My dad made wine in our suburban Maryland home when I was growing up. Today, my 20-year-old vegan daughter is making wine – or fermenting as the kids today would say. I’ve dreamed of owning a vineyard one day and making wine with a kitchy label. But I think I’ve found new mentors in Michael and Lisa of Sweetzer Cellars, a small winery in California, who’ve perfected the art of DI-Wine.
Michael and Lisa traveled to Burgundy France in 2008 with a local wine class. It would prove to be an aha moment for both of them, as they returned home and decided to try their hand at making wine.
And the next thing you know, they were sitting in their tiny second floor apartment on Sweetzer Avenue in Hollywood with a ton (literally) of grapes. They crushed in the garage and fermented in their dining room. They kept their apartment at a chilly 60 degrees as the grapes slowly did their thing. And they bottled their first Cabernet. And according to Michael, it was, and still is, food.
Piece by piece, they purchased winemaking equipment utilizing their tiny kitchen and the corner of their bedroom as their production facility. The crush moved from the garage to the sidewalk with a large bladder press. Google became their friend as they learned the ins and outs and hows and whys of winemaking.
They were fortunate enough to have neighbors who all seemed to take it in stride as they became “friends with benefits”. Legally, Michael and Lisa could not produce more than 500 gallons without proper business permits so their neighbors were their guinea pigs and often the recipients of copious amounts of wine. Good wine.
Today, they purchase grapes from select California vineyards and lease space in a larger production facility. This year, they will turn out roughly 1200 cases of wine. This summer, they will open a tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. In keeping with the true DIY- feel of their wines, Lisa hand-writes the text for each wine and the bottles are screen-printed.
And winemaking is just their hobby. Michael and Lisa both have “day” jobs as SAT tutors but many days, they’re up before dawn making the long drive to the production facility as this is a hobby that needs daily attention. But they don’t anticipate changing their resumes from “tutor” to “winemaker” any time soon. At least not yet.
The wines and the food pairings
We started the afternoon with a tasting of the Sweetzer Cellars 2013 Chardonnay from Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. Interestingly enough, I was in the Santa Maria Valley the week prior at the winery where they obtain the grapes – Presqu’ile Winery. Michael said he wants to make Chardonnays that are “clean”. A minor problem during the fermentation – this occurs as a DIYer – resulted in a very brief introduction of oak, but this was in no way an oaky Chardonnay. It was very clean and crisp as a Chard should be.
1st course: Blue crab pacchieri pasta with peas, parmesan and yellow grape tomatoes
paired with Sweetzer Cellars 2014 Chardonnay from Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. This was another clean Chardonnay, but a bit more buttery.
2nd course: Oxtail flatbread with arugula, bleu cheese, lemon vinaigrette and a balsamic reduction paired with Sweetzer Cellars 2013 Pinot Noir from Lafond in the Santa Rita Hills (this one is starred in my notes so clearly, this was my favorite sip of the day). Michael says he wants to make Pinot Noirs that are “pretty”. It was a great smooth balance against the boldness of the bleu cheese and arugula.
3rd course: Duck breast with berry sauce, beets and pepper paired with Sweetzer Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir from La Encantada Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. This Pinot was a bit bolder and really complemented the berry sauce against the black pepper on the duck.
We also paired this course with Sweetzer Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County blend – this was a much more mellow Pinot from the previous two.
4th course: Lamb chop with Israeli couscous, dates, and a pistachio mint pistou paired with Sweetzer Cellars 2013 Grenache Paso Robles. Michael promised “this is not like any Grenache you’ve ever had”. It certainly lived up to this promise as it was the a very smooth, fruit-forward wine.
Sweetzer Cellars wines are very affordable, ranging in price from $25-50. They’re only available in a few stores and restaurants so your best bet is to order them via the website.