A Conversation with Brandon Allen of SLO Down Wines
SLO Down Wines, based out of San Francisco, is taking the wine scene by storm with "sensually arousing", "sophisticated and simply delicious" blended reds, and chardonnay with a "junk in the trunk finish." Beyond their quip marketing campaigns, their wine is actually quite delicious, which is particularly surprising seeing as SLO Down Wines founder Brandon Allen—who totes an endearing curly mustache—got started making wine in his freshman year door room at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I met Brandon at Vinyl, the coffee and wine bar nestled on the corner of Oak and Divisadero, to talk about DIY winemaking, San Francisco's evolving wine scene, and Brandon's ass.
SFP: The craft brewing movement is huge right now, and more and more, you’re seeing people brewing beers from home. But wine is a whole other ballpark. What got you into making wine?
Brandon: Originally, I was just trying to impress girls and get some free booze. My roommate in college ended up sneaking onto a wine tasting bus when he was 19, and after he was like “dude, let’s make a barrel of wine.” We pretty much decided that night we were going to make wine.
Not necessarily a dream or passion of yours?
Not at all. It took me a couple of years to really get into it. Making alcohol out of grapes is easy, but it takes a very long time to learn how to make great wine. It wasn’t until my second vintage where I really started to get passionate about it.
As is with the home brewing movement, do you think the public enthusiasm for home brewing will expand into DIY wine making?
I hope so! My view of everything is as beer drinkers grow and start tasting other wines, or even just getting into wine, they will see the same qualities that they love in beer, in wine.
On par with that, do you think that there is a greater barrier for wine making at home then there is for home brewing?
Yes, and there’s a few reasons why. One reason is the fact that resources are naturally more scarce. You only get one production cycle a year with wine making, which means you have a time constraint. The second thing is, you can make great beer in your basement in Youngstown, Ohio, which you can’t do with wine because you don’t have those resources, and you don’t have grapes that are grown locally that are good enough for wine making.
What’s the SLO Down process like?
In terms of production - the process is based on that one production cycle a year, and our business revolves around that. We work out of a custom crush facility, which essentially is a Co Op for winemakers. There’s probably about 15 small wine producers in this small space, which everyone shares. It’s kinda like organized chaos, but we generally schedule times out for people to come in and start making their wine. That’s where we ferment and age. We age our wines anywhere from 8 to 14 months.
What is that patience factor like?
It sucks. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait in the wine business.
What about your creative process?
I work with a buddy of mine who is my creative director, and we come up with a lot of what you see. Our commercials are pretty much just us getting drunk and talking about what would be funny or cool, and trying to go over the line with everything. With labels, generally I do that myself. SLO Down is in over 38 states, so I’m constantly traveling and driving a lot. It’s a lot of alone time, and I just think about shit that’s funny, or messed up, or things that will really resonate with people.
Outside of the hilarious and offbeat voice of your brand, what else is SLO Down doing to stand out in the vastly saturated, global wine market?
Honestly, the biggest asset we have is that I’m not a traditional wine maker. When I first started making wine, I thought that all winemakers were dicks, and people who drank wine were pretentious douche bags. But then I started meeting these guys who were very passionate about what they did - people who helped me when I first got started. When we started the company I wanted to be as clear as possible with people, and wanted to present this image of approachability. Almost self-deprecating at times. We’re different because of that attitude.
Can you debunk some stereotypes of the wine industry?
One stereotype is that you have to like expensive wine, which is so not true. There are so many expensive wines out there that are shit. Everyone’s palate is different, and it takes time to recognize what kind of wine you like, which may not be expensive wine at all. In terms of the pretentious stereotype, I believe that that pretense comes after the wine is made and is getting sold. Winemakers are farmers, and are extremely chill and laid back – not pretentious at all.
Has there been any blowback in the industry for being so off the wall and loud?
That’s another thing I was pretty surprised about – the amount of acceptance that I got. There are plenty of people that don’t like the ads, or don’t like the voice or ethos of the company. However, there are so many people who I've heard about, and respect, that emailed me after seeing our commercials saying “This is what the wine business needs… thank you for doing this…” and I was shocked.
Do distributors and buyers in the industry know you as those crazy dudes?
I would say that that’s pretty accurate.
What do you think about the way wine is portrayed in the public image?
I think it gets a bad rep. Wine is portrayed as this very bougie thing, and a lot of people are perpetuating that stereotype. It’s wines fault to some extent, but look, I fell in love with it and I don’t consider myself to be like that. I don’t have a yacht, I’m just trying to buy a jet ski.
Tell us a bit about SanFrancisco’s wine scene.
San Francisco’s wine scene and I have a tumultuous relationship. I started my business here, and the scene is constantly evolving, which can be a good thing. But within the last three or four years, a lot has changed. Most buyers here want to be super esoteric, and have really weird, funky wines, which is cool and there is definitely a great market for it. At the same time, if I walk into a restaurant and I can’t read your wine list, then most people won’t be able to. I think it’s important to have a wine list that is approachable.
If we were to spend a Saturday neighborhood hopping and wine tasting in the city, where should we go, and what should we drink/eat?
Okay, so there’s this awesome wine bar right on union, which has really great wines from California, Oregon and Washington – I’d probably start there and get some wine. From there, I’d head over to A16. They have this really good squid ink pasta, and I would drink some cool orange wines, which are like sour beer. There’s also this place called Trestle, which has awesome food and great wines as well, and then I’d probably end up at a dive bar just havin’ a Coors.
What advice do you have for an aspiring wine maker?
For sure just be yourself. Don’t try to fit into the mold of a wine maker… and call me.
What are some of the struggles running a business in the bay area? Particularly one as obscure as wine.
The thing about starting a business when you’re young, and with friends is that everyone grows, and a lot of times people grow apart. I think one of my biggest struggles were with partners, and finding investors who understood what we were trying to do. There was this great quote that I just read, “Divorce your vision, and marry your story.” Sometimes, starting a small business, you have this grand idea of what your company is going to become, and you just have to let it grow on its own in order to make it organic.
On a scale of “Not even a drop,” to “A case a week,” how much do you think a customer’s thirst for your wine is based on the fact that they’ve seen your ass?
It’s all the ass. The wine sucks.