Leaning In with Magan Kunin

Jan 16th 2021

Leaning In with Magan Kunin

Remember October 2017, when California was gripped in its most destructive wildfire season ever? For Magan Kunin, it's also a sad reminder of when her beloved husband, Seth Kunin, suddenly passed away. Overnight, Magan was fully in charge of the winery, amid one of the most terrifying environmental periods ever.

While Magan and Seth shared some responsibilities as partners of Kunin Wines, their business had grown considerably over roughly two decades and there was plenty for each of them to do. They distributed their core wines internationally, made easily a dozen different small batch wines for their club, and helped establish Santa Barbara's Funk Zone as a "destination" with their constantly bustling tasting room. Could she manage all this on her own?

If this was ever really a question, it's not anymore. Critics agree, Magan is a super talent -- her first vintages have received some of Kunin's best scores ever, including 94 RP for Pape Star '18. And Magan is popping up in the media far and wide: in the past year Kunin has been featured in Vinous, SF Chronicle, The Santa Barbara Independent, KYET, The Times, andNational Geographic.

Especially with all this press, Kunin is a must-have for retailers who want to be associated with rising stars. We spoke with Magan recently about how she's been so successful:

You’ve done an amazing job leading Kunin Wines since Seth’s untimely passing. What was it like to adjust?

I was so worried about how I’d manage after Seth died. I’ll never forget, he and I had just gone to San Diego where we were participating in a fundraising event with Nancy Oakes and others. We got a nice hotel room and celebrated about how well things were going. We had just opened our new winery, only 15 minutes from our house; everything was going to be so much easier. He was such an incredible winemaker, incredible Pebble Beach Food & Wine organizer, incredible dad to our daughter Phoebe.

There’s a tremendous amount to do in the winery and he wore it all lightly. In that way we are very different - I think of myself as a dyslexic person in a competitive book club to make sure I don’t overlook any details. I hired some talented assistants to help me do all that he was doing.

What’s your vision for Kunin Wines?

Seth and I always shared the same vision, to make wines that are honest, bold, food friendly, and age-worthy. When Seth and I first met - I was a wine buyer in Chicago - we quickly realized we shared a similar taste in wine. On our first date, Seth brought a Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant Savennières. After that, he’d bring me samples of his wines to get my feedback. We were both super interested in wines that are honest whether completely unknown or legends like Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage, Yves Gangloff. So once we were married, we worked on the style of our wines together.

Your ‘18s have received some of Kunin Wine’s highest scores ever. How’d you do it?

The ‘18 vintage was the first on our own. And just before harvest, our consultant winemaker quit. So I decided to triple down on it. We watched the vineyards like hawks, checking them in person several times a week. We tried to be patient and wait for flavors. Luckily it was a great vintage; it seemed to slow down for our benefit. We were patient in blending too -- someone advised us to to blend everything together but I knew there was a theme, and it was worth it to me to find a synergy among the barrels. Blending is everything to us and I never get tired of tasting.

As winemaker, what do you look for in your wines?

If you taste it and go “wow, I want to have that again” then that’s a wine worth bottling. We don’t want to recreate past vintages but when you pull prior vintages, you want to taste a line through the wine. We’re looking for something that is true to the wine; our winemaking is super-low intervention - almost 100% de-stemmed, open top fermenters. And we want it to be the best it can be. For a wine we just bottled, my assistant Jonathan and I tried 65 blends over a couple weeks. At that point I knew what I wanted to do. Then I come home and make sure the bills get paid!

How are you managing vineyard sources?

We've kept all our vineyards and added a few more. Seth was more easy going with farmers, but I have no fear in telling people what I want from canopy management or green harvesting. We have no hesitation to drive to the vineyards several times a week, seeing the fruit in person, to arrive at the correct harvest. And then, we have to have the fortitude and clarity to make decisions in difficult situations; sometimes really good fruit doesn’t make it into the bottle.

What’s next?

We are updating our Website. We’re also making some new wines, experimenting with skin contact and carbonic. You can’t be static.