The Winos’ Winemakers Series: getting back to basics with the Municipal Winemakers

By Jesse on August 29, 2008

Sometimes it takes a Young Wino to truly reach the Young Winos.

By all accounts, most wine producers haven’t yet quite figured out what to do with the so-called Millennial Generation — that discriminating demographic of tech-savvy twenty-somethings (of which the Young Winos like to think of themselves as some kind of boozy vanguard). But Santa Barbara winemaker Dave Potter, the man behind the Municipal Winemakers label, doesn’t seem to suffer from this same marketing malady. Himself a child of the eighties, Dave has created a brand that eschews animal labels and Flash-heavy websites in favor of distinctiveness and authenticity — and, most importantly, makes wines that are both intriguing and delicious.

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“What’s cool about Millennials is that we’re not scared of wine,” Dave told me. “We’re not just dependent on brand loyalty. It’s all about exploration.” In that spirit, a group of Young Winos recently gathered in Sherman Oaks to welcome Dave and explore the flight of wines he’d brought with him.

We originally met Dave Potter at the Santa Barbara futures event in April, where we were taken by his no-frills, substance-over-style approach. In the interceding months, we’ve watched Dave become one of the most Wino-friendly winemakers we know, adding excerpts from our brief review to his blog and creating a page on youngwinos.com. So we weren’t at all surprised when Dave showed up for the tasting carrying with him an ingenious and Wino-rific flight: besides each of his own wines (a white, a rosé, and two reds), he’d also brought examples of the types of wine that had inspired his four bottles (a Clare Valley Riesling to compare with his Riesling, a Côtes de Provence to compare with his rosé, etc.). Intrigued and thirsty, the Winos dug right in.

We started things off with the 2006 Mount Horrocks Riesling (Watervale, Clare Valley). Following early stints at Sunstone and Byington, Dave moved to Australia several years ago to study viticulture. He brought back with him both a bit of an Aussie accent — the slightest hint of which still lingers — and a taste for Australian Riesling. “In Australia, Riesling is super lean, all about clarity and purity,” Dave said. Jeremy picked up some lemon zest and olive oil on the nose, while Mary got vanilla bean. The palate followed suit with some tight citrus notes. “Aussie Rieslings age quickly,” Dave explained. “This one’s already got some kerosene character, and the mouth is total lime.”

Having been given our primer, we opened up the 2007 Municipal Winemakers “Bright White” Riesling (Santa Barbara County). Mary picked up a hint of honey on the expressive nose, while Giselle got “sage followed by lemon.” Emily thought it smelled like Fuji apples, Andrew cited lavender, and Jessica got white peach. I picked up some orange blossom character, almost veering into Muscat territory.

“Most of winemaking is about what day you pick the grapes,” Dave said, as we took our first tastes. “What I’m trying to do here is harvest just when the green, vegetal flavors finish, but before it goes too fruit-bomb.” The Australian “leanness” was very apparent; Jordan called it citrussy but rounded, and Jeremy was surprised by how dry the wine ran following that fruity nose. Emily applauded the clean, mineral character, noting that while some California Rieslings “have that syrupy, full aftertaste, this one is actually refreshing, like you’d actually want to drink it on a hot day.” I was a big fan of the mouth-coating minerality on the crisp finish. For $15, this was a very nice summer white, and one of the most interesting expressions of Riesling that the Winos have encountered.

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Dave Potter holds court; three happy Winos; the photos that Andrew takes always come out a little blurry after a glass or two

After his tenure in Australia, Dave worked at a winery in Côtes du Rhône, where he fell in love with the easy-drinking rosés of southern France. “Rosé, to me, isn’t something you decant — it’s something you chill and drink.” He related to us the story of the French vineyard workers who, when on their breaks, would produce enormous jugs of rosé and chug it like water while lounging about underneath the trees. In lieu of our own enormous jug, Dave had brought with him the 2007 Saint Roch Les Vignes Rosé (Côtes de Provence), made up of 65% Cinsaut and 35% Grenache. The nose offered up tart notes of strawberry and cranberry; Emily picked up some honeysuckle. The palate proved resplendent with ripe red fruits, watermelon paramount among them. Dave admitted that this bottle was actually a bit more plush than he typically likes his rosé, and not quite lean enough.

For comparison, we moved on to the 2007 Municipal Winemakers “Pale Pink” Cinsaut/Grenache Rosé (Santa Barbara County), made up of 50% of each grape. The nose immediately reminded me of baked goods — muffins, specifically — with a nice sweet crumble of streusel on top. Jessica got “fresh earth,” and Noah, having heretofore been silent all evening, offered that the nose smelled like “organic red licorice, sprinkled with ground watered-down clove.” With Noah, it never rains but it pours.

The palate was crisp and bright, with a lot of cranberry character; Jessica said it was like “the whole process of eating a cranberry” throughout the palate. Mary picked up some strawberry, and Andrew amended that to “strawberry lemonade.” Dave was more pleased to hear that we found it refreshing overall than he was concerned with our individual tasting notes. “This isn’t meant to be a wine you think about too much,” he said, and explained that his goal in making wine isn’t to produce the bottle that stands up the best to analysis, but rather the bottle “that gets finished first.” This one got finished quickly.

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Dave with his creations; Mary examines the Pale Pink; don’t think too hard, just finish the bottle

To segue into the red portion of the evening, Dave opened up the 2005 Chateau de Montfaucon “Baron Louis” (Côtes du Rhône), a kitchen-sink blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Counoise. On the nose, Andrew picked up blackberry and some cola, while Jordan got prosciutto/hammy elements, and Emily got dark baking chocolate. (For my part, I wrote down the phrase “every color of the Rhône-bow” in my notes, which suggests to me that I was getting a little tipsy by this point… I’m only left to hope I didn’t say that out loud.) On the palate, Jessica got hints of Tootsie Pop, while Giselle observed a mulled character. Dave appreciated the wine’s balance: “you know that when you can taste any one thing, it’s out of balance, but what I like about this wine is that it’s the total package.”

The 2007 Municipal Winemakers “Bright Red” Grenache/Cinsaut/Syrah (Santa Barbara County) hasn’t been released yet, but we were fortunate enough to get to taste a barrel sample. The first note we picked up on the nose was huge coffee. “There’ll be much less of that when it’s finished,” Dave said. “Once it gets racked for bottling, the air will knock a lot of that off and leave more fruit.” Jessica smelled some mint leaves, and Giselle got notes of rare red meat, seasoned with rosemary. My tastes are a little more pedestrian; I got notes of “pizza sauce with oregano.”

The palate was big and smoky, with charcoal notes prevalent throughout, and with some red fruit revealing itself nicely on the back end. Although Dave looked forward to the wine being a bit softer by bottling, the consensus was that he’d already crafted a winner. “This is delicious, actually,” offered Jordan, and Giselle and Noah both loved it just as it was. Leah took it a step further, calling it one of the best reds she’d ever had. Mary opined that this wine had been the closest match to its “example bottle,” the Côtes du Rhône. Everyone present was very impressed, and when resident tightwad Leah revealed that even she would be happy to drop the $20 for the finished product, we knew that we’d struck black gold.

As a young winemaker, Dave understands the challenges he faces trying to launch a wine company in an already crowded marketplace (“just what the world needs, another label,” he mused). His goal is to carve out a niche by creating a unique product. “I’m trying to make wines that are different,” he explained. “The way I’ll cut through the clutter is by making wines that are interesting and distinctive — using different grapes, different styles.”

One cosmetic decision that the Winos applauded was the bounty of information present on the back of every bottle. Each Municipal back-label lists the varietals, the vineyards, and some tasting notes, but it doesn’t stop there; it goes on to outline the production techniques in great detail (“the fruit was fermented in small boxes and French oak, and punched down three times a day for about two weeks”), and it provides creative food matches for both meat-eaters and vegetarians. This stuff is treasure for wine geeks, but even casual drinkers will appreciate the utilitarian nature of the labels, especially young ones — after all, we Millennials like our information, and we like it now. (Besides, whether or not he or she actually cares about all of the various details, any discriminating Wino will undoubtedly prefer them to the obsequious prose that typically adorns back-labels.)

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Someone says something funny over on that side; and then eventually everyone laughs over on this side; Emily’s a little bit in love

In preparation for his final red, Dave passed around a bottle of 2006 Penfold’s Shiraz/Cabernet, but stopped us pouring to announce that, sadly, the wine was corked. “This is a producer’s worst nightmare,” he said, “because it’s just barely corked, so no one will know it’s corked… they’ll just think it’s bad.” The wine didn’t taste terrible, but Dave explained that it didn’t taste anywhere near as rich as it should have; besides that, the finish dropped right off to nothing. He admitted that if he didn’t know the wine so well, he himself might also have just pegged it as a mediocre bottle, rather than one which had been spoiled. With heavy hearts, we dumped out our glasses and resolved to concentrate doubly hard on the final bottle.

Our last wine was Dave’s other barrel sample, the 2007 Municipal Winemakers “Dark Red” Shiraz/Cabernet (Santa Barbara County), featuring Syrah (70%) from the Camp Four and Tierra Alta Vineyards, and Cabernet (30%) from Happy Canyon. The nose was big and rich, with blueberry and caramel notes riding atop of a bed of smoke and some resilient tire rubber. Leah got blackberry, and Andrew picked up barnyard character. Mary got craisins, which sparked a debate as to the etymology of the craisin — specifically, whether it was a cranberry/raisin hybrid, or just a dried cranberry. (You know a wine is good when it induces such vigorous discourse.)

The palate was wide-bodied and rich, featuring some tart berries suspended on a smoky base. “The Cabernet provides the blackberry and blackcurrant,” said Dave, “while the Syrah is the more purple ‘dark meat’ stuff.” Doug was the only one present who knew what a mulberry tastes like, and he said the palate was full of ’em. Noah liked the mouthfeel, but thought that the flavor elements were still a bit muted. Andrew disagreed — he thought the flavors were bold and prominent, and was ready to drink a bottle now. Like the pirated rough cut of a movie that you know is going to be great, this wine promised good things for its 2009 release, and should definitely be worth the $25 investment.

As we wrapped things up, we had one final question for Dave: why Municipal Winemakers? “I think the wine industry is full of a lot of pretension, and I wanted to do something a little more anonymous,” he explained. In a discipline in which the purveyors and enthusiasts alike are more likely to be deemed “snobs” than almost any other, Dave Potter provides a welcome respite from all of the nonsense and bluster, preferring to let his unique winemaking techniques and distinctive wines speak for themselves. After we’d exhausted the limits of the tasting, Dave joined us in stumbling down to Casa Vega for some nachos and margaritas, thus solidifying his Wino credentials. It’s always a delight to meet with winemakers, but it’s truly special when we find one who feels like one of our own.

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Jessica reacts to Andrew’s unfortunate claim that he ‘gets wood’; Noah’s going to suck that barrel sample dry; once the cheese ran out, Casa Vega was a given

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7 Comments »

  1. “every color of the rhone-bow” was definitely muttered aloud. Thanks for the insane write-up guys.

    Harvest has started, so come up and taste some grape juice if you guys are in town!

    Comment by dave potter — September 8, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  2. Kudos to Dave for making the trek and for the Winos for making him feel at home! I love what Dave is doing and look forward to continuing to track his success from a seat close by!

    Cheers!

    Comment by larry schaffer — September 10, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  3. Dave, when are you coming to the next Winos meeting?

    You qualify dude, not many winemakers can claim that! Get on it! (and bring me a Dark Red)

    Comment by Andrew Lang — September 12, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  4. Just dove into the bottle of pale pink I picked up after the tasting a couple weeks ago. Delicious! After an evening run, there’s nothing quite like a refreshing Rose. Seriously, that stuff is thirst quenching.

    Great wines, we look forward to seeing you again soon.

    Comment by Noah V — September 17, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  5. Larry, get down to these guys and show off some tercero goodness.

    Andrew, I am currently engulfed in harvest. I am looking forward to hooking up with you guys again after the dust settles sometime in nov / dec.

    Comment by dave potter — September 18, 2008 @ 7:26 am

  6. Bright Red. What can I say about this wine. Plenty…
    The recent rainy weather in CA presented optimal conditions to get together with family, light a fire, and get to the bottom this wine (literally).
    Tasters: My wife, myself and my parents. My parents were hipsters of the 70’s, finger’s red from tasting Napa’s finest. Growing up, I still recall running through vineyards as my parent’s ravaged the free tasting rooms.
    Like father like son (and now daughter), my wife and I have come to appreciate the tasting room atmosphere, so being able to sample Municipal’s Bright Red was a real treat. (Thanks Dave!)

    We opened the bottle, and before allowing this Bright Red to breath, we dove in and tasted early. First thoughts: All of us, except my mom, tasting the wine considered ourselves red wine drinker’s, so it was my Mom who needed to be won over most importantly. Her first sip led to a second and then a third. She was hooked.
    The rest of the red wine drinking crew agreed this was bottle above and beyond our expectations. My wife, who is not a big drinker, was first to finish and eager for a second glass. We decided to let this Bright Red breath for a while to allow it to wow us even further.

    So the four of us reconvened after the Bright Red was able to properly breath (Lamaze, anyone?) With glasses full, then disappearing quicker than expected, my wife, my dad and myself (“Team Red”) all felt this wine was above and beyond our expectations. It smooth and above the level of the wine we’ve been accustomed to drinking living here in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
    It was my Mom that Bright Red really impressed the most, which was no easy feat with her affinity for white wine. She noted Bright Red was smooth, easy to drink and didn’t leave that thick, overpowering aftertaste (of other reds she’s encountered). “Team Red” agreed this wine was incredibly drinkable and could easily be paired with a great steak or simply on its own.
    All in all, the bottle went fast. Too fast if you asked me. The positive response to Municipal’s Bright Red was immediate and long-lasting. I think the best response given was through my mom’s request to have Bright Red as our Thanksgiving dinner wine selection. Holidays are large scale in our household: A lot of family, a lot of food and a lot of wine.

    Cheers!!

    Comment by Mike McNamara — November 2, 2008 @ 8:36 am

  7. I tasted Bright Red paired with Little Star thin crust pizza and it was fabulous. Bright Red is an exceptional medium bodied wine. It is fresh and harmoniously crafted. The texture is smooth and silky. The balance is perfect. The flavors developed wonderfully in my mouth and the finish is lively yet elegant! Dave, it is awesome, all of us loved it and can’t wait to try the others!

    Salud!

    Comment by Lisa D'Orazio — December 6, 2008 @ 4:34 pm

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