The peanut butter to her jelly, the Vaughn to his Duffy

A Sip Wines "Winelight"

Matt Duffy and Sara Vaughn

Valentine’s Day is still a month away, but if you’re brave enough to set foot in a store right now (or if you just need a quick fix from your happy place, which for me is Target), you’d think it was tomorrow. And you know what? That’s just fine with me. With the way things have been going, I’m going to figure out when Arbor Day is and I’m going to decorate the ish out of my house with, like, trees, because any excuse to celebrate anything, am I right?

Actually though, the title for this week’s Sip Wines Winelight didn’t emerge from any kind of eternal spring of celebration, nor have I decorated my house with hearts or watched that terrible movie “Valentine’s Day” that was just trying to be “Love Actually” and failing. (I mean if we’re being totally real, my Christmas tree is still up. Don’t hate.) No, it came straight from the mouth of Matt Duffy, co-founder of Vaughn Duffy Wines, and he was talking about his fellow co-founder and wife, Sara Vaughn. Well, the second part anyway, I added the PBJ part.

Matt and Sara are true first-generation winery owners. If you didn’t get the chance to read my blog post this week on the meaning of being first-generation in the wine industry, I guess I forgive you, but maybe take a look so I don’t have to explain it all again. It basically means being a wine entrepreneur, rather than inheriting or acquiring an existing winery through family or purchase—and that’s Matt and Sara for sure. I love how they contextualize themselves in the wine industry on their website:  

“Vaughn Duffy is now part of the boom of first-generation winemaking families in California. We feel lucky to be living in a time when hard work, creativity and a little help from your friends can trump the need for huge amounts of capital investment. Two kids who didn’t really know any better can now get their wine on the shelf next to the icons who inspired them to make wine in the first place.  We invite you to be a part of the journey ahead.”

Let me tell you, their wine definitely belongs right there on that shelf, because YUM. In all seriousness though, Vaughn Duffy is an incredible example of first-generation success, and should be an inspiration to anyone who wants to pursue a dream.

The whole Vaughn Duffy crew
The whole Vaughn Duffy crew

But how did their journey begin? For Matt, there were two pivotal moments…

It all started with Hunter S. Thompson.

And doesn’t everything? Well, it did for Matt anyway, or at least that’s where his wine story began.

Hang on. I didn’t read my notes carefully enough. Scratch that.

It all started with Uncle Bob.

And doesn’t everything? Well, I don’t personally have an Uncle Bob, but Matt does, and that’s what matters for purposes of our story.  Uncle Bob was a home winemaker, a tasting room manager, AND a wine shop clerk in Paso Robles, a city in California known for its wineries. Matt got the chance to help Uncle Bob with all that early on, which is what sparked his curiosity about wine. A symbolic bite from the wine bug, so to speak.

Ok, THEN came Hunter S. Thompson.

I mean not literally, of course, Hunter S. Thompson was born in 1937 and died in 2005. But in a way, he was the second impetus for Matt to ultimately pursue a career in wine, in that Matt basically thought he was going to be the next HST as an English major at Berkeley. The day he turned in his final paper, he celebrated by going wine tasting in Napa. The experience of having wine mark and enhance such a special moment in his life made him stuck with him.

Then came some regular life stuff.

If I were writing Vaughn Duffy: The Movie, we would jump from Matt’s celebration in Napa to a flashback of HST writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and then Matt would have some kind of transformative moment that led him to an abandoned vineyard where he heard a voice telling him to build it and wine would come. But in real life, Matt’s first job out of college was an elementary school PE instructor. Mad props, I could never deal with all those rugrats, but obviously it wasn’t his ultimate dream either. A few years in, he decided to spend a summer with his aunt and uncle in the town of Murphys, CA. He described it as being “in the middle of the country” and when I looked it up on Google Maps, I can confirm that it is indeed out there.

One day, Matt was wandering through the town of Murphys and walked into a winery called Twisted Oak. He walked out with a job, which he held for the next two years and loved every minute of it. Still, after his second harvest, he realized that he still hadn’t written the next great American novel, nor had he really figured out what he wanted to do with his life. He moved back to the Bay Area, got a job at a wine shop in Sausalito, and…

Then came Vaughn.

Sara Vaughn, of course, and the wine bug bit her too. As soon as she finished grad school, the two of them moved back up to wine country, and Matt got a harvest internship with Siduri Wines—which just so happened to be owned by Adam and Diana Lee, two kids from Texas who moved to CA, bought some grapes from a vineyard, produced an incredibly highly-rated wine, and founded their own winery. From their story, Matt and Sara took away three very important things:

  1. you don’t have to own a vineyard to own a winery;
  2. you don’t have to come from a “wine making family” to make good wine;and
  3. you don’t need to own a vineyard to make world-class wine.

And from there…

[Ok y’all, pay attention because this is the part of the story that 100% embodies the whole idea of being first-generation in wine.]

A bottle of Vaughn Duffy goodness
A bottle of Vaughn Duffy goodness

… they realized that if they wanted to pursue their wine dreams, all they had to do was scrape some cash together, find some good grapes, and find somewhere to make the wine. I don’t know, that still sounds pretty daunting to me, but I get where they were coming from; it’s way more achievable than saving up the money to buy an entire vineyard, for example, and California also has an entire “custom crush” industry that those of us not living in wine country had no idea even existed. A custom crush winery is a facility where individuals can go make very small quantities of wine, even just a single barrel. These wineries typically have their own winemakers and can facilitate in purchasing grapes, as well as providing small business support for anyone who wants to take their crushing a step further.

So, custom crush was their next step, although in their case Matt was able to take his experience and get a job working for a custom crush winery used by 20 different brands. This turned out to be an incredible opportunity, because he was able to observe a myriad of different winemaking styles and draw inspiration from being, as he termed it, a “cellar rat.”

And the rest was history.

It’s entirely possible that I overuse that line, although I don’t use it nearly as often in writing as in my head. It’s just so deliciously melodramatic, but also such an effective writing tool. In this case, it really was: In 2009, Matt and Sara moved on to purchase their first ton of Pinot Noir grapes and produced their first vintage under the Vaughn Duffy label. More followed, they began branching out into other varietals, won some well-deserved awards for their absolutely incredible wines, and now they’re a thriving small-batch label and living the dream.

This is why I’m kind of obsessed with first-generation wineries, and why I think you should absolutely support them by buying some wine. You go to the Sip Wines website, you click on a Vaughn Duffy wine, it looks good, you read some reviews, cool, it’s a nice wine to splurge on--but what you wouldn’t have realized before reading this Winelight is that behind that nice bottle of wine is Matt and Sara, starting with basically no experience, no history in the wine industry, nothing to inherit… just two kids scraping some cash together to fulfill a dream. When you buy their wine, that’s what you’re supporting. And don’t we all want to be supported as we chase our dreams?

The Vaughn Duffy family living the dream
The Vaughn Duffy family living the dream 
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