LINDSEY OTIS’ travels as a winemaker have taken her all over the world, but she finally found her place in the Santa Cruz Mountains close to home.
After graduating from UC-Davis’ prestigious oenology program, she headed to France. She then spent time working at Saratoga’s Cooper-Garrod winery and later Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz. She moved to New Zealand. She made shiraz and riesling in Australia. Back in the States, she worked in the Napa Valley at Silver Oak Cellars, makers of one the region’s bestselling cabernet sauvignons. But Napa wasn’t for her.
“I was very clear to me I didn’t belong in Napa,” she says, chafing under a conservative winemaking culture.
From Napa she headed west to Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley to Williams Selyem Winery, maker of one of California’s most lusted-after pinot noirs. But still Otis, 30, longed for home.
Otis grew up on Santa Cruz’s Westside a short walk to the beach. Santa Cruz instilled in her a love for quirkiness, a willingness to take risks and a distaste for the button-down, textbook style of winemaking that defines many wineries. Most of all she liked having the latitude to create.
“I’ve always enjoyed using my senses,” she says.
So when Bradley Brown, winemaker and owner of Big Basin Winery near Boulder Creek, posted a job for assistant winemaker she jumped on it. So did about 100 others. But Brown picked Otis over all the rest. Her technical expertise and variety of experience was a big selling point, but Brown said he liked the fact that she knew the area well.
“She really wanted to be here,” Brown says.
The winery and estate vineyards occupy a steep hillside above Boulder Creek, but there is a more accessible tasting room in downtown Saratoga.
As a winemaker, Otis said she wanted to be here because she loves the multitude of microclimates and soils in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, a diversity that yields a variety of styles and flavors.
People here, she says, “aren’t afraid of making wines that taste different.”
Otis looks the Westsider part with her Haut surfshop sweatshirt, oversized sunglasses and straight blond hair. But a taste through some of the wines she’d had her hand in during her 18 months at Big Basin Winery reveals a winemaker of real talent. She oversees production of the winery’s white and rose wines while Brown handles the reds—mainly pinot noir and syrah. But in reality they collaborate on everything.
“We have a mutually respectful relationship,” says Brown, a relatively young winemaker himself at 46.
Otis was attracted to Big Basin Winery’s commitment to “natural winemaking,” a minimalist approach that involves using wild yeasts and as little intervention as possible. She calls it “guiding the grapes to the bottle” to produce wines that are “transparent” and “pure.”
Keep an eye out for the winery’s first-ever riesling. It’s still in the barrel, but already the 2010 vintage is a racy beauty with floral aromas and juicy flavors of pineapple and tropical fruit backed with well-edged acidity.
While Big Basin has made its reputation with its syrah, the winery’s pinot noirs are outstanding, particularly those from Corralitos’ Woodruff Vineyard. Otis and Brown collaborated on the 2009 and 2010 Vintages and they are flat-out gorgeous wines built with tannin and heft. They are made to last.
“As a winemaker I like that people can share in it and that you’re passing on a message of place,” says Otis.