January 19, 2016 – It was a class at Hartnell College that included an eye-opening field trip to local Monterey vineyards that awakened the desire in Miguel Lepe to be in the wine business. He didn’t have any family history of involvement, but now, his entire family and his growing circle of fans and friends are helping make his dream of launching Lepe Cellars a reality.
After that initial inspiration, Lepe went to Cal Poly to pursue a degree in enology and viticulture, working in the small onsite vineyard and winery they have on campus. His first harvest was at Claiborne & Churchill in Edna Valley in 2009, where he learned how to drive a forklift, run the crusher-stemmer and operate the press. It was a fundamental foundation for his winemaking skills and he couldn’t have learned how to make aromatic whites—like Gewurztraminer and Riesling—from a better winemaker than Colby Parker-Garcia.
Then it was on to a much larger winery, Sylvester, in Paso Robles, for the 2010 harvest, followed by a stint as a cellar worker at massive Justin, where he worked in the new winery they had just completed. Here, he was given the freedom to work unsupervised, which gave him new confidence. After Justin, Lepe headed south to take an assistant winemaker position for the 2012 harvest, after which he was fortunate enough to land a gig with Peter Figge in Marina, as his desire to return to his home roots of Salinas had finally come to fruition.
After completing the 2013 harvest, Figge mentioned that it might be a good time to try working crush overseas, so off Miguel went to Chile, where he had an outstanding experience learning techniques for processing Sauvignon Blanc from a very accomplished winemaker. Miguel also indulged his love of travel, visiting Easter Island and Machu Pichu, savoring the moment. His job with Figge was still waiting for him when he returned. It was then he made some wine “just for fun.”
One day, while they were having lunch, Peter asked if he’d like to start his own brand. Miguel wasn’t sure he wanted to move past the “just for fun stage,” but he told himself, “If I don’t do this now, I’ll wish I had.” And so, he’s been pursuing his dream ardently ever since, obtaining his business license in February of 2015 and his bond in June. He captured the essence of the effort required to start one’s own brand in his label artwork, which essentially depicts him as Atlas, bearing up the world on his shoulders, only this time the world is a barrel of wine.
Lepe Cellars is one of the latest brands to emerge on the Monterey wine scene, and to date, the only one successfully crowd-funded by Kickstarter. The 28-year old Miguel launched his pitch on social media in July of 2015, looking for $8,000 in order to buy grapes for the 2015 harvest, pay legal fees, license fees and taxes. As he said in his Kickstarter video promotion, “Even though I haven’t even started selling my wine yet, the state is still asking for money.”
Fortunately, 31 encouraging souls pledged financial support in the range of $50 to $1,000 to help Miguel fund his fledgling brand. Although most were from California, he had two people from the East Coast pitch in, too. It’s a testament to the power of social media and the enthusiasm for a new wine brand. Lepe rewarded them with fun t-shirts and perfect cheese pairings with his Gewurztraminer, which is available at Wharf Marketplace and on his website for $20. That wine can also be purchased on his website, along with his 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay, which just won a Gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Competition.
He’s super excited to have won Gold his first time out in such a prestigious affair, having previously been rewarded with a Silver at the Grand Harvest Awards for the same wine. He’s especially thankful to have won Gold for wine made with grapes that were donated to his cause. Having no money to purchase grapes, Jeff Blair of Blair wines, came to Miguel’s rescue, generously donating the Chardonnay grapes for the 2014 harvest. He’ll be pouring the Gold medal Chardonnay at the public tasting of the Chronicle winners on February 13 at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
In bottle and awaiting release is a Riesling from the Zabala Vineyard, and in barrel is a Zinfandel he acquired from a very generous vineyard owner in San Antonio Valley, the Wellong Vineyard. “People have been so kind and generous to me,” says Lepe. “I’m very fortunate.” Not bad for the first of his family to attend college and the first to start his own business.
Lepe is extremely grateful to all who have made his foray into the wine business possible: he has a growing list of supporters on his website. He realizes that being in the wine business is so much more than making good wine. Dealing with all the paperwork and hoops associated with being a startup is difficult enough, but complicate that with the machinations of being in the wine business, and it becomes daunting, even for someone with as much youthful energy as Miguel.
As he points out in his blog, “I’m not just a winemaker anymore. Now I must improve my skills in website development, accounting, sales and marketing…oh and the scariest of all – public speaking! I am the face of Lepe Cellars and I not only represent my brand, but my family as well. I hope during the process and lifetime of my brand I will make all of my supporters proud and I encourage all of you to always follow your dreams. Remember, no matter how hard you fall, always get up and try again.”
Words from a wise young man with a dream, a plan and few dozen kind-hearted fans.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.