How Nomadic Winemakers Are Fueling Creativity Through Independence - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

How Nomadic Winemakers Are Fueling Creativity Through Independence

Seth Morgen Long outside the Lingua Franca Winery, where he makes his Morgen Long wine. | Photo by Aubrie Legault.

If you ask Oregon winemaker Seth Morgen Long what his plans are for his young eponymous Chardonnay-only label, he’ll tell you his focus is on understanding the region’s vineyards. “I’m interested in discovering what Willamette Valley Chardonnay is,” he says. “I don’t have a predilection for certain kinds of farming or clones or soils. I’m open: old-vine sites, young-vine sites, organic or sustainable. I want to continue to learn and be open to the different expressions.” If pressed for long-term goals, he says, “Maybe in five more years I’ll have had enough opportunity to work with enough sites to lock down 20-year contracts with the vineyards I feel epitomize my vision.”

One noticeable thing that’s not on his business plan: building his own physical winery. Since 2017, Morgen Long has made wine as an “alternating proprietorship” (A.P.) client in sommelier Larry Stone’s Lingua Franca winery in the Eola–Amity Hills region. “It’s the second facility in which I’ve vinified wine, and I’m really grateful to be there,” he says, noting that he made his first vintages—2014 through 2016—as a custom-crush client, an arrangement where typically the winery makes a wine to the client’s specs and they receive it after it’s bottled.

Under the A.P. arrangement at Lingua Franca, though, it’s more like a studio. “I’m responsible for all of the work—I have my own bonded winery—but I don’t have to shell out for all the equipment,” Morgen Long says. The lower-cost setup has allowed him to funnel his profits—and more importantly, his attention— into growing his label, scaling from three and a half barrels (approximately 84 cases) in 2014 from one vineyard to 37 barrels (888 cases) from six vineyards in 2018.

Long isn’t alone in seeking out this type of alternative arrangement. What’s conventionally thought of as a “winery”—a stately building with a cellar and rolling vineyards—is a pricey prospect, and one that’s only gotten more expensive as real estate prices in places like Napa and the Willamette Valley have soared. In response, some winemakers without access to start-up capital are following a pathway similar to the beer world’s “nomadic brewers”: they hit the road and make wine at other people’s facilities.’

To a generation raised on the shared economy and coworking spaces, these setups will seem familiar. Instead of outlaying capital for physical structures, these winemakers keep their overhead costs low, giving them more financial freedom to take chances on creative projects and to focus on the quality of the raw materials that might not be possible with the weight of mortgages and loans. What’s more, this cohort may be largely ambivalent—or downright skeptical—about the prospects of eventually investing in their own winery. For some, not having a physical winery has almost become a badge of pride, a way of communicating to consumers that investment is being focused on the quality of the wine. “Even if I had the capital to invest in my own facility, I’d rather use the money for land or a vineyard,” says Jaimee Motley, who makes her own label at Pax Wines in Sebastopol, California, where she’s also the assistant winemaker. “For me, the vineyard is really where the magic is happening, and the place where the potential for the wine is developed.”

Seth Morgen Long making wine at the Lingua Franca Winery. | Photo by Aubrie Legault.

Starting Small

Starting a label in someone else’s winery can mean a chance to learn winemaking at a forgiving pace on a small scale and, depending on the facility’s owners, entering into something of a mentorship. Andrew Major, an L.A.-based wine broker and rep, tinkered with making wine in his garage before making his first barrel of Pinot Noir during a harvest internship at Tyler Winery in 2012. He slipped a bottle of the wine to his friend Andrew Jones, of boundary-pushing brand Field Recordings, who then invited Major to make wine at his Paso Robles facility. Starting with six barrels (about 150 cases) of Pinot Noir in the 2014 vintage, he’s escalated quickly to making 600 cases of Pinot Noir, rosé, Valdigué and Gamay.

Major attributes his time with Jones at the winery as formative to his brand. Aside from the arrangement’s technical benefits—he can use their presses and forklifts during harvest, and count on them to check on the barrels throughout the year if he can’t make it up from the city—Major says Jones and his assistant winemaker, Tim Fulnecky, also offer creative inspiration. “They’re always trying to find new and exciting ways to make their wine. There’s a very creative mentality there,” he says. “We try to get together early in the year to brainstorm and talk through what other grapes I want to work with, or whether I want to go 100 percent whole cluster on the Pinot or do I want some skin contact.”

But he notes that his setup isn’t always the norm. “There are other people I know who make wine at other wineries, and the winemaker slots them in at the end of the day and really makes a point to be telling them, ‘I’m doing you a big favor,’ which isn’t lost on any of us,” he says. Because he’s sensitive to being respectful of their shared space, Major coordinates with Jones when it comes to harvest time. “Most grapes I work with ripen early, and I tend to pick early—so they’re not overwhelmed when my grapes come in,” he says. “I’m usually done when their harvest is swinging into gear.”

Major has been thinking about how to expand, which would likely require a move to a new facility. But moving beyond the Field Recordings space means a big leap. “If I’m going to spend more money and grow this, I want to make sure I know to the penny how I’m going to make this work,” he says.

Megan Bell of Margins Wine in Watsonville, California. | Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

Working Together

In New York’s Finger Lakes region, winemaker Ben Riccardi is no stranger to alternative winemaking situations. He worked as a winemaker at New York City’s City Winery for four years after getting a degree in viticulture and enology from Cornell. And though California and the Willamette Valley may get the most press for having prohibitively expensive land values, the cost barrier to owning a winery is still steep in the Finger Lakes. When Riccardi returned to the region to start his own label, Osmote Wine, he found space in Damiani Wine Cellars, which also houses another A.P. wine, Nine-Four, made by their winemaker. “I pay a processing fee and I’m allowed to be in the space and produce the wine myself with their equipment,” he says, noting that he also does some cellar work for Damiani to make money and he does have some physical investments of his own. “I do have my own tanks and my own barrels. I’m starting to amass my own collection of equipment.”

Some small winery-less projects rely more heavily on wholesale, develop strong mailing lists or offer by-appointment tastings in off-site facilities. Riccardi says he operates with a slightly different set of principles than his landlord in making an uninoculated natural vineyard yeast style of wine, which he says can be challenging when commercial yeasts are used in the same space, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. “At the end of the day it’s their space, and I have to accept it and coexist in the same space,” he says.

Riccardi says he can see expanding up to 5,000 cases from the 1,600 he’s currently producing. And he’s lucky enough to have a winery landlord who wants to take his future plans into consideration. “They have intentions to expand, and they’ve been kind enough to fold me into that planned expansion. I see a very good future for all of us together, for certainly the near and medium term,” he says.

And what’s especially important to Riccardi: having a low-overhead situation for his wine operation has allowed him to invest in land. He recently purchased 31 acres of hay fields that had once grown native juice grapes. “We have plans this spring to start to build back the integrity of the soil. It’s a really nice field with a huge upside,” he says. “I want to take care of the land, make sure that the remnants of the old vineyard have composted out of the soil. Everything’s a little long term with wine. It’s a big beast if you’re as small as I am.”

How to Sell

While not having a physical winery lowers the overhead investment, it can also limit the potential revenue stream from wine tourism. Tours and a tasting room can be powerful sales tools for a winery, with the potential to easily communicate the personal story behind the label. It can be lucrative, too: An average winery makes a whopping 42 percent of its direct sales from a tasting room, according to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2019 State of the Wine Industry Report.

Margins Wine is produced at the Stirm Wine Company. | Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

To compensate, some small winery-less projects rely more heavily on wholesale, develop strong mailing lists or offer by-appointment tastings in off-site facilities. Santa Cruz–based winemaker Megan Bell makes her label, Margins Wine, renting space in the Stirm Wine Company facilities at a reduced rate for helping to farm Stirm’s vineyards. She says cultivating a loyal customer base online has been key to her growth, and to telling her story. She founded her label with Kickstarter in 2016, which she says helped build her original mailing list. “Most of them have stuck with me,” she says of her early fans. “Those were a lot of the first people to promote the business by word of mouth.”

Bell, who has worked vintages in Oregon, New Zealand and France, says the aim of Margins Wine is to work with lesser-known regions, vineyards and varietals—but in a way, that choice was already made for her. “I’m glad I get to do this,” she says of her eclectic mix of wines, “but in some ways I was forced into a more creative position because I don’t have the financial wherewithal to compete with the big companies on Cabernet or Pinot—which aren’t projects I would want to pursue.”

She also credits platforms like Instagram and podcasts with helping tell her story. “Nothing could replace that,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m marketing, rather just showing what I’m doing in my life.” Bell says that her customers, predominately from the natural-wine crowd, connect with her by understanding her struggles and celebrating her joys, much like a friend would. “They’re invested in you and your story more than your wine being perfect, because everyone realizes the huge risk you’re taking to be making wine in that style,” she says.

To increase visibility, others—such as Buellton, California’s Lo-Fi Wines—have opened standalone tasting rooms. Winemakers Michael Roth and Craig Winchester launched their own label in 2012. They made their first vintage in Dragonette Cellars because they were friends with the owner, then moved twice within Buellton’s industrial corridor, which houses many shared winemaking facilities, as they expanded production. At the moment, they share a space with Barbieri Wine Company and Greg Martellotto. Coqueliquot, for whom Roth makes wine and from whom he buys grapes, is just next door. Roth says Santa Barbara County’s strict zoning laws and astronomical land prices have funneled many winemakers toward alternative spaces such as the Buellton Bodegas. “I have five acres of land, and if I want to put a winery on my property, I have to jump through so many hoops just to get a processing facility,” he says. “I can grow weed, but I can’t build a winery.”

In June of 2018, the duo opened a tasting room in Los Alamos, California, a small no-stoplight town filled with vintage stores, farm-to-table restaurants and a hipster motel. They built out the space themselves with an eye for midcentury modern design, and an assist from a carpenter neighbor on the bar. Roth says the effort isn’t all that taxing, especially since it’s only a quarter mile from his house. But the payoff is big. “There aren’t many people in the area who make wine in the style of the wines that we do. We’re off the beaten path [style-wise] for people who come to Santa Barbara to just taste wine,” he says. Having a tasting facility helps them promote their wine, and the style of wine they make, to a wider audience. “It’s nice to have an outlet [for tasting] that’s outside of natural-wine fairs,” he says.

With this greater visibility for his and other similar projects, Roth says there’s an opportunity to fulfill his vision for what winemaking should be—even if that approach doesn’t pay the big bucks. “A lot of people don’t realize that small brands don’t have big, beautiful production facilities,” he says. “No one gets rich in small labels. The margins are low. I would’ve become an electrician or a plumber if I wanted to make money. Those guys all have brand-new trucks. Mine’s an ’86.”

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