Love of science, land led to career in winemaking
Parents’ love of wine tasting awakened a love of chemistry
As a child, Tara Gomez loved the smell of wine cellars. Though not winemakers, her parents enjoyed tasting wine. They went sampling on the Central Coast with the children in tow. Tara walked by a wine lab or saw winemakers in lab coats and it all seemed to fit in with the image she had of herself as a scientist. From the age of five, she had observed nature’s finer offerings through her little microscope.
By the time Tara reached high school, she knew that chemistry was her passion. But the smell of the wine cellar had stayed with her. She studied enology with biology and chemistry. To expand her understanding of her heritage, she took Native American Studies as a minor. She was ready to carve a niche for herself.
Right away, she got to work as an enologist, landing a job at Fess Parker, a former owner of the land, and J.Lohr. Tara is the winemaker at Kita´Wines; the name means ‘our valley oaks.’ Those are the trees in the picture above.
A little history.
Tara belongs to the Santa Ynez band of Chumash Indians, federally recognized since the early twentieth century. A tribal nation, the Chumash have occupied this land for centuries.
“In the missionary era, our tribal ancestors were taken from their nearby villages, forced to convert to Christianity, and forced to work as slaves in the Spanish missions that were once Chumash land,” said Tara. “We’ve survived that and have come a long way since that period.”
Many profess the Catholic faith, going to church in the village of Kalawashaq, meaning the shell of a turtle, in Santa Ynez.
Storytellers like me enjoy the romance of the myths of other cultures, particularly older ones, whose lore comes uncannily close to our own. I asked Tara for a favorite childhood story and she told me one about the Rainbow Bridge.
Hutash, the creator, whom the tribe worship, were trying to get the Chumash on the mainland from the Channel Islands, which lie to the south of Santa Barbara. She built a bridge using a rainbow, and bid her followers to cross over to the mainland to establish new villages and fill them with people. She bade them not to look down or they’d get dizzy. While some crossed over safely, others lost their balance and began to fall. Hutash saved them by turning them into dolphins so they could swim. For this reason, the Chumash feel a familial bond with dolphins.
In 2010 the Chumash bought the land on which grapes grow and the winery sits. As the population on the reservation grew, housing became tighter, prompting the purchase. The vineyards were secondary – just happened to be there, Tara said. Of the 1,400 acres the tribe bought, 256 acres are covered by vineyards, of which about 200 acres produce wine grapes.
I have written frequently about women winemakers and how the physical nature of the work keeps their numbers low. Add to that a Native American winery and you have a truly unusual situation. Only five tribes in California have entered the wine industry, Tara said. “We’re the first to be recognized by the State of California to have a Native American winemaker and winery in our tribe.”
Kita´ Wines produces 2,000 cases every year. Although Tara grows 19 varietals on her tribe’s estate, she makes nine different varieties of wine. And in her spare time, she continues to do research, traveling annually to Europe to understand the history and the tradition of the wine.