Polish correspondent who turned his journalism into literature. I’d like to do that one day.
On what occasion do you lie?
Rarely, but sometimes it is strategically necessary to avoid embarrassing others, losing a bet, or tricking the kids.