Weekly Interview: Megan Bell

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 04-01-2016

Megan Bell

Megan Bell

Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Megan Bell, who is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to launch her personal wine project, Margins Wine.

Megan graduated from U.C. Davis with a degree in Viticulture and Enology. She decided on that degree without a grand plan. But, as it so often does to those around it, wine found its way into the core of Megan’s life. Slowly but surely, as Megan traveled from one internship to another, and from one winemaking region to another, wine shaped Megan’s career.

Megan is now the Assistant Winemaker at Beauregard Vineyards. Her person wine project, Margins Wine, aims to give voice to “as many underrepresented regions and varietals as possible.”

Check out the interview below the fold!

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Walnut Creek, California and lived my entire childhood in the same house in Livermore, California.

BDvehicleWhen and how did you get into wine?

I decided to enroll in the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis when I was 18. My boyfriend at the time and I were doing a lot of homebrewing and we thought it would be fun to start a joint winery/brewery–he could run the brewing side, and I just had to go to school to learn about how to make wine. Easy, right?

Alas, despite the growing realization that this was a pipe dream, I decided to stay in the V&E program. I still had no real interest in wine or any concept of wine in general, but I knew I liked working outside and that I wanted to have a science focus in college, despite having an innate gift for writing/reading and pretty much the opposite for math and science. The first three years of school were mostly filled with drinking bottom shelf wine jugs off my elbow and cramming for chemistry exams. Something changed the fourth year. I turned 21! I was finally able to attend the student-run weekly tasting group and began to branch out to higher shelves.

But it wasn’t until I had graduated college and had worked a couple internships that I really got into wine. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but it was probably sometime in Oregon while working at Beaux Frères. I poured at the tasting room all summer so I was able to taste the same wines every day. At some point I realized that I knew the wines so well that I could tell them apart in a blind tasting. It was only four wines, but it was life changing. A professional might scoff at that, but the first time that happened to me, something just clicked. From then on, I wanted to know as many wines as possible with the same intimacy as I knew those wines.

What has been your career path to where you are?

I’ve been lucky in that I finished school in the subject I love before realizing that I loved it. Having a degree has been an advantage in that I never felt rushed to come back to live and work permanently in one place. I was able to travel freely and learn without feeling like there was this huge thing looming in my future that I would have to complete before I was able to climb the wine industry ladder. I was on the hunt for wineries to work for that aligned with my philosophy, which I was just starting to carve out before I moved to Oregon. I was seeking a spot with producers who had intimate ties to their vines, farmed organically for the sake of farming organically rather than for marketing, used minimal intervention in their cellar process, and–most importantly and most often overlooked–were just all around kind, decent people.

marginslogofinalThe first wine industry job I had that I loved was manning the biodynamic spray program over the summer at Beaux Frères in the Willamette Valley. I realized how impossible it is for a winemaker to make the best wine possible without being regularly involved in the vineyard. I was then inspired to go to New Zealand and work vineyard crew in Central Otago for Valli and Burn Cottage, among others, spending 9 months completing the spectrum of vineyard tasks that so often elude winemakers. From there it was off to the Loire to work vintage with the wonderful Joe Pithon and family at Pithon-Paillé . I fell in love with Chenin blanc, France, cheese for breakfast, etc. I fell in love almost immediately and daydreamed of one day having a full-time setup similar to life at that beautiful winery. After a couple of hiccups I was lucky to land my literal dream job last summer as assistant winemaker at Beauregard Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Getting to know Ryan Beauregard’s style of thought-provoking, hands-off wines with incredible commitment to vineyard and sense of place served as an additional inspiration for me. At the end of last autumn the pieces seemed to finally align, and it became clear that it was the right time to start building my own small wine project, Margins Wine.

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?

At this point I am at the very beginning of what will hopefully be a series of life lessons about what makes a vineyard special. The first vineyard I plan on working with is special for its unique setup geographically, four generations of family growers, old vines, and the fact that a novel I read in college that was very significant to me takes place a just a few miles away from this growing region. When I visited the region for the first time, I had this bittersweet feeling in the vineyard of the immense weight of California history. Just being in that place affected me for some weeks after: the region got into my writing, I thought about it while I was brushing my teeth. Those are the kind of vineyards I plan on working with. Some people won’t understand why that’s important because it can’t be proved with statistics or a controlled study. But it’s important to me.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

Let nature take back what was and is a natural process, if possible. Great wines would have been great anyway regardless of the winemaker’s touch. Good wines are wines that would have been just okay or even poor if not for winemaker interference. I want to make great wines, but I accept that just because I want that doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen. Grapes are their own living beast; it’s not always up to me.

winescienceWhat’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Wearing enough layers to stay warm in the cellar. Just kidding. Probably just the nail-biting anxiety of seeing a bunch of wine in barrel and thinking, “Look at all that, I hope I don’t ruin it before it makes it to the bottle!”

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

I feel that I am too young to have a favorite winemaker in history. I still have a lot to learn, but I am drawn to winemakers who start with very little and end up producing wines that really matter.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I am very inspired by my friends at Populis Wine, Elizia Wine, and Les Lunes Wine who are making incredible wines using just the resources they have–getting dirty, doing it themselves, and bringing a whole new definition to what it means to be winemakers by being extremely involved in the vineyards.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

My favorite wine region is the Loire. Although I worked in many vineyards throughout the region, I was an English-speaker with no background in French and sometimes found it challenging to know exactly where I was. The region remains an elusive wonderland that, even when I visit again, I hope never loses its intense mystical charm. And I love Chenin Blanc.

IMAG2010What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

The best? Oh boy. It’s all about circumstances, right? I had the Valli Gibbston Pinot Noir from Central Otago (unsure of the vintage) my first time out of the country on my own while sitting in the home of the maker of that wine a few yards from the vineyard it came from. That was pretty special.

The most interesting was the first time I tried the Dirty and Rowdy 50% skin-fermented/50% concrete egg fermented Semillon, which was probably a 2012. I had never had a wine that was made using “alternative” methods before.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

I’m 25 so the fact that I even have a cellar is enough for me. The most expensive bottle in there was probably a gift, whatever it is. My grandma recently came across some old bottles that belonged to my late grandfather and passed them on to me, the oldest being a 1977 Mirassou Monterey Zinfandel.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

2013 Beauregard Ranch Estate Pinot Noir!

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

White: Pithon-Paillé Savennières, doesn’t matter what vintage. All the vintages I tried of that wine were amazing.

Red: Feints 2014 by Ruth Lewandowski Wines.

IMAG1046Is beer ever better than wine?

Sometimes, but only if it’s sour beer. I’m an acid hound.

How do you spend your days off?

Reading, walking trails, mushroom hunting, at the beach down the road, sitting in a hot tub in the middle of the redwoods, driving to San Francisco to catch up with old friends, making simple but usually delicious dinners.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I am entranced by the Vorticist literary movement of the early 1900s.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Writing–but probably not to make a living. So let’s go more realistic: leading outdoor skills/education trips in some beautiful, wild place.

How do you define success?​

When you have the sudden realization of how wonderfully small your life is, but you built it yourself so it matters, and maybe you’re finally there–at least for that moment–that place where you wanted to be. You look outside and there are trees and the echo of the ocean, you look inside and there are layers and layers of memories of times when you’ve felt just like this before throughout your life, and you know that the next hour or the next week this feeling might have totally escaped you, but you also know from experience that some seemingly insignificant thing will trigger it one day in the future and you’ll be deep in it all over again.

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