Ninety Years Later, Pasadena Is Making Wine Again, and Yes, It’s Funky
For being Pasadena's first commercial winemaker in nearly a century, Adam Vourvoulis plays down the historic nature of his Vin de California project. Instead, if you talk to him about his wine, he will likely bring up Pasadena's dark history.
For Vourvoulis, water rights, colonization, and farmworker exploitation are as appropriate topics of conversation as the flavor of his highly crushable Violette, an extra jammy zinfandel spumante that tastes as delicious as it sounds.
Vourvoulis has come a long way from the Monster baseball cap-wearing wine bro behind the hilarious wine-meme Instagram account that he started in 2014, @natural_whine. Born out of taking a stand against the elitist attitude that can exist in wine culture, Vourvoulis has been able to convert his account's cult following into supporters of his winemaking project.
The self-professed wine-industry burnout has worked in hospitality around Los Angeles for years, including as a general manager for Ludo Lefebvre. He was once ridiculed by a local food critic in 2015 for being an early adopter of natural wine. Now, he makes the minimal intervention wine that he likes to drink: funky, unusual acid bombs with low or no sulfites that you can't help but love, especially when each bottle barely breaks the $35 mark.
His East Pasadena facility is located behind his wife Kate's natural wine boutique, Good Luck Wine Shop. Inside, there are over two dozen barrels of live wine and a cylindrical cement tank that weighs over six thousand pounds that Vourvoulis refers to as "the Monolith."
"You know how Pasadena came to be, right? The settlers stole the water from the Tongva tribe here," Vourvoulis says before nerding out over a skin-contact marsanne that is almost ready to bottle. He grew up defending his hometown against the world while being aware of its history. Never passing up an opportunity to hype up L.A., Vourvoulis reminds me that "Los Angeles wine used to be super sought after at the turn of the century." And he's doing his part to bring back that enthusiasm. As of February 2021, Vourvoulis was sold out of every single wine he's produced in Pasadena. He made six: Harvest (a blend of every grape Vourvoulis has owned), Violette (effervescent zinfandel), Yves (skin-contact marsanne), Radical (a pinot noir and zinfandel blend), Amethyst (a blend of pinot noir, marsanne, and barbera), and Fluorescent (a 100-percent pinot noir).
He sources his grapes from vineyards from the Central Coast to Los Olivos. Despite being committed to buying from California growers who work with ethical vineyard management and picking companies, Vourvoulis acknowledges the exploitation of farmworkers that can still occur in the industry. "You do realize that it's a bunch of white people chitchatting and walking around, and a bunch of brown people picking shit. That can't be a good dynamic," he says. He is not afraid of diving into the touchy topic of labor in winemaking or the controversial issue of machine harvesting as a more sustainable option than farm workers picking in 100-degree or freezing weather. "The wine industry still has a lot to do; imperialism has gone hand in hand with alcohol in its history, and we can't forget that."
The winery and wine shop are as bootstrapped as it comes for a wine establishment. Vourvoulis and Kate poured their life savings into the small space in a sleepy, industrial stretch of Foothill Boulevard. Vourvoulis's mother invested a little, too. "She can't tell me what to do, though!" he says. "We can't afford to make more wine even if we tried. Next year we're hoping to make more wine, but we'll see. This shit's not cheap."
Another goal down the line is to collaborate with a modern-day Tongva tribe member and come up with a wine that honors their presence in his hometown. Vourvoulis is also excited about doing a wine with Sara's Market, a tiny convenience store in the City Terrace neighborhood of East Los Angeles that offers affordable natural wine to the neighborhood's predominantly Latino residents.
"As DIY distributors, when we visited this tiny neighborhood market, it reminded me of all the corner stores in L.A. that I grew up going to. The owners are really kind people, and their mission reflects our beliefs to make natural wine as accessible to everyone as possible," he says.
Vourvoulis and Kate also dream of one day adding some picnic tables out back and creating a neighborhood space with food vendors. They like the idea of operating it like a brewery with a growler-refill system, but for wine. Although they understand that may not be realistic due to Los Angeles' strict laws around alcohol.
Starting in March, Vin de California wine will be available all around California, and shipping to 44 states is on the horizon. As a loyal Angeleno, the one thing Vourvoulis does not want to do is distribute his wine to New York. "I'm not ready to sell out just yet," he says, half-joking. "I don't need a bunch of New Yorkers to tell me if they like my wine or not—it's so much cooler to have my local community come in and tell me if they like it."