For more than 30 years, legendary surf filmmaker Taylor Steele has been traveling the world with his career in overdrive.
But this year, the 47-year-old father of two has intentionally shifted his life into a lower gear. He moved back to North County after more than 20 years away and last month, he officially launched his Encinitas-based lifestyle brand, Solento.
A composite word that Steele says means “slow sun,” Solento reflects a new phase in his life where he’s reconnecting with old friends and taking the time to savor his environment and enjoy life more. The company’s first product is a high-end organic sipping tequila designed to be savored slowly.
“Tequila is an entry place to have a ritual experience with people,” he said of his entry into the bottled spirits industry. “It might feel like it’s a bit of a change to someone looking from the outside, but it feels very natural to me. It’s where I’m at in my space, trying to connect more.”
Steele is far better known for his surf films, some of which were showcased last year in HBO’s Emmy-winning documentary “Momentum Generation.” For that film, he gave the filmmakers access to more than 8,000 hours of his surfing footage from the 1990s.
Steele was born in La Jolla and grew up in Solana Beach and Encinitas. Both of his parents surfed, so the sport came naturally to him as a boy. Eager to see what he looked like on a surfboard, he borrowed his parents’ video camera and, at age 12, started filming, editing and producing short surf videos of himself and his friends.
“Being a shy kid, it was a way to communicate and be accepted and have value,” he said in a recent interview. “I felt like a lot of things from making film helped me socially be more outgoing.”
At age 13, Steele started filming his friend, surfer Rob Machado, then a fellow middle-schooler from Cardiff. As Machado’s career took off, Steele said he was happily pulled along in his wake. By the time he was a 15-year-old freshman at Torrey Pines High School, Steele was filming some of the nation’s fastest-rising young surfers — like Kelly Slater and Shane Dorian — who would come to surf with Machado at Seaside Reef in Cardiff.
“They were excited to see themselves on video, which was quite new at that stage, and that led to a natural competition,” Steele said. “They wanted better waves on video than their friends.”
In the early 1990s, the proving ground for surfers was Hawaii. So when Machado, Slater, Ross Williams, Benji Weatherly, Ross Williams, Kalani Robb and others converged on Oahu’s North Shore, Steele followed. For a while he slept in his van and eventually was invited to share a house with the surfing buddies at Banzai Pipeline beach.
In 1991, he edited together a collection of Pipeline surf videos with music by Bad Religion, Spring Monkey, Pennwyise and other punk bands and released it on VHS under the name “Momentum.” His unique raw, quick-cut, rock ‘n’ roll style was an instant hit and the film became a launch pad, not only for this new generation of athletic young surfers but also for Steele.
HBO’s “Momentum Generation” looked back on the flashpoint moment when Steele captured on film Machado, Slater and many others as they emerged from the pack before going on to dominate the sport in the late ‘90s. Steele said that at the time he didn’t realize he was capturing history on film.
“I felt like these guys were going to be famous but I didn’t know at what level,” Steele said. “I saw a changing of the guard but these were just my friends and they were the only people I had access to. I would’ve picked other surfers more famous at the time, if I could have,” he said. “I knew these up-and-comers and I think together we sort of all improved by being around each other. My filmmaking improved from it and we all helped each other get to where we needed to go.”
As his expertise, cameras and production budgets improved, Steele began traveling to film surfers and competitions around the world. His style expanded to include travelogue elements as he followed surfers inland to explore food, culture and natural wonders.
By the early 2000s, the surfing landscape was changing. Steele said he felt he was becoming replaceable and had begun repeating himself for fear of losing his fan base. When he became a first-time dad, he decided to hit the brakes for a period of personal and career introspection. He moved his family to Indonesia for six years to focus on family and innovation and to make movies that celebrated the beauty in the world.
“As it grew, I found I could own it more and do what I felt and have an authentic me,” he said. “By doing that, I fell in love with the moments and memories you create over those journeys.”
After six years in Indonesia, Steele moved his family to Byron Bay, Australia, for six years. His career expanded into more team projects as well as opportunities to branch out into other creative genres. He produced music, filmed TV commercials and worked for two years as the creative director for Corona beer in Australia.
Most recently, he has been working with National Geographic to direct conservation films, including “Save this Rhino” and the upcoming “Save this Shark.” Because of the diversity of Steele’s work, Fast Company magazine named him to its 2014 list of the world’s top 100 creative people in business.
It was while he was living in Australia that Steele discovered artisan tequila during a trip to a family-owned agave farm in Jalisco, Mexico.
“I fell in love with the intricacies of tequila. It’s more like wine than vodka. Each harvest has a different flavor. It’s a beautiful thing,” he said.
It has taken several years to bring his Solento tequila brand to fruition with a small group of investors, including Machado. Solento tequila is produced by the Montes family at the Las Americas distillery in Amititan, Jalisco. It’s available in three varities: blanco, which is un-aged; reposado, which is aged for nine months in oak barrels; and anejo, which is barrel-aged for 18 months.
Steele is shipping the tequila through a business office in Encinitas and is selling the liquor online at solentotequila.com. He’s also slowly rolling it out at restaurants, bars, liquor stores and boutiques in North County and New York. Local venues include Cardiff Seaside Market, Casero Taqueria in Carlsbad and Old Town Tequila in San Diego. Eventually, he plans to sell the product internationally.
The tequila is just the first business venture that Steele plans to produce under the Solento label. Other future possibilities include travel experiences and events that will tie into the same ethos of “taking your time and enjoying yourself,” he said.
Another project that he’s been busy with this year is The Momentum Files, a free-subscription Youtube channel where he has been uploading videos and full-length films, including the original “Momentum.”
“Cleaning out my storage, I found hours of behind the scenes, secret videos and lost footage that needs to be seen before the tapes crumble away,” he said, in an introductory video on the page.
About five years ago, Steele moved his family from Australia to New York, which continues to serve as his East Coast base. He said he was compelled to move more permanently to his old hometown of Encinitas this year because he wanted easy beach access for his older daughter, Jaiden, 15, who is a surfer, and his younger daughter, Milla, 13, who is learning. He said being back in town and surfing his old hangouts each morning has been a positive experience.
“It’s great,” he said. “I see all my old friends pretty much every day when I go to the beach. I was hesitant on moving back because I felt like the area had changed so much. But I love that it has changed in great ways.”
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune