Kukkula Wines

Monday September 23, 2019

how did I get here?

I can’t pin­point what got me inter­est­ed in wine. I had no expo­sure as a kid, but devel­oped a curios­i­ty about wine after col­lege. I guess it was an evo­lu­tion.

As a child I grav­i­tat­ed to the out­doors and did a lot of camp­ing and fish­ing grow­ing up. I also had an inter­est in plants and start­ed a veg­etable gar­den and flower gar­dens at my par­ents’ home, which I main­tained well into my teens. Although I moved away from gar­den­ing dur­ing col­lege and my 20s, I liked and under­stood plants. My dad worked as a gen­er­al con­trac­tor and devel­op­er, so I also grew up build­ing, and loved the process. Pho­tog­ra­phy and archi­tec­ture were oth­er diver­sions, and some­how all of these ear­ly inter­ests seemed to fuel my lat­er wine hob­by”.

In my 20s and well into my 40s, I was an avid run­ner and cyclist. When I start­ed dat­ing Paula, I want­ed to fig­ure a way to get her into cycling, so we start­ed doing rides tied to a des­ti­na­tion. This led to spend­ing long week­ends in places like San­ta Ynez, the Russ­ian Riv­er, Napa and Bode­ga Bay. We start­ed rid­ing with friends, and this grew into orga­nized bike tours through Back­roads. Most trips were tied to wine tast­ing, and I start­ed col­lect­ing wine.

When Paula and I met in 1985, I owned a small town­house. About a year and a half lat­er we moved into a town­house she bought. We were in our late 20s. I had long har­bored a desire to build my own place, and I would take off after­noons from work to dri­ve aim­less­ly through the wind­ing roads of the San­ta Mon­i­ca moun­tains look­ing at prop­er­ties for sale, a place to build our dream home. Some­how, I con­vinced Paula that we should both sell our town­hous­es, and use the pro­ceeds to buy unde­vel­oped prop­er­ty. We did, and with the pro­ceeds from the sales and some sav­ings, we start­ed build­ing our first home on 2.5 acres in Topan­ga Canyon. It took 15 months and was real­ly just a shell when we moved in and got mar­ried there in 1991. It took the next 15 years to fin­ish.

Short­ly after mov­ing to Topan­ga, our archi­tect, Jeff Fink (a just grad­u­at­ed archi­tec­tur­al stu­dent from UCLA), sug­gest­ed that the unfin­ished base­ment of our new home would be a great place to make wine. He was real­ly into Bour­gogne wines, so when I expressed a mutu­al inter­est, we dove in. He con­vinced me that we should start with some­thing easy like Pinot Noir (Shows how much we knew!). Some­how, in the process of talk­ing it through, anoth­er friend and for­mer col­league from Mer­rill Lynch, Sam Mar­morstein, also insist­ed on get­ting involved. None of us had ever made wine, let alone ever stud­ied viti­cul­ture or enol­o­gy. We pur­chased our first half ton of Pinot from a small vine­yard in the Russ­ian Riv­er Val­ley and nev­er looked back. After the first year we stepped up to two bar­rels, and then some­thing like two Pinot and one of Chardon­nay, which led into dis­cus­sions of start­ing a vine­yard. With­in a few years, Jeff had start­ed Tan­ta­ra with a friend, and Sam had moved to the Cen­tral Coast (which we had intro­duced him to on one of our many bike trips).

After the birth of our first child, Anna, at the end of 1994, Paula and I latched on to a front-page sto­ry in the LA Times Trav­el sec­tion about rent­ing an old farm house in Provence as a hub for day trips. Hav­ing read a few of the Peter Mayle books that roman­ti­cized the Rhone lifestyle, and hav­ing a young one, we thought this was a won­der­ful vaca­tion idea. A year lat­er we rent­ed the very same house in the lit­tle vil­lage of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, just out­side of Avignon,in the heart of Mayle’s Provence, close to vil­lages like Bon­nieux, Menerbe, and Rous­sil­lon.

The three-week Provençal trip was real­ly focused on expe­ri­enc­ing the lifestyle, eat­ing great food, and explor­ing amaz­ing winer­ies. One of the sem­i­nal vis­its was to Beau­cas­tel, where we got to taste wine with one of the pro­pri­etors, Jean-Pierre Per­rin. I told him that I was mak­ing wine in the base­ment of our Topan­ga home, and I was inter­est­ed in pos­si­bly plant­i­ng a small vine­yard on the prop­er­ty. He told us about the nurs­ery and vine­yard his fam­i­ly and the Haas fam­i­ly were set­ting up in Ade­lai­da. That was the begin­ning of Tablas Creek. On our return to the states, I went up to vis­it the nurs­ery with my friend, Sam, who had just relo­cat­ed to Los Olivos to open a restau­rant called Los Olivos Café and Wine Mer­chant. We were both inter­est­ed in pur­chas­ing vines to plant vine­yards.

This proved to be the begin­ning of the end for me! Dri­ving along Vine­yard and onto Ade­lai­da Rd to arrive at Tablas Creek plant­ed a seed that start­ed to grow. I came back with 500 Syrah vines from the nurs­ery, which grew to 1500 over the next few years.

Over the years, from 1996 through 2004, I toiled in the vine­yard and learned a lot along the way. Our first vin­tage was 1999. By then we had cre­at­ed a legal­ly bond­ed win­ery and start­ed sell­ing the wine to friends and local stores and restau­rants. A whop­ping 60+ cas­es a year! In ret­ro­spect, it was my lab exper­i­ment, for the real project we would embark on in 2003. I learned a lot in the lab” over those years, and read a lot of books on viti­cul­ture and enol­o­gy.

Around the turn of the cen­tu­ry, I was get­ting rest­less. Part­ly because I was feel­ing trapped in the mas­sive LA metrop­o­lis, but main­ly because the wine bug had real­ly got­ten a hold of me. Paula and I had talked fair­ly seri­ous­ly about doing a win­ery project down the road, per­haps when the kids were all out of the house, or ear­li­er if the stars aligned.

In ear­ly 2003, one of my clients, upon return­ing from a vaca­tion in Aus­tralia, called me up to tell me that I should move the fam­i­ly there and pur­sue my inter­est in wine. I recall her say­ing that it’s a young indus­try, peo­ple are laid back, and with my work eth­ic, I could make a killing. I relayed this con­ver­sa­tion to Paula, but quick­ly for­got about it. Much to my sur­prise, short­ly after our mid-August return from our annu­al pil­grim­age to our cab­in in Cana­da, Paula sug­gest­ed we explore mov­ing to Aus­tralia. I’m sure it was dri­ven by the depres­sive funk I always expe­ri­enced for a peri­od of weeks after the re-entry from the soli­tude of our North­ern Ontario cab­in into the crazi­ness of Los Ange­les! With the excep­tion of my par­ents and two sis­ters, all of my fam­i­ly lived in Cana­da or Fin­land. Paula’s fam­i­ly, how­ev­er, lived most­ly on the west coast, so I real­ized pret­ty quick­ly that a move that far might prove dif­fi­cult for her. As much as I want­ed to jump on it, I sug­gest­ed an alter­na­tive: Paso Rob­les. I had been to Paso numer­ous times and had been dream­ing about how cool it would be to start a project there. Like Aus­tralia at that time, Paso was start­ing to get a lot of buzz. I didn’t need much encour­age­ment; I think we went to look at prop­er­ty the next week­end!

As fate would have it, I had a chance con­ver­sa­tion with yet anoth­er client/​mentor/​friend, Lothar Schweigert, the Mon­day of my return. He asked me about what I had done that week­end. After find­ing out about our Paso explo­ration, he got so excit­ed that he called me just about every day to ask me what I was doing to pur­sue this. It got to the point that he and his wife, Stel­la, insist­ed on vis­it­ing Paso with me to take a look at a spe­cif­ic prop­er­ty I was con­tem­plat­ing. Their vis­it fueled the flames even more. I made offers on the prop­er­ty only to get shot down because of con­tin­gen­cies. Lothar didn’t want me to miss out, so he decid­ed to buy the prop­er­ty, and on a hand­shake, told me he would hold it until we could sell our Topan­ga home and were able to write the check. That hap­pened a year lat­er, and in Decem­ber of 2004, we moved the fam­i­ly up to Paso Rob­les.

The house was built first and com­plet­ed in July of 2007. We start­ed plan­ning for the con­struc­tion of the win­ery facil­i­ty with­in a year of that, start­ed con­struc­tion in Octo­ber of 2009, and were oper­a­tional by Sep­tem­ber of 2010. Six­teen years after the ini­tial spark, 12 years after mov­ing onto the prop­er­ty, and 9 years after the com­ple­tion of our win­ery, kukku­la has come a long way from the orig­i­nal dream. By the way, I hon­ored Lothar by nam­ing a wine after him, Lothario. Not because he was a Casano­va, but because the word Lothario” evolved from a char­ac­ter also named Lothar!

These days I often find myself hear­ing the words of the David Byrne song from his Talk­ing Heads days, Once in a Life­time”. How did I get here?” I’m not real­ly sure, but it’s not bad for a guy who has no for­mal edu­ca­tion in viti­cul­ture or enol­o­gy!


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