A Glass of Wine with Wes Hagen
One look at Wes Hagen’s impressive résumé and you know you’re dealing with a true pro. Beyond being a well-respected winemaker, Mr. Hagen is an educator, orator, writer, wine grape farmer, and arguably one of the most knowledgeable individuals on the California wine scene today.
From a shuttle bus driver at a recent wine expo in Santa Barbara, to many a winemaker and tasting room attendant I’ve chatted up over the past few years, people love Wes Hagen. Vince Anter of V is for Vino shared, “Wes is one of the most charismatic human beings I’ve ever met, in addition to the fact that he’s a wealth of wine knowledge. He’s helped define Santa Barbara wine as we know it, and you won’t meet a bigger advocate for the region than him.”
In 2013, Michael Cervin (Wall Street Journal, Decanter) rated Wes as one of the 100 Most Influential Winemakers in the United States. Wes worked as vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards and Estate Wines in the Santa Rita Hills for 20 years, 8 years with Bien Nacido/Miller, and is considered an industry leader in Santa Barbara wine, having served for more than a decade on the boards of directors for both Santa Barbara County Vintners and the Santa Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance.
Wes is also the current Central Coast wine beat writer for The SOMM Journal and Tasting Panel, and has written for WineMaker Magazine for over 20 years. He’s taught the Food and Wine Pairing program at Allan Hancock College for 14 years, and lectured on the history of wine and Santa Barbara wine at the Smithsonian, SommCon, ESRI, Cornell University, Caltech, and many, many other prestigious institutions. Lastly, Wes can tell you the entire history of wine in just over eight minutes, as evidenced in this video, which may have something to do with why he’s been nominated multiple times for a TED-talk.
I had the immense pleasure of getting to know him over a glass of Santa Barbara wine on a blustery Coastal California day—here’s what we discussed:
AM: You’ve had quite an illustrious career so far. What’s your favorite hat to wear? Do you prefer winemaking, vineyard management, writing, teaching, or is it the mix of it all that drives you?
WH: I’m just so lucky to wake up every morning to new opportunities to share wine, food, and knowledge with amazing people. My old life at Clos Pepe was focused on winegrowing and cellar work with my wife. My 8 years at J Wilkes/Bien Nacido taught me how to operate in a national wine sales organization and how to navigate the wholesale market. My new gig at Native9 – brand ambassador and estate host – allows me to integrate my nearly 30 years of Santa Barbara Wine experience: travel, teach, sell, and promote a small and precious legacy wine and vineyard brand in California. So to your question, I love the different hats: from hardhat for vineyard install, to a baseball cap for some vineyard work, to a fedora at a fancy dinner. Wine is a great passion of mine, and it seems to attract the other things that drive me as a human – delicious things and great conversations with educated people.
AM: Was there one bottle that did it for you—one that shifted things to where you decided to dive into the world of wine?
WH: Oh, yes. During Clinton’s impeachment, my family was in Burgundy for travel and pleasure, introducing me to the deeper wisdom of all things Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. At the Rotisserie de Chambertin in Winter 1999, we were treated to a bottle of Louis Trapet Chappelle-Chambertin Grand Cru 1972. The nose was impossible—smoke, tar, violets, duck fat. I am not embarrassed to say I wept for this wine, and it made me a winemaker that night. Not that it made me want to replicate it—quite the opposite—but it was like a young filmmaker watching Citizen Kane or Chinatown. That bottle taught me to leave Burgundy in Burgundy and attempt to achieve a transparency to terroir like I learned that night in the Cote de Nuits. It’s a weird flex to say that Burgundy taught me to never use the word Burgundian in describing a Pinot or Chardonnay from outside of Marsannay to Mersault…but that’s exactly what it gave me…respect and humility.
AM: You’ve been instrumental in putting the wines of Santa Barbara County on the map—quite literally, as you established the Santa Rita Hills AVA. What were the wines like when you first started out, and how have they evolved?
WH: AVA development will certainly be the lion’s share of my legacy here in Santa Barbara wine country. The early pioneers of the Santa Rita Hills needed a scribe for the new AVA document, and I was either excited enough or stupid enough to volunteer for a nearly four-year writing project. No one knew about the quality of the SRH Pinots and Chards back then, except maybe Dan Berger and a few true believers who would poke their heads in from time to time. The wines in the 90s were stunning, but we drank most of them locally, and there wasn’t enough to saturate the broad market. The early SRH wines from Babcock, Au Bon Climat, Sanford (and Benedict), Santa Barbara Winery, and others showed great balance and complexity, and then the Seasmoke and Sideways effect seemed to stimulate the production and celebration of bigger, riper styles. Today, there are as many styles as there are winemakers. So we conquered hearts and palates one at a time, and as folks came to visit. It’s an intensely rustic area–most of those engaged in winegrowing and making are too busy to write press releases or hire PR companies. Visiting the SRH is like visiting Grandma. We’re always home, we always love to see you, and the hospitality is as genuine as her meatloaf. But instead of meatloaf, we do duck confit and cream of chanterelle soup. And the other secret of Santa Rita Hills is this: The Pinot Noir is really damned good, but the Chardonnay is mind-blowing, and I believe it to be the best varietal [sic] we produce.
AM: What are you drinking this week? Is there any special bottle on your kitchen counter right now?
WH: I just finished up some leftover bottles from a wine and food pairing class—some great [value] wines from Trader Joe’s: Their $9 Tavel rosé and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Sauvignon Republic were both very good. As far as fine wine, I’m lucky enough to taste seven vintages of Native9 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon at least a few times a week. And, I have to be honest: These wines are thrilling and confounding in a modern wine world.
AM: If you had to choose one variety to drink for the rest of your days, which would you go with?
WH: Does beer count? OK, that would disappoint almost everyone reading this—or would it? It is a pretty easy question, because even though I believe Chardonnay is the best grape we grow in SBC, I’ll go with Pinot Noir! Why? I can still drink Champagne, Bouzy Rouge, Burgundy, California, Oregon Pinot Noirs—everything from white wine, rosé, bubbles, and light and medium body reds. Pinot Noir is a vehicle for showcasing rare and unique soil and climate, and it doesn’t suffer fools. I also know more about production, smelling, sipping, and eating with Pinot Noir than any other grape.
AM: Is there one grape you predict will overshadow Pinot Noir on California’s Central Coast?
WH: With Paso’s ascendant popularity, I can argue that Paso Cab is more important to the US wine market than Central Coast Pinot Noir. Geeks love to give the nod to places like Santa Rita Hills for their sexy, come-hither newness, or the Santa Maria, Edna, and Arroyo Grande Valleys for their history and elegance, but there’s really not a Pinot Noir producer with the boxing gloves like Daou, or Justin, or Austin Hope. It seems like Pinot Noir gets more attention inside the industry, but outside the Halls of the Queen (Pinot Noir), Cab is still the King.
AM: Do you have any advice for anyone considering a career in the wine industry?
WH: For sure, and a lot of this comes from those that gave me advice: Bryan Babcock, Jim Clendenen, Rick Longoria, Richard Sanford, and others. When I told Clendenen, on a fateful night in 1994 at the Hitching Post, that I wanted to make Pinot Noir for a living, his response was, “You know, Wes. There are drugs you can take to prevent that.” I didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, Jim,” I said “I did them all in college, and here I am, still committed.” In all earnestness, though, here’s Wes’ three-part plan to be a wine star:
- Work in a wine store that welcomes wholesale wine reps almost every day, and make sure you TASTE with the buyers every chance you have. If you can taste 100 wines a week for a year, you will be working towards a pro palate, and could likely sit for WSET 2 without studying. You’ll make no money, but will get a 6-figure wine education.
- Carry a bag for a distributor such as RNDC or Southern. Start stocking shelves in supermarkets, learn SKUs, and just when you want to quit, they will give you a territory, and you’ll start making relationships with buyers and suppliers. You’ll learn how to sell wine, apply discounts, how the broad market works, and your soul will be crushed by the dawning realization that the entire wine industry is mostly four companies bribing their distributors to sell their wine and forget their competitors. Before you buy a Prius and love it, quit.
- Work for a Northern Hemisphere winery for a harvest, and a Southern Hemisphere winery. Or, work for a New World producer one harvest, and an Old World another. Get your production chops in gear, and you’ll be amazed at what comes out of your mouth when you talk about wine.
Now that you have completed this four-year prep, you will be able to take almost any job in wine. Want to keep it social? Work in a tasting room. Want to be outside? Vineyard management. Like moving liquids from vessel to vessel and doing dishes afterwards? Be a winemaker. Sales gets to six figures the fastest, management can get you there, production winemakers are a highly sought-after job, and money isn’t that great. Want to make the big bucks in wine? Learn to weld stainless steel.
AM: What are you working on right now, and what’s next?
WH: I’m helping elevate an amazing wine brand—Native9—a wine that represents a ninth generation California ranching family that goes back to 1781. Justin Willett is crushing it in the cellar (see what I did there?), and the wines are really rare—less than 1000 cases a year. Recently, Wine and Spirits Magazine declared it one of the top 100 wineries in the world. So I have a rare job in the wine world. We usually manufacture stories and history to make a brand legitimate. This brand has “The Greatest Story Ever Told in Wine” written all over it. So I’m traveling, doing videos and live shows on social media on Thursdays, setting up public and private tastings for visitors, and doing wine dinners all along the West Coast. We are a small and agile wine company, and I am always looking for fun groups that want to come taste, or that I can bring the tasting experience to their home or a wine shop or restaurant that they love. Would you like to come and see why I’m so excited? Send me an email, and we’ll find a time for you to visit, tour, and taste.
What’s next? I’d be surprised if I didn’t do another AVA petition or two. Within 5 years, I should have Native9 Wine Club on autopilot and tight allocations. Then I would like to continue hosting dinners and tastings with Native9 as I travel with my wife and dogs in an RV, stopping at disc golf courses in every town! And breweries—there will be a lot of breweries involved as I wind down my responsibilities.
AM: Is there one thing our readers might be surprised to learn about you?
WH: I’m actually a bit of a homebody, and if I don’t have an evening event or dinner, I’m usually in bed before the sun goes down, watching movies and eating dinner with my wife and our stack of fuzzy mammals. I also play Dungeons & Dragons with my college buddies remotely every Wednesday evening—a group I’ve played with since the 1980s. We are currently playing an evil party, building and populating a dungeon so we can kill anyone who tries to go through it and mess with our monsters and horde. Good times!
If you’d like to take Wes up on his offer, send him a note at email@example.com.