When you meet some winemakers, who are seemingly making a living at a pursuit borne entirely of passion, it’s hard not to look at success in their chosen field as a product of luck. Many of them will encourage this impression, speaking honestly of how lucky they are to be doing what they love, and to have been successful at it. The younger they are, the more likely they are to talk this way.
Such surfaces belie the deeper truth of what it takes to really make it as a winemaker — the incredible amount of work, persistence, and knowledge that has to go into every harvest — and how many things can possibly go wrong along the way.
For every winemaker that can casually count his or her blessings and nonchalantly suggest that it was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, there are scores of frustrated winemakers trying to land jobs, to sell their wine, or to simply work hard enough so that someone finally gives them a shot at making their own wine.
To take a look at young Graham Tatomer, the bearded and scraggly haired winemaker standing behind his table at a wine tasting, pouring his first vintage of Riesling, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was just another kid trying to break into the wine industry, lucky enough to get his hands on some fruit and a friend who had the equipment to help him get it into a bottle.
But if you put some of that Riesling (grown in Santa Barbara, of all places) in your mouth, and you knew anything about the grape, you’d realize just how wrong you were.
Graham Tatomer made his first wines before he graduated from high school. While other California high schoolers were busy trying to get their hands on booze, the bookish Tatomer was simply trying to make a buck. An older friend knew he needed a job during the summer, and suggested he apply at Santa Barbara Winery.
“It was just a paycheck, initially” says Tatomer. “I thought it was just cool that I was making a dollar more than minimum wage.”
Like most winery grunts, Tatomer was paid to do the most boring things possible in the winery, including running the bottling line.
“The strange thing was that it wasn’t boring to me. And I didn’t care about the alcohol. I just liked the smell of the place,” he says.
He also admits being taken by the idea of the winemaker as an artist. “I kind of romanticized the winemaker. I guess I still do a little, though less than I used to.”
Tatomer worked at the winery for 4 years, as he finished high school and as he went into college at U.C. Santa Barbara just down the street. It only took a couple of years for him to realize he wanted to be a winemaker, and thinking he’d get the training he needed in the winery, he opted for a degree in English, with the idea that being able to express himself well with words would one day come in handy.
The front page of his web site contains only five: “California producer of dry riesling.”
Tatomer’s first exposure to Riesling was while he worked at Santa Barbara Winery, which made a dizzying array of wine varieties, including Riesling from the winery’s Lafond Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills, which was planted with a block of Riesling in the late 1970’s.
“Interestingly,” notes Tatomer, “a lot of vineyards in Santa Barbara were planted with Riesling at first because people thought the grape could do well here. But practically all of it was eventually ripped out or grafted over to other things as people shifted focus to the Burgundian and Rhone varieties.”
Tatomer noticed that Riesling fruit, however. “You could see that it was truly incredible fruit. The wines were always an afterthought, because they weren’t paying the bills,” he says, “but it was immediately clear to me that you could make really great Riesling in Santa Barbara if you wanted.”
This was early in Tatomer’s exploration of wines. His own exploration quickly left Riesling behind as he learned to enjoy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Then one day someone told him about a wine called Chablis, and he realized he had a thing for acid. Chablis led him to Alsace, and Alsace eventually led him back to Riesling.
But not before he had the chance to make his own wines for the first time. At the time Tatomer was working at Santa Barbara Winery, Greg Brewer was the assistant winemaker. Tatomer and Brewer became friends, and as Brewer moved on to collaborate with Steve Clifton, Tatomer was brought along to help. Brewer helped Tatomer get his hands on a little excess Sylvaner in 1999, enough to make a half barrel of wine that a friendly restaurant owner in town offered to buy. The next year, he made a barrel each of Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling. The year after that, he did it again, but couldn’t get enough Riesling fruit to make more than one barrel.
“People were patting me on the back for these wines,” says Tatomer, who had no problem selling his small production to restaurants, friends and family. “I got frustrated, though, because I knew they weren’t that good. Here I was, this young kid making wines, and I loved Riesling, but I hadn’t even really tasted examples of what it should taste like. I knew I didn’t know how far there was to go.”
So Tatomer decided to finally get around to tasting some German and Austrian Riesling, and they hit him like a ton of bricks.
“I decided to stop making wine immediately, and go get a job in Europe,” he explains, struggling to convey the revelation that those wines were for him. “I sold all my equipment, gave away what I couldn’t sell, and didn’t know what to do next,” he says. The only thing he could finally think of was to contact a producer in Austria that had particularly impressed him, and see if they would hire him.
The English degree must have come in handy. Whatever he put into his letter to Weingut Knoll in Austria’s Wachau district convinced them to let this young American to apprentice at the altar of what had just become his new church.
His contract was supposed to be for 10 weeks. Tatomer stayed for a year, and returned in 2003 a man on a mission. Nothing mattered now but Riesling.
In 2005 the California harvest was early, and the Wachau’s was late. So Tatomer jumped on a plane and helped out again at Weingut Knoll.
When he returned, he chased a girl to San Francisco, and got a job at Gary Danko as a sommelier. The job and the relationship fell apart about a year later, and Tatomer left again for Austria, thinking that this time, he might not be back.
“I thought to myself, maybe I just need to make wine where people understand Riesling,” he says. “I wanted to make outstanding Riesling, not just good Riesling, and I thought maybe the only place that I might have a chance to do that was someplace where I could actually get great fruit, with tradition on my side.”
But the reality of the challenge of becoming a winemaker in Austria quickly settled in. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I didn’t speak a word of German. People would just stop talking and turn and look at this American speaking English,” he recalls bemusedly. “I realized I needed to just go back home, be near my family, and make the best wine I knew how, in a place where I knew I could manage. If it ended up being the wrong place, it was going to be the wrong place.”
And like so many times when we come to what we think is the end of a road, a new one opens up in front of us. Tatomer had long known of one other plot of Riesling in Santa Barbara besides the Lafond vineyard: a few acres planted at the edge of the Vandenberg Air Force base called Kick On Ranch. In the way that only a good friend could, Adam Tolmach, winemaker at Ojai Vineyard, was so excited that Tatomer was finally getting around to following his dreams, that he called up the owners of the property, and told them Tatomer’s story. The whole saga. And they basically said something along the lines of, “OK, kid, go tell us which piece you want.”
“It was a dream. Adam and I walked the whole vineyard, and we found this three and a half acre section that was the youngest vines, with the tightest spacing, and the best aspect, and we said, we’ll take it.”
And that was the first day of the rest of Graham Tatomer’s life, and the beginning of Tatomer Wines. The owners of Kick On Ranch let Tatomer farm the fruit exactly as he likes, even down to doing a progressive harvest, with three or even four passes through the vineyard over a series of weeks, to get grapes at different sugar levels, from green and tart to grapes suffering from botrytis, the Noble Rot responsible for some of the world’s most coveted Rieslings.
Tatomer’s first vintage was 2008, and he made two wines. The first is a wine that aims at his Austrian ideal: a wine picked early, when sharp with acidity, macerated on the skins, cold fermented using the same Champagne yeast as his friends at Weingut Knoll, and then aged in neutral wood. The second wine blends a number of different ripenesses of grapes, including the sweeter botrytized variety, into a wine that is fermented and aged in stainless steel. Both are dry, by Austrian and (looser) American standards and he won’t release them until they’ve aged a year in the bottle, “because Santa Barbara Riesling takes a little while to show up.”
Now on his third vintage, Tatomer’s production is a whopping 700 cases of wine, and also includes a couple of Gruner Veltliners. “If I want to sell more wine, until I find a way to get someone to plant some Riesling for me in the right spot, I’m going to have to make something else,” he says, also admitting a deep love for Gruner Veltliner.
Tatomer has recently been offered some fruit from that original Lafond vineyard, and people have made noises about potentially planting some more Riesling in the area, but Tatomer isn’t holding his breath.
“The reason no one grows it anymore is that it’s difficult. Riesling is an angry grape. You have to grow it on its own, completely different program. It’s hard to get crews that are used to farming every vineyard the same way to do something totally different for your one little plot,” says Tatomer, explaining that he doesn’t see many options for expanding his operations unless he can control every aspect of the production. His goal at this point is to succeed to the point where he can “afford to have a life and a family.”
Just as long as he keeps being able to make Riesling the way he thinks it should be made.
And how is that? We’ll, all I can say is that the minute I tasted them, I thought they might well be the best California Rieslings I’d ever had, and for those who are cynical enough to (perhaps accurately) say that might not be enough of a recommendation, let me go further to say that these wines are truly excellent. And Graham Tatomer is a winemaker to watch.
2008 Tatomer “Kick On Ranch” Riesling, Santa Barbara. $30
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine has a lively nose of lime zest and wet stones. In the mouth bright mineral, lime, and lemongrass flavors swirl in a very silky body and linger in a long, bright, clean finish. Beautifully balanced. Delicious. Score: around 9. Click to buy.
2009 Tatomer “Vandenberg” Riesling, Santa Barbara. $25
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of lemon zest and floral aromas. In the mouth the wine is bright with green apple and delicate white flower flavors. A nice mineral undertone with a hint of sweetness lingers on the finish. Fantastic acidity and wonderful balance. Lovely. Score: around 9. Click to buy.
2009 Tatomer “Kick On Ranch” Riesling, Santa Barbara. $30
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet stones and floral aromas. In the mouth silky, even creamy textured flavors of apple, cucumber, and lemon zest are electrified by excellent acidity, and linger for some time in a lacy, delicate finish. Outstanding, and definitely one of the best Rieslings I’ve ever had from California. Score: around 9.
Tatomer’s wines can also be purchased directly from him by contacting the winery.