Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa, Marbue Marke believed he would follow in the footsteps of his mother, uncles, and other family members and become a physician. His grandparents introduced him to wine during traditional Sunday family dinners, which awakened in him a passion that became his calling. As a student at the University of California of California, Davis, which happens to have a world-renowned winemaking program, Marke realized that he did not want to go on to medical school, and he switched his studies to the Department of Viticulture and Enology there.
In addition to his degree from U.C. Davis, Marke has also earned an MBA from Sonoma State University. The list of wineries on his resume, including Cosentino, Benziger, E & J Gallo, and Caldwell Vineyard would be the envy of any aspiring winemaker. Today, in addition to his full-time role overseeing vineyard operations and winemaking at Italics Winegrowers in Napa Valley’s Coombsville AVA, Marke is the consulting winemaker at two highly regarded family-owned operations, the Marston Family in Napa’s Spring Mountain district and Oceano Wines on the extreme west of the San Luis Obispo coast.
With a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Spanish Springs Vineyard in San Luis Obispo, Oceano released its premier vintage, 2016, in 2018. Last year, Oceano produced 12,600 bottles of wine, consisting of 8,220 bottles of Chardonnay and 4,380 bottles of Pinot Noir. Seventy percent of the wine is sold via wholesale distributors to restaurants and retail shops, with 60 percent of that going to restaurants and 40 percent to wine stores. Oceano also has a bustling wine club and online presence, which account for 30 percent of sales made directly to consumers in 42 states.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Marbue Marke about his journey in wine and his work at Oceano.
World Wine Guys: When you were at university, why did you decide to make the switch from studying medicine to studying winemaking?
Marbue Marke: I had finished my junior year at U.C. Davis as a Nutrition Science major and had just completed a summer internship the U.C. Davis Medical Center Orthopedic outpatient clinic. I decided to switch for two reasons. First, from a practical standpoint, I did not react well to the visual and smell of a patients infected staples post knee replacement surgery. Second, from an emotional standpoint it was not what I had envisioned being in the practice of medicine being like, i.e., it was not how I saw my mother and uncles practice medicine.
As for why winemaking, there were several factors that synergistically all happened and were there: I loved wine and drank wine (even though I was not old enough); I was advised by my counselor to find a major focused on something I loved which was food and wine; I was a grill cook at the student commons so a career in food was out which left wine; UC Davis’s Viticulture and Enology department was considered top in the world; [and] I had good grades and a science foundation so switching made too much sense to not do it.
WWG: You come from a family of doctors, including your mother. What was your family’s reaction to your decision to change career paths?
MM: I was surprised my mother did not react with more disappointment. The bigger concern for my family was what career was I going to do instead. Winemaking was not believed to be a lifelong career option. And so, their belief was I will do it for a few years and then get a real professional career. I must point out that not only my family thought that making a career out of winemaking would be challenging, there were other professionals that gave me similar counsel.
WWG: How did you begin working with Rachel Martin and Kurt Deutsch at Oceano?
MM: We were connected by a mutual friend Lucie Morton and after a magical afternoon of tasting 25-plus chardonnays our connection was established and it was a matter of how we were going to make it work, not if.
Specifically, Rachel had a pretty clear vision of what she was trying to achieve, and it melded perfectly with my philosophy of beginning with a wine style. With that in hand it was about matching the vineyard, clones and winemaking to the goal.
WWG: How do the growing conditions of the Spanish Spring Vineyard contribute to the flavor profile of Oceano Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?
MM: For the Chardonnay, the combination of soil and cooler temperatures aids in achieving our target of higher acidity and the fresher flavor profile that is more citrus fruit driven as opposed to tropical fruit. However, I would add that the specific clones of chardonnay selected have a significant impact on the flavor profile.
For the Pinot Noir, the soil and climate play a similar role. The cooler temperatures make for a slower ripening curve which aids in capturing ripe flavors without being overripe and losing freshness. Additionally, the soils on the hillsides where the Pinot Noir are planted are naturally inhibiting resulting in better cluster uniformity and vine balance. This allows for a precise picking window.
WWG: You have worked at some very high-profile wineries in various capacities in your career. What piece of knowledge or experience did you take from each that helps contribute to your winemaking today?
MM: I have been very blessed in that I have learned a lot along the way and the lessons build on each other. So, I will highlight the big ones. Early on in my career with Cosentino Winery, I got a lot of practice blending as it was the house philosophy. I learned organization and began my journey into barrel experimentation with R.H. Phillips. At Benzinger Family Winery, the lessons of “farming for flavors” and [that] the winery-vineyard are just as important a part of terroir as grapes live within me today. At Gallo, I gained a broader perspective and deeper understanding of the winemaking process. At Caldwell Vineyard, barrel expertise, CS clones, and I fell in love with the Bordeaux Science Agro approach to wine education. At Marston Family Vineyard, I am able to fully apply my philosophy and approach and thus learn from the results.