Community Focus: Joan Szkutak
SAMsARA owner, Joan Szkutak, recently sat down with team member Miles Cotton for a little Q&A. Good morning, Joan. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Good morning! it’s a pleasure to be with you. Let’s jump right in. Was there a defining moment in your life that led you to believe that wine would play a major role in your future or was a second career in the wine business a bit of a surprise? I must say having a second career in the wine business was a total surprise. I did not grow up around wine. I had really no exposure to wine until I was working for Proctor & Gamble internationally, and in particular, on my trips to Europe, where food and wine is a way of life. Spending a lot of time in Europe gave me a whole new appreciation for cuisine, which led me to learn how to become a better cook more and to learn more about wine. Before buying SAMsARA, Dave and I looked at a couple business opportunities in the wine business. One opportunity was an import business and one was a retail shop that we were familiar with. Neither one really made sense and we were not really looking to get in the wine business. So, it really was hearing that SAMsARA was for sale that made us think seriously about it. As long time SAMsRA wine club members we already had a love of the wine, the brand, and Santa Barbara wine country in general. What aspects of owning and operating a winery have been most fulfilling for you and what have been the biggest surprises? The most fulfilling thing for me has been our creation of our Chardonnay program. Matt, Dave, and I all said we’d really like to add a Chardonnay to the lineup so we spent time talking about the style we wanted to make and so on. It’s just been incredibly fulfilling to see how amazing those wines are and how excited people are when they try them. My favorite is when someone tells me that they’re not really a Chardonnay lover. I ask them humor me and to try our Chardonnay. There’s a dump bucket right here and they can pour it out . . . that it won’t insult me. People go from, “I don’t like Chardonnay”, to, “I love this wine.” That’s really fun to have created something that people really like and that I’m passionate about. The second part of that question was what has been some of the biggest surprises. For me, one of the biggest surprises has been the impact that the consolidation of distributors small wineries. With consolidation, it means that distribution is really not a very viable model for small boutique wineries. Our cost structure is such that it doesn’t enable us to make wines that we can sell at the prices that are working in a three tier distribution system. So, it’s really made us almost single-mindedly focused on how do we delight consumers in our tasting rooms so that we get passionate and loyal consumers who want to buy direct from us. On a personal level, what was the first wine that you fell in love with? I have fallen in love with lots of wines through the years. However, in the 1980’s, I first tried an aged Cabernet from Napa. I was like wow! This is an amazing wine. It really gave me an appreciation for wine. The one I probably fell the most in love with was Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Beaucastel when we were visiting friends in France. Our friend opened and decanted this wine at 8am for a dinner that evening, which we thought was a bold move. We went out most of the day and returned to prepare a grilled leg of lamb with fresh rosemary picked from bushes surrounding the house. After 12 hours of decanting, this wine was pure magic and made an indelible mark on me! Would that also qualify as your all-time favorite wine? That is one of my all-time favorite wines. Chateauneuf-du-Papes are some of my all-time favorite wines and Beaucastel, clearly, is one of the best. One of the others that really sticks in my mind is some of the amazing Chablis, like Vincent Dauvissat’s Chablis. Those are classics you just can’t turn down. At SAMsARA, we take pride in using Old World winemaking techniques with New World fruit. We really look up to Old World wines and we like to model ourselves after these old world producers. We use some similar techniques and aim to make equally amazing wines with the fruit we can get from Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Barbara County. Turning back to SAMsARA and on the topic of what you like to drink, what is your favorite wine SAMsARA makes to drink today? What do you love to pair it with? These wines are like my children. I love them all in different ways! There’s not a wine we make that I don’t love. That being said, the SAMsRA wines I choose to drink really depends on what I’m eating. Right now, wines that I think are tasting great because they’ve got some added age on them are the 2013 Las Hermanas Pinot Noir and the 2013 Zotovich Vineyard Syrah. The couple extra years of cellar aging have allowed these wines to really come into their own and are exquisite with a well paired meal. Fantastic. Thanks for your time, Joan!