As an Oakland native, I try to support as many of the local vendors as I can. As a lover of wine, Urban Legend Cellars became an obvious choice for where to spend my local dollars on wine. A while back, okay, over a decade ago, I created a fun day for my husband's 40th birthday that I named "The best of the Bay FOR the best of the Bay" in which I treated him, a born and raised Oaklander, to adventures all over Oakland at iconic places us locals all know and love. We started that day by doing a private wine tasting at Urban Legend. As we sipped and tasted, I got a chance to chat with the owners about their journey from being in the tech industry to becoming winemakers. Their story really left a mark, and ten years later, I am still sipping their wine, and so should you.
I got to sit down with one of the owners, Marilee, and asked her a few questions about their winery, how they got there and what life is like in this new era of Covid regulations. Here is a bit of that conversation -
HCD: How did Urban Cellars come about? Why did you decide to get into the wine business?
Marilee: As a bit of history, I, Marilee, left the tech industry in '94 to start a marine navigation and charting business (which is still running). In 2004 Steve was at a similar nexus. At that time, we figured that we had, maybe, one more startup in us. They're all-consuming and take a lot of stamina to get a company launched and thriving.
At the same time, we were lamenting the loss of genuinely food-friendly California wines, as riper, sweeter, and more alcoholic wines became the norm. They're great alone but don't support food so well, either overwhelming it or falling flat themselves. So, as typical crazy entrepreneurs, we said, "let's make them ourselves, and we'll do it together." And, we did.
HCD: I read that you were in the Tech industry before starting Urban Legend. What was that transition like? Going from tech to wine but also from worker bee to business owner.
Marilee: We've both worked in huge corporate environments (Steve at Digital Equipment Corp. and Sun Micro, for example), mid-sized companies (Marilee with Applied Biosystems), and a whole bunch of startups, which were organizationally really flat (working crazy hours and doing what we were hired for and a lot of whatever else needed doing). We were always happiest, though, in situations where we knew that what we did made a difference. In one's own company, everything you do makes a difference. So, it wasn't that the corporate structure (or lack of one) was so different or the sense that every minute needed to count; what was different, however, was the ownership of all the risk. There isn't a safety net.
There's an old "proverb" about the difference between working for a company and starting one yourself. It's a bit like the difference between a chicken and a pig at breakfast. The chicken is a participant; the pig is invested.
HCD: Do you specialize in specific varietals or regions? What is your favorite wine that you make? Why?
Marilee: Asking a winemaker what their favorite is is a bit like asking parents which of their children is their favorite. You love different things about them all.
Because of our focus on food, we gravitated early on to grapes that were native to Italy - if there's a culture where it's almost impossible to separate wine from dining, it's Italian. We widened to add more Mediterranean varieties (Spanish ones, for the most part) and the classics from France. Early on, we felt that it wouldn't be our direction to focus only on one or two varieties. Because we don't have vineyards directly associated with the winery, we can take the attitude that we'd like to craft a wine that's a great match with virtually any cuisine. We can be faithful to terroir - that sense of place that climate and soil can give you. We go where we think a given variety grows the best.
Our favorite wines to make often are the ones that present the most significant challenge to our craft. I love making Syrah in a northern Rhone style (more mineral and herbal, and, perhaps, a bit meaty) not only because I love to drink it, but because it requires a great deal of control of fermentation to pull it off. Steve loves making Nebbiolo because of the challenges in finding a location (outside of Italy's Piemonte, anyway) where it grows well, a grower who will partner to nurture its complexity and the craft of cellaring it properly. Neither are particularly popular in the market, so they're something of a labor of love for us.
HCD: What does a typical day look like for you?
Marilee: Let's see… Process orders. Talk with customers. Talk with sales reps. Answer a ton of emails. Cleaning. Keep moving the marketing ball along with crafting the emails for our list and social media outreach. Do a ton of accounting (Marilee). Do a ton of web programming (Steve). Make sure we're staffed for weekend service. Make sure that the trucking company is picking up wine from the warehouse. Renting and driving the truck to pick up wine, grapes, and whatever else when there's no trucking company. Driving the forklift. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. Unclogging the sump pump. Filing reports and paying taxes in every state we ship. Getting the forklift repaired, and so on.
There's a saying that a day in the life of a winery involves both logistics and sanitation, which simply means that if you're not moving something, you're probably cleaning it.
HCD: Tell me a story of a funny or unusual client interaction you have had in your tasting space.
Marilee: We chose wine as a product to craft because everyone is happy to have to buy it (unlike dental floss or antifreeze or many of the products that we need but don't particularly want). True, right? Until it isn't.
After we released our first vintage and opened our first tasting room in Oakland, a customer came stomping in with their partner. We asked how we could help her, and she (rather angrily) told us she needed to buy a case of wine. "Which variety?" we asked. "Any," they replied. After some other questions, we found out that the person asking to buy wine was the CFO for the firm that designed and manufactured the rather distinctive container cranes on the Oakland waterfront, which were featured on our early labels (and still appears on our winery glassware). They were angry about being asked to do the legwork for the purchase and, as a connoisseur with a great palate and wine collection, assumed that the wine must just be some gimmick and, thus, awful. We got them calmed down enough to taste, and they became one of our first five wine club members. They're family at this point.
HCD: How has Covid affected your business? What do you hope for as things open back up? Will you do things differently based on anything you have learned from the last year?
Marilee: With the stay-at-home orders closing restaurants, around 25% of our revenue from wholesale restaurant sales vanished. We weren't entirely ready to pivot to online sales with deliveries exclusively but pulled off a complete eCommerce redesign in around three days (thank you, Steve). We implemented a completely new point of sale system with another web redesign to integrate all our commerce and prepare to start opening by reservation. We installed shade canopies also to provide a physically distanced outdoor space. It was a crazy scramble and a tremendous amount of work, but we were blown away by how individuals supported their local businesses. If there's anything we hope for going forward, it's that spirit remains where consumers are interested in distinctive, local, small businesses and are willing to spend their dollars with them.
After initial trepidation about reservations, we don't think we'll go on without them. After starting outdoor dining with glasses, flights, and bottles, we'll continue with that; customers have been very positive about it. We're building structures right now to start offering traditional wine tastings with nibbles outdoors, raising our tasting experience and still keeping some physical distancing going; they'll be by reservation so we can make sure that all customers get quality time with a wine educator. When we return indoors, we'll offer another elevated tasting experience, but reservations will be here to stay.
Thank you Marilee for your time!
Website : ulcellars.com/
Instagram : @ulcellars
As our world opens up, as the days grow longer and warmer, I would encourage you locals to make an appointment and try these wonderful, food friendly wines. And if you are lucky, maybe you can have a chat with the owners!
Until next time,