“IN THE PAST I WAS STILL AWAKE AT 5AM, NOW I AM AWAKE AGAIN.”
You can hardly imagine a more radical break in a biography, as that from a DJ and musician to a wine maker. Marcin Oz carried that out in 2014 and in the process he left behind the bass in Whitest Boy Alive and the turntables as DJ Highfish, just to start anew on Sicily. Together with the local farmers Sergio and Marco Mazzara he organically cultivates seven hectares of land with 26,000 vines and therefore a winery with a potential of 50,000 bottles per year.
Kaput met with him to talk about his radical change of lifestyle, the new life of a worker on Sicily and ”Halleluja”.
Marcin, let’s just start at the very beginning: How did it come to you moving to Sicily, and did this happen with the idea of becoming a wine maker in mind?
Erlend, the singer of Whitest Boy Alive, did discover this place in 2008. He and his mum had made friends there and visited regularly and talked about it a lot, about how beautiful that place was. I couldn’t understand that: To me, Sicily was the island, that you visited when you were old. I wasn’t interested in that.
At one point he had the idea to buy a house there. That seemed crazy to me, because I couldn’t understand why there exactly. When he finally had the keys I decided to visit him. It was on 10 March 2012 and the worst storm in 15 years impacted Sicily. I thought: Oh, that’s what it’s like here in March. Although everything was locked up: the schools were closed down and no one dared to leave their houses. After the storm cleared, I really liked it a lot.
The band still existed back then?
Yes, that was still the time of Whitest Boy Alive. We were performing together and still had our label Bubbles – although that still exists, Erlend’s solo album has been released on it recently. But I visited Erlend one week per month on Sicily to work, in the summer even three weeks at a time. After half a year I started looking for a vacation home in the old city of Syracuse.
How did the progress to becoming a wine maker come about?
That happened because of common friends of Erlend and I. They are enthusiastically operating a huge organic lemon farm with the best and finest lemons you can find. When you see that, you immediately believe, that farming is the optimum. We absolutely wanted to do something together and deliberated what that might be. There was this winery that their family owned had owned for the past fifteen years, and that no one had the time and energy for. Up until then it was just the fathers hobby. In the beginning they did just sell the grapes – until the price dropped too low. Then they started making wine and selling it to the big wine makers, who sold it in their own names. And when the price for that dropped too low they started selling their own wine in 1 litre plastic bottles for the local market as table wine. That’s common in Italy.
This all sounds so trivial, but you need actual skills to make wine?
That’s true. The wine that they used to produce back then, was already excellent, it just was bottled in plastic: it’s called ”vino sfuso”, which means ”bulk wine”. Wie are an organic company, and our wine would have no chance on the sfuso market, the production is to expensive. People who buy wine in plastic bottles just check the price, if it’s organic or not doesn’t interest them one bit.
And then you came into play and at first changed it all up?
It was important to me, to produce the wine completely on our own. The cultivation of the land from pruning the grape vines to the harvest, to the vinification, to the storage and the bottling: ”Everything under one roof”. At first me and our agronomist and oenologist got the field to the level that I wanted, and then I had a wine cellar built with refrigerated stainless steel tanks, press, pump, destemming machine and everything that is needed for the vinification. Together with the guys and the oenologist we developed a line for our facility and then decided to start off with fresh, young wines. That means without maturing in oak barrels. Our first wine, called ”Halleluja”, matures for 6 months in the bottle before it is being released in September. This is early for a Syrah from Sicily, but I dig fruit and freshness of young wines. The Grillo and Nero d’Avola followed this May.
Was the change from your life as a musician in Berlin to a wine maker in Syracuse really hard for you?
One thing that hasn’t changed is being awake at 5 am – in the past I was still awake, now I am already up. People here start working early in the mornings on the fields, especially in the summer time, because you can’t handle the heat after 11 am. Besides that everything is different. Everybody reaches the point where he has to start something new – and I reached that point. I was done with the music business!
You mean by that, you got everything you could out of your life as a musician?
I think so. I wanted to do something completely different. I wanted to get out of Berlin. I had the best time I could have in Berlin, the only way way down there. Sicily has been an adventure that I didn’t want to miss. To be honest: farming on Sicily, and especially wine, the cultivated plant with the highest requirements – that sounded to tempting not to risk it.
What do the other band members think about what you are doing here?
They all dig it. I generally get only positive feedback from all the people surrounding me. Erlend is an important supporter and helps me where he can.
Whitest Boy Alive have never been one of those careerist bands who acted calculated and pandered to the market. You only released music if it felt right to you. The music always had to meet your requirements.
The main reason why we decided to stop making music was that we had said everything that we wanted to say. We didn’t write anything new, anything important anymore. And that was when it became clear to us, that we had to take a break at that point.
How long did it take you until got taken seriously by the locals?
The economical situation of Sicily is complicated: There isn’t much work, a lot is rather destroyed and the people can’t really deal with the money from the EU, they are a bit incompetent in that regard. That’s why they wonder what someone like me wants there. Germany is like the holy land for them, there is work there, and many Sicilians have been there to work. If someone from Germany moves to Sicily and starts a project there, than he is either crazy or very intelligent. Probably rather crazy. They respect me, some of them call me ”Il Tedesco” (the German), because they can’t remember my name.
Did you ever have doubts throughout?
I managed to conquer all doubts. It will take a couple more years to see if it has been a good idea. It was a real struggle in the beginning.
This all sounds as if your life on Sicily is very much defined by work. You don’t catch much of the steadily good weather and the laisser-faire lifestyle, I guess.
In a small business like ours, you are living in a constant rat race. In January you start on the field, in March last years wines are bottled, over summer you work on the vines, treatments at the right moments, in September the harvest follows, vinification, the work in the wine cellar, at the same time the wine gets on the market and has to be sold. It never stops. Only in July there is less to do, but starting in August you have to prepare the next grape harvest.
The wine that you brought with you, is that the first one that you are responsible for?
No, that will be released in the course of 2016. This is the best wine that we got in our cellar. I worked with an oenologist on it, and bottled it. It’s our first wine as Vini Campisi.
Marcin, let’s talk about the economical side of this. You’ve mentioned earlier that a good quality year will yield 50,000 bottles of wine. That sounds like a quantity that will make a functioning business to me.
Even if we sell everything well – which will be hard in the beginning – I won’t be able make a living! The reason for this are the high initial investments into the cellar and the field, which have to amortize in the first place. Farming has a high risk everywhere, because you are so contingent on the vagaries of nature. It depends so much from the year and how it runs. Something can always go wrong, during the pressing of the grapes, during storage, a pest infestation on the field can substantially ruin your fun and then the money that you have earned is gone in no time.
As always I started without a business plan, my motto was: just do it, the money will follow someday. If I had someone calculate everything for me, the result would have been frightening. You can’t look at the numbers too much when you are fulfilling your dreams.
How many people are involved in the process?
We are three people at Vini Campisi. Marco and Sergio brought the field, I take care of the rest. Our oenologist, Michele Bean, and the agronomist are external consultants. Then there’s Paolo in the office and Dario in the wine cellar.
In addition to that there is the pool of workers that join us to work on the field: we were four people to prune the vines, and 16 during harvest, three to four men work constantly on the field.
As you immediately started out as a partner, does that mean that you made a decision for the life of wine maker in the long run?
I guess I have to persevere for a couple of years until I know if this has a future.
Well, your new life on Sicily isn’t completely different from that as a musician, as you have indicated earlier.
There are a lot of parallels to the music world and my time in the band. An album is also a process of two, three years. Our last album, that we didn’t produce in the end, took us seven years. Making wine takes at least 1.5 years, while working a bit in the dark, without knowing what you’ll get in the end. An eternity in which something can go wrong in every moment.
Another similarity are the processes in the studio, once the songs are done: You need a bottle, a label and a box – cover and artwork. And than you release the wine on the market and after that you will get feedbacks and a sense if people like it, if it’s something for a niche or for everyone. That reminds me a lot of the feelings I got after we released an album. There is one advantage: No one can download your wine for free.
Who did design the bottle?
Willem Strattman of StudioAnti, a very talented designer from Berlin and a good friend of mine. I invited him to come to Syracuse for a week and brainwashed him.
You took the title of your debut wine from Leonard Cohen: “Halleluja”.
Every wine that we will make will have musical names. Two new wines are lined up for 2016: “The Cure” and “Red Red Wine”.
Let us talk about distribution now. After you have worked so hard for a whole year and completed this intense physical labor – and then everything starts all over again. Is distribution one of your functions in the company? How do you approach that? Right now you are working in your old home Berlin where you know a lot of people. But then you have to do the same for Italy and everywhere else.
Yeah, sale is a world of its own. I’m just starting to get my first experiences with direct distribution. Although I’m on the road with a wine that’s been ready since September of 2015. It’s the Syrah 2013 (“Halleluja”).
Two new labels will follow in 2016: a 100% Nero d’Avola (“Red Red Wine”) and a Grillo (“The Cure”), both vintage 2015 and ready to drink since April.
I don’t enjoy sale as much, although it’s really great to drink wine with my restaurant-friends here in Berlin. I know a lot of people from back in the days, and those who are not making music have bars or restaurants. But after I have exhausted all my private contacts I will need a professional distributer.
This also sounds like the traditional way just as we know it from the music history. Techno artists from Detroit initially sold their records directly at Hard Wax and then EFA Distribution took up that function.
How do you approach the pricing policy? I assume that you love the wine…
That’s complicated. If you buy it directly from us in Syracuse then wine costs 8 €. If someone in Berlin buys 100 bottles from us, than he can get it for a price lower than 10 € including sales tax. It’s a lot of penny pinching. You got your price for the wine directly from the cellar, than you have to add transport and delivery costs. Then there are the intermediaries who adds 100%, the restaurant adds another 300 to 500 %. So it’s very important where you start with the price so that the retail price is still acceptable. A couple of cents difference in the beginning account for a lot in the restaurant.
Following this price chain the wine will be on restaurant menus for about 30 €. This poses the question if the wine can keep up for that price.
Yes, it can. Our growing region isn’t called Buonivini without reason and with Michele Bean as oenologist I’m assured that we can keep up.
I’m sure about one thing now that I know what it costs to produce a good wine: 5€-wines from the supermarket can’t be good!
How many bad harvests can you afford? How long can you keep up? At least life Sicily is affordable.
We started with a good vintage in 2015. It is said, that even vintages turn out better, so we hope for a great year 2016. Life is as affordable as it’s in Berlin. Rent is cheap, food as well, especially as I know a lot of farmers that produce great foods which is why I don’t have to pay for vegetables. I am leading a modest life and hardly spend any money. The car is relatively expensive and it takes me an hour to the field.
Which is really hard at 5 am.
Yeah, it wakes you up! You are constantly in transit and therefore are using a lot of gas. The insurance is expensive as well. I’m paying nearly 1000 € per year for my tiny car.
But coming back to your question: I’m under pressure. But I have got a positive attitude – it already went well for more than a year.
Do you miss making music?
Absolutely. What I’m not missing is having to record an album in the studio under pressure. But I miss playing live a lot. Sadly I don’t have time for that anymore.
Marcin, one last question: If you had known how ward the beginning would be, would you have taken this step?
I’ve never asked myself that question. I’m surprised by it. I don’t know how to answer it. I might have be overwhelmed, but I would do it all over again – everything has been amazing up until now.
Ask me again in six months. Right now I have to handle the commercial aspects of it and fill the people with enthusiasm for our wind.
In general I have to say that from all the things that I’ve done the wine is the one that’s got the most of myself in it. The band was a product of four people, the label me and Erlend. As DJ I was on the road a lot by myself, but also with Diringer. That’s not comparable to the sweat and the physical work and the many sleepless nights I’ve invested in the wine. It was a lot of stress, but it feels so good. Of all the things that I made I best can sell the wine. It really is my baby.
Six month later.
Marcin, what would your answer be today: Would you do it all over again?
Yes, I would take up this challenge and give my best again.
You can report a great success with the distribution by now: You placed your wines for three years at Viani Food. Tell me how that happened and what it means for your work.
Zeit Magazin released a mini feature on “Halleluja” in Dezember of 2015. Somehow the issue endend in Remo Viani’s hand, he’s an importer for Italian delicatessen. He wondered why a Sicilian wine is called “Halleluja” and not “Don Alfonso”. He contacted my via facebook and asked if he could visit us. A couple of days later I welcomed him for lunch at Sergio’s place and we liked each other. We tested the wines from the plastic bottles and he took samples from the barrels back to Göttingen.
A couple of days later he offered us to work together and announced that he wanted to take part in the bottling. This became kind of a party with friends, music and food. Viani now is our exclusive importer and distributer for Germany and our wines can be purchased directly through Viani.
Translation by Denise Oemcke