Santa Barbara County region
MoonWalker Cellars shows great promise as they focus on boutique bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah
They met as freshmen while attending the University of California San Diego and became fraternity brothers. Aaron Walker intended to become an elementary school teacher and David Munoz was majored in communications. Neither of them had the first idea of becoming partners in the wine industry.
Aaron deviated from his school teacher objectives (see Spotlight) and entered the restaurant, er, wine, business. David Munoz finished school and began working for Coca-Cola. But, the important thing is that the pair remained close friends after school.
Fast forward to 2007, and Aaron is now firmly established in the wine business. David is associated with Spirits Industry giant Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels and others). Aaron gathers together a small group of friends and family and each puts up $200 to invest in some juice that Aaron feels is quite special and will be made into wine. The investment yields three barrels and the wine is made. Two of the barrels (a little over 50 cases) go to the investors and David and Aaron share the other twenty-five cases.
The wine is a howling success and MoonWalker Cellars is born. By the way, MoonWalker is actually (well, almost) an aggregate of the two owners last names. Next, the pair comes up with the idea of utilizing some of the sketches from an Apollo Mission for the label and trades some wine to the graphic firm who then produces the labels. (No one could make this stuff up). The wine sells out quickly and the two partners immediately reinvest the money in more fruit from the next vintage.
“We actually make somewhere around 400 cases each year,” David Munoz confided. “Some years the number goes up to five or six hundred depending on the quality of the fruit.”
MoonWalker Cellars becomes primarily an on premise brand that is highly popular with upscale restaurants in Southern California. It is also well-received by wine publications and does well in competitions.
“We have never really pushed ourselves to expand a great deal out of a need for money. We always agreed to let MoonWalker Cellars develop slowly. We also feel we can control our destiny is we remain small enough. We can pick and choose our vineyards and make the kind of wines Aaron dreams up.”
Then, a most unusual happening. It seems that David Munoz’s aunt brought a bottle of MoonWalker Syrah to a party. Among the attendees was the wine buyer for Whole Foods who was enchanted with the Syrah. She actually called the winery to inquire if her company could buy some of the delicious wines and suddenly MoonWalker Cellars had its first (and only) off premise account.
Such success is rare in the wine business but it hasn’t changed the minds of its two owners. While admitting to the possibility of sending some wines to New York and Illinois, Munoz assures everyone that the wines will only be available in restaurants.
While MoonWalker must be considered miniscule due to its overall production, it also carries a big stick. Its wines are a good indication that small can surely be better, particularly in the wine industry.
It is a great pleasure to introduce MoonWalker Cellars to our membership. Enjoy!
Winemaker - Aaron Walker
Aaron Walker is an accomplished winemaker that has honed his skills under the guidance of a number of high-quality Coastal California winemakers. Walker also concluded a number of winemaking courses at UC Davis, the mecca for modern California winemakers.
Listed among his former employers are Joe Davis of Arcadian Winery, Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines, Stephen Dooley of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars and Gray Hartley of Hitching Post Wines. Walker joined Pali Wine Co. in Lompoc as assistant winemaker in June of 2007. In 2010, he was elevated to the winemaker’s position where he remains to this day.
His winemaking philosophy differs from many in the California wine industry in that he attempts to insure that the wines of MoonWalker Cellars are not “covered up” with a lot of oak.” He intends to let the individual grapes speak for themselves and develop their own character. He has stated that he isn’t at all interested in high alcohol wines and picks his fruit at moderate sugar levels to insure their fruitiness.
Walker also rarely blends his wines, and prefers to let each individual terroir speak for itself. “Our wines don’t need a lot of help and tend to stand by themselves. We keep all our vineyards separate and that formula has worked out quite nicely for us in the past.”
Santa Barbara County
The continuing ascendency of Santa Barbara County as a leading producer of top quality grapes is no real surprise of wine industry insiders. The huge county (some 21,000+ acres) is the home to six different AVA’s. The valleys of the county run west-east as opposed to most north-south formations throughout the state.
There are numerous micro-climates through Santa Barbara County. Ocean-cooled valleys rest in stark contrast to numerous mountain locations that bask in the sun. The Santa Maria Valley is northernmost growing area and is recognized for its marvelous Burgundian fruit from the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
Sta. Rita Hills AVA (actually located within Santa Ynez AVA) is cooler to the west and much warmer as it heads east. Happy Canyon is much warmer and reacts well to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Its sister AVA (and newest AVA), Ballard Canyon, favors Bordeaux and Rhône varietals. It is easy to see why so much Santa Barbara County fruit makes its way up north to wineries in Sonoma, Napa Valley and elsewhere. Practically every growing condition imaginable can be found in Santa Barbara County along with a wide variety of soils and compositions.
Since MoonWalker Cellars utilizes only fruit from Santa Barbara County, it is easy to see why their wines have seen so much acceptance in the marketplace. MoonWalker Cellars have been careful to choose the right fruit from the right growing area to form its selections.
Aaron Walker, almost 40, went to college in Southern California with the intent of becoming an elementary school teacher. Somewhere along the way, his mindset changed and he found himself embroiled in the world of wines.
“While I was in school, I managed to get a job in a restaurant to help pay for my tuition,” he recently recalled. “It was at a place called the Royal Brasserie in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. The Royal Brasserie was really fine dining and I fell madly in love with the restaurant business and with wine.
My next position was at Bradley Ogden’s Arterra in Del Mar where wine was considered an essential and the finest compliment to a fine dining experience. It had a great effect on me and I will be the first to admit that I was hooked on wine for the rest of my life.”
Walker’s first actual job in the wine industry was working a harvest (in 2006) for Bonacorssi Wine Company, a job that lasted but two months. It was enough to whet Aaron Walker’s appetite for the wine business that ostensibly beckoned to him.
“I read as much as possible about grapes and the wine making process and I was fortunate to be able to head up to UC Davis on weekends for some of their classes. I saw how great winemaking must be approached and tried to make the most of it,” he continued.
His big break came the following year when he approached the Pali Wine Company about a position as assistant winemaker that had become available. He was impressed with the company’s passionate commitment to making the best wine possible and was immediately hired. The following year winemaker Brian Loring departed and the job became a dual responsibility between consulting winemaker Kenneth Juhasz and Aaron Walker. In 2010, Walker was named Pali Wine Company’s winemaker.
“Winemaking is a great challenge,” Walker remarked. “And we are still very small stuff at MoonWalker Cellars. I love my present job at Pali Wine Company and my partner David Munoz works full time with his company in the importing/distribution end of the business.”
Walker is particularly enamored with the grapes that are being grown around Santa Barbara County. “This locale is an absolutely amazing place to buy grapes. It is also quite exciting to see the area emerge as a big-time producer of high quality fruit. As more and more people get on the Santa Barbara County bandwagon, it is exhilarating to know that our winery is a part of making that happen.
Walker’s wife Emily is a perfect fit for the Southern Californian. She comes from a winemaking family herself and is heavily involved with the social media aspect of MoonWalker Cellars. By the way, the Walker’s two infant daughters (aged 3 and 1) tend to keep their mother quite busy.
Aaron Walker seems to be a man quite content with the cards that have been dealt to him. MoonWalker Cellars is on firm footing and can point to a number of truly excellent prospects for the future.