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Hidden Gems: Meet Lisa Liberati of Sweetzer Cellars

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lisa Liberati.

Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
Nothing lasts forever. Not the place you live, not the job you have, not the industry you work in. The only constant is change. When my parents retired and moved to Arizona, my dad got a part-time job as a starter at the golf course behind their house. He got out of the house, he got to talk to people about something he loved, and… he got all the employee benefits of working for Marriott, who owned the resort. More than a decade ago, I was working full-time as a tutor for a large test-prep company that was shuffled around by private-equity firms, and I thought that it might not be a bad idea to have an exit strategy of my own. So I studied for my WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) certifications in case I wanted to explore wine consulting or sommelier work and brushed up on my calculus and chemistry at Santa Monica College so that I had some academic tutoring skills beyond test prep. That’s when I stumbled upon the UC Davis Introduction to Winemaking course… and its summer abroad program in Dijon, France. I applied for the summer of 2008, and when I was accepted, my boyfriend asked if he could come along, too. Which is how two 40 something adults ended up in France with 25 undergraduates, touring some of the most renowned vineyards in Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, and the Rhône. When Michael and I returned, I thought about pursuing more classes and maybe going back to get a degree. Michael thought about trying to make wine in his apartment on Sweetzer Avenue. With the help of one of our summer classmates, Michael bought a half-ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma… and I dropped the Biology class I was taking to help out. Every vintage, we got a little smarter and a little better at making wine. And in 2014, when we moved from Sweetzer Avenue in West Hollywood, we moved the winemaking to Santa Barbara County. In 2017, we opened a tasting room in Lompoc. We still tutor, and it’s great to have our day jobs – it gives us the luxury to make decisions about winemaking and releasing wines based on what’s right for the wine, not cash flow.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Everything about winemaking is a challenge. Some of the challenges are intellectual and just choices, such as which vineyards to source from, when to pick, what style to make the wine in (whole cluster, skin contact, native yeast, barrel selection, how long to age). Many of the challenges arise when things don’t go to plan: You select a date to harvest grapes, but there’s no labor or a heat spike; Someone in the winery moves a tank, and suddenly your “stainless steel” Chardonnay is in a new French Oak barrel; You carefully select a yeast for its profile, and the wine starts fermenting on its own. Not having a “house style” beyond letting the fruit speak for itself is helpful; we don’t feel the pressure to have the 2016 Chardonnay match the profile of the 2015 like a mass-production winery would. The real challenges, however, are because wine is a highly-regulated product. The winemaking is enjoyable. The paperwork is a struggle. Shipping across state lines requires not only licenses in the states (and tax filings are required by some states on a bi-weekly basis) but a carrier who will take your wine. Sales tax (which varies by county). Excise tax. Property tax (on the furniture in our tasting room to Santa Barbara County).

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
We make wines we want to drink with dinner. We focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because we think they’re food-friendly. We experiment with other varietals, from Chenin Blanc to Dornfelder because we’ve enjoyed wines from those vineyards and want to try our hand at it. We’re inspired by the grape growers and winemakers on the Central Coast who have shared their wisdom with us, and we just want to make wines other people will enjoy, too.

Can you share something surprising about yourself?
I used to play duplicate bridge competitively – and won a North American title in a team event in 2001.

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Image Credits

Christopher Dibble (for the big tasting room shot)

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