I first met winemaker Tara Gomez more than three years ago when her employer, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, opened a winery for its Kitá Wines brand in Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills Wine Center.
The winery that started with just three tons of fruit in 2010 has grown steadily by the year, Gomez said. The 2013 vintage was the largest to date with 55 tons, and she estimated that Kitá’s current grape harvest should yield about 20 tons.
Kitá Wines averages 2,000 cases annually, with the 2013 harvest having yielded between 3,000 and 3,200 cases, she noted.
Since she launched the Chumash’s first vintage in 2010, Gomez has earned high praise and awards for Kitá wines, which now include sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, grenache blanc, rosé, T’aya (white Rhone blend), grenache, pinot noir, Spe’y (red Rhone blend), syrah, cabernet sauvignon and S’alapay (a red Bordeaux blend).
The T’aya (“abalone shell”), Spe’y (“flower”) and S’alapay (“above”) are words native to Samala, the language of the Chumash people, Gomez said.
Early in August, I sat down with Gomez to taste through a flight of current and unreleased Kitá wines.
While everything we tasted was balanced and elegant, I discovered two standouts. First was the 2014 T’aya, a 60-38-2 percent blend of marsanne, roussanne and grenache blanc.
“This wine is more like one made in the southern France style,” Gomez said. “I’m trying to showcase all of the wine’s layers.”
Second was the 2013 Spe’y, a 58-21-21 percent blend of grenache, syrah and carignane. The carignane adds rich color, and the grenache the wine’s floral aromas, she noted.
These two wines highlight Gomez’s deft hand for allowing each varietal layer in a blend to shine.
During our conversation, I posed a question I frequently ask winemakers: What’s your favorite aspect of making wine?
“For me, it’s the chance to think outside the box,” Gomez said. “Each vintage is different, and I have to adjust for every one of them. I like the need to think and adjust.”
That means being flexible, so she said she goes “to every picking to sort fruit. As I pick fruit, I think and then make adjustments at the winery.”
This vintage, she’s putting that inclination to practice by crafting Kitá’s first sparkling wine, one made with roussanne grapes from the Camp 4 Vineyard.
On Aug. 20, I met Gomez at the winery to watch her crew hand-sort roussanne grapes harvested under the cover of darkness early that morning.
She picked the roussanne at about 18 brix, when the clusters displayed a mix of “still green fruit and the beginning of botrytis (common to roussanne) so that it will be both acidic and sweet,” Gomez said.
The Camp 4 Vineyard, which the Chumash bought in 2010 from the late Fess Parker’s family, is the source of all Kitá’s grape varietals except the sauvignon blanc, sourced in 2011 and 2012 from Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon, and the pinot noir, sourced from Hilliard Bruce Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills.
As many as 60 to 70 other winemakers source grapes from Camp 4’s 256 planted acres, Gomez said, adding that those buyers are mostly smaller clients who purchase an average of only one to five tons per vintage.
During the growing season and the weeks leading up to harvest, Gomez routinely walks the vine rows with Ben Merz and Rudy Bravo, she said.
Merz, co-owner of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, joined Camp 4 when the tribe purchased the site, and Bravo is the longtime vineyard manager. A vineyard as large as Camp 4 demands year-round care, and one of Gomez’s first goals when she came aboard was to “increase the level of farming” there.
Gomez, a Santa Maria native and the daughter of tribe vice chairman Richard Gomez, attended California State University-Fresno on a tribal scholarship.
While a student at Fresno State, she interned at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Los Olivos, and after her graduation in 1998, Gomez parlayed her love of chemistry into an enology job at the winery.
She next worked both as an enologist and lab manager at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines in Paso Robles. While employed there, Gomez launched her own label, Kalawashaq Wine Cellars. Kalawashaq means “shell of the turtle” in Samala.
In 2007, while still employed at J. Lohr, Gomez said she put aside Kalawashaq to focus on travel to better experience the “Old World” winemaking styles still adhered to in France, Germany and Spain.
Gomez is especially fond of Spain. She has traveled there “since age 16,” in part because her family hosted a Spanish foreign exchange student. Her wife, Mireia Taribo, also is a winemaker and a native of Santa Lina, Cataluna, Spain, and the couple “love traveling together,” Gomez said.
The two recently explored the Penedès area of Catalonia, home to cava, Spain’s sparkling wine.
“We tasted a lot, and we brought a lot back with us,” Gomez said with a smile. “We learned the culture and style and some of the history of Old World wines.”
Gomez’s assistant winemaker, Tymari LoRe, graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a bachelor’s degree in wine and viticulture.
During her internship at J. Lohr, LoRe met Gomez, and when the Chumash launched Kitá Wines, she came aboard. Except for the 2014 vintage, when she worked a harvest in Burgundy, France, LoRe has been Kitá’s assistant winemaker since the label’s inception, Gomez said.
Gomez is one of six female winemakers who will participate in an Oct. 8 seminar, the Saturday morning of the Celebration of Harvest weekend, which is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Vintners. Click here for more information about the organization.
Click here for more information about Kitá Wines.