Though winemakers get most of the credit, there are a lot of mostly unseen players who keep the wine industry flowing, from farm laborers and vineyard managers to the distributors and retailers who hand-sell bottles all day long. Occasionally, those folks also get a hankering to make a little bit of their own wine, and when those aspiring vintners are people like Jeff Newton (whose vineyard farming company is the largest in Santa Barbara County) and Ash Mehta (who owns multiple wine bars/bottle shops), the results are pretty solid.
Newton founded Coastal Vineyard Care Associates in 1983 when Santa Barbara wine was just taking off, and he remains at the forefront of vineyard development, innovation, and management, pushing particularly hard for sustainable practices and fair treatment to labor. In 2014, he was showing Villa Creek winemaker Cris Cherry the recently planted Boa Vista Vineyard in Ballard Canyon, figuring the ground-floor fruit contract would be an easy sell. But Cherry didn’t need any more grapes.
“I said, ‘How about I buy the grapes, and you make the wine?’ ” recalled Newton, whose challenge was immediately accepted. “I didn’t really think it through. I was instantly in the wine business.”
Their inaugural syrah from the Ballard Canyon vineyard is a blend of Alban (on the terraces) and Estrella River (on the sandier spots) clones and was fermented 100 percent whole cluster in concrete tanks. The result, which amounted to about 150 cases, is an extremely savory expression of the grape, with tons of tar, charred game, lilac purple flowers, black pepper, and rosemary riding firm tannins. “I love syrah,” said Newton of his choice. “I love the wine, and I love growing it.”
A Bay Area resident since 1979, Mehta left Walnut Creek to take over a title company’s San Luis Obispo County division back in 2002. But five years later, the Shell Beach resident was co-owner of Tastes of the Valleys wine bar in Solvang and a familiar face on the wine scene. In 2010, he opened Tastes of the Valleys in Pismo, followed by Taste in the Alley in Paso Robles in 2015, and he is opening WineSneak near the S.L.O. airport this year. (The Solvang store was sold in 2012.)
A few years back, he hired Mary Bradley, a Michigan native who came west in 2008 to work in wine, interning at Tantara and working at Zaca Mesa before landing a job with Kevin Law at Cotiere in Santa Maria. “What I’ve learned about wine since she’s been here is exponential,” said Mehta, who partnered with Bradley on Ila, which is pronounced “ee-la” and means “earth” in Sanskrit. “I really believe in Mary’s palate. She’s a super-taster.”
Bradley was able to buy fruit from the Mesa B Block on Zaca Mesa — her favorite block — fermented the juice on 25 percent whole clusters (less than she might otherwise, since the vineyard’s tannins are naturally firm), and made about 70 cases. There’s more on the way, including a grenache from Murmur Vineyard, not to mention Bradley’s own label, and Mehta would like to grow the label to about six wines. “We definitely want to do more in this industry,” he said.