- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FAREWELL! : Local Pinot pioneer Lane Tanner is retiring from the business. Now, she said, she can just enjoy wine “without having to overanalyze it.”
Tanner was only the second woman winemaker in Santa Barbara County in a commercial facility when she started working in Santa Ynez Valley in 1981 at Firestone Vineyards. For the past 30 years, the distinctive Tanner has been an icon in Santa Barbara County wine country. And she succeeded despite the fact that she never owned a vineyard, winery, or tasting room.
When Tanner created her eponymous label in 1989, her Pinot Noirs were bought from the region’s renowned vineyards. She boldly embraced a field dominated by men and established her brand as one of Santa Barbara County’s wine country pioneers. She was also admired for her good looks, charisma, strength, tenacity, and that characteristic, infectious laughter.
Late last year, she surprised pretty much everyone she knows with this news: “I’m retiring from winemaking.”
Quite frankly, hearing her say it shocked me. I wondered how she could leave a career she loved so much—not to mention the fact she had help with the heavy lifting from Ariki “Rick” Hill, her husband who’s 10 years younger. Hill, a native New Zealander, has two labels: Labyrinth and Haka by Labyrinth. He and Tanner met in 1997 when he began working at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, behind Costco. In 2005, they were married on her birthday. They’ve worked harvest together for 14 years, although each one makes wine in his or her own style, and Hill makes other varieties.
Tanner was the first Central Coast winemaker to devote her label exclusively to Pinot Noir. But it wasn’t just any Pinot. In the ’80s and ’90s, she bought grapes from renowned vineyards, including Sanford & Benedict, Sierra Madre, Bien Nacido, Julia’s, Melville, and Gold Coast. Jim Adelman, winemaker at Au Bon Climat/Qupe since 1991, explained how unusual it was to produce a brand with only one variety: “To make a label that was devoted to Pinot Noir, or to red wine alone was unusual. At the time, everybody made Chardonnay—even Pinot producers like Au Bon Climat, 80 percent of our production was Chardonnay. It was such a different era then because everybody was drinking Chardonnay.”
Upon hearing that, Tanner laughed, adding: “I didn’t know any better at the time!”
While tasting Tanner’s final 2009 Pinot Noirs from Bien Nacido and Julia’s vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, I was really sorry she’s retiring. The optimistic Tanner, however, isn’t spitting out sour grapes. She’s excited about her new business venture as an “heirloom documenter.” She smiled while remembering: “I’ve thought about this over the last four or five years. Now I can drink wine without having to overanalyze it, and just enjoy it.”
Over lunch, Tanner provided honest answers about ending a career many admirers thought was her dream job.
“My niche is gone. I can’t make a living at my size production anymore,” Tanner said matter-of-factly. “My cut keeps getting smaller and smaller dealing with all of the vendors and distributors. That’s what really made me decide to get out.”
Tanner explained that every brand, whether small or large production, is expected to provide a 15 percent discount when shops buy three cases. Then she pays 15 percent to the broker. She’s expected to deliver the wine and appear at the wine shops, providing two or three bottles to pour tastes for their customers. She added that it’s a common practice for winemakers in her niche. When a brand her size has a tasting room, however, Tanner believes it improves their survival rate.
“I was very lucky to have the specialty niche that worked well for years. The business today is nothing like it was when I started. Just 10 years ago not many winemakers made Pinot Noir,” Tanner explained. “If you made a good Pinot at a fair price, it just disappeared, and distributors begged for more.”
She pointed out the movie Sideways had an unexpected negative impact on artisan brands: “Sideways changed the whole business, even though at first the small producers were wiped out by consumers who wanted to buy our Pinot Noirs. Then all of a sudden Pinot was everywhere, and everybody was planting it, but it won’t grow just anywhere. The vineyard owners started raising their prices yearly, and you can’t blame them. They weren’t making much money forever. But like every trend, it started dropping off. Most people can’t afford to buy $30 to $50 Pinot Noirs to drink nightly.”
Tanner said wineries that didn’t make Pinot Noir watched in awe as the Hollywood phenomenon put its golden touch on the Central Coast’s Pinot Noir producers. Many winemakers saw the Pinot producers making a lot of money, so they jumped on the bandwagon and started making it, too.
“There were so many wineries competing, the whole thing just collapsed,” she said. “You can’t sell expensive Pinot, and you can’t buy grapes because they’ve raised the prices. It’s a buyers’ market now, and you need only look at Trader Joe’s and BevMo! to see that.”
Although the 2009 was her last vintage, Tanner will keep her eponymous label.
“I’m just so thrilled; it’s exciting to start a new life,” she finished. “But as far as the glamour side of the business goes, even though I’m retired I’ll always be a winemaker.”
With her connections, she can return anytime she likes.
Contact New Times Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at