August 22, 2017 – It’s a wickedly good name for a wine label, Margins. It conjures up so many different notions and concepts, but the intent of winemaker Megan Bell, comes from her personal quest to focus on forgotten or marginalized varietals.
Likewise, Megan Bell herself is not someone you’re likely to forget. She’s the secret shepherd behind Beauregard’s sparkling wine program, and most of the whites produced under this label. She’s been assistant winemaker to Ryan Beauregard for going on three years now, and he makes no bones about his adoration for her.
This summer a 2015 Ben Lomond Mountain Chardonnay she made from start to finish for Beauregard won Double Gold, Best of Class in the International Women’s Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, while Bell’s own 2016 Margins Chenin Blanc took silver.
There is a quiet reserve about Bell that speaks of deeper things, of lonely musings and subtle, hard-forged anchor points. There’s no giddy gushiness here, except when she’s disgorging a bottle of sparkling rose or Blanc de Blanc: then she gets pretty amped.
Bell is a relatively local gal, having grown up in Livermore. She’s quick to point out, though, that her family has nothing to do with the wine business. Yet, those frequent hikes through Livermore’s great open space parks with her family brought her in contact with the many beautiful vineyards that are visible within a stone’s throw of bustling suburbia.
She decided on a Viticulture and Enology major when she was just 17, finishing the program at UC Davis in 2012, the year she turned 21. It’s ironic that so many graduates of winemaking programs in California are unable to legally consume the product they are studying.
But Bell never worried about that silliness. It was quite irrelevant. Says she, “I didn’t have money to buy nice wines or a community to share wine with until my last year of college. That year, I was part of the V&E tasting club where we focused on a different region or varietal every week. Those tastings were my earliest exposure to interesting wines, but I still wasn’t hooked on the concept. Wine can be so overwhelming and I just didn’t know how to jump in.”
It would take a few stints as an intern, the first being at Ruby Hill in Livermore, followed by one in Napa and then a harvest at Beaux Frères in Oregon, before the magic began to reveal itself to her.
She explains, rather pointedly, “My story is the opposite of most people’s. I did not pursue winemaking because of passion for wine, rather passion for wine grew out of my love of the dirty, mechanical work that we do. The first time I felt love for wine was while working at Beaux Frères in Oregon. It was a very fun, supportive work community and I had the opportunity to taste a lot of Burgundy and German Riesling from my boss’s collection.”
We can all thank that boss’s generosity in sharing his treasures for inspiring her to pursue Pinot Noir and snappy whites, a path that took her to Central Otago, NZ (Two Paddocks, Burn Cottage, Chard Farm and Valli Wines), the Loire Valley (Pithon-Paillé) and finally back to California, where she landed at Beauregard in 2015 as an enologist, quickly moving to Assistant Winemaker after a few months on the job.
During the formative years of being an intern, Bell noticed how much “work” was being done to grapes as they came in from the field: acid adjustments, saignée, water adds, yeast adds, tannin adds and nutrient adds. It confounded her and began making her think there had to be another way.
Says Bell, “When you’re the person actually making those additions you realize how truly unnatural and off-putting all of that can be. Just thinking about the Fermaid we had to add makes me feel like I have to sneeze. I just don’t think wine should be made of powders.”
She spent a lot of time wondering why you just couldn’t pick the grapes at a lower sugar and higher acid instead of adding all the stuff afterwards.
Says Bell, “My main motivation was that I wanted to do fewer additions so it would be less work. But I had so little experience that I thought wine had to be made the way we were doing it. Later on, I realized it wasn’t about doing less work, but about making better wine. I think the best wines are untouched for the most part.”
Between harvest jobs, she began to read a lot more about wine and discovered the concept of ‘natural wine.’ She realized she was not alone. “It seemed there was a whole group of people already out there who were questioning modern winemaking methods the same way I was. Monoculture and planting grapes solely as cash crop were criticized as well. I took those ideas to heart,” says Bell.
She recalls that her 11 months of internship in 2014, throughout rural New Zealand and in France (where most people spoke little English and she spoke no French) were very lonely times for her. Hence, she spent a lot of time reading and thinking, turning a pebble of irritation into the pursuit of a philosophy, like an oyster turning a grain of sand into a pearl.
“I read a lot and dove deeper into a literary concept that I had always identified with: the margins of society, that is, people who don’t fit the norm in some way or another. I always found those people to be the most interesting. At some point, I realized I could incorporate all these ideas that I had been pondering for years and apply them to a wine business concept: wine from underrepresented grapes, vineyards, and varietals. That’s how Margins was born.”
She began Margins with a Kickstarter in March of 2016, which gave her a fairly solid mailing list. Bell also has an active Instagram account that she says has been good for sales.
Asked about her criteria for choosing “margin” grapes, she replies that she’s leaning towards any varietal that’s not one of the six or seven that everyone knows.
Right now, Bell’s focus is on Chenin Blanc and Sangiovese, which she plans to pick any day now from Ann Hougham’s Mesa del Sol vineyard, a sunny sweet spot in Arroyo Seco. She admits that she might let some more familiar varietals into the Margins fold, particularly if they’re from an organic vineyard with a unique story.
“It could be anything: the vineyard used to be a train stop in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains, or the vineyard is on the very edge of what is climatically possible in terms of grape growing. I believe very strongly in the idea of the story,” she explains.
Meanwhile, she knows she has a difficult road ahead. It’s no secret that the wine business is difficult, and favors the well-heeled.
“I know I’ll be lucky if I don’t fail,” she admits.
If she had her way, Margins would eventually be a 5000-7000 case brand making solely obscure varietals from organic vineyards. Meanwhile, she’s cultivating her relationships with grape growers, which, she says, is the hardest part of what she does.
A bit wistfully, she says, “One day, maybe I’ll get to plant a vineyard of only marginal varietals in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That’s probably my ultimate goal. We grow a lot of amazing Pinot and Chardonnay here—but why limit ourselves to that?”
You can find Margins current release, the 2016 Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, locally at The Cremer House in Felton, at Soif in Santa Cruz, at Shopper’s Corner and at The Half Moon Bay Cheese shop. For more info, visit marginswine.com
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.