Plenty of smart, good, and even lucky winemakers can work their entire lives and never achieve the success of Alisa Jacobson. At just 42 years old, Jacobson has already scaled an internationally respected brand from just 1,000 cases to more than one million and, as of just two months ago, is now completely focused on building her own dream winery, complete with the acquisition and ongoing development of two vineyards. Many respected vintners retire before reaching any of those marks.
That first brand, which you’ve certainly seen on grocery store shelves and wine lists, is Joel Gott Wines, where Jacobson started in 2003 and left amicably as vice president of winemaking this summer. The second, which you may not know but certainly should, is Turning Tide Wines, which, aside from a pinot noir grown in Oregon, is made from grapes grown in Santa Barbara County.
As an ocean lover raised on a farm amid ever-encroaching development, Jacobson is using everything she’s learned at Joel Gott to make Turning Tide a model for being both sustainable and successful in the wine business. “I wanted to have a place where I can show people how I feel like farming can be done in an economical way but also in a way that’s good for winemaking and good for humans,” explained Jacobson, who recently moved from Santa Rosa to Shell Beach to be closer to the sea and to her two Santa Ynez Valley vineyards.
And she’s taking this message to the masses through affordably priced wines. “I want people to drink it,” she said. “They’re not gonna drink it if it’s $200 a bottle.”
Jacobson made the decision to go into agriculture quite young. The daughter of an engineer and an elementary school teacher, she grew up on the family’s cherry and pistachio orchard in the small East Bay town of Brentwood, near the California Delta’s oldest vineyards. While participating in 4-H programs, Jacobson watched farms be gobbled up by the Bay Area’s exurban sprawl.
“We’re there trying to farm as the suburbs were closing in on the area, trying to figure out the logistics of getting a tractor to go over the sidewalks,” she said. “That made me realize how important agriculture was for us, for humans and for the planet. We have to figure out how to live among it.”
She decided to study ag and animal science at UC Davis, where her eyes were opened to everything from blueberry farming to wine grapes. A summer internship at Korbel got her hooked on the wine business, and she worked on sparkling wine for another two harvests, including one at Schramsberg. “People enjoyed their jobs, and they were all smart, articulate, creative people,” she said. “I could really see myself enjoying this industry.”
The farming connection was there, but unlike many crops, wine lasts for years. “It’s like a time capsule,” she said. “You can remember a rain showed during a certain vintage, for instance.”
Upon graduation, Jacobson spent two years at Joseph Phelps, worked a harvest in Australia, and then heard about the new wine project that the popular Napa caterer/restaurateur Joel Gott was firing up. “He catered our harvest lunches, and that’s how I met him,” recalled Jacobson, noting that Gott’s wife, Sarah Gott, was also the Phelps winemaker at that time. He remembered Jacobson because she was a vegetarian, which is how she’s eaten since childhood, even though she grew up selling animals for meat in 4-H. “If I was eating it, I wanted to know where it came from,” she said. “It’s just easier to eat cheese and tomatoes.”
In 2003, Jacobson became the first employee of Joel Gott Wines, which was producing about 1,000 cases at the Napa Wine Company. “Those were the heydays of the Napa Wine Company,” said Jacobson of that shared winemaking space. “I was able to pick a lot of people’s brains.”
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With the indefatigable Gott handling sales and marketing and Jacobson in charge of wine, the brand exploded exponentially, especially when Trinchero partnered on a joint venture in 2009 that took the wines into all 50 states. By 2018, Joel Gott Wines was producing more than one million cases annually across about 15 different wines.
To fill that thirst and keep the prices down, Jacobson constantly scoured the West Coast for new sources of grapes: riesling from Washington, pinot gris from Oregon, zinfandel from Amador County, and sauvignon blanc from Monterey, among so many other regions. She was eventually contracting with more than 100 different vineyards, including a few in the Santa Ynez Valley.
But as Joel Gott grew, Jacobson’s job became much more administrative. “It’s huge, and I’m really not making wine anymore — I’m managing people,” she explained while sharing her wines with me in my backyard, two days before her last day at Joel Gott. “It’s all part of your personal growth. It was a good experience, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to manage people on a day-to-day basis.”
So in 2018 — while also leading a task force to research and counteract the growing issue of smoke taint in wine from wildfires — Jacobson was plotting her first Turning Tide vintages and has been fine-tuning and expanding the lineup since. (See the sidebar for the wines.) Much of the fruit is coming from two vineyards that she now controls with Coastal Vineyard Care’s Mike Testa and Ben Merz: Estelle Vineyard, which is home to 17 acres of 13 different varieties, including somewhat obscure Iberian grapes; and a former apple orchard on Baseline Avenue, where they planted sauvignon blanc for Joel Gott and grüner veltliner for Turning Tide.
She hopes to convey her ethic through Turning Tide’s label, which features a woman standing on an island, holding a massive dandelion that’s shedding in the breeze. “I feel like everything is part of the whole. One thing affects another, which affects another. And wine really takes a lot of elements: the soil and weather and people,” said Jacobson. “I wanted something that represents all these pieces that come together to make wine.”
Turning Tide Wines
Here’s a sampling of what Alisa Jacobson is making today.
Santa Ynez Valley White Blend: She’s pushing traditional boundaries with these two blends: in 2019, a blend of chenin blanc and grüner veltliner; and in 2020, a chenin blanc and verdelho. “There is a balance between that minerality and that fruit,” she said. “Nothing outshines anything else.” $20
Santa Ynez Valley Red Blend: This super fresh and spicy blend of mostly grenache and a quarter mourvèdre from Estelle Vineyard is the newest addition. “This is mimicking what I remember from traveling around the southern Rhône,” said Jacobson. “You go to a restaurant and there’s a carafe of wine on the table, and you enjoy it.” $25
Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay: She’s never been a big chard fan but is sourcing from key vineyards in the region, including Donnachadh. “I wanted to challenge myself to make a chardonnay that I would enjoy drinking,” she said. $30
Oregon Pinot Noir: Jacobson owns a home in McMinnville in the Willamette Valley and sources grapes from a vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. She’s trying to bring more consistency to Oregon wines. “I do want my wine to show the site and the vintage, but I didn’t want to lean into it, where wines are completely different from year to year,” she said. “I feel like Oregon does that quite a bit, almost intentionally. I don’t think consumers understand that.” $42