We had the good fortune of connecting with Michael Fogelman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Michael, what do you attribute your success to?
Lisa and I never had “success” in our minds when we first decided to make wine in my small Sweetzer Avenue apartment or when we moved Sweetzer Cellars from West Hollywood to Santa Barbara County and became a bonded winery. My sole focus as winemaker, even in our apartment days, was to do everything possible, and some things seemingly impossible, to make great wine. Whatever it took. So if that meant fermenting grapes in our dining room, sleeping in a cold bedroom because that’s where our barrels lived, or pressing grapes on the sidewalk of Sweetzer Avenue, we did it. When we started making wine commercially, there was never a thought of profit or success in the traditional sense. We truly believed that if we made great wine and could continue to do what we loved, we were successful. So success was defined exclusively by the quality of the product and the love of the experience. That’s what drove us. Naive? Perhaps. But I make wine because I have to — there’s something about watching grapes turn to an astringent juice that over time almost inexplicably turns to delicious wine that keeps me coming back. And the commitment to improving and learning inspires me. Success is in the glass, and obstacles are challenges that push me to be better, sometimes more creative, and always more committed. I wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to check on grapes in the vineyard because that’s what I love and 4 o’clock in the morning to check on fermentation because it’s magical. I do it all because if success is the product and work is a labor of love, everything else falls into place.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Sweetzer Cellars is Lisa and I. And living in Hollywood and having our winery and tasting room in Lompoc means a lot of driving, a lot of preparation, and a lot of commitment. Luckily, the winemakers and wine industry people in our Santa Barbara winemaking community are supportive, and the relationships we’ve made have been a help in our business and one of the aspects of Sweetzer Cellars that we cherish. But it is us, and we keep it small so that we can pay attention to detail and make the wine we want to make without compromise. I am meticulous bordering on neurotic when it comes to winemaking — I think that would be supported by those who know me. I will do whatever, and I mean whatever, it takes to make great wine, which could mean driving 140 miles each way to check on fermentation, which might take all of 15 minutes (I have a car that gets great gas mileage, which eases my conscience a bit). And Lisa and I make wine that we want to drink, rather than chasing what might be the current fashion. We’ve worked hard to ensure that if someone buys a Sweetzer Cellars wine, regardless of the varietal, they will drink a wine that speaks to the Sweetzer style — clean, balanced, delicious. The learning curve is a long one, and there are mornings I might like to lounge at home in Hollywood, but it’s all about the wine and the brand, and we do what we have to do. There have been challenges along the way, both in the business and winemaking sides, but we’ve met them with determination, deliberation, and a commitment to learning from every experience and a recognition of how lucky we are to be able to do what we love to do.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m from New York, and I feel most comfortable on city streets. Funny, given that I make wine in Santa Barbara County, but I always look forward to returning to L.A. and our Hollywood home. So after a quick drive around Hollywood, maybe a walk in Runyon Canyon, and if I’m really up for it, a drive to the beach (I am not a beach person), I would head to downtown L.A. I love it there. It reminds me of working in my family’s business in Soho from the time I was 10 until some point in my 20s (this was Soho in its warehouse/manufacturing days). I would first go to the Central Market for breakfast, then walk across the street to stare in awe at the interior of the Bradbury Building. I love the look of Broadway and the other streets in that area — it reminds me of old New York, so we’d stroll for a bit. We would then go to The Last Bookstore — I’m a huge fan — and hang there for a while. Then, museums. The Broad and MOCA. Lunch? Maybe the Central Market or a new wine and small plates bar somewhere in the area. After that, more walking around, perhaps in the arts district. For dinner? I’d probably head back to our neck of the woods and try to get into Petit Trois. My friends always love it, as do I, and it feels like an authentic L.A.-meets-France experience.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My inspiration and mentor is my father, who died just as our winemaking adventure began. Carl “Babe” Fogelman taught me about the value of, and satisfaction that can come from, hard work. As a young boy working in the family’s wholesaling business in New York City, I watched my father work tirelessly for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and love every minute of it. From loading boxes of toys in his van for delivery, to driving all over the tri-state area to check on customers who owned the old school “5 and 10 cent stores” that the family business catered to, my father loved what he did, woke up happy to go to work, and never complained. He could be tough on me as I worked as a 10 year old, unloading trucks into a dusty warehouse, but his devotion to hard work and his demand for excellence resonated and imprinted itself somewhere inside me. That was the most difficult work I’ve ever had to do through my various jobs and careers, and it set the standard for how I approach winemaking.
Tasting Room shot with flag — credit Cristopher Dibble