Though working since 2011 for Zaca Mesa Winery — which is home to the Santa Barbara County’s first syrah and focused mostly on varieties from that grape’s Rhône Valley home — winemaker Kristin Bryden quietly crafts some of the better pinot noir and chardonnay in the region. Packaged for years under the Zaca Mesa label without extra fanfare, these Burgundian bottlings are no longer just insider intel. Last week, Zaca Mesa announced the launch of Tread Wines, a new brand to prominently showcase Bryden’s beauties, complete with its own special tasting lounge on the estate property on Foxen Canyon Road.
“It really just started as a genuine love for Santa Barbara County as a region,” said Bryden of her exploration of these grapes, which started at Zaca Mesa in 2013.
There’s an emotional tie, too, for pinot and chardonnay were her introduction to Santa Barbara nearly two decades years ago, when the Redding-raised Cal Poly grad started her career at Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles, under the tutelage of Ken Volk. “When I smell pinot noir from Santa Barbara County, there’s this nostalgic feeling of the first time in a cellar,” she said. “I put my nose in the glass, and it takes me back to that first experience.”
Of course, being nearly 50 years old, Zaca Mesa is no stranger to either variety. They even grew them both for many years, and then sourced from different vineyards over the decades. But Bryden’s dedication took the program to another level and coincided with an era where the winery is also selling more of its grapes to other winemakers.
“It’s doing what we’ve done before,” said Stewart Cushman, whose father, John Cushman, was one of the original investors back in 1972 and took full ownership in 1988. “We’ve always been ‘estate-Rhône-Rhône-Rhône.’ We all liked and appreciated the purity of that story, but we had to remind ourselves that we don’t have to be that. That was self-imposed.”
The brand’s name was Bryden’s idea, and the Cushman family quickly embraced it. “Every time I’m out there in the vineyard, I see boot prints in the soil,” she said. “I know how many people it takes to nurture the vines and the relentless effort of that. So it’s really that human connection — that boot print, that tread in the soil, and having that appreciation for the people that are really nurturing everything out there. It’s our job to respect that fruit and present it in a way that hopefully puts a spotlight on the vineyard.”
The initial lineup of six 2019 wines ranges from $32 to $55 and includes three chardonnays (S.B. County, Sta. Rita Hills, and Sierra Madre Vineyard) and three pinots (S.B. County, Bien Nacido, and La Encantada). Bryden’s style trends toward the lighter, brighter side of the pinot scale, and favors texture and minerality over overt richness on the chards.
“My heart has always been with these varietals,” she said. “Having the opportunity to work on this program with the Cushmans has been a very bright spot in my career.”