Close to the Source

Born to Americans living in England, Marc Hashagen grew up in Great Gidding, a farming village in Cambridgeshire. “A hundred houses, one pub, one butcher,” he recalls. “The public bus would come through on Wednesdays; when you were a kid, that was your big day to go into Peterborough or Cambridge.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hashagen wanted to become a stockbroker; he went on to attend the London School of Economics. When his parents moved back to the States, young Hashagen made his way west to San Diego — then L.A., then back to London, and then San Diego again.

But if you can take the boy out of the farming village.… “At some point it hit me that I actually missed it. I’d been living in a condo or a flat for years, and I thought, ‘I need some space,’ and with that, I was thinking of the village and the farms.” Not enough to go back, mind you. “There was some distant longing to get back to the land, but I love socializing. It seemed to me that the two met in the middle with vineyards and winemaking.”

So in 2006, he Googled “San Diego winemaker” and hit upon the Grapes for Sale list at the website for the San Diego Amateur Winemaking Society. “There was just this long list — some guy in Alpine saying, ‘I’ve got Chardonnay for 60 cents a pound’ — and then an entry that read, ‘We’re having a harvest party. Grapes for sale. There will be a barbecue, music, a Champagne toast, and about 40 amateur winemakers.’ I thought, ‘That’s the guy for me.’ ”

The guy was Mike Dunlap, the vineyard ran down the slope of his Escondido property, and the grapes were Merlot. Hashagen and a friend bought 100 pounds, plus another 200 pounds from people Dunlap suggested he contact. “We made wine in the kitchen, and Mike — he’s been making wine for years — gave us some tips. Every time we’d get stuck, we’d call him.”

Hashagen liked the result, liked it enough to “roll the dice, see what happens” and set about starting up a winery on savings, credit, and help from an investor. Carlsbad Coastal was looking for a tenant to fill its too-snug San Marcos facility, “and we bought some tanks and slipped right in.” Hashagen called winemakers and asked what they would do differently if they were starting over (variable capacity tanks!), started reading everything he could find, and when the ’07 harvest rolled around, he ordered up a full ton of Dunlap’s Merlot.

The grower was surprised — his is not a commercial vineyard — but ultimately amenable, and even delighted. A ton of Cabernet came from Carlsbad Coastal’s source in Paso Robles, and a ton of Cabernet Franc came from Santa Barbara’s Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards. Explains Hashagen, “We got bumped from some grapes we were after by a big winery, and it was really late in the season. My girlfriend used to be in the wine-tour business in the Central Coast, and she gave me a list of people to call. When I got to Lucas & Lewellen, I got right to the vineyard manager’s cell phone. He ended up spending something like an hour on the phone with me.” The next year, Hashagen expanded his varietal selection and bought 9 tons; this year, he’s hoping to pick up 25. “We’re just going for it,” he says understatedly of his venture, Blue Door Winery.

Here, the reader may begin to suspect that Hashagen has been sampling too much of his own product. But he has some reason for his optimism: “a growing group of 100 or so people who are very, very attached to the winery, who feel like they’ve got a stake in our success.” The group has coalesced over the past couple of years around Hashagen’s email newsletter, which has recounted the gradual development of his project. “At first, it was just basically updating our mates — ‘We’re going to pick grapes, you guys are welcome to come.’ ‘Here are some pictures of the harvest.’ Then people started asking, ‘What are you guys doing next?’ and ‘When is the wine going to be ready?’ There are now some people who are very dedicated to us because they feel they’re a part of our story. They’ve been getting our newsletter, and they’ve been picking grapes with us.” A La Jolla couple recently told Hashagen that they were moving to Pasadena but assured him that they would never miss his annual post-picking harvest party — and that they would spread the word. “And now they can actually drink what they’ve picked.”

That’s the core group; there are more. Family friendships have provided him with potential ambassadors for Blue Door wine all across the country. And over 200 have already signed up for membership on the winery’s Facebook page. “I think there’s a fascination with how to make wine, and tons of people who want a connection to the winery and the winemakers. We want that, too — we want people who help us pick grapes up at Mike’s place and then ride with us to the winery in town and watch us crush the grapes. We want them drinking wine in a functioning winery.” Not the winery in San Marcos — Hashagen envisions a facility with a proper tasting room: something in the future, something more in town. Maybe something in his home neighborhood of South Park. “I can picture it. People would go to the Grape Street Park, walk the dog, and then continue the walk to us. They’d sit with the dog on the patio outside the winery, have a glass of Pinot Gris, watch us press or do whatever we’re doing, then go off to dinner somewhere else. I think it would be awesome, and I think it’s a neighborhood where people love to support neighborhood businesses.”

Keeping people (relatively) close to the actual mechanics of production is key for Hashagen. It’s part of the reason behind the winery’s name and label, which depicts the tradesman’s entrance at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors. (His mother painted the image from a photograph his father took.) Instead of the glitzy tasting-room-as-gift-shop, more akin to the Palace’s façade, he wants something at once more intimate and more workmanlike. Again, “We want that connection to the customer.”

The winery’s January 31 release party gave some reason for hope. “Over 130 people showed up, and they kept going back and drinking, and they bought a lot of wine. We had a buyer from Costco — the father of a friend of mine — who said he liked our Cab.” And Mike Dunlap, who had never tasted Hashagen’s wine, smiled when he assessed the Merlot made from his grapes. “He said, ‘This is good. Good complexity, good depth, and the finish is quite nice.’ It was the best seller of the night.”

“It’s almost like a daytime Merlot,” continues Hashagen. “It’s actually got a little bit of residual sugar,” which shows up mainly in the wine’s fruity attack. “We had to decide whether to really fight to ferment it to total dryness.” But one of the winemakers who gave him advice at the outset warned him against fighting too hard against your fruit. “Obviously, we don’t want it tasting like Tang, but if your grapes come in really sweet, you might have a slightly sweet wine. But even more than sugar, we’re interested in the ratios between sugars and acids and the pH. We didn’t have to adjust the acid at all” — remarkable for a South Coast red.

“We’ll adjust and figure it out as we go along,” he concludes. “We’re learning in every department, but we’re having fun and meeting great people. And as I told my investor, ‘Worst case happens, we end up with 3000 bottles of wine to drink, and we have a massive party.’ ”

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