In this Women’s History Month feature, meet Kristin Bryden, Winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. We interviewed Kristin at the Spring Rhone Rangers tasting in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone earlier this month.
Founded in 1973, Zaca Mesa is justly famous for figuring out that Rhone varietals work well in Santa Barbara County where it is too warm for Pinot Noir and not hot enough for Cabernet. In this sweet spot, Rhone varietals like Syrah thrive: the 1993 Zaca Mesa Syrah was the first Santa Barbara County wine to crack the Wine Spectator Top 10. Coming in at number 6 and made by Daniel Gehrs, this wine was also served at the White House for the official State Dinner February 1, 1996 for French President Jacques Chirac.
For 45 years, Zaca Mesa has also been justly famous as a testing ground for winemakers: central coast luminaries like Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyards, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Bob Lindquist of Qupe all worked at Zaca Mesa.
And now it is Kristen Bryden’s turn: she’s been winemaker at Zaca Mesa since 2016. During last week’s Rhone Rangers event, Sue took notes on a laptop while I asked Kristen about her background and her experiences as a woman winemaker and at Zaca Mesa.
In 2011, Kristen came to Zaca Mesa from Wild Horse Winery where she started in a seasonal position which turned permanent. Originally from Redding CA, Kristin came south on a partial track and field scholarship and studied food science, chemistry, and microbiology. When Kristin graduated and needed a job, the wine industry sounded like fun. She spent two years in production, and two years as eonoligist making sure everything was on track. Next Kristin served as assistant winemaker in San Lucas at the 1800 acre estate Lockwood vineyards. Working with estate fruit was key for her getting the position at Zaca Mesa, says Eric Mohseni.
“Kristin’s background working with estate programs was a big draw,” said Eric Mohseni, Zaca Mesa former Winemaker and current Director of Winemaking and Vineyard Operations, on their website. “With an estate vineyard, you are limited to what your vineyard gives you and having that mindset makes it a valuable tool. Her cellar and lab experience works with our facility and also brings us new ideas. Her enthusiasm, keen palate, and sense of adventure are added bonuses! We share a similar, Old World approach to wine making, and I think we make a great wine making team.”
The people and estate vineyard at Zaca Mesa were a big draw to Kristin and led her to accepting the job there. People have been on the Zaca Meza team for many years, she reports, which says great things about the team and what the job could provide to her as she helps produce 15 to 20,000 cases a year.
As a winemaker, she is most drawn to the estate vineyard. Being connected to the vineyard to see what is going on from day to day is very special to her, and she appreciates being connected to the land and what it is producing. While all estate varieties are Rhone, they do source some fruit like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from other vineyards. She has some opportunity to shape the direction of the winery, but she’s really enjoying what she’s doing there now.
Zaca Mesa follows sustainable practices, but is not certified. According to Kristen, they believe that they are stewards of the land and it is in their hands to take care of it.
In this male dominated industry, Kristin’s found that if you work hard and get along with your team that is all that matters. She does not get into the problems that can go into being a woman winemaker; she brushes off the things that don’t matter as much to focus on the winemaking. While she’s never worked for a woman winemaker, she admires those who have paved the way. She mentioned winemaker Clarissa Nagy as an awesome winemaker and mentor who shares her knowledge with others which is super important in this industry. I met Clarissa at the Garagiste Festival in Solvang in February, and she’s definitely on our radar as a woman in wine to watch! (Loved her wines as well…)
As Kristin is single, with no kids or family, she keeps herself busy with winemaking and will see what happens down the road. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities and traveling to wine regions. She has had the opportunity to go to the Rhone, and looks forward to revisiting, because she finds that there is a lot of learning to be done in this industry about the land, the art on winemaking, and the science.
She is happy at Zaca Mesa: being connected to the land and the wines, this is where she wants to be. There are many wonderful vintages to come. There is a beautiful intimacy in being there. She enjoys the people she works with the most. There is a special culture when being connected to a family owned winery. They become your family.
“All days and walks in the vineyard are special,” says Kristen.
We tasted through a number of wines that were being poured at the Rhone Rangers event including these five from Zaca Mesa which we paired with charcuterie from Helena Avenue Bakery.
2017 – Z Gris – 12% alcohol – SRP $18
Pretty color 100 % Grenache Rose. Lovely floral nose Super saline, lots of minerals, dry fruit essence. Nice dry rose. Very pretty pink not much coral like the pink of a Cecil Bruner rose. Great wine. Great brunch wine. Lunch with mom, appetizers, chicken dinner. You keep wanting to visit the nose on this wine. You’ll be wanting to say rose all day about this one.
2016 Viognier – 14% alcohol – SRP $20
This is a very subtle viognier with a predominance of flowers; for $18 it is a great wine if you like the lovely floral notes of a viognier. The nose becomes caramel sweet as it opens up. It is enjoyable as a cocktail wine and great with light appetizers. We imagine it has the substance to go through a wonderful roast chicken meal and could even work well with Indian and Thai food. I thought of Coq au Vin or possibly even Duck l’ Orange. Yes this wine made us think about food pairings!
2014 – Roussanne – 14.5% alcohol – $22.50 –
Lovely fruit, touch of oak, has that kind of petrol notes, light gold straw in color. As it opens up there becomes a cotton candy, bubble gum, pink dispenser soap, a bit of detergent, all in a pleasant interesting complex manner. Would really be great with pork sausage or a rich seafood dish. Not Sue’s favorite for sipping; better with food.
2014 Z cuvee – 14.2% alcohol – $19.80 widely available
45% Grenache, 44% Mourvedre 9% Cinsault, 2% Syrah,
According to Kristen, this is their take on a cotes d rhone. Nice and light – could be a cocktail wine that stands up to dinner as well.
Gotta love the nose on this wine. In fact, the aromatics are remarkable on all of the wines.
This is a very interesting wine for under $20 – lovely wine with our salty salami. This wine is easy to drink and enjoy either with or without food.
If you see this wine by the glass in a restaurant, treat yourself to it.
Also look for it on your local grocers shelves. It is well worth the price. Great value.
2013 Mesa Reserve Syrah – 14.2% alcohol – $43.20
A blend of the best Syrah that is grown throughout the vineyard, it offers lovely fruit and body — and it is big enough to tame blue cheese.
The nose on this wine invites you to revisit over and over.
A wine for sipping and enjoying as well as complimenting a great meal. Great with big bold spicy cured meat, bringing out the smokiness of the meats and the cherry fruit in the wine. Really nice fruit and spice with this wine on the palate. Typical blue fruit on the nose.
This is a California Syrah with a balance between fruit and body. There can be such extremes with Syrah between the big fruity beasts and the austere cold climate minerality. This meets wonderfully in the middle.
2014 – Estrella Syrah –14.5% alcohol – $65
We asked Kristin about what makes this wine so special when we loved the Mesa Syrah so much: would Would it be to cellar the wine?
Kristin explained this this big, bold, super structured beauty has quite a story: It is valuable because it is so rare, and the vine was smuggled over from France in a suitcase.
It went great with the roasted cashews, rich fattiness of the nut, brings out a lovely subtle sweetness, fruit in the wine. but it needs to lay down a while for it to possibly shine as nicely as the Meza Reserve is showing right now. The color residue in the glass is nearly a neon pink, it is super pretty. This wine will be amazing in the cellar after a few years.
Overall, we found Kristen and her wines to be down to earth and enjoyable. We wish Kristen the best in her venture as winemaker at Zaca Mesa.
Thanks for joining us this March for Women’s History Month! There are so many more women in wine that we wanted to feature but its din’t have time. Next year — or sooner!
Stay tuned next month for features about wineries that are doing great by the earth: biodynamic, organic, and other aspects of sustainability.
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