Meet the Starving Artist Winemakers of Sonoma County

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Meet the Starving Artist Winemakers of Sonoma County

Idle Cellars' winemakers don’t own any property—not a tasting room, not a vineyard, not even the presses, tanks, and bottling machinery. Nonetheless, their award-winning, respected wines have a cult following.
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Photo courtesy of Ari Heavner

I'm sitting at a sun-baked, wine-stained picnic table next to a business park parking lot on the outskirts of Sonoma, and I'm drinking some chilled grenache blanc with two chill-ass dudes, Ari Heavner and Ben Larks, the owner-winemakers behind Idle Cellars, a micro-winery they founded together here in 2006. It's the beginning of their tenth harvest together, and they're just beginning to make their mark in a crowded industry.

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It would be fair to label Heavner and Larks the "starving artists" of the wine industry, since these guys don't own any property—not a tasting room, not a vineyard, not even the presses, tanks, and bottling machinery they'll use over the course of this year's harvest. Instead, they seek out and buy grapes directly from local growers—each of their wines is vineyard-designated—and, alongside a handful of other small wineries, they rent space, equipment, and manpower at Opal Moon Winery, the custom crush facility buzzing and whirring just behind our picnic table.

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A bumper sticker in the Opal Moon Winery parking lot (rest of photos taken by author) Dry ice sublimating on Pinot Noir grapes

"It's very daunting to think about starting a winery," admits Heavner, who was in his early twenties when he first met Larks, "because you're competing with this very douchey group of people, who are very rich and very elitist. And then you have me and Ben, who are kind of the exact opposite."

"Well, for those guys, the idea is they want to make the greatest wine in the world and put their name on it," notes Larks, "because they already had their first career, they made their millions, and now they're making wine. Fine. For us, it's not about that. It's a lot smaller of a thing." So small, in fact, there technically aren't any Idle "Cellars," per se; these guys don't own any property.

"One of the cool things about not owning property is we have the luxury to make whatever kind of wine we want," says Heavner. "We're not beholden to any particular varietal, so we can indulge ourselves if we're feeling like we want to make a particular kind of wine. Our defining principle is that we love to make wine."

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"We want to push ourselves, you know?" says Larks, now pouring me their first-ever viognier. "Why get comfortable? Why get complacent? Because the next thing you know, you've got a huge belly and you can't see your junk. We're making wine that we want to drink—if we don't like it, we're not gonna release it."

It turns out other people like it, too. Because after selling their first couple vintages of 2006 cabernet sauvignon and 2007 syrah to friends and family at 20 bucks a bottle, they slowly started branching out to Bay Area restaurants and wine shops, and eventually secured distributors in a couple East Coast states.

"We've become this kind of cult, underground thing," Larks explains. "When people find us, a lot of the time they end up wanting to follow us, because there's a difference between us and these corporate guys. For us, we're the winemakers, we're the owners, the office managers, the delivery guys. It's just us."

Today, their eclectic portfolio includes a few hundred cases of grenache blanc, viognier, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, syrah, petit sirah, sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and what's become their award-winning flagship, grenache.

"But I don't think we're ever gonna make more than 3,000 cases," Heavner concedes, "because if you go above that, then we need to take on an investment, get a facility, and it quickly goes from three to ten thousand. We think about it every harvest, but you don't want to get overextended. You get overextended, you get into debt, and that's how people's lives get ruined. So, we're very aware of how we grow."

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View from Opal Moon cellar

"I mean, for us to have a hundred-person wine club without a legit space is kind of unheard of," says Larks, stifling a grin. "Because here we are as winemakers, we never went to [UC] Davis, we didn't go to the four-year programs, we learned hands-on, from trial and error, from just making wine through the years."

In coming to winemaking from different backgrounds—Heavner as the city kid from Berkeley who got priced out of Burning Man, and Larks as permaculturalist farmer and Waldorf-trained teacher—they quickly found that they both shared similar philosophies on life and wine while working the sorting table as apprentices at Deerfield Ranch Winery ten harvests ago.

"There was this book we discovered called How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson," recalls Heavner, "and he was like, 'People are living their lives wrong. They're working too hard, they're concerned about money, and that's not what it's about—like, you're not gonna be fulfilled sitting on your death bed just because you're rich.' And we were like, Holy shit, he's right, we're fucking living our lives wrong! So, now, we work four months out of the year, sell our wares the rest of the year, and then do it all over again.'"

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Sauvignon Blanc grapes Ari Heavner and Ben Lark

"It's something we both believe in," adds Larks, "being present, being idle, hanging out with friends and family and loved ones, bottles are rolling off the table and the laughter is getting louder—that's what we're looking for, that's why we do this."

"It's about moments for us," Heavner says, "those idle moments in life, and we want to facilitate those moments for people. We want our wine to be something that helps you find that moment of peace, or that moment of party, or of sexuality—whatever—and this," he says, grasping the neck of a bottle of grenache, "this is the vessel that will help get you there."

And though it's not even noon and I'm looking out at a corrugated horizon of warehouse after warehouse, I feel myself feeling this Idle Cellars philosophy, my thoughts drifting skyward, toward an impromptu appreciation of life in this moment. I find myself thinking about how the air smells like pine and eucalyptus and the sweet mustiness of wine being made, about how good the sandwich I'm gonna have for lunch is gonna be, and about just how lucky I am to be living and breathing while the sun is shining down on all of us.