Starting a small wine brand is the easy part. Selling the wine and being financially viable is another matter. California is awash in wine brands— and California is just a small part of the overall wine picture.
Getting noticed is difficult, to say the least.
Even winemakers who have a full-time job at a larger winery can find it daunting to turn their own small brands into a success.
That’s one reason Sabrine Rodems—winemaker at Wrath Wines in Monterey County and proprietor of her own brand, Scratch — organized a group called Wines of Danger.
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The idea was to lend some marketing push to the group of tiny wineries by way of an annual trade and media tasting in San Francisco (this year’s was the second such tasting).
In addition to people like Rodems who have other winemaking jobs, participants include growers who have launched their own small brands; winemakers who once worked for other people but left to start their own projects; and people who have embarked on second acts by leaving a completely unrelated field to pursue wine.
But in all cases, the wines are made in tiny quantities, so they won’t have wide distribution. You may see them at a restaurant or in the occasional wine shop, but your best bet is to contact the winery directly.
Scratch: It’s hard to believe that Rodems has time for a side project. In addition to her work at Wrath —where she makes about two dozen wines, including11 pinot noirs — she consults for Kori and Ventana Vineyards. Scratch now stands at about 900 cases. There are four Scratch wines, with one more (Santa Cruz Mountains cabernet sauvignon) on the way. I particularly like the spicy, peppery 2011 grenache ($35) and robust, dark, supple 2012 pinot noir ($45).
Site: Site is the side project of Jeremy Weintraub, the winemaker at Adelaida Cellars since 2012. Weintraub works with Rhone grape varieties, as he does at Adelaida, but he sources the grapes from some top sites in Santa Barbara County, rather than Paso Robles. His 2012 roussanne ($40) from Stolpman Vineyards is a little floral, with fleshy white fruit and lovely texture. I also liked a 2012 syrah-based blend ($50) from Larner Vineyard, a wine that’s spicy and smoky, with lively berry, white pepper and a meaty note.
Eclectic: Mike Trotta, who owns Eclectic Wines in Napa with his wife, Wendy, has a day job at Elyse, also in Napa. Elyse has a varied lineup of the usual suspects, like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, along with some blends, but the wines for Trotta’s own brand are more, well, eclectic. A highlight was the 2013 Suisun Valley Charbono ($25), with its juicy berry and bing cherry flavors. In addition to the more esoteric stuff, there’s a lovely 2012 Dry CreekValley Viognier ($25) that’s fresh and a little floral, with white fruit and nice texture.