Running for the Vine

Santa Barbara’s Jogging Winemakers Prepare for Fifth Annual Vintners 5 Miler

David Whitehair and McKenna Giardine | Credit: Courtesy

Contrary to stereotypical notions of rotund, leisurely bon vivants, Santa Barbara County’s winemakers are a rather athletic bunch. Many stay fit by jogging, often through the vineyards, which makes the Vintners 5 Miler and its Finish Line Festival a perfect pairing of exercise and oenology. To see how running and winemaking mesh, I asked five running winemakers to explain how their two passions work together. 

DAVID WHITEHAIR:  “I used to say that I was a winemaker with a trail-running addiction,” explained the winemaker at Foxen Vineyard & Winery. “Now I say that I’m a trail runner with a winemaking addiction.” 

That’s no joke: After 13 years of running, Whitehair got serious four years ago, now clocking about four miles every day on his lunch break and then 15-30 miles each weekend, sometimes barefoot, usually on such trails as Point Sal, Romero Canyon, and McKinley Peak. Two years ago he did his first ultra-marathon, with 5,100 feet of elevation changes; ran a 55K in Antelope Valley last March; and then did a 30-miler after that. In January, he’ll tackle Avalon’s 50-miler and aims to tally a 100-miler soon. 

Fabian Bravo and Jessica Gasca

He kills two birds with one stone by running vineyards. “You get to check on the progress of the vines and get your workout all in one,” said Whitehair, who finds plenty of benefits for his job. “Running allows me to tackle current challenges that I am facing in the winery through meditation,” he said. “It is a state of meditation and clarity that I find myself in, often forgetting that I am running, legs set to autopilot. Running and winemaking are both strong mental games, requiring immense amounts of discipline, dedication, and passion. I feel that being an ultra-runner has made me a better winemaker, and being a winemaker has made me a better runner.”

He also sees parallels in the “old-world” approach to running and winemaking. “There are always going to people trying to sell you their product that’s supposed to revolutionize your wine, or a new running shoe that’s going to change the game forever,” said Whitehair. “When in fact, people have been doing both, for thousands of years, and sticking to those tried-and-true methods seems to work best. Good fruit, good barrels, good shoes, and a good hat. What else would you need?”

McKENNA GIARDINE:  The assistant winemaker for Andrew Murray and winemaker for E11even wines started seriously running last November, training for a 10K. “I really enjoyed the structure of training for a race,” she explained. “The endorphins don’t suck either.”

She now runs about four times per week (from two to eight miles), often near the waterfront in Ventura, with two days of cross-training. She’s not a vineyard runner, fearing a broken ankle prior to harvest, but does see the practice as part stress management, part staying in shape for harvest. 

In wine, no two vintages are the same, and she sees a parallel in jogging. “No two runs are the same,” explained Giardine. “One day you can smash out a big run and feel amazing and the next day do the same run and struggle. Taking it day by day, vintage by vintage, is important.”

FABIAN BRAVO:  The winemaker at the Brander Vineyard ran cross-country in high school but didn’t start running again until 2012, when he signed up for the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon. He now runs about two or three times per week, primarily around Solvang, where he enjoys the variation between flat ground and hills.

“I do love running,” he said. “All you need is a pair of shoes. There isn’t a need for equipment or a gym membership.” He’s run at Brander before and appreciates the changing scenery, but he worries about the dangers posed by gopher and squirrel holes.

“Being physically healthier by running or another form of exercise helps being able to stay on your feet as a winemaker/grapegrower during the long hours of harvest,” said Bravo. “We also eat and drink a lot. Running helps to be able to continue those habits too.”

Laura Roach

LAURA ROACH:  The assistant winemaker at Sanford Winery started running in 2012 when she moved to the Santa Ynez Valley. “With nice weather almost year round, it didn’t make sense to join a gym when I could run around the vineyards or my neighborhood after work,” said Roach.

She runs about three miles two times a week, often around La Rinconada Vineyard, where she finds multiple benefits. “The soil helps to absorb a lot of shock when you run, so it’s much better on your body,” she said. “Additionally, vineyards provide serene paths for runners who like to unwind and prefer not to be distracted by the noise of their surroundings.”

It’s great exercise for her busiest time of year. “Come harvest time, it’s important for winemakers to be able to climb steep, dusty hills in jeans and plaid shirts while tasting grapes,” she said. “By being physically fit, we can endure these longer days and look more natural in our environment.”

JESSICA GASCA:  The founder/winemaker at Story of Soil tries to run three miles five days a week around her home in Los Alamos, although being the mother of a 1-year-old often thwarts such plans. She sees harvest as much like a marathon, requiring slow, steady, sometimes painful work, but always ending with a celebratory beer. 

“Running is a discipline — sometimes you don’t want to go run, but you know you need to,” said Gasca, who compares that to winemaking. “Sometimes you don’t want to top barrels, but you know you need to. So you just do it. And after you do, it feels pretty rewarding.”

4•1•1 | The Vintners 5 Miler, which benefits the Vintners Foundation and the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, begins at the Sanford Winery Tasting Room parking lot at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 20, and is followed by a Finish Line Festival. To sign up, see


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