Amplify the Autumn

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a fondness for natural wines. And by natural wines, I don’t mean foul-tasting, positively odd, aquarium-water-like wines, which is what I thought all natural wines tasted like until I had a good one.

A good natural wine is utterly fresh – the freshest of wines. There is an innate, profound balance in a fully-realized natural wine; everything is in its place. Because no additives are used in natural wines (save for, occasionally, a little sulphur), and because they are fermented with their own native yeasts, they’re essentially unadulterated.  Accordingly, entities like “site” and “varietal character” – terms that are bandied about so much these days that they hardly mean anything anymore – begin to manifest themselves in the glass with an unrelenting focus.

So, yeah, I like natural wines.

The problem with studying, pursuing and drinking natural wines, though, is that there are so few very good ones out there, relatively speaking. This may be because natural wines are very hard to make. Oftentimes confused with non-interventionist winemaking, natural winemaking actually demands intervention by way of vigilance. A winemaker working within the parameters of natural winemaking must be willing to make wines in an oxidative environment, where the wines live constantly on the precipice of death. Ushering sound natural wines into the bottle is no small feat, so finding beautiful natural wines isn’t easy, but the chase is well worth it.

Recently, I sat down with Cameron and Marlen Porter, a young married couple making natural wines in Santa Barbara County. Their brand, Amplify, demonstrates how pure, delicious and refreshing natural wines can be when they’re made thoughtfully, rather than dogmatically. “We’ve been put into the natural wine crowd realm, which is great,” Cameron tells me. “We certainly do work that way, but I don’t consider what we do non-interventionist. For me, it’s like any other piece of artwork. You start with this block of clay, and shape it into something. So we’re maybe not interventionists in that we’re not adding yeast, acid, etc., but we are very clear about the direction we are taking these wines into. We approach each vineyard, asking, “What does this want to be?” With some sites, we’ll decide to foot-crush. With others, we’ll decide the juice should spend time on its skins. Some wines we’ll make carbonically, some we will make under a layer of flor (a thin layer of native yeast cells that protects the wine from contact with too much air). We are being parents to our wines; shaping these children and guiding them to a place where we feel they’ll show their strengths, their originality, their natural talents.”

Though there is a strong buzz about Amplify wines among the wine cognoscenti – particularly among the sommelier culture – the Porters push back against falling in line with existing industry trends. “We don’t care about trends like low-alcohol versus higher alcohol wines,” Marlen says. “If a wine wants to be 14.5, or 15.5, that’s okay. We want the wine to be the best it can be. It’s all about the inherent balance of a wine, not a simple number.” Cameron adds, “The wines we’ve always really admired and aspired to be like are idiosyncratic. I love Clos Cibonne Rosé, Chateau Musar – people who have a very distinctive voice and a really strong opinion about what they’re doing; there’s no one else quite like them. That’s what we value more than anything. It just so happens that many of the producers we admire work naturally.” I comment that a great number of natural wines I’ve tasted are just too hard to like, not pleasurable enough. Cameron agrees, adding, “To me it’s like music; you can get as dissonant and atonal as you want, but there has to be a back beat in there somewhere, or at least an element that keeps you coming back in. With wine, there has to be something that brings you some joy and deliciousness. If your wine is completely an intellectual exercise, then you’re doing something wrong.”

Founded in 2013, Amplify produces about 550 cases annually – a small amount. But because of their hands-on approach to product allocation, Amplify wines are available wholesale in over 30 states across the country, and direct-to-consumer if one lives in one of the “reciprocal states” to which the wines can be shipped legally. Admittedly, it’s a small operation, and the couple ends up doing the bulk of the work themselves. “We still hand-bottle and hand-label all 550 cases,” Marlen tells me, while Cameron quickly adds, “We both still hold down full time jobs for other people, so we work on Amplify every day before work, every day after work, every day off. This is our life and our passion. The great thing is that it never feels like work. You get off work and it’s relaxing to go do punch-downs or see how the wines are tasting or run numbers.”
Tin Tear Drop: Cameron’s high school band.

Despite having grown up in the same small farming community of Santa Maria, California, Cameron and Marlen did not meet until they were well into their 20s. By then, Cameron had moved away to Los Angeles to work in the music business for a record company. “One of my best friends growing up was Marlen’s cousin, and even so, I never met her until we were adults!” Indeed, they met through a friend, both whom they’d known since they were small children, at a house party that Cameron drove up from Los Angeles to attend. There they bonded over Prince’s sexy oeuvre and danced together all night.

Following that fateful first date, the two communicated via Sidekick (see Rory Gilmore’s now outdated mode of texting) for six months before seeing each other again. During their second date, they danced well into the wee hours of the morning, club-hopping and listening to live music throughout downtown Los Angeles. For the next year and a half, they commuted back and forth between Los Angeles and Santa Maria until Cameron moved back to his hometown to be closer to Marlen. They dated for four years before tying the knot in 2010. Six years later, they have a fledgling wine company and a 15-month old son, Miles, named after Miles Davis.
Cameron and Marlen on their wedding day (left); Cameron and Miles (right).

Both are quick to point out that music and wine form the foundation of their relationship. “I grew up around music,” Marlen says. “My father was a musician, my family had a band, and I was a punk rock kid. Music really helped to shape who I am. I’m always looking for something different. I keep seeking new experiences in music. Cam and I bonded over that mutual approach to music. And that continues with how we relate to wine. It’s neat because we keep growing together as people, because we just never tire of learning about new wines and music together, and that keeps things interesting for us.”

Their son Miles has “proven to be quite a musician. He thinks he’s in a band. He has a ukulele and a little drum set,” Marlen says. Cameron plays guitar with his son, though, on his spare time, he prefers to tool around with electronic melodies. Marlen is a flautist, as is her father, and she owns all of her father’s old saxophones, as well. She hopes Miles will pick those up some day.

When trying to come up with a name for their brand, Marlen tells me, “We sat with this stack of CDs. We knew we wanted the name to have something to do with music. Cam recalled an original song he performed with a band he was when he was 18 years old: Amplify the Autumn, and so Amplify was born.” When I ask them what the name had to do with the personality and vision behind their brand, Cameron explains, “We're really trying to capture a strong sense of place in our wines, but in way that speaks uniquely to us. A sense of place and sense of self. It’s about amplifying the sense of place, honing in on those things that make a site special, and amplifying those characteristics in ways that maybe others are not doing.”

The Porters don’t own any vineyards themselves, so I ask them how they go about choosing sites from which to source. “Initially,” Marlen says, “we started looking for older sites. Sites that were ‘old school’. Our first Viognier was from Zaca Mesa [a reputable, storied site in Santa Barbara County], and we intentionally went for their old vine Viognier, which we thought would have more character and just be more interesting. We like working with sites that have a backstory.” Cameron adds that they prefer “sites that have established a voice and a character. We prefer when there’s a track record with a site – different people who have worked with that fruit.” The Porters will study how certain varieties grow in certain sites and then decide how they want to interpret that wine. “In the case of Carignan,” Cam tells me, ”let’s look at Camp Four Vineyard [from Santa Barbara County]. It has a tendency to be really big and tannic from that vineyard. And wines from there, as a result, are sometimes out of balance. But it also has this really pretty minerality and elegant fruit behind it that often gets masked by those big tannins. We asked ourselves, how can we bring those other characteristics to the fore? So, in our case, we did semi-carbonic maceration with our Camp Four Carignan. We treat it very, very lightly. We let that fruit shine, rather than those other characteristics, which we feel obscure that sense of place.”

As is their wont, the Porters don’t typically identify their wines in barrel with a simple block or lot number, as is often the case with other winemakers. Instead, the Porter’s adorn their barrels each vintage with album cover art, or with photos of musicians whose music or creative approach they feel properly reflects a particular wine. One of my preferred wines from Amplify is one they’ve named “Duke and Ella. ”

The idea behind “Duke and Ella” came to Cameron in a dream.  “We harvested a Viognier and Muscat in 2013 which we had planned to keep separate. We had no intention of blending them together. Then I had this dream where I’m working in the cellar, blending these two wines together and loving how they’re tasting. What’s weird is, when I woke up the next morning, Mar said to me, without me telling her about my dream, ‘Hey, have you ever thought of blending the Viognier and Muscat?’” Marlen adds, “We went to the winery right away. It was a Sunday and I asked my mom to watch the baby. We had to go and blend it immediately. That’s how good we felt about it.”

“Duke Ellington was this extremely elegant man,” Cameron says. “He was the kind of man that was always ultra-classy. He probably had his hands manicured. Ella was a little brassier and could always hold her own.” Accordingly, he adds, Viognier and Muscat are “traditionally thought of as these big floral, super rich grapes. But we foot-crush them, pick them early. They have a lot of natural acid, a lot of minerality. So this blend highlights both the subtle and brassier characteristics of both varieties. We wanted to invoke those two figures we admire in music, and the characteristics we admire in these wines.”

Most of the Amplify wines are just over $ 20 a bottle. Some are a little more, but nothing in their lineup is very expensive. “We’re not rich people,” Cameron says. “We saved up for years just to buy two tons of wine grapes. So we make wines that we can afford. We don’t make anything that retails for over 30 bucks. Part of our pricing philosophy is that we also like our wines to be affordable by-the-glass in restaurants.” Because the Porters enjoy pairing food with wine and eating out often, they make their wines in such a way that they’ll go well with food.
Marlen’s grandparents.

“My grandpa didn’t drink wine until he tasted Amplify wines,” Marlen says. “We are Oaxacan, and we like highly acidic drinks – margaritas with a lot of lime, for example – and the saltiness of that drink, too. He will be 80-years-old next month, and that’s his favorite thing to enjoy now; his little glass of our wine at dinner. And my grandmother was able to pair her mole with our Carignan to pretty amazing results. It was a very special moment for our family.” Cameron leans in and adds, “I think both of our parents taught us to value memory and experience over things, so we’ve never been materialistic. That’s not really important to us. We’d rather spend on a nice meal, or a really great concert or a good bottle of wine. Relatively speaking, we like things that don’t require a huge investment, like a fancy car or something. We'd like to cherish the simple things.”

Indeed, cherishing the simple things.  What could be more natural than that?

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