October 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

A Winery With Personality

Former restaurateur Doug Margerum outfits a Santa Barbara warehouse

by Tim Patterson

You can take the restaurateur out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the restaurateur.

When Doug Margerum, former owner and impresario of Santa Barbara, Calif.’s high-end, vino-centric Wine Cask restaurant, finally got the chance to design his own winery, the part he worried most about was making sure it had a kitchen. The winery shell is a generic warehouse space in a generic warehouse park, as boxy as the day is long, with no vineyards in sight, on a street with the picturesque name “Industrial Way.” But when it was retrofitted a little over a year ago as the new production facility for the Margerum Wine Co., a small but serviceable kitchen got priority treatment, turning out daily staff lunches that bond the operation together. It’s a practice Margerum learned from one of his winemaking mentors, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and one that traces back to the vignerons of Burgundy.

Despite the address, the approach to winemaking is anything but industrial, offering a long roster of well-regarded small-batch wines. Warehouse wineries may lack the architectural pizzazz and high-tech bells and whistles of fancier places, but it’s still possible to give a bare-bones operation its own personality. Tanks are tanks and barrels are barrels, but a place that offers hot meals for visiting trade members and journalists? Now that’s my kind of winery.

Moving into the business and the winery
What got Margerum out of the restaurant industry and into the wine business was seeing up close that the Santa Barbara winemakers whose wines were prominently featured at the Wine Cask were having more fun than he was. So as he transitioned from home winemaking to trial production to 20,000 cases in 2012, his network of relationships meant he had ready access to some of the best vineyards in the area. “I could go to someone like Steve Beckmen, who owns Purisima Vineyard (a source of premium Rhone variety wine grapes) and say, ‘I want that row and that row and that row,’ and he’d say, ‘Sure.’ I still have those contracts. I’m not a farmer.” Margerum does own and farm a small vineyard near Klickitat, Wash., which yields some fruit for the winery, but he describes that project as mainly
“a labor of love.”

The new facility comes after six years of making wine in some spare space at
the Curtis Winery in Los Olivos, Calif. As Curtis grew and Margerum grew and got more complicated, an entirely amicable move was in order. Margerum took what had been the company’s case good storage space in a Buellton, Calif., warehouse park and made it into the new winery, turning the former guest room into the kitchen. Another space in the same complex became available for case goods; the offices, which had been on the property where Margerum lived in Happy Canyon, moved to the winery, as did
the production Margerum oversees for Happy Canyon Vineyards. And Doug Margerum moved himself to Montecito, Calif., in the hills above Santa Barbara. This elaborate shuffle came, naturally,
just on the cusp of harvest time in 2012.

Both of the 5,500-square-foot spaces already had some cooling capacity in place, but upgrades were part of moving into the new configuration. Flooring also had to be re-engineered to hold the weight of Margerum’s two largest (17,000-liter) tanks. Some new production equipment was picked up at the same time, including a Della Toffola press, a new forklift and several new tanks.

The humble Buellton facility houses what has become a quite complex operation, one reason Margerum brought in Aussie winemaker Jason Barrette (with credentials from Penfolds) with the 2010 harvest. The core Margerum label focuses on Rhone reds and blends as well as Sauvignon Blanc, but it also turns out small lots of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and two rosés. Wines produced for the Happy Canyon Vineyard include several Bordeaux reds and blends and a Sauvignon Blanc. For Cent’anni, a high-end Italian project in which Margerum is a partner, there are two reds and a white. And then there’s an Amaro, an Italian-style fortified herbal digestif and a lot of one-off custom projects. The Margerum website, which boasts all the wines for sale, currently lists 30 offerings—23 of them under the Margerum label—and that doesn’t count things that are sold out or not yet released.

In 2012, with bountiful harvests of almost every grape and a total of 300 tons, the total case output was above 20,000—but that, Margerum says, “is not the plan.” The normal targets are more like 6,000 cases for Margerum, 3,200 for Happy Canyon and 2,000 for Cent’anni. No one is talking about making fewer wines, just smaller lots, leaving this still a very intricate undertaking. 

Moving grapes through their paces
The one constant thread that runs through the entire workflow at Margerum Wine Co. is temperature control: keeping things quite cool, from harvest to case goods storage. One part of the production area is kept at 45º for ambient temperature winemaking, the other at 55º for maturation. The lowered temperatures slow down wine kinetics and help maintain some level of CO2 in many of the wines, something Margerum wants. “I like ambient temperature winemaking,” he says; “It’s more natural, tanks can get cold spots, and dry ice can burn grapes.” He admits, however, “We do burn a fair amount of electricity in the summer.”

Grapes arrive at the facility and currently get hand-sorted on a Westec table, though Margerum hopes to sell it and move up to a shaker-style table. The Della Toffola destemmer-crusher is mainly used just for destemming; most of the pressing, for both reds and whites, gets done indoors.

Margerum aims for restraint on the alcohol front; some lots of Sauvignon Blanc, the biggest production wine, get picked at 18º or 19º Brix, and none of them higher than 23.5º. The various lots of Pinot Gris get whole-cluster pressed; the successive waves of Sauvignon Blanc get increasing amounts of skin contact time, from four hours to an entire day. Margerum’s ample supply of small—300-liter, 1,000-liter—variable-capacity stainless tanks, plus some barrels for certain white fermentations, make it possible to handle a dizzying number of small batches and start thinking how to combine them within a few weeks of harvest. General practice is to prevent malolactic in all the whites, unless it’s necessary to reduce overly high acidity.

Reds go into a room full of open-top fermentors—from 3/4 ton to 2 tons—and get multiple daily punch downs. Target red fermentation temperatures are slightly on the low side, around 80ºF, and most reds are pressed still turbid, slightly sweet and finished off in barrel along with malolactic fermentation. Margerum tries not to use too much sulfur, a goal made easier by generally having high-acid, low-pH wines and by stringent sanitation practices.

Margerum is particularly fond of one feature of his Della Toffola press: Its pressure bag is in the center of the press tank, not on one side, which means equal pressure on all the contents and a thinner layer of must getting pressed. In fact, Margerum suggested I not tell anyone about this press, for fear others would adopt it, too.

Yeast choices are the subject of ongoing discussions at Margerum, though nothing too exotic comes into play. Jason Barrette noted that the giant Penfolds winery uses a single yeast strain, AWRI 796, selected by the Australian Wine Research Institute, on all its reds, from supermarket staples to the Grange. Margerum goes a little wider than that, but the choices are industry favorites, chosen for their performance characteristics.

One corner of the facility is a very basic lab, perfectly serviceable for running Brix, TA, pH and sulfur dioxide tests over and over. More advanced testing, including for malolactic completion, gets farmed out to one of two local service labs. The winery wish list includes something like an Enofoss analyzer, which would increase the number of parameters that could be tested as well as the throughput. Margerum does not do routine YAN testing but does standard nutrient additions. Keeping track of all these batches and all these numbers is currently handled, says Barrette, with “a pencil and a piece of paper,” though wine-tracking software is somewhere on the horizon.

Doug Margerum is a partisan of French oak, period. Coopers represented on the barrel racks include François Frères, Ermitage (for the Rhone program), Taransaud (for the Happy Canyon Bordeaux varieties) and Gamba (for the Italianate wines).

Given the prominence of small lots, it’s Margerum’s tanks that show more personality. Among the oldest are two blending tanks, Fat Man and Tall Man, and one named Rick Longoria—a tank borrowed several years back from that Santa Barbara winemaker by someone else, who then loaned it to Margerum, and here it still sits.

Whites generally get filtered with a plate-and-frame filter; reds get filtered only when they don’t get clear enough on their own. Margerum thinks it makes no sense for a small operation to own a bottling line, which just takes up space most of the year. He brings in a mobile line from Castoro a couple of times per year and packages the wines in TricorBraun or Demptos glass, finished with screwcaps for most of the whites and M.A. Silva corks for the reds. Ramondin capsules and Tapp labels round out the list of packaging suppliers.

Although both of the Buellton spaces had previously been used one way or another for winemaking, neither has built-in wastewater-handling capacity. Water is pumped out of the winery and into an outdoors holding tank, which gets picked up and emptied periodically. Margerum says this is a definite incentive to keep the use of chemicals to a minimum. Cleaning is largely accomplished with percarbonate. One tiny design wrinkle the Margerum crew is proud of is a wall where hoses and tools of all kinds are hung, letting them all drain clean, rather than sit on the floor, coiled and full of whatever; gravity means less cleaning is needed.

Moving product
Doug Margerum’s longtime connections in the wholesale and retail wine trade are undoubtedly one reason his wines receive California exposure through Chambers & Chambers, a high-end distributor. The label has arrangements with smaller distributors in several states, as well as Japan, and direct relationships with restaurants in some key cities. Website sales and a 500-member wine club account for about 10% of sales, and on-premise sales another 30%.

There’s no trace of grapevines outside the Margerum warehouse winery, but there is a new chicken coop and some chickens just off the parking lot. I asked if the idea was to produce estate-grown fining agents, but Margerum said no, the idea was fresh eggs in the kitchen for the staff lunches. They’ll certainly have plenty of wine to choose from for pairing with those omelets.  


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