“People fall in love with a wine from the experience of how they taste it,” explains Katie Grassini, the lively CEO of Grassini Family Vineyards who’s excitedly telling me over lunch about the new tasting room that they’ve opened in downtown Santa Barbara’s historic El Paseo.
The Grassini Family Vineyards are located in Happy Canyon, which is northwest of Santa Barbara in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley. The region’s warm days and cool, marine-influenced nights makes it a perfect location for growing cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, varieties originally from Bordeaux, France that have had trouble in other Santa Barbara regions over the years.
In 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara was officially recognized by the federal government as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, and wineries started putting the appellation on their labels. “People are now hip to Happy Canyon existing,” says Katie, but she’s aware of how important the whole region is. “I urge people that, in order to sell wine, you have to sell Santa Barbara as well.”
The new Grassini tasting room attracts more foot traffic, and it’s a really warm and inviting place to linger and enjoy their portfolio. “It felt nice to create a space where people can have an experience,” explains Katie, whose sister, Corey, did all the design work, which includes a VIP room, fireplace, comfortable places to relax, and even phone chargers. “It’s a community space without sales pressure,” Katie says. “It captures people, and it’s also an introduction to the Santa Ynez Valley.”
Katie grew up in the San Fernando Valley. When she was eight years old, her parents, Larry and Sharon, bought a house in Carpinteria. One day, they stumbled upon the 104-acre parcel of untamed land that we now know as the Grassini Family Vineyards. Katie remembers going up there to have picnics, but during a visit to the Vintners Festival in the late 1980s, her dad watched a cooper making barrels in the old-fashioned way, and was intrigued. They started planting in 2002.
After graduating from Chico State with a degree on social science, Katie became a ski and snowboard instructor in Lake Tahoe and worked in marketing and sales for the Resort at Squaw Creek. After 9/11, she decided to do something more important with her life, and decided to get a law degree at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. “Being in D.C. was inspirational,” she says. “If I’d known that one day I’d be a CEO of a winery, I would have gone to business school instead.”She joined her dad’s law firm after graduation.
After the winery opened, Katie started asking her dad about whether he had the right permits for the business. “I started to learn all the legal aspects of wine making,” explains Katie, who fell in love with wine while working the 2010 harvest. “It’s so magical bringing in the grapes at 2 a.m. and to see what happens once they’re inside the winery,” she says. She’s come to admire how the wine industry in Santa Barbara is so collaborative and kind. “You can always pick up the phone and seek advice,” Katie says.
Katie lives in downtown Santa Barbara with her husband, Dean. They met at Jenny Schatzle’s boot camp, where she spotted a handsome guy she figured was “too cute to be single.” Dean turned out to be a wine distributor, and Grassini Family Vineyards didn’t have one. They worked together for two years, but, encouraged by her parents, they started dating. Less than a year later, they were married.
Today, Katie bikes to the tasting room most days and also visits the winery a couple days each week. She happily describes her life as idyllic.
“My job is to tell the story of the winery,” says Katie, who often hosts winemaker dinners. “I really enjoy them — they’re eye-opening,” she explains. “Especially when distributors from Texas and Chicago ask, ‘What part of Napa is that?’ It’s wild that people still don’t think of Santa Barbara as wine country. It’s great to spread the word.”
Katie Grassini answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your motto?
“A rising tide lifts all the boats.” I always tell people this when I talk about how well the Santa Barbara wine community works together. We’re all trying to make the best wines we can, and raise awareness of the area in general. It’s a competitive but kind industry that’s always willing to help a neighbor. I find myself applying this motto to more and more subjects lately. As we saw earlier this year, a community that works together will get a lot farther than a group of individuals pushing their own agenda.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I love optimists. Anyone who can see the upside of a situation is a good person to have around; they are natural problem-solvers. Plus, I hate wasting time trying to “cheer up” pessimists. It’s exhausting.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Physically, it’s probably my height. I’m almost 5’9”, which is pretty tall for a girl. I also laugh pretty loudly, and my husband says my nose crinkles when I laugh. (Hopefully in a cute way!)
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I tend to sound like a Valley Girl when I get excited, especially if something at work is going well and I want to encourage my team. Suddenly, everything is “totally awesome” and all my team members are “total rockstars!”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
At our vineyard in Happy Canyon, we have a gorgeous pond that’s shaded by three enormous, ancient oak trees. I love relaxing by the pond with my friends and family, while our dog Duffy chases all the critters around. The perfect way to end the day? Watching the sunset with a glass of Grassini wine in hand!
What do you like most about your job?
I really enjoy meeting new people and talking to them about Santa Barbara and the amazing wines we’re able to make here. I also love the look that die-hard fans of Napa cabernets make when they take their first sip of our wines and realize that we’re making phenomenal cabs here in Santa Barbara.
What is your greatest fear?
Disappointing others. I really hate thinking that I’ve let someone down!
Who do you most admire?
My parents. They’ve been married for almost 50 years, have been through good times and bad, and still love each other like crazy. Plus, they have the biggest hearts of anyone I know — they really care about people and do what they can to make the world better for others.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Probably my skin care regimen. My friends always laugh at the sheer volume of “lotions and potions” I pack in my suitcase for a quick weekend trip.
What is your current state of mind?
Happy and grateful! I’m thoroughly enjoying life in Santa Barbara, but I’m really looking forward to traveling a bit this summer.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Dishonesty. I’d much rather someone confesses when they’ve made a mistake or a bad choice, rather than lie about it. If you tell me the truth, I’ll probably be mad for a bit, but I’ll always try and help you fix the situation.
What do you most value in friends?
A great sense of humor and a willingness to travel. (Excellent bartending skills are a close second.)
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’ve always wished I could sing. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and my husband’s family is from Ireland, so they all love a good sing-a-along.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish I was less adverse to confrontation. I always avoid confrontation, and it always makes a tiny problem loom a lot larger. I’m always amazed when people can just put their issues on the table and confront the other person. It’s so much more effective and efficient!
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Running my family’s business in a way that is making my parents and my family proud. I’ve learned so much about running a business since we opened, and I learn something new everyday.
Where would you most like to live?
It sounds so cheesy, but right here in Santa Barbara! I’ve lived in lots of places, from L.A. to Lake Tahoe to Washington D.C. and even Poland — Santa Barbara has them all beat. Most days, I ride my bike or walk Duffy to work at our tasting room in the El Paseo, and I always notice something that makes me think, “Wow, Santa Barbara just looks more and more beautiful everyday.”
What is your most treasured possession?
Without a doubt, it’s my wedding ring. My wonderful Nana, who recently passed away at 99 years old, gave it to my husband to give to me a few years back. (She was also Irish, so her heart melted as soon as she heard his accent!) Every time I look at it, I think of what she experienced in the 50-plus years she was married to my grandfather, and I feel like the two of them are smiling down on me and my husband.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My girlfriends in Boston, whom I met while I was attending law school on the East Coast. I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like, but when we do, it’s non-stop sarcasm and belly laughs.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
My great-grandfather Articondo (my father’s grandfather). At just 24 years old, he boarded a boat from Italy to New York to seek a better life. He had no money and spoke no English, but he was a hard worker and he made a decent living working for the railroads in the Midwest.
I often wonder where I would have ended up had it not been for him having the guts to board that boat. We named one of our favorite Bordeaux blends in his honor, and I think he’d be pretty proud of what his family has accomplished!
On what occasion do you lie?
I totally downplay the amount of trashy reality T.V. I watch! I try to balance it out with news, but I find watching other people’s “reality” can be a really great escape from actual reality.