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Jesee Smith

Mad About Vermouth

Trio Tackles Terroir to Find Unique Sources for Fortified Wine


“If you look them up online, you’ll see that, seven years apart, I’m quoted in articles in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle that vermouth is about to have its moment,” says vintner and, yes, vermouth maker Carl Sutton. “If you keep saying it, it has to happen.” That’s the very short answer as to why Sutton is in town, working with Jesse Smith from Casitas Valley Farm and Kyle Hollister from the just-begun T.W. Hollister & Co. Wines.

That heralded vermouth moment will be epicentered right here in Santa Barbara, if the trio has its way. Sutton started making vermouths back in 2009 at his eponymous San Francisco winery, but he met Smith when the latter was up north for a sustainability conference. They shared a love of vermouth, which is fortified wine flavored with botanicals that, alas, tends to be mass-produced and thought of as a mere mixer. They even geek out on something called Vermouth: An Annotated Bibliography, which Smith said contains “every instance of vermouth in literature.”

Sutton also came to town to be an artist in residence at The Squire Foundation, which is expanding the notion of what cultural creatives can be. Now, through Smith’s position on the board at the S.B. Botanic Garden and through Hollister’s family connection at the Hollister Ranch, Sutton is hunting botanicals to make a largely Santa Barbara–specific vermouth. He made one in Northern California based on 17 plants, so that’s a lot of foraging. “Wandering around the Hollister Ranch, we’d come upon something and go, ‘What is this plant? Does it smell good? Should we eat it?’” said Sutton. “You look at the landscape with a very different mindset, like a shopping market.”

Though their vermouths will boast a regional flavor, Smith warned, “Thinking about things as hyperlocal takes away from the trade portion of the history of the drink.” One of the most famous sweet vermouths, Carpano Antica, for instance, has a pronounced vanilla flavor, something clearly imported to Italy, where the vermouth is made. Similarly, for the Santa Barbara blend, Sutton is bringing in wormwood from Sonoma. “My source’s wormwood is very mild,” he said, “which is good, because when I started playing with vermouth, I found all the American wormwood to be too bitter.”

The trio recently offered some prototypes of their vermouths at The Apiary Ciderworks and Meadery, the physical space where they create their concoctions. “They’re very much kindred spirits,” Sutton said. “Plus, when you lease a space from someone else it’s called an alternating proprietorship, and they’re the A-P-iary ….”

The ultimate goal is to produce refreshing, fascinating vermouths with a local edge that can pour well in a vermouth-and-soda culture, like one finds in Barcelona or Milan, and for adventurous mixologists to experiment with. After all, Sutton said that a good vermouth is “like crack for a bartender.” Or as Smith puts it, “We’re looking for people making more heavy-handed pours. We don’t want it left on the back of a bar for special occasions.” The still-unnamed products, if scaling works as planned, should be available regionally by summer.

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