Better with Age
In her third year as Alma Rosa’s head winemaker, Samra Morris proves that, unlike for bottles of vintage, age is but a number
Written by Alexandra Lee | Photographs by Silas Fallstich
Tucked in the valleys of Sta. Rita Hills, just north of Santa Barbara, lies a vineyard swathed in dew from its morning fog bath, the low-hanging grapes patiently awaiting their perfect plucking date. Exactly what magic occurs to turn this simple fruit into the bottle on your dining table can remain a mystery to even wine enthusiasts, a process as ancient as history itself. The luxury of a splash (or four glasses) of exceptional wine—a flavor that piques your connoisseur tongue with intrigue—is one of the finer joys in life. Luckily, we have winemakers to get the job done for us.
At Alma Rosa Winery, one up-and-coming expert is breaking out on the scene, possessing qualities that set her apart from California’s born-and-bred winemakers. With dark features and an unidentifiable accent, her first impression is somewhat of a mystery itself. Meet Samra Morris, Bosnian-born natural wine talent whose whip-smart nature and war-torn past have concocted a winning mixture of undaunted spirit and indestructible confidence. A move to California in 2012, followed by experience at Napa Valley’s most prestigious wineries, predicted Samra’s success as Alma Rosa’s Head Winemaker. She’s a trailblazing force driving the industry forward…and we have the pleasure of watching (and sipping) along.
Samra Zooms in from sunny Croatia, where she’s spending a two-week holiday before visiting Sarajevo, a city shattered by war throughout her childhood. Clad in beachwear with her hair still salty from the ocean, Samra moves inside only to remedy our spotty WiFi, revealing a relaxed yet self-assured attitude reflected in the quality of her wines.
At alma mater the University of Sarajevo, it was by coincidence that Samra fell in love with the study of food sciences, the type of happy accident every student hopes for. Having graduated with both a Bachelors and Masters in Food Sciences, Samra exhibits a fundamental understanding of the chemical reactions that create great wine—which, notably, is a background most winemakers lack. “Winemaking is a blend of science and art,” Alma Rosa’s General Manager Debra Eagle puts simply. And who would know better, than this expert with a 30-year career working for the industry’s top wineries? Aside from schooling, Samra had no winemaking experience until moving to Napa Valley, where her first job was a Tasting Room Associate…hired, unironically, by Debra Eagle herself.
Fast forward to 2019: Debra hired Samra again, as Alma Rosa’s Assistant Winemaker, and she was soon promoted to Head. It was a rocky start, Samra admits, “It was a really, really crazy harvest.” Not the kind of welcoming challenge she expected. “But when I took over, I was confident in myself, I knew I could do it. It was a great opportunity for me to prove myself.” And that she did. Debra personally commends Samra’s ability to navigate unexpected hurdles with ease, perhaps due to surviving a much tougher past. Three years into her role, Samra is rapidly improving with every harvest—“I know my vineyards now,” she winks. What’s next? Keep a glass polished for her first sparkling wine.
I was dying to ask the question I knew everyone else had. “Do you have a favorite wine?” Samra pauses…it’s too hard to choose, of course. “They’re all different, like you love your children in a different way.” She laughs, and I see her point, though in my experience I like to think I’m the easy favorite. But a favorite wine to make? Rosé, because it allows the winemaker more hands-on control. “I have to say, I’m very particular about my rosés,” she admits. “Everybody in the cellar knows, we’re making rosé today.” Samra comes in with a clear end goal, looking to control color, acidity, and fermentation. “It’s really fun to make it,” she smiles, and I can only imagine the blatant enthusiasm of working in the cellar with Samra on rosé day.
Throughout their relationship, Debra Eagle has remained a loyal pillar in Samra’s success. Her unwavering confidence in the young winemaker’s talents partially stems from Samra’s experience working under Thomas Rivers Brown, winemaker royalty in the “does-anyone-have-more-100-point-scores” type of way. Debra’s decision to reach out with the Alma Rosa role was only natural—even since the tasting room days, she found herself amazed by Samra’s sheer depth of knowledge. “She was by far my best salesperson…she had huge $10,000 transactions.” What specifically did she see in Samra for the Alma Rosa role? “She had raw talent, and she had the personality and perseverance I'm looking for in running a business. She also had Tony.”
Enter Tony Biagi, awarded Vinter of the Year 2020 by wine critic Antonio Galloni, and more generally known as Alma Rosa’s Consulting Winemaker. Coupled with Tony’s years of industry expertise, Samra’s raw talent shines brightly with added polish. Tony is a key player in the Alma Rosa team, sharing his knowledge openly with other young winemakers—without him, the winery wouldn’t be what it is today. He has masterfully honed Samra’s talent and process, producing a wonderfully collaborative relationship that is responsible for yielding, without question, some of the best wines in the Santa Barbara region. Nothing short of a dream team.
What makes the Central Coast exceptional for winemaking, as compared to the world-class prestige of Napa Valley? For starters, the mountains are situated west to east, creating a natural “funnel” of dense morning fog to saturate the vineyards with cool air, generating a climate favorable for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not a fan of the typical been-there, done-that buttery Chardonnay? Alma Rosa’s will be right up your alley. Its unique mineral taste can be credited to a prehistoric marine layer still adding richness to the soil. “The beauty of our wines is that acidity and minerality,” Samra explains, and though it’s 9:30 a.m. my time I’m already fantasizing about an afternoon glass.
An Alma Rosa tasting room now graces lovely downtown Solvang, where you can experience Samra’s mastery for yourself. An even better kept secret, visitors of Sta. Rita Hills can enjoy private tastings at Alma Rosa Vineyards’ Ranch House, as well as hiking tours throughout the estate. Alma Rosa is also embarking on the construction of a new winery at the Ranch—so much to come! And just like the distinctive talent of wine to improve with age, Samra Morris will only do the same…and we’ll be waiting with a glass in hand.