“Wine made in gratitude.” That has to be one of the most honest, heartfelt sentiments we’ve ever seen on a wine label.
Jessica Gasca meant every word of that. She and husband Brady Fiechter own the boutique label called Story of Soil Wine in Santa Barbara County. Jessica is grateful to have found a vocation she loves, in a place she loves, working with people she loves. Through her wines she seeks to tell the rest of the world about some amazing Santa Barbara vineyards.
We are grateful for the time Jessica recently gave us. Listen in as we talk about her career shift into wine, some amazing mentors, the creation of Story of Soil, and her determination to educate wine geeks about Santa Barbara County… one bottle at a time.
Randy: Did you have a calling to get into the wine business?
Jessica: It’s interesting. When I decided to take this journey, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I always had the passion to learn. I still have it.
I was living in Southern California. I was pretty unhappy working in restaurant management. I decided to go back to school and get a “real job”. My parents always emphasized education and hoped all of us kids would pursue that path. Unfortunately, I found myself uninspired in school.
Wine always gave me a spark. Whenever I went wine tasting or drank wine, I was inspired. When you find something enjoyable to learn, it’s not a chore. Learning becomes a fun experience. I don’t know if my move into wine was a calling, but more of an innate desire to educate myself in wine. I’m still learning today.
Randy: Making a move like that requires some courage.
Jessica: It’s funny. I’ll have people in the tasting room who hear my story and tell someone with them that it’s not too late to quit your job and start making wine. They joke about it, but it’s really not a joke. It’s never too late to find your passion or calling. Some people don’t have what it takes to make that leap of faith. I didn’t have that much to lose. I was already unhappy and a bit lost. What was the worst thing that could have happened? Maybe I’d learn to make wine and realize that wasn’t what I wanted to do? I wouldn’t have lost ground even if that happened.
Randy: Who helped you get started?
Jessica: My uncle, Gary Burk, has been making wine in Santa Barbara County for over thirty years. He learned from Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist. He worked as their assistant winemaker and General Manager for many years before starting his own winery called Costa de Oro. He has thirty acres in Santa Maria. I called him when this idea about making wine came to me and he invited me up for harvest. He offered to show me what the whole process was about as an unpaid intern. So my first harvest was with him. I had a full-time job managing a restaurant in Pismo Beach. In my free time, I worked the harvest and in his tasting room. I fell in love with the wine business there. I fell hard and fast.
I loved getting up early for the picks. I still do that today. We pick for all of my wines before sunrise. I don’t miss any of them. There’s something about that whole experience.
He made his wine at Central Coast Wine Services, a co-op facility in Santa Maria. I met other winemakers there like Paul Lato, the Hilliard-Bruce team, Justin Willet from Tyler, Ryan Deovlet, and Mattias Pippig of Sanguis Wines. I got to know and love the wine culture.
Randy: Where did you go from there?
Jessica: Mattias hired me at Sanguis. I worked for him for about three and a half years. I really cut my teeth with him. I learned winemaking and the business aspects of wine. He taught me a lot about entrepreneurship and introducing a brand into the wine world. That was a really small shop, so I pitched in with everything. That position was like boot camp for me.
Randy: At what point did you feel ready to start your own label?
Jessica: That was not a very well thought out process! I was working for Mattias. As his apprentice I wasn’t using much creativity. I had my list of tasks that I needed to do and I did them.
I’ve always had a creative side. I used to be a dancer. I did acting growing up and played musical instruments. When I had my nose to the grindstone at Sanguis, that creative part of me wanted to make my own wine. I saved my money. I knew starting my own project would be expensive. I didn’t come from money and wasn’t making much as an assistant winemaker. In 2012 I ventured out. I didn’t have a written business plan. I just knew I wanted and needed to create. I had that spark.
Randy: What were those first wines?
Jessica: I made a bit of Larner Vineyard Syrah. I’ve always loved tasting wines from that vineyard. I also made some Gold Coast Pinot Noir. That’s the vineyard I had learned from with my uncle. From there we’ve continued to progress year after year.
Randy: Was your goal at Story of Soil always to be single vineyard/single varietal?
Jessica: Mattias Pippig is a master blender. He does some crazy blends at Sanguis. At some point there I realized that those weren’t the style of wines I wanted to drink. They were big, heavy, rich wines. I wasn’t drawn to them. I really loved Pinot Noir. There’s a purity in Pinot. That purity was more complex to me than a blend. A good Pinot has some nuance going on. I thought that was extremely fascinating. I didn’t necessarily understand it, either.
As I drank more and learned more, it dawned on me that wines from the same vineyard made by different producers didn’t taste the same. Why was that? By drinking my way through Santa Barbara County trying to understand that, a seed for my brand was planted.
Randy: Tell me about your time at Dragonette Cellars.
Jessica: For five years I was their Director of Sales. They were a lot smaller when I started, maybe five thousand cases. It was my job to help get their name out there. I was focused on brand building, sales goals, tasting room success, and winery success. We accomplished some amazing things back then. Part of the reason I took the job was that they knew and I knew that I was already working on my own project. They gave me great flexibility along those lines. Come harvest I’d go do my thing while also working for them. They were all very gracious. John, Steve, and Brandon are three of the kindest human beings on the planet. There are a lot of egos in the wine industry, but not with those guys.
Randy: Did the stint at Dragonette influence your wine focus?
Jessica: That time was a big influence on me. They believe that wine is about the site. Brandon, John, and Steve do some blending, but they have a beautiful Pinot Noir program. I got a really good chance over five years with them to learn about different sites. As that Dragonette education was going on, I also believed that varietals other than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should show site influence. No one was highlighting single sites for Syrah, Grenache, and other varietals. I decided that I was excited enough with these specific sites to try to share them with people. I wanted to focus on the place. I wanted to teach people about Santa Barbara first and foremost. It’s a magical, magical place. From a wine perspective, one of the beauties here is that there are so many different wines. That helps spur me on.
It’s really exciting for me to hear tasting room customers talk about the wines. One person may love the Sierra Madre Pinot Noir. The next person may be just as passionate about the Duvarita Pinot. It’s fun to see those reactions. All the wines come from their own place.
Randy: Did you seek out specific vineyards for specific varietals?
Jessica: Remember, I haven’t been doing this for very long. I started about ten years ago. Story of Soil didn’t get started until 2012. In 2012 and 2013 I only made about one hundred fifty cases. What’s the old joke in the wine industry about how to make a million dollars… you start out with ten million! That’s not my story. I had to really budget. I wanted to work with some vineyards that I simply could not afford. I really focused on those vineyards that really interested me and fit within my budget.
Duvarita Vineyard was one of those vineyards. Before I got into the wine industry, I would come up here and taste. One of my favorite Syrah vineyards was Presidio, the former name of the Duvarita property. Another top one was Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard, now known as Slide Hill Vineyard. Those two really stood out for me. Fast forward, I got to know the Duvarita Pinot Noir when I was working at Dragonette. I knew there was something special about that site. Both the Syrahs and the Pinot Noirs I had tasted from there were distinctive. Brook Williams is a really smart and talented guy. He has the passion for biodynamics that I appreciate. He’s running the programs at both Duvarita and Slide Hill now. When I had the opportunity to buy fruit from him, I jumped on it.
My focus has been site specific. I taste wines of my colleagues from these vineyards. Those are wines I want to drink. As I’ve moved along and increased production little by little, I’ve sought out other sites that I think are extremely expressive and special. I will not make wine just because fruit is made available to me. I’ve had fruit offered to me at a good price that I’ve turned down. I want the best fruit from the best sites. That tells the best story. I’m looking for the vineyards that have their own story to tell.
Randy: That philosophy connects to your label’s name, doesn’t it?
Jessica: Definitely. Wine is such a story. The story is not just about the people that make the wine, but also about the place where the wines were grown. I may not own the land, but I want to tell that story. I love telling my customers what Duvarita, Larner, and Slide Hill are about. That’s very important.
When you open a bottle of wine there’s always a story with it. There are moments that go along with that wine. That is the magic of wine to me.
Randy: Tell me about opening your own tasting room.
Jessica: Another old wine joke is that after you make the wine, you have to do something with it. That’s true. I got this opportunity for a small tasting room. My landlord is Michael Zinke. He had this empty space in his tasting room in Los Olivos. We are friends. He respected what I was doing and how hard I was working, so he offered me the space one day. Wow. I accepted right away.
We were not ready. We hadn’t budgeted for it and we didn’t necessarily have enough wine for it. For four months we were pouring four wines in bottle and barrel samples of our Grenache. It was a struggle making it work at first, but I knew it had to happen. This was a great opportunity the Universe had presented in a perfect place.
Again the guys at Dragonette were very gracious. I told them about the opportunity and they told me to go for it. They were rooting for me. I kept working for them for an entire year after we opened the tasting room.
Randy: How has the tasting room worked so far?
Jessica: It’s been an amazing place to introduce the wines. I don’t consider my brand a product. I like to think of Story of Soil as an education into Santa Barbara. I get to inform the wine geeks of the world about this place. Without a tasting room I couldn’t talk about all these special vineyards. It’s been really fun. I’m blessed to have it.
Randy: Is there a varietal you haven’t worked with that you’d like to try
Jessica: I still consider myself a complete novice in making wine. I may try a wine and really like it, but I know little to nothing about the varietal. That sparks me to learn about it. I have to be excited about making a new wine. One of those discoveries was Gamay. I’ve made some the last two vintages. I had never made it at my other jobs. I knew I loved to drink it and I knew I wanted to attempt it. There are certain varietals I sort of geek out over. They make me want to make them.
I’ve been drinking a lot of Grüner Veltliner lately. Graham Tatomer makes some amazing Grüners. I’d tasted a lot of others and loved them, too. So I added that to my lineup this year.
The Wine Write: How can readers outside the Central Coast source your wines?
Jessica: We are super small. I’ll be at about fifteen hundred cases this vintage. We are selling out a lot of our wine quickly in the tasting room. The best way to find us is online. I don’t have distribution at this point. I’ve had good word of mouth. I do place some wine in pretty specific restaurants… places that make a good fit for my brand. Selling out is a nice problem, but it makes it a little scary for the tasting room. My goal is to eventually get to twenty-five hundred cases. I don’t want the brand any bigger than that. I still want to do geeky stuff. I want to learn new vineyards and introduce new varietals.
I have no desire to run a sales team in Florida, New York, and Texas. Basically I want to get Story of Soil bottles into the hands of fellow wine geeks.
Randy: Any regrets at all about making that dive into the wine business
Jessica: There’s not a single part of me that regrets that move. As a matter of fact, I wake up every day and consider how incredibly blessed I am. On the back of my bottles is the phrase “Wine Made In Gratitude”. I’m extremely grateful to be doing what I’m doing in this industry and in this beautiful community.
We found Jessica engaging and enthusiastic about her mission with Story of Soil Wine. How cool and appropriate is that label name? It deflects attention away from Jessica and cellar work and back into the vineyard dirt. There’s no ego here, but one can’t help but realize there are a couple of smart, driven people behind the brand.
This is just the sort of artisan winery we seek to know. If you’re looking for handcrafted wines that talk to where they were grown, check out the Story of Soil Wine website. Grab some bottles, taste for yourself, and geek out.