Standing in the Uplight: A Conversation with Winemaker Chris Bratcher of Bratcher Vineyards

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 day.

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.

R.H. Drexel: Can you tell me a bit about what happened the day of the accident?

Chris 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?

CB: The 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.

RHD: Can you talk a bit about how the local community responded to your accident? How others in your realm of friends and family responded?

CB: There’s 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.

RHD: You mention this background that you have that’s very different from what you’re doing now. Can you talk about that a bit?

CB: I 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 schools.

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; especially Rhône 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.

RHD: Has being a retailer all these years informed how you go about pricing your own wines?

CB: I’ve 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.

RHD: Let’s back up and talk about how you made the leap from being a retailer to a full-time winemaker and winery owner?

CB: In 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.

RHD: So 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?

CB: There 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 thing. 

RHD: Tell me about this little neighborhood of winemakers that you’re surrounded by, out here in the sticks of Sta. Rita Hills.

CB: I’m 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.

RHD: How do you feel about all the attention that Sta. Rita Hills is getting these days?

CB: It’s 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 bugs me.

RHD: You have a devoted following, especially for your Pinots and Chardonnays. Do you have plans to scale up production?

CB: I 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.  

RHD: I just really love your attitude and your broad smile. What’s your state of mind these days?

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.

Read More From R.H. Drexel

Loam Baby Volume 4: The Sonoma Edition

Through the Fire: Sitting Down with Manfred & Elaine Krankl

In the Kind of World Where We Belong: Drake Whitcraft

Eugene Lee: It’s His Home for the Holidays

Ice, Ice, Baby: Chillin’ with Tim Colla

Feeling Colossal - David Grega

--R.H. Drexel