At just 15 years old, Sierra Leon native, Marbue Marke attended UC Davis’ Pre-Med program following in the footsteps of several of his family members to become a doctor. He was the first member of his family to relocate to the United States. However, after starting the program, Marbue quickly realized that medicine was not his true calling.
Marbue went on to graduate from UC Davis with a degree in enology, becoming the first person from his country to graduate from the prestigious program. He later earned an M.B.A. from Sonoma State University.
After receiving his degrees, Marbue began his winemaking journey at an impressive selection of Napa and Sonoma wineries including J Winery, Cosentino, Benzinger, and industry giant, EJ Gallo. The culmination of these varying experiences together lead him right where he was meant to be: crafting small lot, ultra-premium wine.
He joined the boutique Napa winery, Italics Winegrowers last year and leads the winemaking program for both the Italics Winegrowers and (Sixteen) Appellations portfolios, with the vision of continuing Italics’ drive to become an industry leader in precision viticulture and estate winegrowing.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Marbue to learn more about his dynamic career in wine, what drew him to Italics Winegrowers and his hopes for the future for this boutique Napa winery. To learn more, read our interview below.
Know your winemaker, know your wine
The Vintner Project (TVP): Did you have an “a-ha!” wine or wine moment – one that made you love wine or inspired you to get into the industry?
Marbue Marke (MM): I drank wine, as opposed to most college students/winemakers, I actually am a consumer and love the taste. So, I chose to study wine for fun! I also realized that I could taste better wines and have much more access as a winemaker. So, I really took my first job for fun. The reality, I always thought I would leave the business and go get a real job. One “a-ha” that did seal my fate was my first harvest, at the end of it, I realized two things that were intrinsically important to me and hooked me 1) It is a team based operation, almost like sports. Except, the team is refreshed every year with interns and seasonal workers. So literally, you are working with a new team every year so to speak. 2) What that new team does or does not do is captured in that bottle. The story of what went on and what was accomplished or not is all in the bottle. Just like a score after a sports game. Pretty Cool!
TVP: From producing highly-regarded boutique wines to creating Barefoot Pinot Grigio, your experience in the wine industry is broad and quite impressive. How have the different roles/responsibilities you’ve had over the years influenced your approach to winemaking today?
MM: It has helped me tremendously, it has given me a lot more perspective and increased my understanding of wine, the industry, and winemaking approach. My philosophy is born out of all those experiences. I am a firm believer/proponent and practitioner of having a clear “wine style” target and the breadth of experience gives me both the knowledge and confidence of what tools/strategies will yield the best results.
TVP: How would you describe your winemaking style in 5 words or less?
MM: My tag line for my consulting is “moving the conversation from wine quality to wine style”. But to answer your question directly, I would say my winemaking style is “wholistic, balanced and precise!” (True Terroir as opposed to terroir that is only vineyard driven, true terroir actually encompasses people and style!)
TVP: What drew you to Italics Winegrowers?
MM: The opportunity to expand my philosophy “winestyle as the next level above quality” into the dirt and expand it all the way through the estate program. Plus it was in Coombsville and a true red Bordeaux focused estate.
TVP: What’s coming on your horizon that you’re most excited about?
MM: I am very excited about getting the 2020 growing season going, with early pruning and improving my vineyard selections for non-estate programs. I feel like I got a lot of good results and learnings and cannot wait to begin applying it to 2020 to take it to another level.
TVP: What are your hopes for the future of Italics Winegrowers?
MM: I hope that we consistently produce wines that are “distinctive”, “reflect the dirt it is grown on”, and most importantly, ENJOYABLE for many!
TVP: With harvest 2019 coming to a close, can you share some of your initial thoughts/predictions for the 2019 vintage at Italics?
MM: I believe a lot of the adjustments and changes we have made in the vineyard and in the winery have been very positive and yielded an impressive diversity of wines. I am very bullish for the 2019 vintage coming from Italics.
TVP: You are well respected within the California Wine Industry and are known for your strong work ethic. What advice would you give young minorities with aspirations of making a name for themselves within the wine industry?
MM: Oh Boy, tough question, obviously generationally is different than when I broke in 22+ years ago and I think it all depends on the aspect of the industry they are in…..but I will say there are a few things I will recommend:
1) Make sure you are very clear what you are signing up for (I believe a lot of people fall in love with the romance when they are visiting, tasting etc. Being in the business is a whole other thing and does have negatives from a career perspective that I do like to caution people before they sign up).
2) See the world, or even the country, the wine industry is larger than Napa/California. Many interesting things are happening all over the world and even within the US.
3) Study and get the necessary qualifications…..be it winemaking degree, MW, MS, or WSET Diploma.
4) Get a good mentor who will be honest and give you good feedback.
5) Start your career with the largest winery in the world (E & J Gallo winery), they have some of the best researchers and subsequently some of the best information.
2017 Placemark Red Blend
A blend of 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 43% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, the 2017 Placemark Red Blend has notes of red fruit, vanilla and hints of floral aromas on the nose. The palate is generous with notes of blueberry, plum, strawberry, cherry, chocolate and spice. The finish is long and memorable. Approachable now but will gain complexity in the years to come.
2016 Weapon X Cabernet Sauvignon
A complex nose of strawberry, cherry, vanilla, chocolate, tobacco and hints of bell pepper. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with loads of plum, strawberry, blackberry, and spice. The finish is persistent with lingering flavors of black fruit and chocolate. A beautiful, well-structured wine built to last. Enjoy now or hold.