Who: Bret Urness, 25 years old
Roots: Originally from Idaho, Urness worked at a winery in high school, where he mostly set up weddings. “I really liked the whole thing even though I wasn’t into wine,” he said, noting that the winery made cab, merlot, and syrah but did best at riesling. “I liked physically working with the product. I liked the way it smelled. I thought it was cool — but I was 17.”
Heading west: In 2009, Urness followed a friend to Santa Barbara City College, where he played on the football team.
Heading east: Rejected from state schools with wine programs, Urness went to work a harvest in Portugal’s Douro region in 2010, settling in with a small family operation that made red table wine with just one pump. “It was just so primitive. I thought, ‘This is sick. I can do this,’” recalled Urness. “I had no idea what I was doing, but there were just three of us, so I learned really quick.”
Back in S.B.: Urness returned to town, moved into a Goleta home with SBCC friends, bought a couple tons of sangiovese in 2011, and made it up at San Marcos Creek Vineyard near Paso Robles. Meanwhile, he worked the vineyards for Carr Winery for a couple of years, explaining, “I was a laborer. I went out in the vineyards every day. I pruned with the dudes. That got really old.”
Levo rises: With the enthusiastic support of his father, Urness steadily expanded Levo Wines, most dramatically in 2013 when a harvest that was supposed to be four tons turned out to be seven tons. “It became a full-time job in about five minutes,” said Urness, who produced about 450 cases in 2012, nearly 1,000 cases in both 2013 and 2014, and probably about 1,200 for 2015.
Style and substance: Levo’s stylish bottlings include the flagship Bad Medicine (100 percent syrah) as well as Ransom (grenache-syrah) and White Lightning (roussanne-viognier). “I don’t care if we make one or 20 barrels, but it has to be the best fruit and the best barrels,” said Urness, who sources small amounts of grapes from Kimsey, Thompson, Stolpman, White Hawk, Presqu’ile, Glenrose, and Murmur vineyards. “The fruit is freakish,” said Urness of the latter, which is also known as Rancho Real and located along the 101 just south of Santa Maria.
On the road again and again: Urness still lives in Goleta, makes wine at San Marcos Creek in Paso, sources from mainly the Santa Ynez Valley, and sells a lot in Los Angeles. “I get a lot of oil changes,” he said. He plans to move to Paso soon, though, to open a tasting room in “Tin City” with winemaking friend Eric Carucci.
Next up: In addition to a forthcoming rosé called Ultraviolet, Urness also hopes to soon release The Heavy, a nearly 100 percent petite sirah (with trace amounts of roussanne and viognier). “It’s massive,” he said. “You can kill people with it.”
Future strategy: “I’m moving toward cool-climate syrah,” said Urness, who likes that style’s big tannins and bacon-y, iodine flavors, which he enhanced with a lot more whole-cluster picking in 2014. For 2015, he’s adding Duvarita and Slide Hill (formerly Sawyer-Lindquist) vineyards for his Rhône projects and expanding in cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot with grapes from Star Lane in Happy Canyon.
His goal for Bad Medicine is to pick from the best spots across Santa Barbara County and then blend those syrah grapes into a monumental wine. “I’m trying to get all of those representations of syrah and bring it together,” he said. “I’m really adamant about making honest wines. My whole goal is not to add anything like water or acid. But I don’t really subscribe to any certain dogma.”