Those Who Paved the Way
Winemaker Tara Gomez on the power of communityTara Gomez
October 20, 2021
Our newest program, the Legacy Network, founded in partnership with Woodford Reserve, trains emerging leaders across the culinary industry and connects them with future generations of excellence. By developing and cultivating talent among these influential professionals and their peers, Legacy advances the equitable, culturally relevant leadership required to strengthen the industry. Each protégé, under the guidance of Legacy advisors, becomes part of a powerful network that centers the professional growth of talent from historically under-resourced communities.
Tara Gomez of Kitá Wines is one of our first cohort of Legacy Network advisors. Below, Tara explores how the support she received from her tribe helped to cultivate her passion for wine into an accomplished career.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by science. My parents got me a microscope at a young age, and I fell in love with looking at things I found in nature. When I got a little older, my parents began taking my siblings and me along with them on wine tastings and tours around the central coast of California. I vividly remember how my attention was piqued when I saw the laboratories during the tours and the chemistry involved in the winemaking process. That environment, plus my fascination with science, solidified my belief that winemaking was a career. While my grade school peers were dreaming about becoming doctors, firefighters, and teachers, I already knew that winemaking was for me.
My tribe, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, has been instrumental in helping me to achieve my dreams in the wine industry. To help students like me get into college, my tribe formed an education committee to assist tribal students with paperwork, guidance, and finances. With the tribe's financial assistance, I was able to attend California State College, Fresno to study enology. As only one of two women in the enology program, I worked hard to not only prove myself to my peers, but to my family and tribe.
After graduating, I spent many years in Fresno working at multiple wineries, including Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard and J.Lohr Vineyards & Wines. During my time at J. Lohr, I also began exploring the world and broadening my understanding of winemaking. I sought old-world as well as new-world techniques to learn from. I knew there was beauty in the balance of the wine, and I wanted to highlight it in each bottle I made. I began to hone my winemaking style and find the rhythm to my drum.
These positions not only allowed me to have a full picture of how important chemistry was, but also gave me the freedom to launch my own brand as a side project: Kalawashaq’ Wine Cellars. “Kalawashaq’” translates to “shell of the turtle” and was the name of the Chumash village my tribe once occupied. Those wines were a tribute to my heritage, my tribe, and the education they helped me achieve. The tribe embraced my Kalawashaq’ label and loved that they could share tribe-made wines with their families and friends.
Eventually, I traveled to Europe to continue my education at Castell d’ Encus in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain. When I returned to California in 2010, my tribe was in the process of purchasing Camp 4 in Santa Ynez Valley, a 1400-acre parcel of land that is ancestral to my community. Together we created Chumash Cellars and produced three varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Grenache. After convincing the tribe this was going to be a premium winery that reflected the land that we respect and love, we created Kitá Wines.
Named by tribal leaders, elders, and language specialists, Kitá means “our valley oak” in our native Chumash language of Samala. Throughout our land valley, oak trees have not only been a source of food for my people, but they represent the qualities of our history, heritage, and legacy of our ancestors. We wanted to honor the oaks, for like us, they are strong and resilient.
Each vintage we have created under the Kitá label has been a representation of our ancestral land. Our vineyard site is sacred to us—at the beginning of each harvest, we have a ceremony to heal our spirits, reconnect us with the land, and bless us for the harvest. I work with our vineyard management company on sustainability to give back to the land. I hope that as one drinks our wines, they will feel the balance of soil, climate, location, and taste that are all inspired by Mother Earth.
I also work to educate others on the wine industry, including members of my own tribe. At the end of every year, I stand in front of tribal members and descendants and share the wines, the stories, and the challenges. Most people take for granted a glass of wine, my tribe included. I strive to show them the dedication and hard work that it takes to create each bottle.
Taking all that I have learned, I now strive to mentor others in the wine industry. Over the years I have mentored up-and-coming wine industry hopefuls and professionals alike in vineyard management, winemaking, and viticulture, owning your own winery, tasting for notes and faults, and budget and financial management. Through the Legacy Network, I look forward to assisting, mentoring, and sharing all that I have experienced.
Tara Gomez is the first recognized Native American winemaker in the U.S. Her first label, Kalawashaq’ Wine Cellars, was named for the village where her Chumash ancestors once lived. In 2010, she started Kitá Wines, a small premium winery in the Santa Ynez Valley where she is currently the winemaker.
Learn more about the Legacy Network here.