Angeleno Winery Is Putting Los Angeles Back in the Wine Game

IMG_7540.jpg

It’s not often on a Sunday in LA that you can drive for 20 minutes to land smack in the middle of a full-fledged grape crush, but recently Kaj Stromer and I did just that, at a brand-spanking new winery in North Chinatown—the first, in fact, since Prohibition. And we weren’t the only ones. There were folks from all over the city and a couple who’d flown all the way from Munich to experience the first harvest in Angeleno Winery’s new space. Some were there as friends, some were thinking about a career change, but everyone there was jazzed to be part of what was happening.

And so there we were, in 1100 square feet packed with people and barrels and grapes and a forklift and a bucket of Tecate—at ground zero of what I have no doubt is a new moment for wine in this city, because here’s the thing: the wine is good. And they have the momentum and enthusiasm behind them to keep these wheels turning. Owner Jasper Dickson is a bon vivant/musician/winemaker/entrepreneur, who has a passion for wine and for LA—and he’s got a plan for both. He’s got a partner in crime, Amy Luftig Viste, who works a day job providing health services for those in need when she’s not making wine. He’s got a crew of volunteers who are excited to learn and make with him. Together, they’re changing the game in LA, and they’re doing it with heart and gusto.

I happen to have a lot of gusto for wine and LA, too. So when I heard about the Angeleno Wine project via a Kickstarter campaign on social media, I was intrigued, not least because I’ve been casually following Jasper Dickson’s wine career since we worked together a few years ago at Everson Royce/Silverlake Wine. Back then he was making wine under the Rhythm Wine label, and I could tell that he was a person who not only liked to have projects but would see them through. And that’s clear in how he is Getting. Shit. Done. He and Amy started with no money, but put together a massive crowdsourcing campaign, and secured the rest via a grant from LA County. They are DIYing this project from soup to nuts: hand-harvesting, hand-bottling, hand-labeling, hand-corking, hand-everything-ing—if ever there were a labor of love it is this. Especially since the city’s monolithic zoning and permitting restrictions took them almost three years to wade through before they located a space. According to Jasper, “Everyone always says it’s impossible to open a winery in LA. We found out a lot of the reasons why. There are only a few places we can be in where we don’t have to get a zoning variance. That’s probably why this is the first urban winery in 70+ years.”

Though we haven’t seen new wineries for decades, LA was actually known for wine long before Napa and Sonoma. It was part of the city’s identity—according to Jasper, in the mid 1800s if someone was talking about California wine, they meant Los Angeles wine. In fact, LA’s first seal featured grapes as its defining symbol. So Jasper started digging into the city’s vinous history, and what he uncovered got his wheels turning: “In 1859, two years before Napa’s first commercial winery, LA was producing 2 million commercial bottles a year. Jean Louis Vignes was the first person to start doing it on a really serious commercial level; he was shipping barrels to SF, New York, Boston. Most vineyards were on Alameda Street, leading right up to where our winery is now.” So what the hell happened? Jasper says: “As the city kept growing and growing, urbanization pushed everything out. Then grape growing moved out to Rancho Cucamonga and Anaheim, then Pierce’s Disease struck. It decimated the vines. Then Prohibition hit. A few people opened up after Prohibition, but then the Great Depression hit, and put them all out of business. Plus there was the film industry, and everyone was putting their efforts there. San Antonio Winery only stayed in business making sacramental wine.”

It took someone like Jasper, with wine in his DNA and a big vision, to untap LA’s long-hidden potential for winemaking. His dad was a home winemaker, and he grew up going to Sonoma for harvest and the county fair. Jasper says, “Some things from your childhood get stuck in your head. The smell of wineries got stuck in my head. This was always kind of my path.” He started dabbling with his own home winemaking in 2002. He learned by trial and error, from his dad, from books, and then he learned from winemakers from all around the world while working at Silverlake Wine. “It’s like a little classroom behind the bar.” In 2012 he found someone growing Lagrein in the Santa Clara Valley. “I thought it was so cool, and I got some to make in my garage. I took all of it the next year. Called up my buddy Alphonse DeRose from DeRose winery. So we made it all and bottled it.” Midnight Companion was his first commercial bottling, under the Rhythm Wine label. He did three vintages of Rhythm Wine, and then started getting interested in local LA vineyards and having his own local wine.

IMG_7629.jpg

He knew a customer named Ed Pagor, an older gentleman with a warehouse in Camarillo who was making good wine and selling it with handwritten, carbon-copy invoices. “He had Tannat from Agua Dulce. So good. Great flavors, and I was blown away by that. During the holidays, after working 16 hour days, I found a piece of paper with his phone number and called him up. He gave me Juan Alonso’s phone number. I called him in early 2015 and bought everything.” Juan Alonso is a bit of a legend in Agua Dulce as the owner of the French restaurant Le Chêne. His grapes come from Sleepy Valley, a stretch of Agua Dulce northeast of the Santa Clarita Valley. It’s close to the Sierra Pelona mountain range, surrounded by the Angeles National Forest, and about 10 degrees cooler and greener than the Santa Clarita Valley and Palmdale on either side. There’s cool air coming in from Santa Clarita River and down from the mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the region. The next year, Jasper took more fruit, and now they get 95 percent of what Alonso farms: Tempranillo, Syrah, Grenache, Albariño, Loureiro, Godello, Treixadura. Alonso is originally from Galicia in NW Spain and he brought over suitcase cuttings from his family’s vineyards in Vinho Verde.

Jasper and Amy make wine from local fruit, but their vision is much deeper—they want to make winemaking part of LA again. “Amy and I started with the idea that we wanted to do an urban winery. We wanted people to be a part of it, share the joy. People would come and help us pick, stomp grapes, the wine club members could help dump the must. We wanted to bring back a culture of winemaking in LA, get people involved in the winemaking process. And people have been having a blast! There’s nowhere else you can do this around here, where you get to see behind the cellar door.” Soon, they hope to have a tasting bar nestled among their tanks and barrels.

This “by the people for the people” ethos is truly propelling them—280 people backed them on Kickstarter to get this puppy off the ground. But it’s not just that energy that makes them noteworthy; their wines are killer. As Casey, their rep from Springboard put it, “It seems like a gimmick and I wanted to hate it, but the wines are really good.” We have a white blend, a red blend, and their Tannat in stock, so try them for yourselves, folks! It’s a delicious way to connect to LA’s past, but also to its future, for I have no doubt that Angeleno will keep doing great things.

2017 Angeleno Wine Co. "Alonso Family Vineyard" Tannat

I usually think of Tannat as producing broodingly tannic wines, but this is surprisingly fresh and lifted. There are notes of violet pastille, sweet lavender, plums, and cranberries, all very floral and pretty. Medium weight and elegant, with a silky texture and melted tannins. Balanced. Tastes like standing in a field of lavender and herbs and wildflowers.

IMG_7555.jpg


- Kate Soto