If you need an excuse to for a coastal drive, winemaker Dave Potter is your man. He is the face behind Santa Barbara-based Municipal Winemakers, a small but mighty 600 cases per year operation that he tends to between barrel hours as the Director of Winemaking Operations for Fess Parker's Santa Barbara County facility, a 150,000 case day job.
Yes, he's busy. But if you're lucky, you might catch Potter at his tasting room on weekends explaining the benefits of selling directly to the end drinker rather than via a distributor (“instead of trying to convince a gatekeeper to like your wine… of course, that means I have to do everything myself”). Or as when we were there, surveying a gutted former scuba gear and dive certification shop a few doors down from his current digs that will soon host his expanded tasting room. “I'm going to try and keep that demolish vibe it has now rather than fix it up too much,” he says. The very same vibe that turned us on to his wines. Turn the page for our interview.
Squid Ink: We love your website. There is so much silly 'cutesy' wine branding junk out there now, but you seem like a genuine sarcastic ass. We mean that as a compliment.
Dave Potter: Really? Thanks. That actually means a lot. I try to keep it interesting.
SI: So you've got your own wine label and this tasting room. Running a tasting room has to take up a lot of time. And you still have a full time winemaking job. You're busy.
DP: Yeah, fortunately at Fess Parker we work 10 hour days, so I get Fridays to work on my own things.
SI: You're making your wines there, too?
DP: Yes, I'm lucky. They let me use the facility.
SI: We gather you are sourcing your grapes?
DP: Yes, I've got eight different growers from different regions. Who has $2 million to open their own winery and grow their own grapes?
SI: Ha, right. It's interesting how growing your own grapes seems to have gotten this reputation as somehow more desirable than sourcing grapes. In the restaurant world, it's the opposite. Chefs are proud that they source their produce from the best potato farmer, the best strawberry grower — the expert growers — so they can focus on creating something great with it.
DP: Yeah, exactly. And I actually like working with different growers. You get more variety that way.
SI: And you can make whatever you want. Those investors coughing up the $2 million are going to have something to say about the wines you make.
DP: Right. I couldn't do that.
SI: So how did you get into winemaking?
DP: [Laughs] Well, I like scrubbing tanks and I like to surf.
SI: Ha. People think making wine is so glamorous. But like being a chef, it's an awful lot of backbreaking work. Are you from around here?
DP: I went to UCSB, and I always had winery jobs working harvest. After school, it was one of those “What's next?” sorts of things. I thought about going to law school, going to get an MBA. Then I went to Australia… to surf and whatever… and within three days of landing I decided I can't do any of that. I had to make wine. So I applied to graduate school [in winemaking] and did that for the next three years.
SI: You applied to the the oenology grad program at Curtin after you arrived in Australia?
DP: [Laughs] Yeah, my mom got my acceptance letter back home and called and said, “What is this? What are you doing?” It's not like it is here. Over there, you apply to school and it's a pretty quick process, you don't have to wait months and months and spend so much time thinking about it.
SI: Sounds like that was a good fit for you.
DP: Yeah, I really do like the work of winemaking. You really are scrubbing tanks and dragging hoses around all day. And there is that intellectual side to it, too, when you make the wine. A balance.
SI: And now you're also running your own small winery.
DP: That's been tough, finding the time. But it's worked out really well to have the tasting room, to not have to go through distributors. Instead of trying to convince a gatekeeper [a distributor] to like your wine, or to get restaurants to say they want it and then chase after them because they never pay you, you sell it directly to the end user. The person who is actually going to be drinking it. That's pretty great. Of course, that means I have to do everything myself.
SI: Well, for us on the consumer end, that's a good thing. It keeps retail prices down without the middle man.
DP: Yes, but it's hard there, too. At some point you have to start charging a few dollars more. You don't have a choice, really, if you want to keep doing what you do.
SI: Yeah, the nature of the beast. So how would you describe your winemaking style?
DP: Well, I had this professor in Australia. He said, “The best thing you can do with wine is not fuck it up.”
SI: That's hilarious. Well, you didn't fuck this one up. What is it?
DP: It's my Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah blend. My Côtes du Rhône style.
SI: [Reading the label] Bottle 1454 of 2,400.
DP: Yeah, it's actually easy to do that now, give the bottles numbers, with individual printing.
SI: You've got really fantastic labels. They're all different.
DP: One of the things I started doing at the beginning was hire a different graphic designer for each vintage. Stephanie, my fiance, teaches printmaking at the [Santa Barbara] City College, so she usually finds the artists. In 2007, we used a Brooklyn designer who makes rock posters, 2008 was a silk screen shop in Philadelphia, 2009 was a letterpress shop in Knoxville, and this last harvest it was a Portland artist who hand draws everything — her stuff is pretty funny.
SI: Very cool. The opposite of what most wineries do. Most seem to spend a fortune on creating a label that you will always recognize as theirs.
DP: Yeah, they tell you in marketing school not to ever do this sort of thing. But I really like the art. And hey, I'm not on the shelf at Safeway.
SI: Yes, well, thank you for that.