Bret Urness dispels all preconceived notions of the traditional winemaker. The twenty-something Idaho native moved to California to play college football by the beach. As a teenager, he worked at a winery which was more happenstance than strategic. What he didn’t realize when he moved west, was that he was heading to the cradle of Central Coast winemaking -- Santa Barbara.
Today, sitting behind his tasting room bar, he still doesn’t look the part. As the sole proprietor of Levo Wine, he’s wearing a RVCA hat, striped hoodie, and gray t-shirt printed with the one word that mosts entices and antagonizes winemakers “ripe.”
Urness’ casual style and personable manner feel California-urban, but we are not in a city. At least, not a conventional one. Tin City is the name of a group of industrial buildings, dominated by corrugated steel siding, housing some of Paso Roble’s most up-and-coming wineries and a brewery.
Occasionally, Urness gets help from his fellow artisans -- even as we sit down to chat a few winemakers are coming and going -- but for the most part, this production is a one man show.
California Winery Advisor: Tell us about one of your wines.
Bret Urness: Every one of my wines has a different name and a bit of a different personality. Volts, for instance, it’s the first year I used grenache blanc, and it has this really nice minerality and acid pop to it, you know, it has some voltage to it. Also, while we were making it our press broke because it didn’t have enough volts going to the machine. Between those two, the personality of the wine and how it came together, it became Volts. Next year I’ll have a new white coming out with a completely different name and different art and story.
CWA: Who do you make wine for?
BU: I’m making wine for people who are young in spirit, people who want to have an adventure when they open a bottle of wine. Because that’s what wine is -- it should be fun, it should be different, it should tell a story. I’m just trying to highlight that.
CWA: How did you get interested in wine?
BU: I got into wine by chance. My mom told me to get a job, so I started working at a local winery in Idaho, where I grew up. It was pretty ghetto. But they were pioneers for Idaho. We worked a lot of weddings. Harvest would come around, there were no wedding in the winter, but they would keep me around and I did pump overs. I didn’t like wine at the time, I was seventeen, but I loved the smells, the labor, the mystery of the winemaker. I did that for a couple of years, then I went to Santa Barbara City College to play football. My parents told me to get a job again and my resume only had one thing on it. I went to Carr Winery and they hired me.
In the spring and summers, Ryan Carr taught me a ton. He and I would load up in his car with his dog, he would farm about ten vineyards, he’d drop me at the two acre plots and tell me to drop crop or pull leaves; I did that for three years. Between Idaho and Carr I got comfortable.
In 2011, I made my first few barrels. I wanted to go to school for winemaking but I didn’t have very good grades out of City College. My dad helped me get a few barrels, and that’s how I started. I made some hilarious Paso sangiovese -- it wasn’t very good fruit. That’s when I realized if you want the real deal, you have to start with the best raw ingredients you can.
CWA: How has Paso Robles, and California, influenced your style of winemaking?
BU: I love big, full-bodied, California-style red wines but my one complaint is when they get blousy and they don’t have acidity.
BU: Blousy -- like, cloyingly sweet and overtly ripe for no reason. I make my wines really reductively, whereas a lot of people in Paso Robles make their wine oxidatively. There’s merit in doing that if you’re making a wine that’s drinkable the day it’s released, the oxygen massages tannins.
CWA: Buying fruit is an economy of scale -- the more you buy the better the price. How do you deal with those costs?
BU: With fruit costs, my best vineyard is White Hawk in Los Alamos, and it’s probably my cheapest fruit. It’s kind of my bread and butter. They consistently deliver great quality, have an awesome, marketable name, and it’s priced where i can make a little bit of money on a $36 bottle of wine. Then I get some other vineyards that are maybe a bit more expensive and, if i blend them in with my bread and butter vineyard, I can work the price down.
CWA: How do you determine pricing for your final wine?
BU: Pricing is really tough. At the beginning I really wanted to get my wine into peoples’ mouths. For me, I knew what my bottles cost, and I knew I would take a hit, but I just wanted to get it out there. Wines with dust on them don’t really do anything for you, but wines that are being opened and enjoyed and shared go farther.
My goal is to make something good, get it out to people, over deliver on fruit quality, on barrel quality, and the general experience with the bottle and the packaging.
CWA: Are the bulk of your sales direct to consumer?
BU: At this point, having a retail space since October, my wine club has doubled. I’d like to build it up to be all direct. To have a good tasting room with good traffic is everything.
I’m at 1,200 cases a year and it is a great place to be. You can manage it yourself -- you don’t have high overhead from employee costs -- you can really put yourself into the product and make something that’s personal. And at the same time build that direct to consumer. If you’re overproducing you’re just trading dollars.
CWA: As a small winemaker who doesn’t have a lot of retail accounts, how do you market your wine?
BU: I send my wine to people who I think are tastemakers. Not just for wine and food, but fashion, music, art. People who really lead the masses to like cool stuff. I’d like to do a collab at some point with them, but I need to earn my straps first.
CWA: What should we know about your wines?
BU: With reductive winemaking, my wines don’t see oxygen ever. Obviously, I’ll rack if something smells weird, but I love bottling a wine that, when it hits the glass when it does finally touch oxygen, it’s like a chameleon. It just changes a ton. I love the fresh fruit, not the brown, almost worn out stuff. I like when it’s super alive. It may be a little bit closed at first, but if you give it some air, (most times I’ll decant my wine), it’s great.
CWA: One of your neighbors is a brewery. Is wine losing an audience to craft breweries?
BU: I don’t think small wineries are losing to craft brew clientele. I think maybe craft beer is taking away from higher scale production wineries. I love good food and drink and personally, if I’m at a grocery store, I would much rather get a six-pack from a great brewery and spend 15 bucks, than to get a super shitty bottle of wine.
In Tin City, Barrelhouse Brewing is always packed and there is almost no crossover with Levo. I get other winery visitors, but not brewery overlap. This neighborhood is sort of an interesting micro experiment.
CWA: Speaking of production wineries, do you think there is anything that corporate producers do right?
BU: Sustainability, solar panels are big right now. They employ people, which I’m a fan of. There are big companies that make hundreds of thousands of cases of good wine. I think the guys who have their ducks in a row and have the right ideas do a good job. But 90% of the big wineries don’t do that, and they’re putting a bunch of bullshit in their wines... making fake wines.
CWA: So you control both production and sales, are you also involved in growing?
BU: When I started at Carr Winery, I worked in the vineyards and got pretty familiar with pruning cycles, crop loads. I work with such good farmers now that I pretty much don’t want to be that guy who’s telling them what to do. I know enough to where I know if I’m getting taken advantage of. At the same time, the grower to winemaker relationships are the most important ones I have. Without my good fruit I could not make good wine. Straight up.
CWA: Has the Garagiste Festival made a difference for your winery?
BU: I can’t say enough good stuff about the Garagiste Festivals. I’ve been to probably seven by now. L.A. is super buyer-driven, a lot of restaurant buyers, probably the best in contributing to making money. Solvang is great too, more oriented around private buyers -- business people with families. Paso Robles is really more networking within the wine industry and meeting consumers, fewer buyers than the others. They really cover everything with the different locations. When you go to these events, people are finding out about you for the first time. Suddenly, you exist to them and it’s personal.