Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with Chemist and Pinot Noir Wine Maker Lane Tanner

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2006 | Updated May 6, 2019

Lane Tanner is a legend in her own time. For years, I had heard about Lane when I lived in Santa Barbara. Seems as though Lane, 50, really is the wild woman winemaker of Santa Barbara — she's been in the business there — successfully and with flair — for 26 years. Trained as a chemist, Lane became, through a career twist of fate, one of the few women in the wine world to make, bottle, produce, and sell her own wine.

Known primarily for her Pinot Noir, Lane produces about 1800 cases of Lane Tanner wine a year in the glorious wine region of Santa Barbara. Recently married on her 50th birthday to Australian Ariki Hill (and she wants everyone to know that Ariki is 10 YEARS YOUNGER), she leads quite a life. Not only does she make wine, but she is also a gourmet cook, wine consultant, and a party goer amongst the rich and famous.

When I was finally introduced to Lane last year through a mutual friend, I thought it would be a great idea to do a SPIRITED WOMAN event with her. And thankfully she agreed. Since her schedule is so busy and "harvest" driven, we had to book a date almost one year in advance!

Lane is an original, and I guarantee you, this interview will put a big smile on your face. Now, here's Lane.

Q. Lane, tell us the serendipitous story of how you first got into the wine biz?

A. I went up to Northern California where I was born to take the summer off, and one day a local winery called looking for my Mom to help them bottle for a day. She wasn't around. I introduced myself and said I'd help. During the day, they found out I was a chemist so they said while you're in town can you do some analysis. So Monday comes around and I'm sitting in the lab waiting for them to tell me what to do — and in walks the wine maker with their consultant, and I'm introduced as the new "enologist." I'd never even heard the word before, and I figure I'm getting paid by the hour — so I'll keep my mouth shut.

Their consultant happened to be Andre Tchelistcheff, who I later found out was probably the godfather of the California wine industry. I'm sitting there tasting with them trying to follow what they're doing — swirling, gargling, spitting out — and I'm dribbling. There's wine all over my chin and the front of my blouse. Andre is quizzing me — Lane can you taste this, can you smell that. And interestingly enough I've always had an incredible sense of smell and taste. They're asking me to do this and that, and I'm thinking somebody's going to have to tell them this is a total rouse. I just kept quiet and the winemaker kept quiet. Then it was lunch time and they left and now I'm sitting there pretty much drunk and I still have no clue as to what I'm supposed to be doing. When they came back from lunch the winemaker asked if I could be their enologist because Andre really likes you. So, that's how I started.

Q. Five years later, you started the Lane Tanner Label — what's that like and what wines are you known for?

A. My wine production facility is out of a place called the Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. Years ago, a group of people got together and decided they wanted to have a facility where winemakers could come and make wine. I'm the only person that's been there since '89. The grapes come into me, I tell my vineyards when to pick, I make the wine there, bottle the wine there, and store the wine there. My product stays in that building until it's sold. I'm known for Pinot Noir. I'm definitely a total fanatic on Pinot Noir. That's pretty much my life. I only made a decision to start making Syrah in 1996, because in 1995 my Pinot crops failed and I almost went out of business. I chose Syrah because I do a very feminine elegant type of wine style and thought the Syrah would probably go with that style.

Q. Do you happen to know how many women winemakers there are in the world?

A. Percentage wise about 20 percent of all winemakers are women. What I've got to say about that is kind of odd. There are a lot of women winemakers out there that really don't make the wine the way that I do. They own a winery so they call themselves a winemaker, but truly someone else is making the wine and they don't actually do the manual labor. I'm of a very small group of women who actually do the whole thing myself. I'm a one-woman operation. I do the manual labor, sales and office work. If you call and I'm on the road — you just get the machine that says I'm gone. The only things I don't do are pick or prune the grapes. As the grapes are starting to get mature, I go out into the vineyard and check them and taste them, and make a call on when the flavors taste good to me. Then I call the pick, and the vineyards will pick the grapes within 24-hours, deliver them to me, and then I take it from there. I take all the stems off. Then they go into these little boxes and ferment. Then we press them, and when I say "we" it's just like the royal we. Then the wines go into a bunch of barrels where they stay until I'm ready to pull them out.

Q. How many days a week do you work?

A. Embarrassingly few. My year is broken down into various zones if you will. During harvest, I work every day in day out, odd hours for about two months. That is amazing because once a year I get real buff — I don't have to go to the gym. That is my losing pounds time of the year. Then right after that all the wine will be in the barrels. I'll literally go from being at the winery everyday to having nothing to do. And that's usually the time most wine makers take holidays. Then come about January, I start pulling out my evening gown and my jewels and start hitting the road doing wine sales and special events, getting to kind of hob knob with interesting people and see beautiful sites. People treat you like you're something so special — it's really interesting. Then about June, July you start working on the wines pretty heavily to bottle them. Then it's harvest again. The grapes only produce once a year, so when those grapes are ready that's the beginning of my working season.

Q. What do you think a woman winemaker puts into the wine production that perhaps a man doesn't?

A. I can only talk for myself and I say definitely my perspective of the whole thing is so different from a man's perspective. I'm going to be a little general on men here, so I apologize. Men like to see how big they can make a wine. That is so ridiculous. You know what, I go for gentility. What I'm looking for is drink ability. I want my wines to be elegant and soft and supple. In general my style is very different from any man's style that I know. I don't know any man whatsoever who could make the style of wines that I do.

Q. You recently got married on your 50th birthday last year. What was that like?

A. First off, my husband used to be my worker bee. I thought maybe if I married him I'd get free work, but that didn't happen. He's an Australian. He worked in the fruit industry and always wanted to learn how to make wine. Because summers and winters are opposite there than they are here, he got into this intern program where he could work harvest for us. I met him about ‘97 or so, then about ‘99 I started having really bad knee problems, so I needed help badly. But I'm so persnickety about what I do I couldn't just hire anybody. I knew he wanted to make wine, and everybody else was offering him money and instead I offered him two tons of my best Pinot vineyard to help me during harvest. Then after my knees got better we just kept on doing it, because it's nice to have somebody to pal around with. Then I lost a long term partner — okay he dumped me — about four years ago, and Ariki who had been married was going through a divorce shortly before that and one thing led to another and we became a couple. The reason why I got married on my 50th birthday was because I didn't have enough money for two huge parties and also my thinking was if you get married on a major birthday the guy has got to remember this.

Q. On your web site you have a picture of you sipping wine, sans clothes, in a wine-filled bin. What does that picture mean to you?

A. Well first off, that bin holds about 2,000 pounds of grapes. I had always wanted to be photographed naked in Pinot Noir — one thing about Pinot is that it is very sensual and being a female, it was just something, I always wanted to do, but I kept putting it off. But, when I did get dumped by this guy I mentioned earlier, I lost a whole bunch of weight and I said, you know what, I should just do it. I bucketed Pinot Noir that was fermenting in the bin, and then put dry ice pellets all around it to give it a kind of steam look, then did a photo shoot. I really did this photo shoot for me so when I hit about 80 or 85, I can go "yeah" that was fun. I had to drink a lot of champagne first to get into the mood — because it is a little scary to have people photograph you naked, after I got pretty looped it was pretty fun. Than I decided a few days after that, maybe there was one that I could use for PR.

Q. Lane, why do you feel that you are a spirited woman?

A. I think I am a spirited woman because I've always been able to do what I've wanted to do and you can call it karma, or lucky breaks or something. I feel my life, if you look at it closely, is so amazing because of the wonderful things that have come in. I don't know if I'm spirited or if just have a lot of spirits around me that say, "hey, let's make sure Lane has a really rockin' life."

©2006 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with Actress and Producer Sybil Temtchine