Cameron and Marlen Porter of Amplify Wines are a husband and wife winemaking duo unlike any other. The pair have worked in just about every facet of the industry, from winemaking in the cellars to consulting at wineries and restaurants.
But creating good wine comes from passion, and for the Porters, that passion thrives on creativity as well as their appreciation for music.
Though the Santa Barbara natives had known each other through the industry, it was at a house party in Los Angeles that they first bonded over their love for Prince. Cameron, now an advanced sommelier and former estates manager at Presqu’ile Winery, was working in the music industry when he became interested in wine. “Marlen and I were already doing the long-distance thing and I became more interested in the process of winemaking, so I decided to make the move back.” But if you ask Marlen, she deserves the credit for Cam’s return. “I brought him back,” she says laughing, “Well, me and the wine.”
Having come from a background in hospitality and winery events, Marlen was well versed in classic wine styles. “While Cam was studying for the [Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Sommelier Examination] we tasted a lot of wine,” she says. “That’s when we began to fall in love with wines produced with Old World techniques.”
With a taste for bottles that were balanced, complex, interesting, lively, and fun, the pair set out to create the kind of wines they loved to drink in the area that raised them. In 2013, they launched Amplify Wines.
Today, the winery produces roughly 3,000 cases per year, has a thriving wine club, and a successful nonprofit organization that provides industry opportunities to young minorities. With each vintage, they continue to push the envelope in winemaking while creating space for new generations of BIPOC winemakers. However, at its core, Amplify is about Cam and Marlen’s passion to create interesting wines that bring people together over good vibes –– just like music.
1. Music seems to be a big part of Amplify wines, can you tell me a little about why that is?
Cameron: Music was the first thing that we bonded over. We were actually at a house party where we danced all night to Prince when we realized our love for the artist — it sparked everything. Being musicians ourselves and having grown up around music, it was our first love. But along with that passion was the connection that we saw with wine and music. We saw a lot of parallels and often thought of a vineyard as a set of notes, with the winemaker as the producer or composer.
Marlen: Exploring different types of music is very similar to exploring wine. For example, you begin with one album and it leads you to another artist. Wine is similar; you start with one wine and want to dive deeper into what you like. And this is very similar to the way we approach our winemaking style. We are in sync when it comes to making wine, and our desire to be creative and create wines that live outside the box is because of music. It’s been a thread in our winemaking and journey in wine.
2. When did you decide to make the shift to winemaking?
C: We were drinking a lot of high-acid wines [made with grapes] that were picked earlier and aged in no new oak. Instead, the wines were driven by terroir, expressing the character where they were grown. We hadn’t seen that made locally, and we had a desire to make those kinds of wines in our area.
M: When we had our son in 2015, we started to realize that this could be more than a passion project. We were fortunate to find good distributors and the right people to connect us in order to help Amplify grow. Within the first two years, we had distribution in New York and Los Angeles. By 2015, we were in other large cities like Chicago, and we thought, ‘Wow, we can really do this, be our own bosses.’ For me as a mother, that was important. Being in the wine industry as a woman can be hard, especially when you have children. You don’t have the same flexibility in your schedule, so when I was able to work full time on Amplify and be home with my son, that was the shifting moment for me.
3. What was the hardest part?
C: (Laughing) Money.
M: The last two years have been challenging. Up until 2020, Cameron was still working at the winery, but when the pandemic hit and the whole world shut down, so did all the restaurants and distributors. That was the scariest part, being completely independent with no other income coming in. But from those hard times came good times and a new mindset. We shifted how we ran our business and thought more about where our focus needed to be. In that time we started our nonprofit wine club Natural Action, and began focusing on our direct-to-consumer base. It may have been tough, but it’s been a great learning experience, navigating what the wine industry [now] looks like.
4. How was your first winemaking experience?
C: It was pretty smooth. We were trying things that other people around us weren’t, but it was exciting. The first vintage we made was Carignan, for which we used carbonic maceration. The process is a popular one now, but when we started doing it nine years ago, there was maybe only one other winemaker doing it locally. At that time, we were also producing at traditional winemaking facilities. Next, we made a Viognier, and for that wine, we wanted to foot-crush the grapes to macerate the skins a bit before pressing the juice off without using any sulfur. These were techniques that we loved, but everyone around us was telling us not to get too creative.
M: That’s literally what was said to us! We were fortunate enough that we were able to make wine at our friend’s facility for the first three years. But we knew where we were headed; to Cam’s credit, he was so well versed in Old World winemaking practices that even though I wasn’t as familiar, I had full trust [in him]. We weren’t completely blind. And the exciting thing, especially with the Carignan, was it became exactly what we wanted. The color was a little freaky, more like a rosé, but that really gave us the courage to explore and try [making] wines in different ways. And that’s kind of been our philosophy, like how can we make you think about it and make it be an Amplify-made wine.
5. Amplify has a variety of styles, from the CA Mixtape Red, the Subliminal red in the Bordeaux family, and Mediterranean styles. How did this degree of variation come to be?
C: The diverse climate and soil of Santa Barbara County. The mountains here are transverse, running east to west and opening up directly to the ocean, and it’s actually pretty unique, because it’s the only region on the West Coast that is oriented that way. By the ocean, there’s a cooler climate; every mile east you go, it’s almost one degree warmer. So within that 30-mile valley, you can grow a lot of different grapes. We work with about 16 different grapes in a vintage, and making wine naturally allows a lot more flexibility when blending. The fact that we’re making these non-traditional blends says something new and expresses something that there’s not necessarily a classic analog for. Aside from that, it’s just a lot of fun.
6. What was the driving force behind creating natural wines?
M: Cameron’s blind tasting really sparked our interest in natural wines. When we started Amplify, we decided to use native yeast fermentation and neutral vessels for fermentation and aging. At that time, this was a fairly new idea in our area, and our industry friends were shocked to hear we were going in the direction of native [also known as natural] wines. We just happened to do it at the right time, when people started noticing and drinking them in California.
7. How do you choose the names and artwork and how important is that to the process of developing the perfect bottle?
C: It’s extremely important. We wanted to make fun wines and have labels that express our personalities just as well as the wines. Our graphic designer is actually our best friend, so for that, we’re very grateful! He was the reason why we met, and has worked with us from the beginning. He designed our logo and our labels with the exception of two of our wines.
8. How do you feel your voices are encouraging diversity within the wine space?
C: To my knowledge, we’re the only winery in the U.S. owned by an indigenous Latino woman, which is cool for people to see. I think it’s a great example to see all that Marlen has done in the wine industry. In 2020, we also started a nonprofit called Natural Action which is devoted to creating job opportunities, internships, and scholarships for the BIPOC community. Kahlil Kinsey, who owns the Kinsey collection, is among the seven board members. So it’s not just about creating more diversity in the wine industry, it’s also about educating our customers about Black art.
M: It’s been exciting being part of this program. Initially, we planned to raise funds to give to colleges, but it’s really grown well beyond that. I’m super excited about the internship programs! We realized the disconnect between the BIPOC community and the wine industry was rooted in the lack of opportunities available. With Natural Action, we’re building that bridge and creating a community of people that can be more like mentors for the next generation that want to get into the industry.
9. What do you think the future holds for natural wine?
C: It’s growing, I don’t think it will stop growing. With Natural Action, we send natural wines to members — it’s been fun to educate them on natural wine. These days, people are a lot more aware of who is making the wine, where it comes from, and who’s farming. That’s exciting.
M: For Amplify, we want to continue exploring what grape varieties make the most sense for our area. We’ve actually recently started working with a vineyard that is a couple of hours north of us. Moving into more of a mentorship role is important, too; we’ve had such great mentors and have gotten enough experience now where we want to be that voice to the next generation of winemakers.
10. Last but not least, what are you listening to right now?
M: We were never into records, but during the pandemic, Cameron’s dad gave us his record collection, so we’ve been revisiting our favorites on vinyl. Currently, on rotation, we have J Dilla Donuts and the Smiths. I’m a lot more nostalgic, but Cameron’s always pushing me to branch out. He’s all about the new artists.
C: I always want the new sh*t, something that’s going to excite me. I love anything that Larry June does and a lot of older jazz and older funk. I’m just as — if not more than — obsessed with music as wine.