If you haven’t yet heard of Lompoc, you should. Its so-called ‘wine ghetto’ is home to many of the best small producers in California – plus a load of sommelier-made wines. Louis Villard heads into the ‘hood to score some Pinot
Lompoc’s sun-bleached store signs, empty storefronts and always vacant motels are more reminiscent of depression-era Oklahoma than one of California’s edgy winemaking areas. So it was with a firm tongue in cheek that locals dubbed this place the ‘Wine Ghetto’.
Officially named the Sobhani Industrial Park, the Wine Ghetto is made up of a group of small neighbouring warehouses, making up just over 20 different wineries, plus a hot-rod shop and a gun store. Bordeaux it ain’t.
That’s not to say there are only small producers here: well-known players like Domaine de la Côte and Piedrasassi are both based here. You’ll also find Justin Willett’s label Tyler, next door to Gavin Chanin who heads up Lutum and his own eponymous project Chanin. Stolpman Vineyards, Brewer-Clifton and Samsara all call the Ghetto home.
Cost is an obvious advantage. Although rent is not exactly low, it’s far cheaper (and less bureaucratically challenging) than building a winery. As it’s an industrial estate there’s plenty of electricity and water. And of course the edgy, punk-chic is free. You’re a winemaker who doesn’t need a château or domaine… you’re a garagiste.
The Ghetto opened the door to smaller producers looking to take advantage of tiny lots for rent. Larger wineries also rent out corner space to anyone in need. You pay by footage, or for just enough room for a barrel rack.
Pouring to making
A number of somms are entering the winemaking world via this route, with Raj Parr the most notable example. Parr started making wine in the early noughties. One of the most important skills he’s taken from sommelier to producer is that of context. He’s tried thousands of wines, understands what the taste should be, knows the styles he likes, and therefore precisely the wine he wants to make. The relationships can be handy too: ‘Somms already know the salespeople; hopefully you’re nice to them, and have a relationship. It’s the starting point – you know who to go to when selling the wine.’
Eric Railsback, a nomadic sommelier who treks between the Bay Area and New York to pour wines, has teamed up with winemaker Justin Willett for a Loire-focused project called Lieu Dit, making crisp wines such as the flagship Cabernet Franc, and even a Melon – highly unusual in California.
Railsback uses his sommelier experience to draw upon the expertise of producers he had met during trade tastings and subsequently visited in France: when they were considering stem inclusion during fermentation, Railsback could pick the brains of legendary winemakers Breton, Jamet and Foillard. He also believes somms are in the unique position to know what the consumer wants, as they are talking to them every day.
The edgy, punk-chic is free. You’re a winemaker that doesn’t need a château or domaine… You’re a garagiste
The Ghetto has opened the doors for other industrial estates across the Central Coast. Twenty minutes north of Lompoc, in a similar warehouse set-up in Santa Maria, is Amplify Wines, owned and made by ex-somm Cameron Porter. He always wanted to produce, and only poured in restaurants to save money to buy grapes. While studying for his MS, he found the exposure to all wine styles helped him choose where he wanted to go with his label.
He makes a lively carbonic-maceration Carignan, a low-alcohol Viognier, a dry Muscat and a Merlot. Porter believes that not having a bountiful budget forces his creative edge with his limited grape choices, most of which are on the more obscure side of the spectrum.
It is, perhaps, the ultimate sommelier dream: team up with a winemaker, save some pocket money to rent a corner for that barrel, and the next bottle you’re pouring could be your own.
Photo: Tara Jones