Building a profitable wine brand is notoriously difficult. But if you really want to roll your rock uphill, then start with a finicky and tannic Italian grape like nebbiolo, which requires a scientist’s attention in the cellar and then a monk’s patience once in bottle, often taking more than four years to go from grape to sellable glass of wine.
“It is such a terrible idea,” admits Alison Thomson with counterintuitive cheer, reflecting on her 2013 start to Lepiane Wines. “It can be a scary process,” she explained of nebbiolo, which needs a lot of oxygen in the early stages of vinification to “help it evolve” yet can be easily shocked when moved later on. “It’s kind of like being a parent,” said the mother of a toddler and kindergartener. “You just let it be and have faith that what you’ve done is put it on the right path.”
Thomson’s path to winemaking was through a fascination with plants of all types. “I love fruit,” said the El Cerrito–raised UCSB grad, who worked on native landscaping after college, getting more than 100,000 plants to thrive around her alma mater’s Manzanita Village. She’d already become enamored of the wine lifestyle during an undergrad study-abroad stint in Siena, Italy, and got her first tastes of the wine business during tasting room jobs at Sunstone in Santa Ynez and Pine Ridge in Napa.
So Thomson pursued a graduate degree at UC Davis in 2004, where she studied the effects of vineyard topography on resulting wines (not much, apparently). In 2005, she took an eye-opening trip to Barolo, Italy, where she met the legendary Angelo Gaja and tasted nebbiolos from as far back as 1989. “They were knocking our socks off,” she recalled. The next year, she returned to Piedmont for an internship under Sergio Germano, working 17-hour days, seven days a week, and enjoying every second.
Upon getting her degree in 2007 and returning to Santa Barbara, Thomson worked for six months in Ventura at Sine Qua Non with iconoclastic winemaker Manfred Krankl. Then she moved on to Palmina in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, making Italian varietal wines alongside Steve Clifton from 2008 to 2011. “He was so wonderful,” said Thomson. “He gave me a lot of responsibility.”
He also helped her see that she, too, could have her own brand, an idea that was encouraged by another mentor, Chad Melville, who hired Thomson in 2011 to help at Samsara. “I didn’t think it would be possible,” said Thomson, believing that starting her own winery would take a ton of cash she didn’t have. “But once at Palmina and Samsara, I saw that a lot of these producers started small.”
Other than Palmina, there weren’t many other producers in the area focused on nebbiolo, nor on barbera, another Italian grape Thomson wanted to explore. “If I really wanted to keep working with Italian varietals, this was the only way I could,” said Thomson, who started her brand in 2013 by making nebbiolo and barbera as well as grenache. “I love grenache because it leans in between nebbiolo and pinot noir.” She makes the latter (and chardonnay) as consulting winemaker for JCR Vineyard, one of her current ongoing gigs.
For the winery’s name, Thomson honored her great-grandfather, Luigi Lepiane, who came to California from Calabria, Italy. By 1917, he’d settled in Hollister to run a grocery business, and in 1935, he decided to open an adjacent winery. Lepiane died of cancer only four years later, so Thomson decided to revive the Lepiane name on her labels.
Today, Thomson; her husband, George (a project manager for the City of Santa Barbara’s Parks & Recreatioin division); and their two kids live on a 17-acre, greenhouse-packed property near More Mesa in Goleta. That’s where she showed me her latest releases, including the 2013 barbera (from Walker Vineyard), grenache (Black Oak Vineyard), and nebbiolo (Sisquoc Vineyard). They’re all extremely expressive and yet relatively light on their toes, making them both great for food as well as simply sipping.
Though she is keeping her production to around 300 total cases, Thomson is expanding into new properties in the vintages to come and is making a co-fermented nebbiolo-barbera blend in the Langhe style, due for release next year.
“Most people don’t associate California with these wines, so they’re surprised to find that they can be so good,” said Thomson, who’s very excited about the future. “I think that the 2015 nebbiolo is gonna be awesome.”