Rise Up: The Wines of Bret Urness at Levo

Brett Urness, 28, is a hardworking millennial. And no, that’s not an oxymoron. Indeed, Urness is just one of many hardworking, creative millennials trying to carve out their way in this harsh world. I used to be a millennial back in the day. When I was Urness’s age my generation were called “slackers” by both the media and marketing pundits. The definition of a slacker (a Gen-Xer by another name) is “a person who avoids work or effort.” Sound familiar? It appears that any young generation in this country, be they “hippies,” “slackers,” “hipsters” or “Millennials,” are—at least according to “The Man”—just unmotivated youngsters. It never ceases to amaze me that the media and marketing types who are so quick to criticize an entire generation are also relentless in their pursuit of extracting money from the very generation they’re boxing-in with de-humanizing labels. Luckily Urness doesn’t pay much attention to labels. He’s keeping his head down and making good wine. 

I met up with Urness at his urban winery, Levo, in Tin City—a grouping of quasi-industrial buildings just outside the township of Paso Robles that make up a vibrant neighborhood comprised of wineries, tasting rooms, a distillery, a brewery, a bang-up ice cream shop, a pasta maker and a number of other curiosities. It’s a fun place to hang out and popular with visitors from the Southland and the Bay Area. On a recent weekend, the visitors with whom I chatted with were mostly from Los Angeles, Big Sur and San Francisco. Levo offers a stellar line up of wines produced from Santa Barbara County fruit. Urness chose Paso Robles over Santa Barbara County for his home-base because Santa Barbara rents proved too high. “I could either have a tasting room in Santa Barbara, or a winery in Paso Robles. With three offices and a tasting room, I only pay $1 a square foot in Paso.” 

He sources much of his fruit for his mostly Rhone-inspired line-up from Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon, a region coveted for its Rhône varieties from vineyard sites like Kimsey, Stolpman and Harrison Clark—all vineyards from which Urness sources fruit. “All of my vinous heroes are there. Folks like Maggie Harrison [formerly of Sine Qua Non, and now with Lillian and Antica Terra wines] get fruit at Stolpman,” he tells me. He’s also very fond of the storied Kimsey Vineyard. “I love what Matt Dees is doing in Ballard Canyon, at Jonata and Kimsey Vineyard. His wines are classics. And he’s such a great guy. I admire what he’s doing: rich, beautiful, fresh wines.”

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Urness came about naming his winery poetically.

His Levo wines are known for their aromatic lift and varietal delineation. The etymology of Latin verb levō means “rise, elevate and lift up.” Urness tells me, “Stylistically, I aim to make rich, structured, voluptuous California red wines that represent the dynamic and vast Central Coast without sacrificing varietal correctness, electricity and ‘lift.’ ”

Naming a wine brand is a tremendous undertaking. First, one must find a name that hasn’t already been taken—an increasingly hard task considering there are currently 10,000 bonded wineries in the United States, and that number increases by the day. Secondly, it’s a deeply personal pursuit, for a wine brand name will, hopefully, last for decades if not generations, so it’s a crucial decision. Urness came about his poetically. “My first wine job was in my home town of Eagle, Idaho. I grew up off a road named ‘Floating Feather’ so I always thought it would be cool to reference my roots in our name. Levo is a small nod to where the journey began, in ‘Eagle,’ Idaho, off ‘Floating Feather Rd.’ Then, when I was 21 years old, I was I studying business at Santa Barbara City College and also taking flight lessons at the local airport. I eventually got to the point where I had to do a solo flight, and it was a day I'll never forget. I remember hearing the tower say ‘172 Bravo Romeo, clear for take-off,’ so I buried the throttle and rattled down the runway in an old Cessna. There was no instructor in the seat next to me as he had been so many times before. I hit rotation speed, pulled back the yoke and the wheels left the ground. The feeling of ‘taking off’ or leaving the pavement that day was a crazy feeling of absolute freedom, fear and excitement all at once. There was no turning back, I was on my own and the sky was the limit. When I began this wine project and needed to name it, I couldn't get the solo flight experience out of my mind as I felt it was so metaphorical to starting a winery. When I came across the word ‘levo’ I knew it was a perfect fit.”

Though Urness began making wine in Idaho at the tender age of 18, it wasn’t until he moved to Santa Barbara County and got a cellar job in the Funk Zone—downtown Santa Barbara’s urban wine trail—that Urness caught the wine bug in earnest. Carr Winery, where he worked, also owned a vineyard management company at the time, so Urness was able to get out into vineyards to work. “They would drop us off with the crew and we’d prune for about nine hours a day. I did that for three summers, and that’s when I really got into the farming aspect of winemaking. At the same time, I was trying a lot of great wines for the first time: Jaffurs, Whitcraft, Ojai, Tensley. These wines were so inspiring.” 

When Urness told his parents that all he wanted to do was to make wine, they encouraged him to apply to a college that taught winemaking and viticulture. “I went to my counselor and told her I wanted to apply to Cal Poly, and she laughed in my face and said, ‘Buddy, you have a 2.8 GPA!’ ” Even though he received all A’s the following semester, his grade point average only rose to 3.0. He applied to Cal Poly, Fresno State, Davis; he couldn’t get in anywhere. That’s when Urness’s father, who loves wine, encouraged him to take his passion more seriously. With the help of his parents, he purchased four barrels and a bit of fruit. “I’m so lucky to have the parents I have. They were super cool about it. My dad said, ‘if you’re not going to school, then learn by doing.’ ” Urness made four barrels of Sangiovese his inaugural year, but ended up declassifying all of the juice because it didn’t meet his standards. “I learned a big lesson that year. You have to buy really good fruit to make a really good wine. My family ended up drinking most of it.”

Urness was “bummed” at the time; wanting to make wine but also feeling down because college didn’t pan out, so his mother suggested he work a harvest in Portugal, where a family friend had an import business. “I got off the plane and these two Portuguese guys I’d never met before picked me up and literally drove me to Vinho Verde, where they were making wine at the time. On that day, I put on my work boots, and from there on out made wine every day for the next four months.” Urness toggled between the Alentejo and the Douro, where he made red wines, and Vinho Verde, where he made white wines. That was during the 2011 vintage, and Urness learned the ropes quickly, often working by himself in remote cellars. Upon his return stateside, Urness felt more confident in his winemaking, and so with the help of winemaker Matt Brady (formerly of Jaffurs, now at Samsara) he was introduced to iconic grower Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, where he forged pathways towards good fruit sources. He was only 20 years old at the time. Newton pointed him towards Kimsey, a nascent vineyard that has since then produced highly coveted fruit. He told Urness then, “This vineyard is going to be famous!” And indeed, over the past eight years the Kimsey Vineyard has become one of the most coveted sites for Rhône varieties in all of Santa Barbara County. 

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Urness wants his bottles to be “the ones you don’t throw away."

Urness has a purposeful hand on the aesthetic of his wine brand, from the tasting room design to individual labels that change every year, à la Sine Qua Non. It’s obvious Urness is a creative. He looks forward to working on his labels each year, and they reflect a strong, clear and original creative voice. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to pigeon-hole myself, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to put cool labels on stuff.’ I thought of it as a fling-thing, like I’d always have to work for someone else to support myself. I didn’t really have grand ambitions for my own wine brand at the time. I thought, ‘no one’s really watching what I’m doing so I’m going to have fun with it.’ I didn’t take myself too seriously.” Urness says he doesn’t know, from year to year, what his labels will be. “I just want to go out and live life and hopefully something cool happens, or maybe I read a great book, or a read a great poem, or I listen to a great record…and some idea will pop into my head.” 

Now, Urness admits, the process is more intentional. “If I’m in San Francisco and I see a great piece of street art, I’ll take a photo of it for inspiration. Now I’m just so used to rolling with that mentality. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Because winemaking is always fun and challenging, and I’m freakishly in love with wine, but I also love other art—paintings, music and all of that—maybe even a little more, so for me it’s just been so fun to have that personal challenge every year of trying to be better at being more artistic. And I think you have to be vulnerable if you want to make something special. A lot of people can make good wine, but if you have that aesthetic leaning, too, then I think your label can help tell a story.” 

Urness wants his bottles to be “the ones you don’t throw away. Like Devil Proof, their 2015 Rockpile Ridge Malbec, that lady smoking that cigar, or Realm or Sine Qua Non. When you see these special bottles, and then you open them up and the wines are also delicious, well, that’s a rare experience.” Urness says that with each label, “it’s almost like creating a new brand each time, because we have to trademark the name and develop a whole new package.” Urness challenges himself to do one creative thing each day. “It’s like going to the gym, but for creativity.” Urness also finds customer service oddly inspiring and creative work. His business model is nearly 100% DtC (that’s Direct-to-Consumer), and his wines are widely available to consumers around the United States who live in the states he’s licensed to ship to, which are considerable. Visitors who stop by his tasting room adjacent to his winery and crush pad will find a modern, singular vibe all Urness’s own.

“Bret’s just so dedicated,” says his assistant winemaker, Alex Baer. “He loves showing people the cellar throughout the day. He’ll say, ‘I just got this wine into tank and we’re about to go to bottle. Check it out!’ ” Urness says he can’t help himself; he loves being with customers, but that makes his job a bit harder, as, at the end of the day, there’s still work to be done. Any work he didn’t accomplish while hanging out with visitors needs to be done in the evenings: pulling composites, making blends, cleaning, whatever the case may be. “We want to level-up this year. There are a lot of things we can do better,” he says.

When I ask him if he’s a stylist or non-interventionist, he says, “I’m a wine lover. If you give me a glass of Beaujolais, I’m happy. Or a Chablis. Or natural wine—I love natural wine. But I love big wines, too. That’s the hardest part for me; I love all wines, so for me to choose a style is really hard. It’s also hard to choose varieties. Because I want to make Pinot Noir. I want to make Chardonnay. I want to make Gamay. I want to make everything! So my biggest challenge as a winemaker has been to choose a voice and a path for our brand. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the past few years. Rhônes have kind of grabbed me by the heart; I love them. As far as style goes, I like making California wines as long as they’re not too big. They need to have some electricity behind them. Some verve. It’s easy to be the ripest guy…wait until everyone picks and then wait two more weeks. I like drinking wines that are balanced. They have to be varietally correct.”

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My favorite Levo wine is the DreamCrxsher, a 100% Petite Sirah from the iconic Stolpman Vineyard in Ballard Canyon. For its immensity of flavors, it offers a great acid backbone and a tense structure that prevents it from ever being too big or over-the-top. I tell Urness it’s my favorite wine he makes. “It’s my dad’s favorite, too,” he says. Harvest has become a family affair, with Urness’s parents coming out from Boise to reside with him for at least two months, during which time his mother cooks daily harvest lunches for the crew while his dad performs pump-overs, cleans and does whatever else is required to help keep the cellar churning during harvest. “He always asks me how many tons of Petite Sirah we were able to get. He really likes that wine.” By Urness’s own admission it’s a polarizing wine. “People either like it or they don’t like it. Petite Sirah doesn’t have much of a home, and when I do think of it having a home, I think of the United States as its home,” Urness says. 

For the remainder of a long afternoon, I taste through barrels and bottles of Levo wine, and leave the winery with a skip in my step. Urness, who has been unfailingly polite over the course of our afternoon, is also funny, well-versed in literature, music, popular culture and art, and a terrific conversationalist. Wine seems to provide an intersection for all of Urness’s interests. It’s obvious to anyone who stops by to visit him that he’s found his purpose. 

“If I could have for the rest of my life what I have now, I’d be happy,” he tells me. 

The next day, I receive an email from Urness wherein he shares with me one of his favorite poems, “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. It hangs in his office in the winery and inspires him. “I just replace peaches with grapes,” he says.
 
From Blossoms

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward  
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into  
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Photos by R.H. Drexel.

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