People

Remembering Winemaker Seth Kunin

A fellow Santa Barbara vintner shares her fond memories and discusses Kunin’s legacy

Photo courtesy of Kunin Wines.

The first time I saw Seth Kunin was in the mid-’90s, when he was working in Santa Barbara at the Wine Cask restaurant and wine shop, then owned by Doug Margerum, who had hired him as a manager. His prematurely gray hair, combined with his knowledgeable air, made me think he was older.  Later I would learn that he was actually younger than me.  

As time passed, I came to know Seth because of his tireless efforts to help organize some of California’s most prestigious wine events. As Bob Lindquist of Qupé points out, “Seth was always helping to make things happen—Masters of Food and Wine, Hospice du Rhône, Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Auction, Central Coast Wine Classic … selflessly volunteering his time … part-time somm, full-time winemaker, full-time father and husband, loved by everybody!”

Seth was an amazingly capable person.  Wickedly smart, graciously genuine, wildly organized, and wonderfully logical, he was a truly patient and fantastic teacher on any subject.  He loved to ski, surf, and sail, and he was a solid bowler. He knew every aspect of the wine industry, from vineyard to three-star wine service. He taught my daughter how to ski, and he taught me how to do chromatography tests to check fermentations. If he ever didn’t have an answer, he knew someone who, did, and he’d get the answer for you within minutes. He even taught winemaking classes at the local community college.  

I once said to him, “I have this crazy idea … ” and within a few months we executed Camp Uncorked, a whirlwind three-day event involving a poker tournament, breakfast in a vineyard, lunch at the Bien Nacido vineyard adobe, and a large-format-bottle wine auction,  as well as 23 sommeliers from around the country. It cemented our friendship forever. He not only believed in my idea, he helped me execute it and was by my side until it was accomplished. The word “friend” is too shallow for how I regard Seth.

He was truly passionate about food and wine and took it seriously, but he never lost his sense of humor over it. Besides making his Kunin wines, he was a great cook and heartfelt host.  He befriended Yves Gangloff in the Rhône Valley, and the two of them collaborated on some wines for a time. What I realize now is that Seth did so many things, I can’t do them justice here. He was never still, always learning, always perfecting, helping, and creating. His energy and positive outlook never wavered.

“Seth was the guy I knew I could call and he would do anything for me,” says Doug Margerum. Indeed, Seth was the person you might call if you ended up in trouble no matter if it was personal or professional. He was nonjudgmental, and only after he had all the facts did he come to a fair and constructive conclusion. This was a characteristic that I especially loved about him.   

The Santa Barbara wine industry is like a large extended family, and Seth was a brother to us all. My kids called him “Uncle Seth,” and when my daughter was old enough, she babysat Phoebe, his daughter, named after his beloved, larger-than-life grandmother. There is no doubt that many of Seth’s extended wine family will step up to help his wife, Magan Eng, carry on his legacy.  Seth was our family, and there are no words that can encompass his life succinctly or suggest the unbearable loss we are feeling. As Margerum says, “Seth was a generous man, sharing, and always happy. He was loved by all.”

Morgan Clendenen is the owner and winemaker of Cold Heaven Cellars, based in Buellton, California.