May 11, 2019

A month after returning from Italy, I was invited to Pence Vineyards and Winery to photograph their 5th annual, signature event: The Celestino Drago Dinner. I was extremely excited about the opportunity, as Celestino-a celebrated Los Angeles chef- is originally from Sicily, and I wanted nothing more than to dive back into the Italian food scene I had so recently (and reluctantly) left.

Blair Pence and Celestino Drago connected via an Italian wine tasting group several years ago and hit it off immediately. While talking one night, Celestino admitted to Blair that he harbored a desire to farm his own vegetables for his restaurants.  

Pence Ranch comprises a total of 220 acres, of which a little over 40 acres is devoted to organically farmed wine grapes. The rest is split between livestock, grains, olives, and an empty plot of fertile land that was Blair’s solution to his friend’s desire.

Nestled amongst the ancient oaks in Sta. Rita Hills, there now sits two-acres of fruits and vegetables grown from seeds Celestino brought from his home in Sicily. Though the vast majority of the produce grown at Pence is reserved for Celestino’s restaurants (and bakery) in Los Angeles, one evening a year, they are used for a late spring dinner in Santa Barbara Wine Country.

This dinner is a celebration of not only the friendship built between Blair and Celestino; but also their joint desire to bring some of the old-world culture of food and wine to Santa Barbara. Italian wines are poured alongside the wines from Pence as dish after dish of insanely delicious seasonal foods are enjoyed by the 80-odd guests

It was important to me to capture the essence of the event: the melding of food, wine, and the relationships created by the two. I worked hard to not only photograph the behind-the-scenes creation of food that was making my mouth water, but also the immense detail the team at Pence put into this event and how much the guests were enjoying it. 

I wanted to remain out of the way and have people forget that I was there, as that is when people’s true personalities come forth and the opportunity for beautiful candid shots is greater; but, being the social butterfly I am, I wanted to interact with the guests so that they would trust me, which can result in even more genuine reactions. It is a fine line to tread but... I think I managed.  

I love capturing people doing the things that light them up. Getting to watch Celestino and his team work with the beautiful ingredients grown right there on the estate was a privilege. It was pure artistry and enthusiasm, which are exactly the things that attracts me to the people I love most.

Typically, I get so excited about photo sessions that I forget to eat and hydrate, but this amazing team pulled me aside after they plated each dish and made sure that I took five minutes to enjoy the delicious food they had created.

I am looking forward to photographing this event again later this year and telling you even more about its history and the beautiful people involved.


Heather Daenitz is the founder and photographer of Craft & Cluster, a wine & beer photography and social media marketing company based in Santa Barbara County, California.

When she isn't photographing events and perplexing Italians with her immense enthusiasm, Heather can be found hanging out with her husband, two dogs, and three chickens in their backyard garden.