Doug Margerum didn't start out knowing he wanted to be a winemaker. A French girlfriend during his college days helped put him on that path. The relationship moved him to spend three of his collegiate summer breaks in France. That's where he learned that he loved food and wine. He especially loved the wine bars in Paris where you could get a glass of wine and a small plate.
"It was really casual and really fun, with really good wine," he said, reliving those memories at his Margerum Wine Company (MWC) in Buellton. "I was living a life and didn't know quite how wonderful it was."
He does now. Margerum's winery, while small on the international scale, is in the mid-to-large category in Santa Barbara County with an annual production of about 16,000 cases. The company leases two large spaces on Industrial Way for wine production, barrel and case storage, and where there is a newly open tasting area on weekends. MWC also has two well-established tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara.
After graduating from UCSB in 1981, Margerum and his family purchased a small wine shop in Santa Barbara called the Wine Cask. Teetering on bankruptcy at the time, the business, including the leasehold and inventory, changed hands for $20,000.
A couple of the first people Margerum met after taking over the store proved to be highly influential to the young entrepreneur. In 1982, two of Santa Barbara County's newest, youngest winemakers, Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat) and Bob Lindquist (Qupé) stopped by to introduce themselves to the Wine Cask's new proprietor.
"We became fast and furious friends. I sold a ton of their wine, and we all traveled together to Europe. I learned a lot about wine from Jim," Margerum said.
A few years later, the three men started Vita Nova winery and ran it together until 1998 when Lindquist and Margerum sold their shares to Clendenen.
By then, the Wine Cask was firmly established in Santa Barbara as an upscale, wine-oriented restaurant and wine retail store with Margerum -- having bought out his family partners -- solo at the helm. Establishing his own winery was a most desired and logical next step. So in 2001, Margerum Wine Company was born.
"I originally made the wine behind Brander [in Santa Ynez]. I went to Fred because I knew and liked him and because it was the closest winery to my house," Margerum laughed.
"Fred very graciously let me build a little facility within his winery. It had a separate entry, a separate pad. I built a wall to separate off about 400 square feet. Fred let me use his tanks and press until I got my own. I was there from 2001 to 2005."
By then his winery operation had outgrown the space and Margerum went to the Firestone family and asked about their Curtis winery.
"The Firestones very graciously allowed me to rent the space up above the winery, and I was able to use their big tanks. I was there until 2012 when they came in and said they needed me to move. The Firestones were just wonderful and said it didn't matter if I needed a couple of years," he recalled.
Fortunately, the facility on Industrial Way became available at the same time and MWC found its new and final home there in 2012.
From the beginning, MWC's flagship wines were a sauvignon blanc and northern and southern Rhone red varietals.
"These are still the bases of what I make," Margerum said. "I make a sauvignon blanc called Sybarite and M5 which is a Rhone red blend. The only new addition to that is a grenache-based rosé. They're the three legs of my stool."
At $21 for the sauvignon blanc and rosé, and $27.50 for M5, they're also the least expensive of the 25 different wines that Margerum produces.
"I have a philosophy on pricing," he said. "I don't want someone to buy one bottle and never buy another. I want them to try the wine and say, 'that's great,' and want to buy another. That's true of those wines. They're priced where you can have them at your table every day."
Margerum jokes easily that these are the wines that are profitable and are putting his two sons through college. They're not wines to put in a cellar and age.
For that consumer, MWC offers a wealth of options. There are 100 percent syrah bottlings in the $40 to $45 range, and a viognier for $36, for example.
Margerum also produces chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA and bottles them under his Barden label; Barden is his middle name. The wines are more expensive in large part because the grapes are so much more expensive: $4,500 to $6,000 for a ton of Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir vs. $1,800 to $2,200 from the ton of sauvignon blanc, he explained.
"The wines are off the charts great. When I'm dead and pulling corks on my wines, these are the ones that will make people think I'm a great winemaker," Margerum said with a chuckle.
He does so while giving full credit to his winemaker, Michael Miroballi. With Margerum's multiple businesses, MWC needed a winemaker to handle all the day-to-day activities. Margerum found that in Miroballi, who has been with the company since 2009.
"Michael fully deserves the title of winemaker," said Margerum whose titles at the company are Director of Winemaking and Owner. Lucas Meisinger is the assistant winemaker. Douglas Bennett's unofficial title is "#3" and Julia Weinberg is the cellar master. Every day, they -- along with office manager Christina Panameno and her assistant, Patti Rogers -- have a homemade lunch together in the winery's dining room.
Margerum has had his wines served at the White House and U.S. State Department. On Sept. 10, he'll be the honored vintner for the Arthritis Foundation's Taste of the Town fundraiser in Santa Barbara. The accolades are welcome, of course, but those daily lunches with his winery crew are every bit -- if not more -- fulfilling, Margerum insisted.
"We do lunch like this every day," he said while putting the finishing touches on his pulled pork. "It's what the wineries I worked with in France did. The whole team sitting down and having lunch together -- we break bread and talk about all the things going on in the winery, and be friends, and like each other. I can't imagine any other way."