Oreana Winery: Christian Garvin’s Path to the Urban Wine Trail

Originally published Oct. 7, 2010 in The Daily Sound.

It’s the daily challenges of entrepreneurship that keep Christian Garvin fired up about his business, downtown’s Oreana winery (205 Anacapa St.). At one moment, he’s breaking apart a wooden crate to fashion a makeshift leg so the new (used) dishwasher can be installed. The same night, he could be pouring at a high-end restaurant, showcasing his wines for the culinary elite. While thinking of a winery, especially in this part of the state, is likely to invoke images straight out of the movie ‘Sideways,’ the urban wineries of downtown Santa Barbara have a flavor all their own, and can prove every bit as enjoyable as taking a trip to the greener north.

“When you are in the wine country of Santa Ynez—or anywhere—you are getting a very dedicated, specific kind of customer. They are going wine tasting,” said Garvin. “In downtown Santa Barbara, we get people who literally just stumble across us. They might not even know they like wine.”

Garvin has an excellent perspective on how he and his peers on the “Urban Wine Trail” hold up against the wineries slightly to the north of us. After all, he co-founded Los Olivos’ Kahn Winery with Andrew Kahn in 1996.

Neither of the former UCSB classmates, according to Garvin, had studied anything remotely related to the wine business. But Kahn had been working for Fess Parker Winery and had made several barrels of wine that he wanted to sell under his own label. He approached Garvin to help him with the business end of things. Garvin quickly threw his lot in with Kahn.

“It was a lot cooler than where I was working—the Mobile station on Mission Street,” he told the Daily Sound. Garvin was actually holding several jobs at the time, bartending and waiting tables among them, so he was already learning a bit about the area’s growing wine scene. Kahn helped him get a job at Fess Parker as well, as a bottling mechanic, and the two worked for that winery by day and their own project when off duty.

“We were able to take part of our salary in grapes or barrels,” Garvin shared. They were also able to salvage some of the winery’s castoffs. “We’d say, ‘that’s still good, we’ll take that.’  We had no money; no family money, no trust fund. Most people in the wine business made their money somewhere else. We were both 22, and just had passion.”

Together, Kahn and Garvin grew that side business into a winery that’s still standing today. One of the key ingredients to the Kahn Winery’s success, according to Garvin, was unexpectedly getting Frank Sinatra family’s blessing to create a tribute wine shortly after the famed singer’s death in 1998.

“We wrote a letter to the Sinatra family. We started making the wine anyway, figuring we’d never hear from them, and just use it for a small wine club we had,” said Garvin.  Six months later, the Sinatra family’s lawyer called and worked out a deal to bring the tribute wine to market–or, as Garvin said, “They took pity on us.”

The “Cabernet Frank,” a cabernet franc, premiered in 2000 and included a label that was taken from a self-portrait that Sinatra himself had painted. The wine, and the winery, received much attention and the business took off.

“Seven years went by in the blink of an eye,” Garvin shared. “We had about a dozen employees; revenues of $1 million–no profits, but revenues of $1 million; a tasting room . . . and I was a little burned out. By that time we had a board of directors, and things weren’t really the way we’d planned from the beginning. It was good,” he admitted, “but eventually one of the board members wanted to buy me out because he wanted to be more involved.”

Garvin accepted, and began his next chapter. He considered buying a laundromat, then a downtown bar, but circumstance and business sense led him back to wine.

“What I learned is that, in general, if you’re trying to find investors to start a business, they really like you to already have experience in that business. They want to invest in what you’ve proven you can do.”

In the case of Oreana, Garvin says “the facility created the business model.” A frequent visitor to the “Funk Zone” to visit Red’s Café (now Red’s Wine Bar), Garvin couldn’t help but notice a nearby space for lease.

“The parking lot was cracked,” he said, “the building was an ugly brown; the doors were bashed in; the windows were all cracked or broken. But it was for lease and I kept thinking ‘that could be a winery.'”

Santa Barbara Winery and Jaffurs were the only other downtown wineries at the time. Garvin says that seeing Jaffurs successfully open its downtown location proved to him that another downtown winery, in addition to the venerable Santa Barbara Winery, could work. And seeing visitors to the nearby Santa Barbara Winery (literally across the street) use his future site for overflow parking made him realize there was preexisting customer base in the form of foot traffic.

While Garvin’s label was known as Oreana “from day one,” at first, he the business location was known as “Cellar 205” (being at 205 Anacapa Street). The space was shared by other winemakers, who would also share equipment. The tasting room would pour and sell all tenants’ wine.

“It was mainly me and Ryan Carr, from Carr Winery. A lot of people thought we were partners, but it was my lease and I was sub-leasing. It’s a very common practice up in the valley,” Garvin said. “It worked. We both grew; after three harvests, Ryan found his [current location], and I filled up the remaining space here.”

At present, Oreana makes about 8,000 cases per year at the Santa Barbara facility. Oreana also leases space in Paso Robles, where the winery makes its wines for Trader Joe’s: “?” and “Happy Face”; about 40,000 cases of those two wines combined. The winery also sells to Costco; makes private-label wines for restaurants, including higher-end restaurants; and has a presence in 17 states. The business employs four full-time managers and generally five part-time staff working in the tasting room. Now in its seventh year, the business has grown to include hosting events and live music, notably an appearance by Jefferson Starship last April, which benefitted the Unity Shoppe.

For Garvin, who grew up in Long Island, New York, the entrepreneurial spirit may be hereditary. Many of his extended family ran restaurants. One of the key lessons he learned was that “it’s tough to be in business for yourself,” having witnessed some strained familial relationships and financial hardships.  But the once entrepreneurial bug bit Garvin, it didn’t let up. He’s started other businesses, among them “Fat Tape” — a product available at home improvement centers, which is simply double-wide duct tape. A simple idea, available in two colors and backed up by some of the funniest copywriting around (top uses for Fat Tape, according to the label, include “hostage crisis,” “chatty neighbors,” and “spacecraft”). The sense of humor permeates the Oreana product line as well, with notably funny descriptions on some of the wine labels.

“If you go to ChristianGarvin.com, you’ll find links to all my bizarre little enterprises,” he joked.  He tossed out a few examples beyond the Fat Tape, including Manatee Merlot (the charity offshoot of Oreana which sells wine in support of that endangered species), and the “fried fried egg.” This deep-fried fried egg was something Garvin had long pondered, only to discover it was “terrible” when he finally made it.

The name “Oreana,” according to Garvin, is an old ranching term he found in a book. It refers to an “unbranded calf that wanders onto your ranch,” he said. “So it’s kind of like found treasure, or good luck.”

But even as he’s subtly attributing some of his achievements to mere fortune, Garvin’s pattern of success, and the ease with which he boils down the wisdom earned through experience, characterize him as a serial entrepreneur, full of ideas and wit, and one who is not afraid to take a chance. Not to mention one that makes some top-notch wine, which earns both new and repeat business.

“Business is continually up 10% or 15% per year, as more people learn about the place through word of mouth, and repeat customers come back,” Garvin said. “That’s the best, when people come back. Makes me feel like we’re doing the right thing.”


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