Next time you're at the Chumash Casino in the Santa Ynez Valley, instead of cashing your sawbucks into chips hoping to strike big at blackjack, you can make a safer, better bet and end up a big winner. Use that money to buy some Kitá Wines. These award-wining wines (the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, to be precise) are made by the Chumash, too, from grapes on land they bought from Fess Parker in 2010. And Tara Gomez, their winemaker, is also from their tribe, meaning she's one of the only Native American female winemakers in the U.S.
After studying enology at Cal State Fresno, Gomez worked at several different wineries, including Fess Parker and J Lohr, so when the Chumash purchased the Camp 4 Vineyard she was a natural hire to take over their winemaking. This position is a dream come true for Gomez, because she admits she was drawn to winemaking years before she could even drink wine. "I think it was the love for science that started it all," she explains. "From there, visiting wineries at an early age with my parents led me to being so fascinated with the whole process. The chemistry involved in winemaking is what intrigues me the most."
Not that she's just about lab numbers and perfect pH, for Kitá bills its wines as a blend of new world techniques with old world traditions. "I travel to Europe frequently in search of learning the history, culture, and traditions of the varietals," she says. "I love to learn where they originated and the traditional ways of making those varietals. When I'm making wine for Kitá, I do my best to be as true to the varietal as possible, showcasing its natural characteristics."
Nature's right up front in the brand's name, as the word kitá means "our valley oak" in the Chumash native language of Samala. "Being of Native American descent, I feel a close understanding to nature and having that connection to the land," Gomez says. "I have a lot of appreciation for Mother Earth, and the challenges I am faced with each vintage. I aim for the wines to capture the essence of such a spiritual and extraordinary place such as Camp 4 Vineyard."
Camp 4, which still sells grapes to other fine winemakers such as Municipal Wines, Tercero, and Tensley, is in a kind of geographic sweet spot, at the easternmost end of the Santa Ynez Valley, right next to Happy Canyon. "That provides an ideal warm climate for focusing on both Rhone and Bordeaux varietals," Gomez says. "With a mix of a longer growing season and cooler night temperatures, we are able to have a longer hang time while maintaining the natural acidity and maximizing flavors."
The varietals she makes include grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc, grenache rosé, pinot noir, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. When pushed to pick one as her favorite, she replied, "I have a love for all the varietals, but I would have to say cabernet sauvignon is my favorite because it brings me the most challenge during each vintage here in the Santa Ynez Valley. The picking of this varietal has to be on cue to retain the freshness, without having it either under-ripe or over-ripe." Indeed, achieving balance seems to be one of the hallmarks of Kitá Wines.