Split Personality: New Brand’s Debut Becomes Winemaker’s Revival

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on February 28, 2013) 

Andrew Murray’s got a split winemaking personality, and he’s a better man for it.

Andrew Murray
“I like to say, ‘There are two Andrews now,” he tells me, sitting on a covered porch next to sun-drenched vines at his Santa Ynez backcountry winery.  “I love this new outlet.  It’s more refreshing, and it’s liberating.”

He’s talking about his new brand – a wine trio dubbed “This is E11even Wines” – which launched its newest releases just this past Saturday.  Here in the Tri-Counties, it’s carried exclusively by Whole Foods Market; you won’t even find them at the Andrew Murray tasting room in Los Olivos.  But at the price – currently $14.99 a bottle – these may well be Santa Barbara County ’s very best value wines in the market right now.

Of course, this new chapter in Murray ’s life is part of a story 20 years in the making.  At age 18, he entered the wine business when his family planted a vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.  The Andrew Murray label’s first commercial release was 1994, though its first “decent vintage” – the winemaker’s words, not mine – was 1997.  Today, the brand is synonymous with some of the state’s premier Rhone wines, from sell-out vineyard-designate syrahs (Murray’s 2010 Terra Bella Vineyard syrah out of Paso Robles just earned 93 points from Wine Spectator) to wildly popular blends (his famous Tous les Jours blend of syrah from multiple Santa Ynez Valley vineyards accounts for half of the label’s yearly 8000-case production).

But his family’s decision to sell its namesake vineyard ranch in 2005 became a crossroads for Murray ; the loss of the estate grapes that fueled a thriving brand, and a winemaker’s own identity, led him professionally – and personally – to reassess, rethink and redirect.

This is E11even Wines, then, was the product of some serious soul-searching.

The label first hit the marketplace in 2011; but the winemaker admits the brand has only now – with the three wines released a few days ago – found its stride, thanks to a three-pronged focus on price, blends and packaging.

On price: it’s refreshing to see that a great Santa Barbara County wine, made by a guy clearly preceded by a stellar reputation, can cost under $15.  To be clear, the introductory $14.99 price tag is meant to promote the brand new Whole Foods splash; when the brand eventually hits other markets – mainly East Coast outlets like Boston and New York , as well as very limited presence in Los Angeles -- the price will creep up another dollar or two.  But the huge value to the consumer is unmistakable; keep in mind that the price tag on the Andrew Murray line of wines averages twice as much.  “As an entrepreneur, I am fully aware that I have to be profitable,” says Murray .  “But when you get ego out of it and you sharpen your pencil, pricing a wine like this is totally possible.”

On the blends: Murray says his approach to winemaking hasn’t changed and that quality-for-price still reigns supreme.  But this new label has become a fresh outlet for a certain amount of irreverence, allowing Murray to create blends that buck industry expectations or take him outside his own Rhone comfort zone.  The 2011 Unplugged is a 50-50 white blend of chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc and is a delicious, fresh, bright drink.  The 2010 Big Bottom Red is a nearly 50-50 blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon (“I think cab franc is the best Bordeaux grape we’re growing in the Valley,” Murray declares) and is a bold, balanced wine with a supple mouth feel, generous fruit and a wild edge.  The third wine in this lineup is a pinot noir featuring five clones that Murray, himself, planted six years ago on a Santa Maria ranch near Rancho Sisquoc that’s owned by his father-in-law; Murray’s made pinot for private clients for years but never before for his own label, and this one exhibits an archetypal pinot nose and tart, fleshy flavors that counterpoints many of the oft-overly extracted pinot noirs coming out of our area.

On the packaging: this is where Murray ’s creativity – “Flights of fancy in my sleep,” he calls it – may shine brightest.  This is E11ven is inspired by Murray ’s favorite movie of all time, the mockumentary Spinal Tap.  “Growing up, I had no musical talent whatsoever,” he admits, “but I was a music nerd – that geeky kid who always hung out at record stores.”  Murray admits to watching the movie, or clips from it, more than 100 times and asserts that the flick, which pokes fun at popular rock movies by the rock heavyweights like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, “defined my generation!”  In it, the “This is eleven” phrase is used to signify anything that goes to the extreme and surpasses expectations.  Similarly, these wines are a revelation at their price.  And the rock-and-roll motif is alive and well throughout.

The 12-bottle case box for the This is E11even Wines resembles a vintage black-and-white music amplifier.  The labels on the wine bottles are round, like a vinyl record.  Those classic rock lightning bolts (the logo of the edgy rock group AC/DC features one prominently) appear throughout.  Press materials for the brand are being distributed to media through flash drives that look like cassette tapes.  Murray even designed a black rock-and-roll tour T-shirt to promote his new venture.

“I think people these days are pushing back against all things digital,” Murray tells me.  “People are making mixed tapes again.  Converse are cool again.  Levi’s are as cool as they’ve ever been.  So with these wines, we’re riding the wave of retro-cool!”

The current total production of This is E11even Wines (www.thisis11.com) stands around 900, though Murray intends to grow it to five or six thousand in the next couple of years.

The winemaker admits that his biggest challenge with the new brand is personal: learning to balance a long-standing, serious, uncompromising approach to winemaking with a product that’s fun, uncomplicated and widely appealing by design is not necessarily easy.

But as I hear Murray speak of this new outlet – and I’ve been lucky to chat wine with him many times over the years – I detect a newfound sense of pride, confidence and satisfaction.  It’s a refreshing turn of a new page, which is part and parcel to the personality of the new brand, itself.  And as this winemaker flourishes anew, to his imbibing public go the spoils.

Rock on!

Gabe Saglie is an expert air guitar player, especially after a glass of wine.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can reach him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.