For those not familiar with the term “cult wine,” it's a wine that’s limited in supply but high in demand. It’s often purchased through a membership allocation list directly from the winery, is high-quality and age-worthy, will go up in value over time, and isn’t in the mainstream — but is on the radar of all the major wine critics and publications.
Tanner DaFoe, whose first vintage was in 2009, is by all accounts a “cult wine” winery. We got the chance to speak with Jeff Tanner, one half of the winemaking team that makes the coveted Santa Ynez Valley wine, at his home in Venice Beach — and we found out how a guy in L.A. became a cult winemaker in Santa Barbara without moving to wine country.
A former New York investment banker with a degree in law, Tanner walked away in 1994 from his suit and tie to pursue a more creative life, landing his first job in Los Angeles as a set production assistant.
Soft-spoken, with a thick beard and long, sun-streaked hair topped with a trucker cap, Tanner looks as if he’d be more at home in a vineyard surrounded by nature, tending to vines and nurturing barrels of wine, than he would be on the set of a shoot. But as a producer of commercials, films and music videos for artists from AC/DC to Sean Combs, Tanner is no stranger to the industry that makes L.A. tick.
Now trying out a new career path with what he calls his “third act,” Tanner and winemaking partner Rob DaFoe are making a cabernet sauvignon and a red blend called “Rogue’s Blend” that have earned the attention of restaurants, collectors and Wine Spectator magazine.
What was your first wine experience?
It’s kind of a funny story. When I was still in school I went on a date to a pretty fancy restaurant for a college student, out near Shelter Island, and I wanted to order an expensive bottle of wine, so I ordered a zinfandel — we had ordered steaks or something. And when the wine came I honestly was expecting pink wine (this was probably like 1986), but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and not say anything.
What was the experience that made you take an interest in becoming a winemaker?
I think my first trip to Napa was kind of an integral moment, and it became a daydream to someday have a winery. A few years later, when I had time, I thought I could start taking some classes at UC Davis, since I know nothing about it. And so I’d be more prepared when that day comes, not knowing how I would ever get there.
Who was your biggest influence in becoming a winemaker?
I would say my biggest influence in making wine is Rob [DaFoe], and then by default the people who influenced him. If I had been left to my own devices, I would have made something different than what we have, and I think the same for him. What we make is an amalgamation of what I was looking for in wine and what he likes in wine.
How did you meet Rob DaFoe?
A friend of mine, Paige Clay, owns Flake, that little breakfast place on Rose. She is an ex–professional snowboarder, and so is he. They had lived together and been friends in Tahoe, in Squaw, where all the action sports stuff was coming out of, like all those snowboard movies. All those people up there would travel around the world and snowboard, and so they knew each other through that. So he came over here and we sat on the deck upstairs one night and just talked about snowboarding and surfing and wine for a few hours. He had already been making wine on his own, so that’s how that relationship started. Every year he’d be like, “Wanna make some wine?” I wanted to do it, but it just seemed like too much trouble. But when I made that last trip to Napa and spent the day with George Hendry [of Hendry Winery], I got enough fire under me to make a pretty impetuous decision and call Rob and say: “Let’s do this thing.”
Did you buy fruit? If so, from where?
We got the grapes [for the first vintage in 2009] from the same place we’re getting our grapes from now, which is a vineyard called Estelle. I just wanted to make some wine and see if we could sell it. I didn’t know enough about wine to know what was possible at that point. I was just like, “Let’s make what we like.” And he [DaFoe] said, “There’s a vineyard that I know named Estelle, and Brian [Babcock] was making a cabernet out of this one little hillside track in that he thought had potential. I’ll talk to Brian. He’ll probably sell us some of those grapes.” So that’s what happened.
Do you have a particular style in mind when you make your wine, or do you allow the grapes to express themselves on their own?
Well, I think the most important thing is harvest, and when [to harvest]. The biggest thing stylistically we look for is the structure in the wine – what’s the mouth-feel. We want to have something that has a big flavor profile, but isn’t over-ripened to get to that flavor profile. I think we’re allowing the grapes to express themselves with the caveat that we’re looking for a certain thing when we bring them in. There isn’t a lot of manipulation that we do. I think the main thing that’s really important for us is acid balancing. That’s the most important thing, to keep our acids in a slightly higher place than they want to be. If you let your grapes go to full on ripeness – full flavor – then your acids are going to be low and your PH is going to be off, so that’s that very tough balancing act – that moment when you decide that it’s time to bring it in and get through the crush.
Tanner DaFoe is considered to be a cult wine in Santa Barbara. How did you achieve that level so quickly?
When we started it, we didn’t have a plan. We were making a small enough amount that we didn’t treat it like a commodity; we treated it like a project. It was in the barrel for 28 months. Nobody does that. We were waiting and waiting and waiting until it really felt like it was done and ready to go into bottle. Everything had to be the best. It was a hope and a dream out of naivete. We thought it was amazing, but how do you do that coming out of Santa Ynez making a little bit of cabernet? We just thought we could, and then people started using that word, “cult,” and putting it [Tanner Dafoe wines] in tastings with wines likes Scarecrow ($500 per bottle) and Screaming Eagle ($2,200 per bottle) and Harlan ($800 per bottle). It was kind of a daydream and now the daydream is coming true.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a winemaker?
If I were talking to someone like me, who doesn’t have a ton of money and isn’t going to be able to go get their degree and start at the bottom, I would say get a little bit of an education – whatever coursework you can take – and then buy some grapes and start doing it. Find someone who can help you. I’d say go bug somebody and have ’em give you some time to help them make their wine, and you’ll learn how to make wine. Get into the cellar. Volunteer or get a summer job or something like that. But get some education, because the chemistry is really important. Just do it and don’t look down – and don’t look up – just like, one step at a time. Commit to it and start doing it.
To get on the allocation list for Tanner DaFoe wines, register at tannerdafoewines.com.