Standing in the Uplight: A Conversation with Winemaker Chris Bratcher of
In September of 2014, Winemaker Chris Bratcher, of Bratcher Vineyards, located
in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, severed his right
arm above the wrist in a harvest accident. I remember I was hanging out with a
winemaker at a nearby pub when we heard the news. Neither one of us had met
Chris at the time, but we’d heard that he was a private, hard-working, talented
winemaker. We had both enjoyed his wines, which can be invigorating and also age-worthy.
Wine is such a poetic and enjoyable beverage. It’s easy to forget how
much labor goes into each bottle. When it comes to small producers, especially,
winemakers are often involved in every aspect of harvest; from calling the pick
and joining in with the picking crews, to operating the forklift at the winery
once the fruit comes in, to working with all of the other heavy machinery often
used during harvest, and then cleaning that equipment afterwards at the end of
each, long day. Sure, winemaking is a labor of love if you’re really passionate
about it. But, it’s also just…well, also good old-fashioned heavy labor, and
some of that labor can be potentially dangerous.
A few weeks ago, I reached out to Bratcher and asked if he’d be
interested in letting me know how he’s doing these days. Bratcher’s winery is on
the Sta. Rita Hills’ lovely, yet circuitous Santa Rosa Road, hidden far behind
an orchard. Once I arrived, I realized I’d been there before. Two other
reputable wineries, Arcadian and Curran D’ Alfonso, are also located in this
little enological hideaway.
When I arrived at Bratcher’s minimal winery space, he was waiting for
me with some clean glasses and a few wines to try; always a great way to start
The first wine he pours for me is his 2014 Bratcher Winery Sauvignon
Blanc, from the Crown Point Vineyard, located in the not-too-distant Happy
Canyon appellation of Santa Barbara County. Before I turn on my tape recorder,
I’m already craving some raw oysters – Kumamotos, Miyagis, Malpeques – the
natural acidity in Bratcher’s lively Sauvignon Blanc has awoken my palate and
stirred my appetite.
Drexel: Can you tell me a bit about what happened the day of the accident?
Bratcher: September 2nd was my second day of the 2014 harvest. I had picked some Chardonnay the day before
(Labor Day), but brought in the first Pinot Noir grapes very early that morning
so was preparing all the equipment while I waited on a couple of other folks to
help sort grapes. It was while cleaning the crusher/destemmer that it
malfunctioned and severed my right arm above the wrist.
RHD: I saw
a photo of you somewhere, wearing a prosthetic, but you’re not wearing one
today. How is it working with a prosthetic?
entire prosthetic experience has been perhaps the most frustrating part of the
recovery process. I had remarkable
medical care from the moment the emergency personnel arrived at the
winery. The EMTs, nurses, doctors, and
rehab specialists were all great—so great, in fact, I think I may have thought
the hardest part was over when I left the hospital. In reality, however, I think the hardest
challenges were just beginning. I’ve had
a really difficult time getting a permanent prosthetic. What started out so promising has become
frustrating, and at times emotionally draining. The insurance companies have, to date, refused to pay for an advanced
prosthetic hand. I eventually purchased a temporary hook but found it too
dangerous and unreliable to use in the winery. The straps on my shoulder were constantly breaking and the cables
controlling the hook would stretch, causing some unstable situations so I
eventually stopped wearing it. Today, I
just operate entirely one-handed which offers its own set of challenges, but at
least there aren’t any surprises.
you talk a bit about how the local community responded to your accident? How
others in your realm of friends and family responded?
a folder in my Inbox called “Winery Accident” and there are 1,300 messages from
people in that folder that started arriving in my In Box, literally, the day of
the accident. I’ve saved these messages. I still haven’t made it through all of
them. Even now, I’ll look at one…and it’s from someone that I knew maybe 25
years ago in a previous life, because I had a background that was about as
different from this as you can imagine, and I really want to respond to
everyone. I will eventually, if it’s the last thing I do. It’s what makes my
recovery possible, really; that optimistic spirit. Realizing that people care really
helped me stay optimistic.
mention this background that you have that’s very different from what you’re
doing now. Can you talk about that a bit?
grew up in Tennessee. I was a football player in a Division 3 college---I was a
little guy, but I was athletic-minded. I was Pre-Med, so I had a pretty good
science background. My stepfather, who I lived with, was a farmer,
essentially. He grew tomatoes, so I grew
up working around agriculture, but not in a fun way at all. I was getting up early
in the morning to string tomato plants.
When I was at college, I somehow took a left turn, and started majoring
in Third World Studies. I became fascinated with the Nicaraguan revolution,
wrote a thesis on it, and my thesis advisor encouraged me to pursue this path further.
So, I enrolled in Graduate School at the University of Texas, initially
in the Latin American studies program, but met a professor very early on who
took an interest in me, and I became his TA, and ended up getting a PhD in
Political Science at the University of Texas. I was a college professor for 10
years. I taught at the University of Texas and a couple of liberal arts
While I was working on my dissertation, my advisor – his motto was, a
day not spent in France is a day wasted – took me to this little wine shop
called Village Corner in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and turned me onto French wines;
Wines. I just became fascinated with wines. A while later, I started teaching
at a really small liberal arts school about 60 miles from anywhere. The nearest
city was Chattanooga, Tennessee. There wasn’t a good wine shop there, so I
decided to open a wine shop with a friend of mine. Immediately we knew we were
on to something. I’ve now owned it for 16 years. Riverside…biggest wine and
spirits shop in Chattanooga. I’m very proud of it. It’s done really well.
being a retailer all these years informed how you go about pricing your own
always been someone who seeks out value. In my wines, my number one goal has
been to have people feel like they’re getting a really good value when they buy
one of my wines.
back up and talk about how you made the leap from being a retailer to a
full-time winemaker and winery owner?
2001, Joe Davis walks into my store. (Joe Davis is the owner and winemaker of
the well-regarded Arcadian Winery). Arcadian was a pretty big brand in the South,
and it was one of the few boutique wineries and producers of Pinot Noir that I
could get access to. Many small California producers sell DTC (Direct-to-Consumer). What they don’t sell DTC, they mostly sell in California;
Los Angeles or San Francisco. If they sell outside of California, the first
places they sell to are NOT Chattanooga. They go to New York, Chicago or Dallas.
We just had a really hard time getting access to really high quality,
small-production wines from California.
As a retailer, I visited with Davis at his winery in 2001. His winery
experiences are legendary. Next thing I knew, we were driving through the
vineyards in his truck. Then, later in the afternoon, we were back at his
house, opening 15 Arcadian wines and 3 or 4 Domaine Dujacs, because those were
his epiphany wines. Of course, I was blown away. And, I said, ‘Joe, any way I
can come work harvest?’ He said, “Sure!” And I ended up coming back out that
year and working harvest.
I then continued working harvest every year at Arcadian. He and I became very
close and I became an ambassador for his wines. Finally, one day Joe asked, “Why
you doing all of this for me, why don’t you make your own wine?”
So, in 2007, Joe provided me with some Pinot Noir from Sleepy Hollow
Vineyard, and that year I made my first wine. That’s kind of how it started. I
fell in love with it.
how did it feel then, when the accident occurred? Here you were, pursuing your
dream and then this happens. How did your perceptions of life and of your
career change after the accident?
are times you start to feel sorry for yourself, and you start to go into that
dark place. I’ve been lucky in that, almost
every time that starts to happen, I’ll encounter someone who makes me feel
fortunate for what I have and who I am, and grateful for my health. Even with
this. (Bratcher raises his right arm). Everybody has their amputations, of some
sort. The more you talk to people, the more you realize that everybody is going
through shit in their life. Sometimes I want to think, ‘this is the worst
thing’…and then I’ll meet somebody who has it worse than me. Maybe that’s what
they’re thinking about me. And, that’s what gets us through; realizing that we
have a good life. I have a good life. I get to make wine for a living. How can
I feel sorry for myself?
Yes, it’s hard. It’s been a very
difficult adjustment. Losing your right hand when you’ve been right-handed for
48 years is a challenge, but I’ve been blessed…I’m so lucky to have lived a
rich, rich life. I haven’t made a lot of money. I haven’t become famous, but I
don’t care because I have done a lot of different things. There are certain people
who are focused and have this single-minded goal to be the best winemaker; the
best vigneron. Or, the best brewer,
or banker, or lawyer. I’m not that kind of person. Whatever I do, I want to be
good at, but I have too many interests in life to be singularly focused on one
me about this little neighborhood of winemakers that you’re surrounded by, out
here in the sticks of Sta. Rita Hills.
so lucky to be where I am, because I’m surrounded by these “old school”
winemakers. They all have different philosophies, but there’s so much knowledge
to be had here.
To me, winemakers like Kris Curran, Bruno D’ Alfonso (of Curran D’
Alfonso Wines), Joe Davis, and others that aren’t immediately at this property,
but are nearby, like Rick Longoria (Longoria Wines), Jim Clendenen (Au Bon
Climat) and Bob Lindquist (Qupé)
are passing down knowledge, passing down a tradition. I place a great premium
on the apprentice model. That’s what attracted me initially to French wines; I
was fascinated with the tradition of generations upon generations passing along
knowledge. People who spent 40 years of their life doing something have
something of value to share. And, if that’s not getting passed down to somebody
else, then I want that knowledge to get it passed down to me. For me, it’s not
about trying to figure out whose philosophy is right or wrong. These winemakers
I’ve mentioned are coming at it from different experiences and I want to
understand what those experiences are. I want to understand how they got to
where they are now in their winemaking and viticulture.
do you feel about all the attention that Sta. Rita Hills is getting these days?
a blessing and a curse. There’s so much openness here. I love the fact that
people without millions in the bank can come here and pursue something they’re
passionate about. That to me is beautiful. But it also comes with a certain
responsibility. And, I sometimes worry that people don’t respect what’s gone
before them. I guess I’m struck by the overnight sensations and the cult of
personalities that can pop up. And the folks who brag about scores and such. It
have a devoted following, especially for your Pinots and Chardonnays. Do you
have plans to scale up production?
make somewhere between 700 and 900 cases of wine a year, and that’s usually
spread across five or six different wines. Maybe four barrels of each of those
wines. I have zero desire to make more wine than I’m making now. Number one:
I’m a control freak. It’s something I’m proud of, but it’s also one of my
weaknesses. I’m not a good delegator. And, I micro-manage everything. If I were
making four thousand cases of wine a year, I couldn’t do it myself and it would
drive me crazy trying to manage someone else doing it.
just really love your attitude and your broad smile. What’s your state of mind
CB: By my
nature, I’m not someone who lives in the past. I look forward in my life.
Almost without exception, I’m always looking forward, so I don’t let myself
dwell on the accident or what I don’t have. I’m always looking ahead and
thinking, ‘what’s next in my life?’ I mean the accident occurred twenty feet
from where we’re sitting. I don’t walk by there every day and let myself go
into some deep hole, thinking, ‘this is where I lost my arm.’ I have gotten to
a point where I don’t even think about that day anymore.
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