Romance Renewed: Local Winemaker Returns to Chardonnay After Long Hiatus

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 9/24/15

Doug Margerum’s relationship with chardonnay is a love affair.  It has a happy ending, it turns out.  But like any passionate love story, there’s heartbreak, too.
The winemaker and the grape were certainly hot and heavy there for a while.  In fact, Margerum’s formative wine drinking years were dominated by chardonnay.  In the 1980s and 90s, when his family owned Santa Barbara’s Wine Cask restaurant and wine shop, he sold a lot of it.  And, in successful partnerships with winemakers Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist, he crafted chardonnay in earnest; the VITA NOVA project made private label chard for restaurants like Roy’s, Emeril’s and the Patina Group.
Margerum Wine Co. headquarters in Buellton
But then came the proverbial itch, in the early 2000s,when Margerum underwent a culinary metamorphosis, of sorts.  He left VITA NOVA.  He sold the Wine Cask (though he’s part of a team that has since bought it back).  And he launched his own label, Margerum Wine Company, which introduced him to the seductive wiles of other whites.  In a breakup letter that he wrote to chardonnay in 2001, Margerum admits to a recent fling with another: “I got this little sauvignon blanc and brought it home with me.  I don’t say this to hurt you, but just to illustrate the depth of my desperation.  It was a young wine with one of those perfect structures that only youth and maybe a perfect microclimate can give.  I mean, just perfect.  It had length like you wouldn’t believe and a taste that just wouldn’t quit.  Every man’s dream, right?”
French oak barrels stacked high at MWC
In heart wrenching fashion, he goes on to admit that breaking up is hard to do: “Chardonnay, I’m just going crazy without you, and everything I drink just reminds me of you.”
But, alas, it was over.
That tryst with sauvignon blanc, by the way, was no passing fancy.  His eponymous brand has grown to become synonymous with some of the best sauv blanc in Santa Barbara.  His annual Syabrite release ($21) is a crisp blend of several vineyards; in 2011, it made it on Wine Spectator’s coveted Top 100 list.  The high-end “D” Sauvignon Blanc ($36) employs 24-hour skin contact and a combination of barrels and steel tanks to generate a luscious and brilliant wine.
Margerum Wine Company, which has grown from 240 cases in 2001 to up to 14,000 cases today (though lower yields in 2015 will likely yield 8000 cases), has also gained a solid reputation for its grenache blanc, the UBER syrah, the M5 blend of Rhone grapes and several warm-weather reds.  Margerum also crafts wine for myriad private labels, including Happy Canyon and Jamie Slone.
First loves, though, are hard to shake.  They have a way of lingering on the heart.  And sometimes, they have a way of coming back.
If there’s a matchmaker in this love story – a vehicle that’s allowed Margerum to rekindle his affair with chardonnay – it’s Barden, his brand new label.  I ventured to Buellton earlier this month for an introduction, and found that the physical location of Margerum’s winery, in a pair of industrial buildings that offer sweeping views of Sta. Rita Hills, has much to do with launching this new chapter in his winemaking career, and with breathing new life into his relationship with chardonnay.
“Coming here helped me realize that a colder climate makes better wines,” he tells me as we look out the windows of his second-floor office; the cool climes of these west-reaching vineyards are generating world-class chardonnay and pinot noir these days.  “It allows for better retention of acids.  Warm, sunny days and cold nights yield ripe grapes with lots of flavors and great acidity.”
Margerum makes lunch for his employees every day
This Buellton facility became the nerve center of Margerum’s operations four years ago; he’d made wines in Los Olivos for many years before that.  The large winery is kept at 55 degrees year-round; on my visit, it was filled with barrels and fermentation bins.  The adjacent cold room, which houses certain whites and rosés, is kept at a constant 45 degrees.  The nearby warehouse is stacked to the ceiling with ready-to-ship cases.  And the onsite kitchen is fully stocked with herbs and spices and just-delivered produce; Margerum cooks a hearty lunch from scratch every day for his entire crew, and on this day, the aromas of spaghetti carbonara and grilled sausages with peppers wafting from the stovetop are inescapable.

Before I join the crew for lunch – they’ve just finished sorting grapes – I taste through the four just-released wines from Barden, which is named for Margerum’s middle name; the word also means “boar’s den,” which explains the small tusked wild pig etched on each label.
Margerum, right, and winemaker Michael Miroballi
This project hinges on quality of fruit and on contracts that Margerum’s secured at prized grape growing spots like Sanford & Benedict and La Encantada.  The Margerum team – including winemaker Michael Miroballi and assistant winemaker Lucas Meisinger – also employs thoughtful techniques aimed at generating elegant wines: partial whole cluster fermentation, the use of free run juice, slow extraction and a barrel program that includes new, high-end wood.

If the 2014 Barden Chardonnay ($48) is meant to close the books on a 15-year separation, it does not disappoint.  It’s big and flavorful, buoyed by brilliant acidity.  Balanced, textured and nuanced, it exhibits tropical and white stone fruit flavors, toasty aromas and a long polished finish.
Barden also features the Fonte ($36), the French word for “source" -- a zippy and flinty blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris.  The Pinot Noir ($82) is earthy rich and spice-driven, with black cherry flavors and firm tannins.  The Syrah ($60) is rich, smooth and savory.
But throughout lunch, I keep revisiting the chard, as does Margerum.  And as flavors of butter and peaches continue to emerge, I think back to a line from another letter – one that Margerum wrote to his wine club members earlier this summer to announce the arrival of Barden, and of a renewed romance.  “I am in love again,” he writes, “and from sorrow and pain, a Phoenix has risen from the ashes.”
Cheers to that!


1 comment:

  1. Doug is my hero, like you Gabe. Thanks for letting us know about this new venture.