Cameron Porter was sitting at his desk in East Hollywood at a label called Plug Research, then home to crazy musical geniuses like Flying Lotus and Daedelus. He’d moved down to LA from Santa Maria in 2004, a humble, quietly brilliant guy chasing culture, running from Republicans and a childhood spent doing things like tending to his dad’s orchids. Sure, his dad was a hip guy—not many 50-year-old dudes in the ‘burbs were listening to Doggie Style and The Chronic—but Santa Maria itself rejected culture. It was white. It bled red. Cameron couldn’t wait to get the hell out.
So here he was in the City of Angels, a nerd surrounded by “all these cool weird guys who dressed like I did in kindergarten, you know like Velcro shoes, Izod shirts, this weird fashion sense.” (For the record, Cameron’s aunt was a sales rep for Izod, hence the funky threads.) Flying Lotus had been at J Dilla’s deathbed for days as his friend battled lupus and a rare blood disease. That friend, at only thirty-two, was already one of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time, having cut his teeth with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo and Common. Three days earlier, Dilla had released his seminal album Donuts. On February 10, 2006, he succumbed to cardiac arrest.
Daedelus walked into the office.
“Yeah, man. Dilla passed.”
Cameron moved back north in 2008. The place he’d fled was now home again. But things had changed. Farmers were suddenly discussing the nuances of different wine and food pairings. There was culture beyond agriculture. Sideways had thrown Santa Barbara County on the silver screen and tourists were flocking in droves.
The people who lived there were changing, too. Santa Maria was now majority Mexican.
It’s November 2016, the day before the election. We’re sitting across from Cameron in the infamous café where Paul Giamatti taught everyone to hate Merlot, trying to remember a time before Trump was telling everyone to hate Mexicans. The clock is ticking.
Cameron’s wife Marlen is first generation born and raised. Her grandfather came to the US from Oaxaca in the 60s to pick grapes. The American guy who recruited him took an instant liking to him and sponsored him for citizenship. He’s been here ever since. Mar, one of his twenty-one grandchildren, met Cameron at a house party eleven years ago, when they realized they were both into the same music and wine.
She’s the reason he moved back here. Along with a desire to redeem Merlot.
The soil had been light but dense with clay. We’d felt gravel and sand underfoot as well, stepping to avoid stray golf balls amid the graveyard of grapes that weren’t ripe enough to pick at harvest. The vineyard was just across the way from the Alisal River Course in Solvang, a faux-Danish town straight out of Westworld.
(“I’m secretly a robot,” Cameron whispered.)
Cut back to Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café. We’re eating fries in the room where Paul Giamatti started huffing and puffing before storming out the door. Pop culture really does work wonders in times of stress. We’ve put down our phones to avoid the mounting shitstorm of national news. Cameron is playing his part, intent on distracting us from the dire situation at hand, like any good host on Westworld.
Cameron : Growing up in Santa Maria it was this conservative town, almost anti-culture in a way. It was all about big agriculture. Wine really changed all that, which was what made me initially fall in love with it. Stuff had been happening since the 70s and 80s, but it was really starting to reach a critical mass right [before I left for LA]. Suddenly you could actually make a living doing it. My first passion was music, but the music business was going in the opposite direction.
Glou Glou : Well that explains the overlap. You were saying J Dilla was such an inspiration to you in terms of sampling. That was the whole idea — improvising with what you have.
Cameron : Yeah and he was the guy that figured out how to make it sound human, you know? Which was essentially like, MadLib talks about it — J Dilla was the first person to turn the quantize off. So you have these weird wonky off-kilter drums, almost like a real human being would play. It seems like such an obvious thing, but no one had done it before. And with Voodoo, Questlove talks about Dilla getting him to play loose. Questlove is so in the pocket. Sooo on time. And so with wine, in a way you’re a producer — I mean you are a producer — but like a producer in the studio. Almost. With grapes. You’re the one who’s shaping that sound and training it into what it’s going to become.
Glou Glou : Yet there are only so many things you can control when it comes to wine. You have the earth, you have grapes, and that’s what you have to work with. At the end of the day, what comes from the ground comes from the ground. With music, you listen to a song and you know who played on it, but when you drink something, you’re like, it came from this place, this soil, that year, there was this climate…there are so many nuances you can tap into that make the universe of wine much more complex.
Cameron : At the same time I think there’s almost a dehumanization of wine, where it’s been made to be all about the vineyard, all about the land. I think the human element gets lost in wine. But to me — if you want to make the classical comparison — if the vineyard’s that sheet of music, the way you play that is so different from person to person, the way you choose to interpret it. And to me that’s really what makes a wine great. Is that you get that winemaker’s personality and the heart and soul that went into that bottle. And choosing what to amplify at a given time — amplify wines dot com — [laughs]
Not everything is going to be out there and weird. Our Merlot is very classic. That’s really just what the site is asking for.
Glou Glou : Demands, yeah. We talked about technique erasing that sometimes. Like with carbonic maceration [in which the juice ferments inside the grape, leading to fruity, low tannin wine] where you just taste the technique. And you’re not amplifying anything but the technique.
Cameron : It’s the same thing, yeah. There are good practitioners of it and bad. With Overnoy Poulsard [Pierre Overnoy is the OG in France’s Jura] you taste a very strong sense of place and sense of self. Even though it’s partially carbonic. Or a lot of the great Beaujolais producers. Whereas the other stuff just tastes like bubble gum. It’s knowing how to use those tools, when to, how to. I don’t claim to be some expert genius winemaker. I’m just doing stuff that’s intuitive and what in our experience thus far has worked.
Cameron : We used to make fun of all the producers who were just knocking off Dilla. All these guys who were like, turn your quantize off and make beats. Flying Lotus was one of the few who was really truly doing something different. The guy I always really liked was Carlos Niño. He had a group called Build An Ark which was really good – reminded me of old Archie Shepp, soulful jazz vibe that no one had tried to bring back. Life Force Trio was one of his things. People were just getting into Dilla in a big way, talking about it a lot more.
Glou Glou : Tends to happen when someone dies.
Cameron : Yeah. It was a crazy time. We shared the office with a radio station called dublab, which always had cool artists.
Glou Glou : Gladly.
Being in LA, what drove you to come back?
Cameron : A lot of it was Mar. We were dating long distance two and a half years —she’d been up here the whole time. And then there was a desire to make wine. What interests me in any art form…I always want to make it. It’s hard for me to be a casual observer, just enjoy it. So I wanted to make it. You can’t really do that in LA. I came back up here — everything I thought I would never do, like work in agriculture.
Glou Glou : Your 14-year-old self is cringing right now.
Cameron : Yeah, haha. Certainly growing up I was always like, I can’t wait to get out of Santa Maria. Never coming back here, ya know? I think you also find, when you go out in the world, it’s not like LA is that much more special or different. You go somewhere to find yourself and there you are. You’re the same person. So I really enjoyed the cultural aspects of being in LA, the cuisine and things to do, but to me rather than retreating from somewhere…how do you make it better?
Cameron : This is your home. What do you do to improve it and the community you live in? So I always think about when people are like, if Trump becomes president I’m moving to Canada. If that happened, wouldn’t you wanna really stay and fight and make things better? So I think that’s kind of my view of Santa Maria.
Glou Glou : That Trump already became president.
Cameron : It is. Yeah. [laughs]
—Los Olivos, California. November 7, 2016