I’ve long thought that if you’re going to attend a wine festival wearing a shirt that says “Fifty Shades of Grape” then yes, of course I’d want to ask you questions about your wine. (And also how you got to be so awesome and also if the shirt comes in my size.)
This very scenario came serendipitously true for me at the California Wine Festival in Dana Point, CA a few weeks ago when I happened to meet Winemaker Mark Wasserman of Vinemark Cellars, who was at the fest donning such a tee. Here now is the result of our ensuing conversation …
MELISSA: Let’s put the wine talk on hold for a second. I’ve got to know what’s up with the shirt.
MARK: “Fifty Shades of Grape” was going to be the name of the winery before the first movie came out but I got sent a cease and desist from the production company because they were planning on coming out with their own wine and spirits.
Bummer! At least it’s a good story now! Another good story … how did you get started in wine?
My grandfather had a farm in Ontario, California as I was growing up and I used to visit him during the year and during the summers. He made wine in his basement and Ontario was one of the first the first grape-growing areas in California for wine drinking. In fact, there are still a lot of vines growing out there but not as much farming of the grapes as there used to be.
Would you say your grandfather inspired you to start making wine on your own?
I used to see him making wine in his basement and as I got older I was always interested in it. Sixteen years ago, I was at the Ojai Wine Festival and there was this home winemaking club there called Cellarmasters of Los Angeles pouring wines and that’s when I got the idea that I could do it, too. They said come to a meeting and I was living in L.A. at the time, so I went and they talked me into buying a kit. I made a Point Noir with grapes from Oregon and it came out really bad.
That seems to be the trend with homemade wines; the first one you make is never any good. How’d the next wine turn out?
Well, when the season finally came and I could buy my own grapes, I made a Syrah from fresh grapes and two years later poured it at my wedding as one of my wedding wines. People really liked it and that was my second wine.
So you nailed it on the second try? Impressive!
Well, it came out good. I can’t say I nailed it. I continued making wine in my garage for the next 10 years. In 2000, I decided to go commercial after winning gold medals as a home winemaker and I’ve been winning gold medals and double gold medals ever since.
What do you think it is about Vinemark Cellars wine that makes it such a winning juice?
I think it’s because of my wine style. I learned how to make wine the way I like to drink it; light tannins, low acid and fruit forward. And when I sell the wine, I’m looking for people who like the way I make it.
Do you pay any attention to any of the hot, new trends in wine or do you mostly stick to creating wine in the style of how you want to personally drink it?
It’s really a balance between the trends and what I like. Recently in the last year I’ve been hearing a lot about rosé. So this year was my first time making a rose—it was dry, not sweet—and I mainly did it because it was a trend. For the most part though, I make wine the way I like it and hope other people like it, too.
Is that the Vinemark philosophy? Sort of a play on the idea customers don’t really know what they want until you give it to them?
Something like that. I think the most successful businesses in America are businesses that create their own style. And then people follow in line. A big part of wine is taste and if someone doesn’t like my wine, I don’t take it personally. I just tell them I have another wine they might want to try.
About tasting your wines … Where can someone pick up a bottle of Vinemark Cellars wine?
Our wines are available mostly at a select few wine bars in Southern California and sold direct-to-consumer either through our website or at events like the California Wine Festival.
Do you make the wines in Southern California?
I don’t own a vineyard and I don’t own a winery. I’ve been sourcing grapes from the same vineyards up in Paso Robles for the past 16 years. It’s funny because I’ve always heard the best grapes in Paso are on the west side of the 101 Freeway and all of my grapes come from the east side. But I like to tell people that. I’m bucking the trends and really, the winemaker has as much influence on the taste of the wine as do the grapes.
So you source the grapes then create the wine?
My wife and I do everything. I buy the grapes, sometimes I even harvest them. I’m in Paso Robles during harvest season making the wine then bottling it when the wine is done. Wine is about quality control. That’s why boutique wines are almost always better than mass-produced wines because of the care that goes into them. It’s also why I’ll never sell Vinemark Cellars at a Costco or Total Wine because I’d never be able to produce that kind of quantity and still have the same quality wines that I want.
What’s your ultimate goal then with Vinemark Cellars?
My goal is simple: To make good wine that people enjoy.