Interview: winemaker Doug Margerum (Margerum Wine Company)

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Wine Santa Barbara

Doug Margerum has made a big impact on the Santa Barbara wine community. Last year, he revived the iconic Wine Cask restaurant and tasting room with Mitchell Sjerven in downtown Santa Barbara. He started producing wines with Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist before founding Margerum Wine Company. He currently focuses on a Sauvignon Blanc called SYBARITE, a Syrah called ÜBER, and a Rhone blend called M5. He also makes single-vineyard wines, sourcing grapes from not only California, but also Washington state. Margerum recently appeared at a dinner that spotlighted Santa Barbara food and wine producers at Shutters on the Beach, and he discussed his inspiration and outlook.

What’s your first wine memory?

I think everybody has their wine moment. It usually involves something sweet. For me I was a young man dragged to France for the summer vacation I didn’t want to go on. I was 14 years old and I went to Clos des Papes and we went down into the cellar and they gave me a tast du vin, and they took wine out of the barrel, and I tasted wine from the barrel, and I’d never even had alcohol before. That was my main first wine memory, drinking wine at Chateauneuf du Pape.

What was the first wine you produced, what year, and why did you do it?

The first wines I started doing, I did with Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist. I had met them early on in my career at Wine Cask. They were making wines, and then we started making wines together, one for private label, for the Wine Cask restaurant, and two for this business where we were making wines as a partnership. The first wines we started making – and it’s funny – we had been to France together as a group, and we had this guy Didier Dagueneau, who actually just recently died. We’re just crazy about his Sauvignon Blanc, so we wanted to make that style of Sauvignon Blanc in California, so we started this company together called Vita Nova, and the first wines we made were these very energetic barrel fermented – at that time – malalactic – at that time – Sauvignon Blancs, which where were very good, and they’re still good. I still taste some of the old wines from then. I make Sauvignon Blanc now, but in a much different style. That was the first wine I was sort of involved in crafting and making. By no means was I the winemaker. I didn’t start making my own wine – after being separated from Jim and Bob – in my partnership – we’re still great friends – I didn’t start making my wines until 2001. Then Sauvignon Blanc was the first thing I made.

What’s a wine trend that you’re currently excited about?

A wine trend I wish would happen is people embracing Syrah, cause I always felt Syrah was the quintessential California wine. You’re grilling food and you’re outside, especially California, you’re not only grilling food with wood, it has herbs in it and lots of spice. We use cayenne pepper in the grill, use rosemary in the grill and have oak in the grill. All those flavors go so well with Syrah. Syrah was just on this trajectory of acceptance that it doesn’t seem to have been sustained. What happens to a lot of these varietals. What happened to Merlot, which is happening with Pinot Noir right now, is that the growers in the areas where maybe the grapes don’t do well and start planting and put Syrahs out on the marketplace, or Pinot Noir right now, that are not as good. It’s a very climate specific grape. And people think, I don’t like Pinot Noir. No. You just don’t like crappy Pinot Noir. Then they think they don’t like Syrah either. Those things correct themselves. The trend I’m anxious to see happen, of course, is embracing Syrah.

The trend that is happening right now are lighter, drier, crisper white wines, unoaked. More food friendly, less alcohol white wines. That’s the trend I’m seeing now.

How much value do you see in a 100-point rating scale?

It’s a silly scale because I don’t make any wines that fit into that scheme. My rose will never get 100 points. Instead of making a scale that rates everything by category, it competes against Montrachet or Sin Quo Non from wherever, or Araujo cabernet. It could be the world’s greatest rose, or I make the best Sauvignon I’ve ever made in my life, it will never be 100 points. It’s competing against things that are much more dramatic, so the 100-point scale is absurd at face value. It’s not a 100-point scale, at any rate, and it’s not broken down into categories. I could see having a 10-point scale within rose, so the best rose ever made got a 9.5. That would be cool, but it’s a silly system. What I would like to see raised is you, and me and sommeliers and people who actually work with wine and judge wine at the place that it’s supposed to be judged, which is at the table – versus people who are journalists. Robert Parker’s probably done more for the wine business than everybody ever, but it would be nicer to have the people who work with wine and see it in its place – which is at the table – to be able to talk about how wine goes with food, how it goes with the meal and either aged or not aged and how it fits into the system and to talk about it in a much more intellectual, grounded level vs. this hierarchical straight line level, which doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for a lot of stuff. You could never talk about food that way. You could never talk about art that way. Why would you talk about wine that way? It’s just beyond me. I have no idea.

Do you use a 100-point scale at the Wine Cask?

No. Not at all. If you start buying wines based on scores, you lose all your integrity. You have no integrity. We are buying wine that we like, and we are putting food on the table that we like. If people like it, that’s great, they’re our customers. If they don’t then they’re not our customers, and they go somewhere else, and that’s the way it should be. Not everyone should like my wine. Some people like my style of wine and some people like other people’s style of wine, and they go to other wineries. That’s how it works. But if we all start making wine according to some number score, then wine becomes very uninteresting and boring. I want –and you do to – we want all these different tastes. I didn’t want to sit down and have the same meal every time. We want to explore. Part of the beauty of wine is having to taste it and explore something new each day. Right?

Absolutely. If you could only drink one more bottle of wine, what would it be?

You know, that’s a tough question. It’s often asked if you could drink one more bottle of wine on a desert island, what would it be? It would probably be some sort of Syrah, because I think Syrah is so versatile. It goes well with so many different things, so my desert island wine would probably be some syrah that was not necessarily made by me. Hopefully on a desert island I’d be having a variety of cuisine on a daily basis.

This is actually a similar but different question. Your very last bottle, what would it be?

Oh, the very, very last bottle. And I don’t own it now, but I could own it?

It could be anything.

It would probably be a 1947 Cheval Blanc.

How come?

Cause it’s one of the greatest wines that I’ve ever had, and I’m assuming it’s still great. I might as well drink the greatest wine I’ve ever had, and it would be that wine. It might be a ’59 Letage from Romney Conte. And it might be a 1967 Chateau d’Yquem. If I have a little group, a Bordeaux, a Burgundy and a Sauternes for my last wine…you’ve seen that book about chefs last meals?


Different chefs doing it. It would have to be similar to that, where I’d have to have a group of wines. To start with, I’d probably have an ages Sologne champagne to start. I’d have a white Burgundy, an then a red Burgundy, then a Bordeaux and then a Sauternes.

Would you pair them with anything?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

What would you pair them with?

Oysters with the champagne. Some sort of shellfish. It depends how crazy I’d go, but just as a pure expression, I’d have oysters with champagne. With the white Burgundy, I’d probably have something from Santa Barbara. Local halibut cooked perfectly. Then with the Pinot Noir I’d have to have duck. Then with the Bordeaux I’d have to have haricots verts, potatoes Diane and a skirt steak of some sort, since that’s just a perfect pairing. With the Sauternes, I might just have that by itself. I’m not sure if that really goes…maybe some cheese, maybe some perfect ripe old goat cheese.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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