For the better part of 40 years, a gentle giant has ruled Santa Barbara’s urban winemaking scene, from when he was the only one fermenting fruit and filling barrels down by the waterfront to today’s Funk Zone reality, where the tasting room scene is more dense than most anywhere in the world. Along the way, this humble, soft-spoken craftsman helped usher in pinot noir and chardonnay as the region’s most renowned wines and mentored scores of young winemakers on their way into the industry.
So on the verge of Bruce McGuire’s 38th harvest for Santa Barbara Winery, the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance is bestowing the 63-year-old Mesa neighborhood resident with a lifetime achievement award next weekend during the association’s annual Wine & Fire event. Greg Brewer, arguably McGuire’s most accomplished mentee, will present the honor during the barn party at Foley Winery, which is on Friday, August 16, 5-8 p.m.
“I’m definitely doing what I wanted to be doing,” said McGuire recently, reflecting on his young dreams of becoming a winemaker. “Just how I got to this point was a real journey.”
With a father in the military and then academia, McGuire grew up all over the East Coast, but learned about wine early. His mom made dandelion wine — “I think it was an excuse to get me to pick the dandelions,” he surmised — but his uncle in the Pacific Northwest produced good homemade wine. “That just planted the seed that this was agriculture that was more than just one year’s crop,” said McGuire, who worked for a year in a Boston wine shop after graduating from college in New Hampshire. “It’s more about place and vintage, each being ideally unique.”
Set on attending UC Davis, he moved to California in 1979, planning to work for a year to get residency. “But I was a winemaker before the year was up,” said McGuire. “I didn’t quite see going back to school, because I was making money and learning a shitload.”
In 1981, he heard about a winemaking job at Santa Barbara Winery, which Pierre Lafond founded in 1962, the county’s first commercial winery since Prohibition. McGuire was hearing the buzz about the 1976 Sanford & Benedict pinot noir. “The ’76 was being sold in San Francisco, and everyone was like, ‘Whoa,’” he recalled. “I knew Pierre’s vineyard was two miles away, and that in itself was very compelling.” The fact that the winery was two blocks from the beach didn’t hurt either. It was also a very exciting time in the region. “It was the new frontier,” said McGuire. “People were learning how to grow grapes in the right places.”
After some years of producing what he recalled as a “very good white zin, which I know is a misnomer,” McGuire settled into pinot noir and chardonnay as the Santa Barbara Winery flagships. To this day, McGuire makes the best entry-level versions of those wines — I challenge anyone to produce a better version of either for $18, a price that’s often much lower on retail shelves — while also crafting single-vineyard expressions under the Lafond label that compete with the Sta. Rita Hills’ cult superstars.
To keep the tasting room and wine club happy — indeed, to keep McGuire himself entertained — he also works with a bevy of other grapes and vineyards: Riesling, syrah, and grenache from the estate, primitivo and lagrein from Joughin Vineyard, sangiovese from Stolpman, chenin blanc from Curtis, sauvignon blanc from McGinley, and so on.
Today, McGuire makes about 40,000 or so cases annually and oversees 130 acres of vineyard, more than half of which is pinot noir. In addition to Brewer, winemakers/growers such as Brett Escalera, Graham Tatomer, Chris King, and Joey Gummere have risen through the Santa Barbara Winery ranks under McGuire to begin their own labels.
There is a bit of change on the horizon: After a half century of making wine in the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara Winery’s production facility (which still handles white wines) will soon be consolidated at the Lafond Winery off of Santa Rosa Road, where they’ve been processing the reds since 2000. “It’s gotten really challenging to make wine down here,” said McGuire, whose fruit often comes in during the busy tourist time of Labor Day weekend. “Truckloads of grapes and forklifts and traffic can get kinda interesting.”
But the tasting room is staying put, as it remains popular, despite the vast competition. “We make high-quality wine at a good price, and people seem to appreciate that,” said McGuire, who isn’t going anywhere either. “I want to be here as long as it’s enjoyable.”
4•1•1 | For tickets and more information about Wine & Fire, which includes events, tastings, and meals from August 16 to 18, see staritahills.com.