Montecito-Nurtured Winemaker Chris Whitcraft

While searching the Internet for one-of-a-kind, top-rated California wines of the past 20 years, I came upon a 1995 Whitcraft Petite Sirah that was highly rated in Wine Spectator. I’d never known Chris Whitcraft to make that wine varietal, but I knew his formative years as a winemaker were spent on Coast Village Road, where he was a shareholder in Mayfare Wines and Spirits. Mayfare opened its doors in 1947, in the same location that Lucky’s sommeliers now pour Whitcraft wine.

Chris joined Mayfare in 1975, when it had moved further west on Coast Village Road and it was there he began his pursuit of wine knowledge, developed friendships with some of California’s most celebrated wine icons, and even created his first garageiste wine in the basement.

Chris pored through books in the library, took wine classes at UC Davis, and with his self-taught expertise became a Santa Barbara radio wine show host. Starting in March 1978, Chris was heard on 1250 KTMS AM and FM, five days a week, for almost 12 years, from Monterey to Manhattan Beach. “It was important for me to be correct and to offer listeners the opportunity to learn about wines without pretense,” Chris says during a recent conversation. “I knew we lived in a world-class region for producing wine,” he continues, “and I liked to incorporate local people and events in my broadcasts. One year, I scoured the shelves for days and learned enough to speak about Spanish wines and sherry for the week leading up to that year’s Fiesta.”

Chris started off making wine in Mayfare’s cellar in 1978, using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes acquired from Montecito’s Brander family vineyard. The next year, he joined forces with wine pioneer John Graff of Chalone Vineyard. They made wine together in 1979 and 1980 using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Rowan Vineyard (between Sisquoc and Tepesque). By then Chris was out of the basement and making wine at Vega Winery (now Mosby Vineyards). Perfectionist that he was, and still is, he, Graff, and a third partner, Randy Greenfield, traveled over two hours a day taking turns punching down the fermenting wine every eight hours.

1980 marked the creation of Chris’s first celebrated sparkling wine and his foray into Zinfandel and Merlot. The first wine with the Whitcraft label was a 1985 Chardonnay made at Pierre Lafond’s Santa Barbara Winery. When one of the original Rhone Rangers, Bob Lindquist, sold Whitcraft and Graff some of his 1987 Paso Robles Syrah grapes, Too Hip Syrah was born, with the words “unrefined, unfiltered, uncouth” on the label and two crossed band-aids as the capsule. This wine was so delicious even before oak ageing some of it was bottled just weeks after fermentation and became an instant hit at Downey’s (on State Street) as a Beaujolais Nouveau style wine.

The Montecito Syrah

Chris began creating his signature Chardonnay wines in 1988, without interruption to this day, using grapes from prestigious Bien Nacido Vineyard. By 1990 his production had tripled and he moved his winemaking to Central Coast Wine Warehouse where he made his first commercial Pinot Noir. This wine scored an unbelievable 19 out of 20 points in the Underground Wine Journal and Whitcraft Wines took their place among the shining stars of California wines, where they remain today.

Throughout the ensuing years, Chris acquired grapes from some of the most exceptional vineyards in California, including Olivet Lane, Russian River Valley, and Hirsch Vineyards, Sonoma Coast. His appreciation for the influence of terroir resulted in Chris becoming the first winemaker to make separate barrels of wine from specific blocks of grapes grown for him at Bien Nacido Vineyards such as Q Block and N Block Pinot Noir. He also added Melville Vineyard Pinot Noir to his production in 2000 and clients sign up years in advance to be sure they can get each vintage’s release.

The 1995 Petite Sirah referred to earlier came from Joe Carrari’s historic vineyard and was joined that year by his 1995 French Camp Vineyard Nebbiolo. The first California produced Lagrein varietal was the Whitcraft 1996 and wine enthusiasts couldn’t get enough of it. Whitcraft Aubaine Vineyard Pinot Noir made its debut in 2004, the same year Chris received grapes from the first crop of Burt and Jan Williams’ jewel, Morning Dew Ranch Vineyard.

Things came full circle back to Montecito when in 2005 Chris purchased the most local of all grapes and created the Montecito Syrah, currently ageing in its barrels!

The Future

Chris has had share of awards and tributes including his selection as a 2000 honoree at Cuisines of the Sun in Hawaii, and as one of the top five International winemakers honored at a dinner at Hearst Castle during the 1999 Central Coast Wine Classic. Yet when I asked Chris the recognition of which he is most proud he replied, “The greatest joy for me is having people taste my wine and seeing their faces light up.”

Now that the Whitcraft Wine production facility and tasting room is open, you can join those lit-up faces and reminisce with Chris or his son Drake from noon to 4 pm, Friday through Sunday, at 36A South Calle Cesar Chavez, or by advance appointment by calling 805-730-1680.

The future is bright for all fans of Whitcraft Wine as Chris plans to turn over most of the operations to his son after this harvest and remain hands-on as CEO-consultant while traveling and selling his wines worldwide. Production is now about 2,000 cases and he hopes to go up to 3,500, extend the tasting-room hours, and even venture into crafting a Port from Portuguese grapes. Says Chris, “I hope to mix in other varietals like Sauvignon Blanc that I have come to enjoy with the fish, chicken, and vegetables I’ve been eating more often. Sauvignon Blanc is a great match for those dishes, but to me, no white wine will displace Chardonnay as the Great White Wine.”

So what about the future president-winemaker of Whitcraft Wine, Drake Whitcraft? He indeed did grow up in every part of the wine business and recalls, “I was probably four when I helped with my first harvest. Soon after, I was stomping grapes and helping bottle the wine. By 1999, I became so interested in winemaking that I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied just asking questions and helping out part-time. I started working on the wine in 2000 and became assistant winemaker in 2001. Wine was part of my heritage as my mom’s family is from Italy. Wine was in my blood, so when my dad said I had a good palate, I knew I had found my career.”

Drake continues, “I work harvests here in the fall and then go to Australia to work their harvest half a year later. I’ve worked with and met some amazing people down under. I was even given a bottle of Domaine de le Vougerie Clos du Roi Grand Cru Burgundy by the winemaker Pascal Marchant. Once Pascal and I stayed up all night at the Green Vineyard in Australia drinking homemade Cognac and spitting it into a fire to make the flames dance. When we got to the winery in the morning we started blending Pinot Noir for Sergio Carlei (winemaker for Green Vineyards). Despite our lack of sleep and abundance of Cognac, the wine gods smiled and the blend turned out great.”

Drake made his own first barrel of eponymous wine bottled a few weeks after the main batch of Morning Dew Ranch Pinot last year. Look for Drake Pinot Noir 2005 Anderson Valley, Morning Dew Ranch in the tasting room with its blue label and hand-drawn pair of ducks taking flight with their beaks touching, forming the Whitcraft “W.”

I’ll leave you with Chris’s wine philosophy (which includes a takeoff on the “Share Water” brothership in Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”): “If you are going to drink, drink wine, you should know as much about it as the food you are eating. Then, get the best wine you can for your money. My motto is ‘Share Wine’ because there are no great wines; there are only wines that are great because of great occasions and great friends.”