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Municipal Winemakers – And the Man Who Is Better than You

March 24, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 6 Comments

“I am pretty sure that most of you reading this are in fact not good enough to buy our wine.”

Dave Potter made the above statement in response to a Wine Spectator article calling his 2008 Bright White Riesling “A California White With No Need for Pretense”.  “Au contraire!” Dave fired back, “I would like to point out that the Municipal Winemakers do have a great disdain for all that are beneath us (aka not Awesome).”

After just a few moments on Municipal Winemakers’ website, you realize that it isn’t business as usual for the Santa Barbara winemaker. There is not a Chateau to be found, neither oak tree, or regal men smoking pipes. There are however, pigs in uniform and Tom Cruise adorned in 80’s shades. The site includes a few professional reviews, well…sort of. Tron Guy, who found his own Internet fame after fashioning himself an outfit modeled after the 80′s sci-fi cult classic: Tron (which is being re-released this December by Disney), was approached by Dave to review a few of the Municipal Winemakers’ wines. See Tron Guy here.

“I was more than a little surprised to be asked to review Municipal Winemakers’ 2007 Bright Red and Bright White wines,” Tron Guy (aka Jay Maynord) starts. “I’m known for lots of things, true, but wine reviews aren’t any of them…” However, Tron Guy goes on to provide an incredibly insightful analysis of Dave’s wines, his label design, and his common-man approach to wine making. He concludes, “the Municipal Winemakers’ website says that their goal is to be the first empty bottle on the table. I think they’ve achieved it – except, possibly, at a party of wine snobs (he is referring to the use of screw caps on Municipals’ bottles). The rest of us will just enjoy and feel a little sorry that they’re missing out on something good.”

And you know, for the first time in my entire life I can write the following sentence: Tron Guy, you are right.

Although pretension is hinted at, even strongly suggested on Municipal’s website, the reality is Dave takes a laid back approach to both his wines and himself.  Dave’s unique approach to the wine business is reflected in the eclectic artwork and vintage cash register in his downtown Santa Barbara tasting room (which only opened a few weeks ago). For a guy raised in the “old vine” region of Rancho Cucamonga, as he puts it, and who studied winemaking in Australia where “the surf is much better than Davis or Fresno,” this sunny tasting room, only a few blocks from the beach, is the realization of a dream.

Even his label designs are approachable and lack any of the traditional pretension that many in my generation love to avoid. “I actually get a different artist every year to redesign my labels” David tells me. “The 07’s, that guy does like rock posters in Brooklyn. The 08’s, they are a really cool silkscreen shop in Philadelphia and the 09’s are a letter print shop out of Tennessee.” With names such as Bright White, Pale Pink, and Dark Red, one doesn’t need to wonder too much over what we might get inside the bottle. And if you do wonder, simply turn them over. Municipal’s back label designs are as important, if not more so, than the front.

“With my back labels, I try to put a lot of information on it”, he explained. “I almost take it like…when you are a kid and you are eating cereal and you just stare at the back of the cereal box for the whole breakfast. It’s kind of the same idea, the bottle is on the table the whole time you are eating dinner, it’s kind of nice to pick it up. How long does dinner take…an hour? You have all this time.” The idea is not a new one. “I’m not going to take credit for it, that’s Ridge,” he explains. “They’ve always had labels like that, where it’s like: ‘I was walking in the vineyard in late October and I knew, that 1976 was going to be a vintage to remember’, you know? It’s cool. There’s something intimate about the winemaker sitting down and just jotting down a couple thoughts of…the year, how he made it, and what his impression of the wine is.”

I asked Dave about the “cultish buzz” I heard about him…which he finds amusing. “I don’t think so,” he laughs. “I’ve always thought the whole “cult” wine thing is a really funny term…come on, you know?”

I came in to contact with Dave almost by chance. He come across my Twitter account (@wkelterer …shameless plug, I know, but please follow me anyway…seriously) some months back and after a brief exchange, nothing further had been pursued, although Municipal remained on my list of wineries I wanted to work with.

But then, last Friday I found myself in a predicament. As I was heading out the door the winemaker who I was scheduled to interview called to postpone, having a child is important business you know! During our brief conversation we talked about an assortment of things including an assistant winemaker at Fess Parker who I am working on an interview with, when he told me, “You have to track down Dave Potter at Municipal Winemakers.” So, an hour later, I looked up the tasting room number and gave it a try.

To my surprise, it was Dave who answered the phone.  After briefly explaining my project to Dave, he said, “let’s do it”! A few hours later, we were enjoying a scholarly conversation under the warm Santa Barbara sun.

Has the travel you have done influenced your winemaking?

“The one thing I wanted to do when I moved back to California was not make like California wine…Which, what does that mean? Because California wine is a lot of things. The California wine that’s easy to bash I guess, the really like jammy, soft…just the bombs you know? Like the goopy-oopy, sloppy, soggy kind of reds.”

“I guess my marketing pitch or whatever for all the traveling that I’ve done is: the wines that I like to drink have an elegance, a balance, and freshness to them. I like the mouth feel and the elegant and the kind of like personality of old world wines, but I like the freshness and the vibrancy and the brightness of modern styles…So instead of having wines that have no mouth feel because they’re so just soft and sweet. But having wines have the personality, the acidity, the tannin structure, but also have that really vibrant lively fruit to them. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to find…wine should taste like the fruit it is made from, I think.”

How did you come up with the name Municipal Winemakers?

“I spent a little time working in France…the thing that was so nice about living over there for me, was kind of like the self sufficiency and just like independency of every village and the community…So you have your local butcher and baker, everything is just like sustained within the village. There is one guy in town that does everything right? So I just really liked the idea of being the municipal winemaker, because I knew I always wanted to have something in town and not be kind of in the country…I think the other thing that’s cool about Municipal Winemakers, it kind of reconciles…the lie that wine is always made in marble halled Chateaus. Wine is made where it’s made. And sometimes it’s a factory, sometimes it is in a backyard, a lot of times it’s in a factory…my whole approach is just be honest about wine. It’s special, but you don’t need to put it on a pedestal to tell people it’s special. I guess it is also trying to be serious about the wine, but making the presentation and the packaging lighthearted and approachable. And what’s cool about Municipal Winemakers, it’s not “Oak Creek Chateau & Vineyard”, it’s something that’s grey and anonymous and ugly and I think people kind of remember it for that.”

How did you get into winemaking?

“It was kind of an accident. I was at UCSB doing Biz-econ…I got a job my senior year just pouring wine at Sunstone in the tasting room. Then I became friends with Blair Fox who was the head winemaker there at the time and he invited me to go start scrubbing tanks and dragging hoses around. So I just did that for a harvest…some buddies of mine moved up to Santa Cruz, I had nothing better to do so I said ‘oh I’ll go to Santa Cruz too’. …got another job at a winery with Nick de Luca (Dierberg and Star Lane). So I worked with Nick up in Santa Cruz at a place called Byington…for like nine months. I was going to go to law school (just like Nick) and I was studying for the LSAT. I was going to go to Australia and do a little traveling then come back and do the LSAT, it’s a long flight to Australia you know. And I’m kind of in the plane and can’t sleep, and just thinking, ’do I want to be a lawyer? I don’t know. This wine thing is pretty kind cool and Nick’s doing it and he’s kind of got the same background. You know, I am going to try to be a winemaker’. So I land on the ground, I submit an application to Curtin University which is in Margaret River …I get in. I did a Masters Degree down there; I was there for three years studying. I worked for Foster’s for a couple of years. And then kind of did the Northern-Southern Hemisphere bounce back. So I did Australia, I actually interned at Fess [Parker] in 05’, I went back to Australia, then I went to France in 06’, back to Australia, and I started with Fess in 07’.”

So when did Municipal Winemakers start?

“A big thing that attracted me to the job at Fess was that you can make your own wine. At the time Mikael Sigouin (now winemaker at Beckmen), he had my job at Fess…Michael left and Blair [Fox] gave me a call and said…’I need some help, do you want to take this job at Parker?’ I said, ‘can I make my own wine there’? And he said ‘yeah, you can make 500 cases’ so I said ‘sweet, sign me up’. I basically have access to a lot of million dollar equipment and staff… and I get to do it at work as long as I can keep it on the side and keep cranking it out for Fess and doing a good job there.”

Nick de Luca told me: “If anyone was going to become a master of California Riesling it is going to be Dave”. Do you have a comment on that Sir?

“Probably because know one else wants to” he says over a strong laugh. ”I’m the only guy that likes it. No, I love Riesling, Rieslings my favorite, it’s my favorite white anyway. It’s just so pretty you know? There is just something so pretty and beautiful and pure about Riesling, it’s like a snowflake…it’s great. I love Riesling. California has always treated Riesling like ‘oh well we can turn it around quick and make some money on it’. It comes I think from my time in Australia, that’s probably their top white grape down there. They love [Riesling].”

How has social media changed your business plan?

“Mine started with social media. You don’t have a tasting room, you don’t have a distributor. You’re just a dude making some wine. So you start a wine brand, you have wine to sell and it’s the worst economy ever and there is a lot of wine out there and what do you do? So you hit up all of your friends right? And your friends buy like two bottles each or a bottle each and then that’s done. So the only way to really like sell wine is to start getting your friend’s friends and their friends, and the friends of friends, and the only way to do that is Facebook. Facebook has always been like, ’well if I like it and my friend buys it and tells his friend…’, it’s an easy way to spread word of mouth. When you tell somebody about something…you might tell a couple of people about it when it comes up in conversation. But if you think about it once and post it on Facebook, you just told like 300 people about it.”

Who has inspired you in California wine making?

“I think Nick de Luca had a big part, and Blair as well. Both of those guys had a big part in me actually in going for it and perusing this as a job. It’s hard to say. I like just about everybody in Santa Barbara. Everybody I know, they’re making good wines, they’re good people. I’m lucky to be in this industry because everybody’s cool, everybody’s doing a good job. It’s really nice you know? It’s like opening this place you know, every single tasting room in Santa Barbara, all the other wineries, all of them, put my poster inside of their tasting rooms saying, ‘hey, there’s another winery. My competition is opening up down the street, you should check it out.’ How cool is that?”

As we left the tasting room, with the lyrics to Jennifer Paige’s “It’s just a little crush” looping in my head, I thought to myself, “this is the winemaker for me”. I like everything Dave is doing quite frankly. His wines are fantastic. A nice blend between Old World finesse and the California fruit I’ve come to love. They don’t overwhelm one’s palate with an explosion of fruit, but at the same time they let you know they are there. If his wines were actors, they would be Morgan Freeman; they don’t demand your respect as much as it is unavoidable.

They are also well priced, from the mid-teens to mid-twenties on average, which allowed me to buy a few bottles and still afford dinner, although, my physique doesn’t exactly suggest I regularly miss meals in exchange for wine.

Considering my interest in label design and the years I spent behind a brush or pencil, Municipal’s labels are right up my alley as well. They don’t try to be unique or interesting; they just are…much like myself of course.

I even like his arrogant sense of humor. I myself, being a founding member of The One of Us Club, a club whose first rule is: “We are intellectual elitists. This is not because we think we’re smarter than everyone, it’s because we ARE smarter than everyone,” I can appreciate a confident man. I would tell you the other rules, but they would no doubt go over your head.

But it is Dave’s approach to the wine itself I found most interesting. Municipal Winemakers kind of says it all. To Dave, he just wants to be the local guy who makes good wine. When he says “for me, what’s most rewarding and satisfying is selling wine directly to people and having people come in here and get it from me”, I believe him.

On top of all of this, Dave has a cool beard.

Personally, I think Dave and Municipal have a very bright future, a belief I think those who have worked with him would share. I know one thing though; I left that day with another favorite winemaker.

“It’s just a little crush (crush)

Not like I faint every time we touch

It’s just some little thing (crush)

Not like everything I do depends on you

Sha-la-la-la, Sha-la-la-la”

Dave would love to have you come by so he can work his magic on you. You must try his Fizz, a sparkling Shiraz, and then buy a bottle! I did! It will change your life or at least make it tastier for a while. Or, to quote the winemaker directly, “it’s super slurpy”

Municipal Winemakers

28 Anacapa St. (in the back),  Santa Barbara, CA, 93101

(805) 931 MUNI (6864)

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If you make it to Municipal, make sure to check out some of the other wineries on Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail, some of whom have been featured on ALP like Carr and Santa Barbara Winery.

Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. Sean Rockwll says:

    Great Article! You have captured the essence of what will make Dave sooooooo successful (not discounting his success to this point)! I look forward to getting to the tasting room soon!

  2. Wayne says:

    Sean, everyone who knows Dave seems to really love him and beleive in what he is doing and for good reason.

  3. Jucci says:

    I agree that Dave is a cool guy, with a funny website, making really good wine for a good reason and all that, but what REALLY makes Dave special are his formidable frontside roundhouse wrap-arounds, which he perfected on the waves of Santa Cruz and then Oz.

    Oh but wait, he missed the best surf season in Santa Barbara history because he was too busy making wine and opening the coolest tasting room since… well, ever.

    Balance, Dave. Life, like good wine, must include plenty of time in barrels.

  4. Wayne says:

    Well, that is the truly important thing. :)

  5. [...] weeks ago I wrote about Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers. A day after I published it, I got the above email from Dave’s friend and fellow winemaker Nick [...]

  6. [...] day, he is one of two Assistant Winemaker at Fess Parker in the Santa Ynez Valley (the other is Dave Potter of Municipal). On the side, he has his own label, Tercero. He is a father of three. He involved with [...]

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