The S.B. Questionnaire: Sarah Holt Mullins
Talking Ballsy Women and Ranch Life with the Winemaker for Rancho Sisquoc Winery
“I’m built like a brick shit house,” proclaims Sarah Holt Mullins. “I’m very strong. I’m able to do the same work a man can do, and I really like being in charge, so I made my way up.”
It’s that candor and salt-of-the-earth quality that makes my interview with Sarah one of the favorites that I’ve done for this S.B. Questionnaire project, which is celebrating its fifth birthday with this week’s column.
She’s the winemaker at Rancho Sisquoc Winery, which has been crafting quality wine for the past 40 years. The winery is part of a 37,000-acre ranch located in northern Santa Barbara County, and produces about 20,000 cases of wine each year from more than 300 acres of grapevines.
Sarah was born on the ranch. “I never imagined I’d stay,” she reflects. Her parents, Ed and Mary, came to Santa Barbara from Missouri to work at Rancho Sisquoc in the 1970s. Her dad drove a tractor and her mom worked the fields, living in a trailer on the ranch. Ed eventually became ranch manager.
“As the wine became popular,” Sarah recalls, “they had to straighten their nails.” The vineyard and winery operations were expanded. “Our grapes sell really well,” she says. “Mom became winery manager, did all the HR, and became the bookkeeper.”
Sarah says she always treated the ranch as it was hers. She attended Blochman Elementary School, with just 120 other kids, and graduated from Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria. “In high school, I went crazy,” she remembers. “I didn’t like it.”
To get away from ranch life, she attended the Atlanta School of Massage in hopes of becoming an integrated deep tissue and neuromuscular therapist. “I traveled all over the place looking for work,” says Sarah, who was offered a job in Atlanta. But before moving, she instead accepted a job at Rancho Sisquoc, washing windows.
She started during harvest. “The winemaker kept asking me to help out,” she explains. “I was a cellar rat, the lowest employee in the totem pole, but I loved it.” She learned to do every job, becoming operations manager and cellar master. “On the second year, I was able to travel to New Zealand to work the harvest at Wither Hills Winery,” she says. “It scared the crap out of me. It was a big winery. I realized I enjoyed working at a small winery.”
On her return, she started doing sales. “It was great to have sales being done by someone who’d grown up on the ranch,” she says. “I became the brand ambassador.”
Around this time, she fell madly in love with her now-husband, Aaron, on the first night she met him. He was a horse trainer in Santa Ynez. “He took a tractor driving job so he could buy me a ring,” she says.
The head winemaker left during the harvest of 2013, and she took over. “I never thought it would happen,” she admits. “People who work at the ranch never leave. My parents have been here for 40 years. People come and stay forever.”
Her husband was supportive and told her to go for the job without hesitation. “What if I made terrible wine?” she recalls asking Aaron. “He promised me that, if she made bad wine, they’d move somewhere where they didn’t know her name.”
Thankfully, her wine is good, and she’s now very immersed in the process. “You eat, breathe, and drink wine,” she explains. “It’s all-consuming when the grapes are calling you — you come. I’ve had this massive support group. My assistant winemaker is meticulous like me. I don’t ever have two days the same. I’m turning barrels. I sell wine. Climb barrels one day and sit at a winemaker dinner. It’s hard work.”
Sarah has a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Ramona, a nod to the chapel that sits on the ranch and the labels of the wine. “I was back to work two weeks after having a baby,” she says. “You don’t plan anything during harvest. She will be raised on the ranch just like I was.”
Sarah Holt Mullins answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I asked my employees to answer this one for me: “Amelia Earhart, because she is ballsy.”
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I was worried for years about not having a college degree. I didn’t take high school very seriously and I have never been one to study out of a book. My greatest achievement is finally finding peace in the fact that I learn in a different way, hands on, forcing myself to figure it out, not being afraid to admit when I don’t know what others are talking about.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Food. Throughout my life, food has been the center for all of life’s excitement, trouble, heartache, and celebrations. We fry when someone cries and grill for the thrill.
Who do you most admire?
I admire my husband the most. He quit his job this year to stay home with our daughter. He is the bravest person I know, he has a way of walking straight into the unknown without fear or regret, and he strives to be the very best at everything he does.
What do you like most about your job?
The job of making wine starts in the vineyard, a power much larger than us has the control. We can attempt to dictate the results of the season, but we really have no control. I would say the unknown is my favorite part of the job — the vines, the wines, they are never the same from day to day. We are constantly learning something new.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Owning a large piece of property, housing retired dogs, producing all of my own food and alcohol, retired, a solid buzz, and hanging out with my best friend, my husband.
What is your greatest fear?
I fear that someday I won’t enjoy my job, that I won’t want to take on the challenge, and that I will be too tired. I hope that when that day comes I will be close enough to just go ahead and retire.
What is your current state of mind?
Excited. I have a husband who is my best friend and we wait all day to be together, a little girl that wakes up every day different and curious, and a job that challenges me.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Smiling. Every person on earth has a beautiful smile — it speaks, it shines, it can change a mood, and it can spread like wildfire. Smiling is simple and yet so powerful.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Negativity. It really brings you down, hides your true potential, and can be very lonely.
What do you most value in friends?
The few friends I do have accept that we are living our lives and occasionally we bump into each other for a good time. The value is not needing constant attention.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Generosity. I would literally give you the shirt off my back if you needed it.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I have a terrible problem with swearing when I get nervous. I sound like a sailor.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love the ability to speak numerous languages. To travel to a country and speak the language would be a true gift.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would change my patience. I have to work on being patient every day. With my family, with the wine, even baking a pie, I must wait for the outcome and it kills me. I like immediate results.
Where would you most like to live?
As far away from people and light pollution as possible, huge thunderstorms often, lots of trees, no snow, a river, and good soil to grow food. If you know of a place like this, please let me know.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have two. My mother’s wedding ring that I was married with — my parents have been married for over 40 years, and I draw strength from it every day. The second is a silver dollar necklace my father made me — it was his father’s and it is beautiful.
What makes you laugh the most?
I come from a very large family. When we are together around a table, drinking, storytelling, the laughter is almost overwhelming.
What is your motto?
If you are not having a good time doing it, stop it.
On what occasion do you lie?
I try very hard not to lie — it is such a tangled web. If I do lie, I lie about not wanting dessert after dinner. I do want dessert, every time.