20 Questions with… Doug Margerum
Kicking off a new series
This week we are kicking off a new series called ’20 Questions with…’—where we ask light-hearted yet thought-provoking questions to some of the most fascinating people in the food and wine world.
The first person I thought of for this series was Doug Margerum. I can’t possibly tell you his entire bio in a paragraph, but I can start by saying that he has been one of the pioneers in our food and wine scene for over 30 years. I met him around the time I started Edible Santa Barbara. Although we’ve crossed paths and worked together over the years, I knew that this would be an excellent opportunity to learn more about him.
Some of us remember back in the 1980s when he expanded the retail wine store the Wine Cask into a critically acclaimed and well-loved favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara. In the early 2000s, he started Margerum Wine Company. He quickly gained recognition and fame, focusing on Rhone varietals, and then in 2014 released Barden wines, which focuses more on the cool climate grapes grown in and around Santa Rita hills.
Before we started, I asked Doug to give us a quick overview of what he had been up to lately.
Doug: So the pandemic has been a dramatic thing for everybody and all of our lives. You know, we had a fabulous 2019 vintage. And the quality’s just been terrific. We actually had pretty good sales in the 20–21 period, even though our tasting room has been closed off and on—I think we were officially closed for over four months. We do a lot of online business. So that’s been really strong. And, obviously, I think people are still consuming a lot of wine. And so we’re doing a lot of direct consumer and retail business.
The year 2020 for a lot of California wineries was really a disaster because of the fires of the north. Santa Barbara was completely spared, which is terrific for us, but terrible for the north coast. But we had a great vintage in 2020. We made a lot of wine, we’re still really bullish on the market and that brand—and we’re still growing.
The tasting room has been a big new addition. It has the mezzanine, and we have a kitchen. We’ve got a lot of space and a lot of fun stuff to do there. We’ll be releasing a Barden sparkling wine here relatively shortly. We have a slew of some really neat fortified wines like Amaro and Mute-Age that we pair with chocolate. And we have our wonderful ice cream maker here in town, Rori, who makes, exclusively for us, an Amaro ice cream. So we like what we do, we like having fun, we like being challenged. And, you know, we do a lot of different things and really, really enjoy it.
1. Okay, let’s get started. What was your very first job?
My first job was working for my neighbor. I took care of his garden and home when he would take a month off every year and go to Hawaii. And he had pigeons in the backyard, which I had to release and clean out the pen. And he had a whole bunch of fruit trees and a wonderful strawberry garden. And I would work every summer as a very young kid and take care of his house and yard. And that was sort of the first time I really had money. That was my first sort of neighborhood job.
But my first ‘job’ job—and I still credit it as one of the most important jobs I had, especially when I had the restaurant—is that I worked at McDonald’s. I know, weird for a fine dining guy. Still, it was a really incredible learning experience. I think I was 15 years old. I started out just as a line cook. And then I got up to be a swing shift manager. But even the things I learned there about cleanliness and about consistency and about a lot of the ways they ran the business, I was able to use in fine dining.
2. What is a typical day for you like… if there is such a thing?
Well, we have a really nice home here, and I live with my wife. If it’s not a super hard working day, it’s a wake-up to lattes — with Straus milk and Intelligentsia espresso beans and a Salvatore espresso machine that we use. We live near a lot of hiking trails, so we do a lot of hiking in the neighborhood. We have a dog who walks with us and needs a tremendous amount of exercise because she’s a Jack Russell ‘terrorist’. Then I check in on things at the tasting room. I check in at the winery. I check in at the vineyards, and I have been checking in with a lot of people from other wineries and other restaurants and friends. It’s been sort of a funny time, obviously, for this last year since work is different. We still work very, very hard. I have a lot of time on the computer—a lot of time doing Zoom meetings, but I think that’s sort of a typical day.
3. What do you drink when you are really thirsty?
Water? I like good water. I also like coconut water. I think it’s very hydrating. And then we drink Kor Shots. I don’t know if you know those little shots of liquid for hydrating. And then, of course, you know, Rosé once I’ve hydrated.
4. What surprising food items have you purchased or gone through a lot of during COVID?
Barney’s Almond Butter. I just had a banana and a little bit of yogurt, and a little bit of almond butter. It’s sort of comfort food for me. And I would say that it’s the one I’ve sort of surprisingly been eating more of during COVID because I’m home a lot.
5. What is your favorite holiday? And why?
Well, I really like the holidays—the December holidays. Harvest is over. You can relax legitimately. The vines are growing, the wine doesn’t need to be touched, and we’re really not allowed to go out to sell. Why? Because all the retailers and restaurant people are busy. So I like spending time with my family and friends. And I would just say that December is a great month.
What I love about the wine business it is that even though we don’t have seasons in Santa Barbara, the wine business is very, very seasonal. Right now, in spring, we’re doing all the blending and getting the wines ready for bottling. So I’m really busy right now. And I’m really busy during harvest, but summer and winter are not as busy.
6. What is worth spending more money on to get the best?
Well, I’m a believer in buying quality things. Because they last longer and we have such a short time on the planet here that you might as well. I like really good cheese. And we have chickens at home. I think, all said, those eggs cost me about $100 a piece. But they’re so good. They’re just so fresh, and there’s just nothing better than a good egg.
Buying the best wine and the best food is so rewarding. And there are big differences. You know, I think a lot of Americans have never had a great tomato. But that’s something worth spending a lot more money on. It might be twice the price to get a good heirloom tomato—but spend the money on that tomato. It’s a super rewarding experience.
7. Would you rather eat a burger or a taco?
I’m a burger guy. I don’t eat a lot of meat. We don’t eat meat at home. But when I go out, I really love a good burger. I drink wine, and I think a burger and a really solid red wine is just a religious experience. And I have a hard time matching a lot of wines with tacos. We’ve done it, but the real classic combination is a burger and an M5. Go to Lucky’s and have that burger and a glass of M5—it’s pretty satisfying. So I’m a burger guy.
8. What book or movie do you wish you could experience for the first time again?
I’m infatuated with Japan—all things Japanese. I read Shogun my first year in college, and I think I skipped classes like three days to go to the lounge and read Shogun. I love going to Japan. We sell wine in Japan, and I love the food, the culture, the cleanliness and everything is on time. So I would love to have that whole Shogun reading experience again. It was a really good time in my life and my first year in college. I felt guilty ditching class, but it’s really one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.
9. If you had to delete all but three apps on your smartphone, what would you keep?
I’m a bit of a news junkie. So I love my New York Times app. I also like looking at stocks. I don’t have a lot of money in the stock market, but I do like to follow it. I love sharing photos, and I couldn’t live without my photo app on my phone. Oh, and the weather. I think I’m like everyone else—I just live on my iPhone. I can’t even imagine not having it with me for a second. I am looking forward to going on a vacation and not having it with me for days.
10. Once we can travel again easily, where would you like to go?
As much as I’m enamored by all things Japanese, my heart belongs in the South of France. And my dream is to someday make wine in the South of France as well as making wine here in Santa Barbara County. So France is the place for me.
11. What song has the ability to cheer you up?
I really love music. And at the tasting room, they’re only allowed to play my playlist. I have to be really firm about that because we’ll get someone who loves country music or someone who loves reggae, and I kind of like all pop and rock. So music in and of itself cheers me up. I don’t want to say the song that immediately came to my mind because it’s so stupidly pop that I’m embarrassed, but it’s immediately the song I thought of it—Kiss Me.
12. If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to?
Well, my first name is really Douglas. But only my wife calls me Douglas at this point. Everyone called me Dougie when I was growing up. But my fake name that I would use if I got in trouble and someone said, ‘What’s your name?’ was always Dirk.
13. If you could only have one of these for the rest of your life, which would it be—cake or pie?
I don’t need a lot of desserts. But I really like pies. I mean, I’m a big fan. So yeah, I think it’s hands down—pie.
14. All right, you’re an animal now. What would you choose to be and why?
I would want to be the king of the jungle, obviously because I’d want to be high up on the food chain. I’d rather eat than be eaten. So I would go for some member of the cat family, like a bobcat or cougar. Well, I don’t think I could be a cougar; that just sounds wrong. But you know, a member of the cat family—a big cat.
15. What is the title of the current chapter of your life?
You know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about it. I think where I am in my life right now is that I’m very contemplative. I’m very interested in leading a high-quality life. I’m trying to get away from working so much and being so possessed by what I do. And so ‘Chillaxing’ would be the title.
16. If you could trade places with any other person for one week—real or imagined, living or not—who would it be?
I don’t think there’s anyone else who has a mind as expansive and as knowledgeable as Stephen Hawking. Of all celebrities and all the people I’ve met in my life, Stephen Hawking still remains the one person who I was speechless in front of. I would love to have the ability to see what he sees and to have that breadth of knowledge and power of reasoning and thought that he has—and to see the world as he sees it.
17. Can you name three items of food that are always in your pantry that you could not do without?
Chips of some sort like a tortilla chip or something like that. We have a little bit of a pudding problem around the household here—we like chocolate pudding. I can’t imagine not having chocolate pudding. Not that I eat it every day. But I like knowing that I can. So pudding is certainly in there. Tuna—the Italian kind in oil. I love having that in my pantry. And Edmond Fallot Dijon mustard—I can’t be out of that. It has to be in my pantry. I like having a well-stocked pantry. I like having lots of stuff there and not having to shop every day.
18. Okay, so what wine do you drink at home?
I really, really make an effort not to drink my own wine at home. I just think you get a house palate. I get to drink my wine all the time. I have to, but I really make an effort to drink other people’s wine. I go in phases. You know, like, we’ll get into a champagne mood. I’ve been drinking a lot of Langhe-style Nebbiolo wines—lighter style Piedmontese red wines, like Dolcetto or Nebbiolo. I really like lighter, a little bit tannic, higher acid, red wines—especially this time of year. So I’m on a Piedmontese red wine kick right now.
19. If you could have a bottle of wine from any vineyard, any winemaker anywhere in the world of any time, any year, what would it be?
I had a very blessed life to have a restaurant and the wines we had in that restaurant. We had fabulous customers who would come in and open them and let us taste them. Certainly, I would say my religious experience wine would be a 1973 Dom Pérignon Rosé. I can still remember the exact taste of it to this day when I had a glass of it 30 or 35 years ago.
20. Is your glass half-full or half-empty?
You know, I’m an eternal optimist. I’ve never not been optimistic about life… and living. So I’m a glass-half-full guy. Even after the year we had. My father died last year, and it’s been a tough year, but I’m still very optimistic about life in the future.
I’d like to thank Doug Margerum for participating in 20 Questions with me. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and now the song “Kiss Me” will never fail to cheer me up whenever I hear it.
Thank you, readers, for being a subscriber to this newsletter. I hope you enjoyed the first of this new series that we’ll feature from time to time. We may even post the video of the interview with all its outtakes if there’s interest. Feel free to send me suggestions of local people who you would like to see interviewed in upcoming newsletters. Subscribers can hit reply and send an email directly to me. Or you can click the comment icon below to leave a post. And if you’d like to subscribe you can sign up here.