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Life in Wine

By Nora Heston Tarte | Photos Courtesy of Santa Berhnal

Santa Bernahl’s passion is wine. The owner of Magnum Wine Bar in Riga, Latvia, and winemaking student at UC Davis assists collectors at auction as a senior wine specialist at Acker, Merrall & Condit Wine Merchants (the largest wine auction house in the world). She helps them to obtain special bottles to complete their collections or sell off items from their own cellars. “It is like a Disneyland for adults—anything is possible,” the Carmel resident says of wine auctions. “It is not about the most expensive bottle; it is about dreams coming true when your bucket list wine lands in your cellar, or when you decide to sell something you no longer want to drink and embark on a trip around the world for the money you made, selling your wine in the auction.”

Some of her clients come her way through her work with Acker, but most are contacts she’s made on her own through her various endeavors, including studying at The Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London, founding wine import company Signature Wine, owning Magnum Wine Bar—an Ilse Crawforddesigned space with a 5,000-bottle wine list— and tasting her way through popular wine territories, including Champagne and Bordeaux. “It’s a very small world, once you are in it,” she says of the wine industry. “You basically run into the same people all the time.” Current projects include working through a few hundred bottles from the 1970s that were discovered in the depths of a forgotten cellar and an epic 8,000-bottle collection in Germany waiting to be inventoried and sold.

Her affinity for travel has helped her find success in business. It’s also exposed her to a variety of cultures and experiences that have shaped her life. An job early on at a bar owned by an honorary consul of Australia who had an affinity to wine introduced Bernahl to many varietals and the idea of collecting. Traveling since she was young taught Bernahl not to be afraid, which is why she’s been able to go after her dreams so fervently. She references a family canoe trip when she was three or four years old. “ We were storming down the river, which was like [an] untamed wild horse, almost impossible to stay in the boat. Of course, the boat turned over at one point, and we all got soaked in freezing cold water,” she recalls. “Not a big deal. We stopped to dry off for a few hours and got right back in the river. That moment taught me not to be afraid of cold water. Whenever you’re in it, just keep going.”

Her parents’ ability to take Bernahl and her sister around the world, often traveling far from their homeland in Latvia, combined with the work ethic she developed while studying multiple languages and spending 12 years practicing piano as a child (requirements of her parents) have contributed to Bernahl’s success and her ability to do it all. She is a wife, mother to three children, business owner, and student. And she jets from country to country to manage her many ventures.

For now, Bernahl is focused on auctions. In the future, she hopes to continue in wine, opening her own champagne house or creating a cult California chardonnay. “I will dare to dream,” she says. “Let me get that UC Davis degree first!


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