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Graham Tatomer got a taste of Austrian Riesling, and that was it

Winemaker Graham Tatomer inspects a glass of Riesling at his Tatomer Wines in Santa Maria, Calif.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Graham Tatomer was already making Riesling in Santa Barbara when Chris Robles, then sommelier at Wine Cask, poured him a glass of Riesling from the Wachau. The effect was electric. He knew Alsace. He knew Germany. But Austria? These were some of the greatest Rieslings he’d ever tasted. And these wines born on the steep slopes of the Danube north of Vienna became an obsession.

When the same sommelier told him about a tasting of Austrian wines at Spago, he rushed over. As it happens, Emmerich Knoll, the maker of that first Wachau Riesling, was there, and Tatomer stepped right up and asked whether he needed a worker. He did. And today, the 36-year-old is making thrilling Riesling under his own Tatomer label in Santa Barbara County.

The Santa Barbara native got into wine while he was still in high school, after he found a summer job at Santa Barbara Winery. Tatomer was fascinated by the whole process, and when summer ran out, he arranged to work after school for a few hours during harvest; he worked his way through college the same way.

In 1999, while still studying English literature at UC Santa Barbara, he made his first wines under the label Katabasis, “Greek for the difficult journey a hero must take through something horrible, like hell,” Tatomer says, laughing. Taking his cue from the wines of Alsace, he produced a few hundred cases of Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris — and Riesling at the then-fledgling Brewer-Clifton winery. (Greg Brewer was assistant winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery.)

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As it turned out, most buyers gravitated to the Riesling. Tatomer did too. “I’m drawn to wines that are energizers — Gamay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. It’s just electric, with so much fruit and floral characteristics, and then the acid backbone. And wonderful flavor notes of petroleum and mushrooms,” he says. “I think of the wine as one of those bombastic, larger-than-life characters.”

Tatomer spent time living and working in Austria with Knoll, one of the world’s top Riesling producers. Remember that glass of Riesling?

Tatomer originally planned to work only part of the 2003 harvest, but, he says, “When I got there, I bonded with the family in an amazing way.” He ended up staying six months that first year, with an open invitation to come back whenever he wanted. And so he returned in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

“I learned so much,” he says. “Everything starts in the vineyard, and by the time the grapes get to the winery, all the work has been done. I learned how to identify Riesling at different stages of ripeness, to identify perfect fruit and grapes with Botrytis, how to segregate, separate and move grapes from one tank to another.”

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The challenge has been in adapting what he learned to California. “You can’t just do what they do,” says Tatomer. “You have to learn to apply what’s relevant.”

In 2008, he started making Riesling under the Tatomer label. That year, he made 600 cases, and it was a tough sell the first few years at $20 to $30 a bottle. He’d like to produce more, but there aren’t a lot of vineyard sites cold enough for his Riesling program. “That’s beginning to change, as the grape has gotten more traction.”.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

Follow me @sirenevirbila

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