What follows is an edited excerpt from ‘Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County’, published in 2020 by Matt Kettmann and Macduff Everton.
With parents who emigrated from Macedonia to Michigan in the 1960s, Sonja Magdevski visited their homeland every summer to see relatives and the village where they’d lived for generations.
“In the Balkans at that time, everything connected to the village,” says Magdevski, who appreciated the role that the community played in growing food, harvesting grapes, and so many other aspects of rural life. “Wine, whiskey, and beer were always part of the table, but it was always homemade. We grew up with a great perspective on different cultures. I was super intrigued by that. I had all these questions I wanted to answer, which is why I got into journalism.”
After a childhood in Farmington Hills, Magdevski got her undergrad degree in political science from the University of Michigan and then worked toward a master’s in journalism at Michigan State. She won a Fulbright scholarship to study ethnic issues in Macedonia.
“The country had fallen apart — Yugoslavia was no longer,” explained Magdevski, who wanted to become part of the solution by working for the United Nation and other NGOs. “My ultimate goal was to solve world peace. I was going to be the one to find that template.”
She took a break by coming to California for a “totally temporary” six months, all the while applying for NGO jobs in Eastern Europe. Three months in, she realized, “Where am I going? California? Or Albania? What makes more sense?” She settled in Malibu in the mobile home of a family friend, wrote articles in the Pepperdine University library, and worked at a flower shop.
In 2003, while visiting Macedonia again with her dad, who was pointing out the abandoned yet still surviving vineyards, the two hatched a dream to revive ecotourism in the area by replanting vineyards. The next year, she befriended the actor Emilio Estevez, who was planting a half-acre of pinot noir in his Point Dume backyard. The vines never worked, because it was too damp and cold on the coast. But, said Magdevski, “It was a beautiful way to start the experience because the expectations were never an amazing wine. The approach was very fundamental in terms of understanding the process and the value of the work.”
Then she visited the Santa Ynez Valley with her dad. “As soon as you cross that hill on 154 for the first time, your life changes,” says Magdevski. “That was the most beautiful experience. That was it. We had the most amazing afternoon. We fell in love with the valley.”
Magdevski started sourcing fruit from the Santa Ynez Valley for her project, which she called Casa Dumetz, a reference to the Spanish missionary for whom Point Dume is named. In 2011, she left the L.A. life behind, started crashing at a friend’s pad in Los Alamos, and opened a small tasting room in the one-street town, which was just emerging as a culinary hotspot.
“I was so deer-in-headlights — I just knew that I loved doing this,” said Magdevski, who studied at Allan Hancock College while funding the tasting room with a $10,000 loan from her parents. “Sometimes people are afraid of commitments, but for me, it was very freeing. I knew what the top priority was. I wasn’t scattered anymore.”
Magdevski challenged long-held, industry-wide tasting room standards, like not providing chairs so people wouldn’t linger too long and closing by 5 p.m. “That’s so counterintuitive,” she said. “No one even comes home until 5 or 6.”
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She stayed open ’til 8 p.m., made the space comfortable for lounging, and started a speaker series. “I’m here all the time — I want to learn something, too,” she explained “We had deejays and all kinds of foolish stuff. But people would come, and I would be so shocked.”
Success was speedy, and Magdevski moved the tasting room to a larger spot down the block in 2013 and opened Babi’s Beer Emporium next door, where she served beers, ciders, wine, and occasionally food. Babi was her grandmother. “She always invited everyone to her table and always forgave everybody regardless of how negative they had been to her, which was a great lesson,” said Magdevski. “She loved drinking and singing songs. She was a really cool woman.”
With the commerce component working, Magdevski focused on her winemaking, which today includes three brands: Casa Dumetz, which produces just one Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir each vintage; Clementine Carter, home to her fascination with grenache and other Rhône wines, named after her favorite Western character; and Feminist Party, a red blend. “The Feminist Party is about radical inclusion,” she says of her only blended wine. “Everyone is invited to the party to have some fun.”
In 2015, Magdevski started dating winemaker Greg Brewer, cofounder of Brewer-Clifton, and they married two years later. Magdevski’s parents retired to Guadalupe, but her dad got restless, so he started working in vineyards. Her brother also lives here and works at Babi’s in Los Alamos.
She hasn’t been back to Macedonia since 2009 — the pandemic threw a wrench in 2020 plans — but the lessons remain poignant. “In the village, everyone had to rely on one another,” she said. “The value of community and the importance of helping each other are very valuable to me.”
For her, that relates directly to the Santa Barbara wine industry. “I can pick up the phone and call anybody, and I feel very confident that they would help me, and I would do the same,” she said. “We’re all competitors, but we’re also all colleagues. We have a lot of small producers and everyone has their own stamp.”
Sonja Magdevski will be pouring her wines at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective on August 21, 2-5 p.m. See casadumetzwines.com.