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Seth Kunin was an energizing force among California winemakers

Seth Kunin was an energizing force among California winemakers
Santa Barbara winemaker Seth Kunin dies at 50. (Bob Dickey)

Over the weekend the California wine community learned that Seth Kunin, 50, a winemaker, restaurateur, sommelier wrangler, father and husband, died of a heart attack at his home in Santa Barbara.

As news of his untimely death spread among his friends, dozens of pictures of Kunin began surfacing on social media. In nearly all of them, it seems, he was in motion: raising a glass, issuing a toast, talking, gesticulating, downing a shot of Fernet, lifting his head in a broad smile.

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Whether he was making or selling wine for his eponymous wine brand in Santa Barbara, or coordinating the complex logistics for some of the most prestigious wine festivals in the country, Kunin ran through California’s wine community like an electric current; he had a way of animating everything he touched with a signature warmth, intelligence and energy.

In countless tributes on Facebook and elsewhere, wine professionals from all over the country cited him as the embodiment of the profession they love, for his cheer, his enthusiasm, his tirelessness, and his competence. Many wrote that he was the reason they chose wine as a career: that it was Kunin who encouraged them to take it on.

‘‘He was amongst the first to embrace me into a winemaking community,’’ says local restaurateur and wine director David Rosoff. ‘‘His warmth, inclusiveness and joy convinced me I was on the correct path. We've lost a pillar of our community, and I have lost a chunk of my foundation.’’

‘‘He’s the reason I’m here,’’ said sommelier-turned-winemaker Rajat Parr, a recent transplant to Santa Barbara from San Francisco. ‘‘We had a discussion about the intricate flavors of Syrah that I took as a challenge, and I never left. He even helped me find my house.’’

Born in New York in 1967, Kunin was raised in both New York and Los Angeles, attending UCLA where he studied, of all things, kinesiology. But he was always drawn to the energy and intensity of restaurant life, and in 1991, when he was 24, he became general manager of the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, a place known not only for its selection of international wines but for its loyalty to the wines of Santa Barbara County, the place where Kunin would end up making wine for two decades.

Kunin Wines was founded in 1998, focusing on Rhône varietal wines, Syrah, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre, Grenache, and Carignane, as well as bottlings of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Franc inspired by the Loire Valley. Kunin loved the wines from these parts of France: he loved their charm and simplicity, their lack of pretense.

‘‘These varieties appealed to him because they sort of worked against the grain,’’ says Ted Vance, a Santa Barbara wine importer and longtime friend. ‘‘They tend to lead with their savory character, which seemed more authentic to him. He was always blasting wines that were ‘overstylized.’ He hated wines that pretended to be something they weren’t. He used to say, ‘If I could drink just Rhône and Loire wines for the rest of my life, I could be happy.’’’ Kunin wines tend not to be flashy or demonstrative; instead, like their maker, they seemed forthright and genuine.

In addition to his role as winemaker and winery owner, Kunin coordinated the wine logistics of some of the most important wine events in California, starting with the Masters of Food and Wine event held at the Highlands Inn in Carmel from the early ’90s.

When that event folded, Kunin consulted for the Pebble Beach Wine and Food event held each April, followed by the L.A. Food and Wine event held each August since 2011. For both, Kunin was responsible for overseeing the army of sommeliers that opened bottles and served at tastings, banquets, and seminars. It meant managing the pours of some of the world’s greatest wines, and wrangling as many as 75 sommeliers who traveled from all over the country to work with him.

Few in the industry could have pulled off such a feat with such skill and good humor, and those in the sommelier community loved him for it, so much so that there was a huge waiting list of sommeliers to volunteer their time for these events.

Despite connections to Los Angeles, San Francisco and especially to France, where he had numerous winemaker friends in the Rhône and Loire valleys, Kunin’s first love was Santa Barbara. It’s where he settled with his wife Magan and their 8-year-old daughter, Phoebe; it’s where he’d just completed work on a new winery in time for the 2017 harvest, the fermentations of which will be brought to completion by fellow winemakers such as Parr and Steve Clifton. And it’s where the couple had not one but two tasting rooms, in the Funk Zone for Kunin Winery and the other for something called the Valley Project.

This project was designed to highlight the five appellations of Santa Barbara, in regional bottlings you could taste side by side. The space was dominated by a room-sized mural, composed in chalk on a vast expanse of slate (designed and drawn by the artist known as ELKPEN), a cartoon map of the region, with renderings of its soils, climate patterns, and geographical features, a dramatic educational tool that left a lasting impression.

Lastly, Kunin was famous for his love of Fernet Branca, that ferocious postprandial Italian bitter. Anyone who worked with him would inevitably down a late night shot or two at his urging. A great many in the wine community will be lifting a glass of Fernet in his memory in the days to come.

UPDATES

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Nov. 1, 4:17 p.m.: According to Doug Margerum, of Margerum Wine Company in Santa Barbara, who was a longtime friend of Kunin’s, winemakers Raj Parr, Dave Potter, Drake Whitcraft and Andrew Bouton (Kunin assistant winemaker) are bringing the 2017 wines to completion. Josh Klapper and Graham Tatomer are helping out with bottling and finishing tasks for wines from earlier vintages, at another facility.

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