Get the Dirt about L.A. Wine Project from Jason Martin

16 Jul

LAWinePerson1. What was your first vintage year?
We started making wine in the garage in 2013, but 2016 was our first commercial vintage.

2. How many cases do you make per vintage? Right now we’re super tiny, but with big plans, so we’re trying to produce more every year. In 2016 we made 150 cases; 2017 was 500; in 2018 we’re making 1500.

3. Do you have a Tasting Room?  We do something a little different – we have a mobile tasting experience that serves the Greater Los Angeles Area. We bring a rosé tasting to you and 8 – 20 of your closest friends or colleagues – completely free of charge – so people can experience and understand the world of rosé first hand.

4. If not you, who is your winemaker? Winemaking is undertaken by myself and Chuck Carlson – a 35 year vet of the Los Olivos winemaking scene. I work both ends of the spectrum: providing vision and guidance in between washing tanks and dragging hoses; while Chuck holds down the long middle, shepherding the wines through the process to ensure we’re getting the wines we want at the end of it.

5. What wine made you want to become a winemaker/start your own winery? Go into any tasting room in the US and the approach is frequently the same: there’s a complex, hard-to-grasp, terroir-driven story featuring 6-8 widely known varietals, a couple of lesser-knowns, and oh, yeah – one rosé on the back of the list that may or may not be on the tasting menu. Growing up in Toronto, I worked at a French bistro where we poured 3 rosés by the glass, so the very idea that all of these great winemaking efforts were going into producing the same red and white wines left me to realize that no one was approaching pink wines with the level of conviction they deserved, so I launched my winery to do just that.

6. What varietals do you work with? Why? Right now we work with Rhone varietals because I knew we had to start from a place people naturally understood to be ‘rosé-country’. We took the three grapes that you can typically find in any great Provençal pink: Grenache, Syrah & Mourvédre, but instead of blending them like the French are forced to do, we make a single-varietal rosé from each. Due to sommelier and wine director interest in more esoteric grapes, we’re going to start working with Cab Franc this year. Beyond that we’re going to move into sparkling/pet nat, as well as begin exploring Italian & Spanish varietals.

LAWinePress7. What vineyards do you source from? Why? Right now we source from great growers of Rhone fruit in Paso Robles and Los Olivos, and there are two key lenses we look through in identifying vineyards. As winemakers, we’re always on the hunt for the best versions of the grapes we need, and so we’re constantly seeking out better and better growers. As a business owner, I want to build long-term relationships with my suppliers, so I’m also looking for people that I want to do business with over the long-term. The good news is that the industry is full of great people growing amazing fruit, so it’s not hard to find what I’m looking for.

8. What type of oak treatment do you use? No oak – right now it’s all stainless, all the time. Maybe some oak someday, but not yet.

9. What do you love about your winemaking region? We love the Central Coast and everything it stands for: great wines made by unpretentious, punk-rock winemakers who give the middle-finger to all the pretense and bullshit of Napa and Sonoma. These aren’t land barons and tech titans who are post-IPO and looking for a place to park their cash while they crank out cases of overpriced, over-extracted cabs for status-seeking collectors, these are farmers and career winemakers who know this region is producing wine on par with the best in the world, but at a price everybody can afford.

10. What’s the story behind your winery name / label?
There are a couple of reasons why we chose the name L.A. Wine Project.
• Why L.A. Wine? We were born in a Los Angeles garage and are deeply proud of our heritage. We want to double-down on this by building a winery in DTLA – to help spread winemaking culture throughout our great city. As I see it, every case of wine we sell equals a brick in the wall of our new winery.

• Why Project? Because we jumped into this with both feet and zero knowledge, the entire outlook is one of a project. By treating this business as such, it encourages us to take risks, do dumb things, remain unconventional, and continually strive to do better than we did the year before. Oh yeah, and what better place to give birth to a rosé winery than the city where summer never ends?

LAWineBottles11. What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you about the wine business before you started your own winery? So far, nothing. Had I been in possession of more insight, I may never have taken the leap.

12. Most importantly, what’s so great about being small? What can you do as a small winemaker, that wouldn’t be possible for larger wineries? I’m not sure about the romance of ‘small’ – it seems to cut both ways.
• Fruit seems to be both easier and harder to get, as I can probably get my hands on a few tons from a back block somewhere, but locking in bigger volumes can be hard with so much fruit in demand.
• It’s more affordable to buy gear, but it’s a bigger pain in the ass to clean a bunch of small tanks as opposed to a few big ones
• I don’t have tasting room overhead, but I also don’t have a tasting room, so where am I finding my customers?
• I don’t have huge out-of-pocket expenses for bottling supplies, but I can’t get the best prices due to my limited volume
• Planning a sales strategy is tricky – I want to supply my wholesale customers for the entire season, but with my limited production, how many customers should I take on to get the depletions just right?

13. How do you view the future in the wine industry for small-lot winemakers?

I think it depends on the intention of the business owner. Certainly the hardest thing to do right now is to come out as a winemaker-led brand (e.g Bob Smith Wines) telling very specific varietal or terroir-driven stories (e.g. We Make Walla Walla Pinot Noir from Vineyard X). It’s a tried-and-true model, which makes it attractive, but also increasingly hard to stand out. Unless Bob is an unmitigated genius whose every wine is immediately snatched up by adoring somms, it’s going to be a hard row to hoe, as you’re competing with thousands of other similar stories all competing for the attention of a very specific customer.

If you’re going into the business with the mindset of ‘I want to run a wine company and I’ll do anything to make it work’, then that’s certainly a more tenable approach, in my mind. Starting with a hypothesis about what the market needs, and then refining your approach until you hit something that’s working – to me that’s a more future-proof solution. You could end up light years away from where you imagined you’d be, but you might also have a runaway success on your hands.

So I guess it all comes down to what’s more important to you as a small-lot producer: bringing your specific vision to the market, or being flexible enough to go where the market demands? They aren’t mutually exclusive, but to me, one seems a lot harder than the other. It just depends on your intentions.
14. If you had to choose another wine region to work in what would it be? I’d love to continue working our way up the coast, sourcing fruit from great Washington and Oregon growers. Naturally, working in Provençe would be lovely, but those wines are so acid-driven I’d be concerned about being able to produce our style of easy-drinking wines in that climate.

For more information about LA Wine Project, please visit their website or follow them on FACEBOOK.

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