Dave and Joan Szkutak, Chaîne members and owners of SAMsARA Wine Co. in Santa Barbara, California, discovered the region in 2005 when a friend suggested they visit Santa Barbara. “We were frankly blown away by how good the wines were. We think it’s still a hidden gem of an area in the world for wine, particularly in the United States,” Dave said to Chaîne during a Jan. 27, 2021 telephone interview.
Central Coast AVA
All of Santa Barbara County is in the Central Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), the largest AVA in California that includes 10 counties. In Santa Rita Hills, a Central Coast sub AVA (officially Sta. Rita Hills), fog rolls in at night and lifts late morning the following day. SAMsARA contracts all of its vineyards with dedicated rows of vines, most in Sta. Rita Hills and the rest from cool climate vineyards in Santa Barbara County.
Once the fog dissipates in the area, the sun takes over. “Then the wind picks up, the fruit dries off, it gets warm and sunny and then at night, this happens again. These high diurnal shifts gives the grapes great acidity,” Joan Szkutak said to Chaîne in a second telephone interview on June 23, 2021.
Vintners have different opinions on optimal times to pick grapes, one of the most critical steps in making great wine, Dave said. “Some like to pick later because they want higher alcohol wines and very ripe fruit. We pick on the earlier side once the phenolics (flavors) are right and the pH is still low. The acidity in wines is what makes your mouth water (think lemon juice!) and higher acid wines generally pair better with foods,” he explained.
In Sta. Rita Hills, expert vintners paired with Mother Nature is a dream come to fruition.
“In our opinion, it’s hands down the best region in the United States for cool climate varietals.” Joan said. The Sta. Rita Hills sub AVA is one of the coolest climate AVA in the Americas, she added.
SAMsARA Wine Co.
Dave and Joan nurtured their interest in and knowledge of wine over many years, bringing deep business experience to their second careers as vintners. They were introduced to wine as a leisure activity while traveling around the world as corporate executives. Their memorable experiences visiting international wineries prompted them to think about getting into some aspect of the wine industry. Home base was Cincinnati so between business trips, they took advantage of educational opportunities at The Wine Merchant, a local wine shop owned by Kathee Van Kirk, a Chaîne and Mondiale member, and at formal Chaîne events. That base of knowledge prompted Dave to enroll in wine classes through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Begun in 1969 in the United Kingdom, WSET began offering classes in the United States in the 1990s and in 2019, opened a permanent office in Hartford, Connecticut. Completing the required coursework and tests over a period of five years, Dave recently earned a Level 4 Diploma.
In 2017, Dave and Joan were not looking to purchase a winery when they visited Santa Barbara with Mark and Gina Torkos, dear friends and fellow Chaîne members from St. Augustine, Florida who were interested in learning about the Santa Barbara wines they had enjoyed with the Szkutaks. While there, the opportunity to purchase SAMsARA presented itself. Started in 2002 by Chad and Mary Melville, SAMsARA produced Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache varietals. The Szkutaks were already loyal customers and wine club members so it was a natural fit.
One of the key reasons they went forward with the purchase was having Matt Brady as their Winemaker.
Matt, like Dave and Joan, fell in love with Santa Barbara wine country. As a college student at the University of California Santa Barbara in the early 2000s, he spent weekends exploring wineries. After graduation, he secured a job at a winery and by 2015, was named its Head Winemaker. In 2017, he took over winemaking duties at SAMsARA. With a philosophy of minimum intervention and maximum patience to make wine, he was a perfect fit with the Szkutaks.
Old world winemaking techniques, such as native yeast, whole cluster fermentation and longer macerations to extract flavors from the stems and skins, are core to Matt’s minimal intervention style. “Healthy grapes tend to have healthy loads of yeast and that allows them to complete the fermentation,” Joan said. Matt works closely with the farmers and vineyard managers at their contract vineyards to optimally leverage Mother Nature’s gifts.
“It’s a great place to be a grape,” Joan said Matt likes to say.
Having a perfect climate and an expert winemaker though is only part of the equation to successfully operate a winery. The order of operations is well known. But there are variables on the business side that require a unique skill set to solve.
“It’s difficult to make great wines but it’s a lot harder to sell great wines because there’s so much competition out there, particularly for small wineries,” Joan said. SAMsARA fits into the very small winery category with production between 3,500 to 4,000 cases per year.
Dave explains that a 2005 Supreme Court ruling dramatically changed wine industry sales and marketing. In Granholm v. Heald, the court ruled in a narrow decision that preventing out-of-state wineries from selling direct to consumers was unconstitutional since in-state wineries were selling direct to consumers.
Today almost every state allows out-of-state wine sales direct to their residents but there are a few exceptions. And selling to retail stores and restaurants still requires wineries go through a distributor.
Keeping track of 50 different sets of regulations governing the sale of wine directly to consumers is reason enough to uncork a bottle of SAMsARA Zotovich Chardonnay, one of the wines Dave, Joan and Matt are especially proud of since they started producing their cool climate Chardonnay. Joan likes to challenge people who are ABC wine drinkers – Anything But Chardonnay – to sample their varietal. Joan said a majority of people who try it like it. SAMsARA has converted ABC drinkers to CCC (Cool Climate Chardonnay) fans! Through their wine club, members get access to a limited supply of some of their single vineyard vintages, select barrels of their cool climate Chardonnay, and other varietal reserved wines.
SAMsARA’s LOTUS and OM wines are bottled annually from the best one or two barrels of their Pinot Noir and Syrah varietals respectively, a tradition begun by the previous owners. In 2017, the first vintage the Szkutaks produced, they reserved one barrel of each for their LOTUS and OM brands. “It’s what we feel best represents our style of wine. It best showcases what we do,” Joan said. Normally available to wine club members only, they will soon be releasing the 2017 vintage with special hand-dipped caps instead of foil and beautiful labels.
As they pondered label designs for these special wines, they only had to call Gina Torkos, their dear friend who is an award winning artist specializing in oil painting and collage. On her website, Gina’s love of the natural world is on display with beautiful collages of shorebirds of which she has endless opportunities to observe living in St. Augustine. For the SAMsARA LOTUS label, Gina created a Lotus flower collage from magazines and existing SAMsARA labels. Upon close inspection of the label, the words “fun” and “joy” are clearly seen. “It ties into our theme of enjoyment and friendship with wines,” Joan said. For the OM label, Gina took inspiration from an oil painting hanging in her home that she painted following her travels to Cambodia. Today the LOTUS and OM originals are proudly displayed in the SAMsARA winery tasting room.
Joan is excited friends can again share wine face-to-face. The pandemic was a variable nobody saw coming. SAMsARA has two tasting rooms, one in Goleta where their winery is located and one in Los Olivos.
Both rooms were closed from March 2020 to June 2020 and then again in December 2020 and January 2021 with outside tasting available the other months. As of June 15, 2021, both inside and outside are at full capacity although Joan said people are preferring seated tastings instead of traditional standing at their bar tastings.
“It’s been incredibly challenging in particular because we never quite knew what was going to happen the next week or the next month. But we have an amazing team that pulled together and we just, as everyone likes to use the word, pivot. We quickly pivoted,” Joan said. Lily Hays, certified sommelier and SAMsARA Hospitality and Education director, planned a successful June 9, 2020 virtual tasting for Chaîne members, the type of event the winery will continue to offer.
In addition to virtual consumer tastings, they also conducted virtual events for their sales network and corporate clients, growing their business slightly during the unprecedented time. Going forward, they are looking to balance each sales channel, especially keeping their customers who found them online during the pandemic to ensure they continue to feel part of the winery.
While one cannot generalize about demographic groups, clear trends with young wine drinkers are concerns about brand identity and sustainability. With their philosophy of minimal intervention, by next year SAMsARA’s plan is to harvest 100 percent of their grapes from organic vineyards.
Dave references an annual report by Silicon Valley Bank that is a treasure trove of information about 2020 and future trends. In Silicon Valley Bank’s “State of the Wine Industry 2021,” the report reveals that in 2020, wineries were able to sell wine a new way by simply calling customers via cell phone lists, something some wineries did not even have at the start of the pandemic. And digital video sales became a new channel during the pandemic to connect with customers. (p. 5 – see link below). The millennial cohort (ages 24-39) will be incredibly important for wineries to nurture in 2021 and beyond if the industry can expect to match the robust growth it experienced from 1994-2014, the report said. (p. 39)
For all of their customers, Dave and Joan are focused on offering them the same memorable experiences they have had around the world. As the grapes were coming in during their first harvest in 2017, it dawned on Dave they were actually making something people would consume and hopefully, love. “Intellectually, there was nothing new there. But emotionally, it was very different,” Dave said. To affect people’s lives in such a personal way drives their dedication. Dave encourages Chaîne members to come to Santa Barbara to visit and to try Santa Barbara wines.
Joan said all signs are pointing to 2021 being one of their best vintages. Harvest will likely start in late August or the beginning of September for their early varietals, such as Chardonnay, and extend into late October or early November for their later varietals of Syrah and Grenache. Joan and Dave are the first to admit owning and operating a winery is a lot of hard work but with their dedicated team and their partnership with Mother Nature, SAMsARA is flourishing.
“Those Transverse Mountain Ranges are really magic,” Joan said.
Check back for an update on the 2021 vintage as their harvest progresses in the fall.