The space was still a bit raw—huge floor to ceiling windows illuminated a concrete expanse; the long tasting bar was almost complete. On the west wall, the room’s centerpiece was taking shape, a chalk drawing by the Los Angeles street artist known as Elkpen. It’s a rendering of the county’s wine regions, five appellations tucked between cartoon transverse mountain ranges, buffeted by cartoon winds and anthropomorphic puffs of fog. It’s both beautiful and informative, and when you’re there, it’s hard to take your eyes off of it. You could stare at it as you tasted wines from the five appellations to compare and contrast.
It was a project that brought together everything Kunin embodied. It involved wine, which Kunin had made his life’s work for thirty years. It involved Santa Barbara wine, of which he’d become a deft interpreter. But most of all, in his words, it involved turning people on to something: it made people smarter about the wine they were drinking, and that was part of his life as a sommelier, educator, cheerleader and champion of wines of place.
“There’s so much going on in this county right now,” said Kunin with characteristic energy. “I want them to know about this place because there’s so much to know.” In a small loft above this place, Kunin lived with his family, and woke up to that map of place every morning. And that is where, over this past weekend, Kunin died of a heart attack. He was 50.
Kunin was born in New York, but spent significant parts of his childhood in California. He attended UCLA with the intention of studying medicine, and worked in restaurants to support his education. Restaurants got the better of him; he’d barely reached the age of 24 when he became the general manager for the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, which became that city’s preeminent wine destination not only for its selection of wines from all over the world, but in its advocacy for its home region, Santa Barbara County.
Kunin eventually started to make wine, spurred on by other young winemakers in the region like Steve Clifton and Greg Brewer. He made wine at Gainey, then at Westerly, both in the Santa Ynez Valley. In 1998, with his wife, Magan Eng, he founded Kunin Wines, devoted to zinfandel and Rhône varieties, eventually expanding to include chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc.
Even as he built his brand, Kunin never lost his roots in the sommelier community. He played an important role in setting service standards at the early Masters of Food & Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, CA, and when that event folded he became the chief sommelier wrangler for the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event, and eventually, the LA Food & Wine event held in downtown LA.
“It was always the biggest, gnarliest job,” says Thamin Saleh, a perennial in Kunin’s sommelier crew and owner of Jeninni Restaurant in Pacific Grove, CA. “He was in charge of organizing some sixty or more sommeliers into teams to pour for every tasting, as well as lunch and dinner service for a three-day wine event. He knew everyone’s skills, their strengths and how to work with them.”
Like Michael Bonaccorsi, another sommelier turned winemaker, and another wine professional who died before his time, Seth Kunin managed to cross fluidly between winemaking and service, acting as a kind of glue in both communities, and bringing people together in the process. “Seth was connected, and he was a connector, always making sure that people felt included and loved,” said Chicago sommelier Alpana Singh, who’d met Kunin at an early Masters of Food & Wine event; through him, at an after-party, she met chef Jean Joho , which led to her first sommelier job, at Everest.
“He’s why I’m here,” said Raj Parr, telling a story about drinking a Graillot Crozes-Hermitage with Kunin at another after-party. “I asked him ‘Why don’t people make wine like this here?’ and we talked about how hard it was to get the clusters this ripe in California. It kind of became my next mission, and it got me down to Santa Barbara County. He was such a positive, helpful, curious, enthusiastic, happy spirit.”
Kunin died just days after finishing harvest, in a newly completed winery in Goleta; the wines from that harvest will be finished by his many friends in the business, including Drake Whitcraft, Graham Tatomer and Raj Parr, along with Andrew Bouton, the assistant winemaker at Kunin. Magan Eng intends to keep the winery and both tasting rooms open and in business.
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