Thursday, June 25, 2009

Syncline Wine Cellars

I hate to name drop, so I won't. Let me say this, one night, about 3 years ago, a pretty famous and cultish Oregon and Washington winemaker was out to dinner with the management team of my former employer. We asked him who was he most excited about in Washington right now. He said 1 name that we already knew and coveted (and ended up getting) and 2 more producers we'd never heard of. One of those was Syncline (otherwise this is a stupid story). So we reached out for James and Poppie Mantone to try the wines. We were all immediately smitten. Syncline crafts Rhone varietals in Columbia Valley. This is turning into one of my favorite regions for these types of wines.
Columbia Valley Syrahs have this Old-World acidity with bright fresh fruit. The wines have a feminine quality to them that is especially noticeable in the texture. Syncline is at the very top of my list of producers that exhibit this style of winemaking. Syncline is specializing in making wines that have character and finesse. I know that Poppie has a background in biodynamics, and now with an estate vineyard bearing fruit, we shoudl see even better wines from them with a great pedigree. I'm very proud to announce the addition of Syncline Wine Cellars into the ampelography portfolio.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Foxen Winery

I have been very lucky over the years to have met some amazing people in this business. Dick Dore of Foxen ranks up there near the top. Tall, charismatic and with a twinkle in his eye, he loves to tell the story of his Great-Great Grandfather, Benjamin Foxen establishing the Foxen Canyon Trail and building the church that sits on Rancho Sisquoc's property. Dick comes from Santa Maria Royalty! He and partner (and winemaker) Bill Wathen, established this winery in 1985, naming it after his ancestor. This estate winery lies on 2000 acres known as Rancho Tinaquaic. On the western ridge of the Dry Sisquoc River Bed. The vineyard,as well as some of the purchased fruit they bring in (Bien Nacido, Julia's, Vogelzang and Sea Smoke) is some of the best fruit sources in Santa Barbara County. Their diversity of wines, including Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, as well as their ubiquitous Pinots, Chards and Rhone bottling represent a great breadth of lineup. Dick and Bill are always trying something new, and were certainly among the first producers to understand how to handle Chardonnay and Bordeaux varieties with restraint. A new winery construction is underway, but you can still taste through the lineup in the aluminum and wood shack they use for a tasting room at the norther edge of the scenic Foxen Canyon Trail. Foxen represents some of the best Santa Maria has to offer, and we are very excited to add them to the ampelography portfolio!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bonny Doon Vineyard

Growing into wine in the 90's, Bonny Doon was a tremendously important producer to me as I learned about wine. Randall Graham's embrace of Rhône varietals, as well as obscure Italians, gave hope to the idea that the world of wine did not begin and end with Chardonnay and Cabernet. His quirk and wit said that you can make serious wine without being self-important. There aren't too many rock stars in the wine world, Randall is definitely one.

This is the 3rd time I've sat down to write about Bonny Doon's addition to the portfolio, each time, finding myself at a loss for words. As I have discussed my portfolio with my colleagues, their amazement at the fact that I coerced them into the fold is compounding my writers block. I always try to think of the cliche, "act like you've been there before" whenever I approach something big and new and scary. I have a couple of funny stories that I'm going to keep in my pocket for now about Bonny Doon and Randall Graham. Somehow, though, I needed to give this brand all the sincerity I could muster. Fortunately, their National Sales Manager thought it would be wise for me to taste through the current lineup. This was a brilliant idea, as I guess I haven't tasted the entire lineup in a few years, since which time, Bonny Doon has reinvented themselves.

The lineup now includes the Ca' del Solo wines as well as the Cigare Volant wines, some dessert wines,and the Le Posseur Syrah. Gone are the larger production wines that you may have associated with BD over the years. Randall has always loved the old world analogues to his varieties, but without the overwhelming desire to replicate. This thought was crystallized in tasting through the wines. The Cigare wines are dead ringers for Rhône wines. great structure from the grenache made the red drink just like a great CDP. The white, with a healthy backbone of Grenache Blanc is one of my favorites white wines of this year. Rose, always rocks. Then we got to the Ca' del Solo lineup. My first thought was " this is the first Albarino from California that tasted like it came from Rias Baixas. Great minerality (California, really?),and that signature under ripe mandarin orange character.Then came the Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. Again, dead ringers for their Italian counterparts. Nebbiolo from California NEVER has this kind of Tannin and earthiness!

So with a few wines left to go through yet, I felt like i had a firm grasp on what is going on inside the bottle. These are all wines that make you reconsider whatever you feel or felt about Bonny Doon. They remind you why Randall Graham got to be so famous in the first place, by making great, interesting, challenging wines.

The Bonny Doon story can't really be told without discussing the other exciting concepts Randall has championed over the years. Remember his burial of corks? How about his take on Dante's Inferno? The story of the alien spacecraft? So what is he up to these days? First, all wines are now from either sustainably farmed vineyards, organic or biodynamic. How about Bonny Doon is now including all ingredients on their labels? And then there's sensitive crystallization. I can't think of the last time a concept in wine was so complex that it required hours of reading to just begin to understand what it means. The Ca' del Solo wines all have an image on the front of the sensitive crystallization of that particular wine. Sensitive crystallization is basically taking the wine (or grapes or plant material) combining them with cooper chloride in a petri dish and letting the liquid evaporate. What is left are these images of crystals that apparently tell one (that knows what to look for) all about the wine. They should show life force, balance, health in the wine. This is a concept that goes hand in hand with biodynamics. This is all an attempt from Randall to peer a little closer into the grape, the vineyard, the terroir, analyze what it gives back and frame this in a visual representation. Pretty heady stuff indeed.

Perhaps the thing that's makes Bonny Doon such a special producer is their spirit. Embracing something new and exciting not just for changes sake but for the progression of quality, discourse and responsibility. Bonny Doon takes risks everyday in the noble pursuit of enhancing your wine drinking experience. All I needed to do to understand this was drink some of their wine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Drawing Inspiration

I am a failed film student. I've always had an eye for "that thing" the power of the word, or the music, or the action, or even the choreography to inspire, and give emotion. I've never been able to create it though.

In deciding to begin this upstart luxury business, I was often struggling to justify the why. I felt like I was standing at the end of the diving board saying: "This is Crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy" (a la Clark Griswold). I was in need of inspiration and courage. I felt like I had the concept down cold, but it can be difficult to make that leap.I remember feeling sorry for myself, when I came across this:

Most of you have already seen this, I was late to the game. But it blew me away. It was perfect. I tend to get obsessive,and I became obsessed with this. I looked up Matt, and on his site I discovered "TED".

TED is Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, made up of 20 minute speeches by extraordinary individuals.

It was here that I began to watch these inspiring videos about people thinking differently, solving problems everyone says are unsolvable, and generally succeeding in the face of naysayers. People I already respected, like Malcolm Gladwell, and Tim Ferris, Nate Silver, and even Bill Gates, along with physicists, biologists, atheists, athletes, activists & authors. The theme was the same, we, as a society have a very myopic view of reality, and society tends to want to keep individuals at the baseline of success.

I also long ago discovered Vaynerchuk, and I'll mention him again here. His business blog, not his wine blog (although I subscribe to this one too), is the one that draws me in. He's not revolutionary, but he has vision, and he's sharp and adaptive. His comments are inspiring on a daily basis for me as well.

All of these factors made me want to put together a video that inspired wineries to take action to make their voices heard. My first few versions were enough to get my brother Brad involved (although, the correct term is probably intervened). Brad works for an amazing company called Bridge Worldwide. He is a project leader for teams that develop really amazing web content for a diverse array of companies. He took my crappy 20 min Powerpoint, interviewed me, helped me distill down my ideas, and publish a kick ass site and video. This in turn was my presentation to recruit each of the wineries I now represent (18 and counting).

This journey thus far has been amazing! I have already accomplished so many of the early critical factors for success that I drew up that I've needed to adopt a new strategy that uses my time in markets a little more efficiently. Building this portfolio has been far easier than I thought it would be. I need to give all the credit to my chain of inspiration. If you would have asked me 6 months ago what the road map would be, i didn't know. But I knew I wanted the outcome to look like this. At some point, all of these inspiring personalities, putting it out there on the net for free, got me to jump off the diving board. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Robert M Parker-Socialist? In the best possible way...

Robert Parker is an easy, slow moving target. We in the wine industry like to dismiss his motivation, power and palate. I'm here to defend him. When Parker started, about 30 years ago, when ratings didn't really matter much. He didn't envision a world where his scores would fill the void. His intention was to bring a little organization and reason to the vast, confusing world of wine. Labeling was different back then.The consumer was easily confused. Wine also was much cheaper than it is today, so ratings were taken a little less seriously.
In the years since, Parker has remained consistent in his Independence and palate.I know what he's going to like just as I know what my wife will like. We sit around and talk about "Parker wines". He likes concentrated jammy, almost sweet wines. This doesn't make him less of a person, even though he and I like different wines. This doesn't mean he has less of a palate than anyone else. His writing is astute and descriptive. His editorial comments are always right on. I've heard he doesn't write tasting notes while at the wineries, but remembers everything.
He has also remained independent. When is the last time you though he was giving a higher score to Columbia Crest than they deserved and suspected that they may be in his pocket? With all the "controversy" surrounding the little travelgate thing happening right now, it's really a testament to how clean he has always been.
Here is why Parker is great: He has given voice to the small wineries. By treating every producer the same regardless of marketing budget, distribution, etc, he has leveled the playing field. Thus, allowing small producers to emerge in this wine-saturated landscape. Because he cares only about the highest quality wines, he searches far and wide to taste everything possible. Think about how many tiny, mailing list only wineries have thrived because of what Parker said about them. You may not agree with his ratings, but at least you don't need to put your arm around Marvin Shanken to get them...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Herding Cats

I am truly lucky. I was able to put together a "dream list" of wineries to represent quite a bit easier than I expected. I represent many producers that I have tremendous respect for. They took a leap of faith with me, and rightfully so, that leap only will last so far on goodwill alone.
My primary goal is to find homes (distributors) in each of my primary markets for 17 wineries plus 1 importer. Last week was a big week, I found 5 new homes over 3 states. Progress is expectantly slow, but with solid wines and presentations and good market intel, I'm confident I can find the right long-term fit for everyone.
I was (naively) expecting that each of these small wineries would eventually take on a collective conscience. A diverse, but unified voice. What I am instead seeing at this stage of the game is that each of these wineries likes things done a little bit differently. At some point in the future, I will have a strong track record I can point to, and I will be able to take a different tact when dealing with these differing philosophies.I love that each day, and each interaction presents a chance to learn a lesson and develop my approach.

Lesson #1-"Trust Me" is not reassuring. That leap of faith is not solidified by that famously laughable Indiana Jones quote, but in the back of my mind I wish it were.

Lesson #2-Any concern is a real concern. The collective white noise of communication can easily drown out subtle concerns about details. It's important to recognize each concern and give it the respect and credibility it deserves.

Lesson #3-I should always be available and accountable- I know I'm busy, but that doesn't matter to the client. What matters is how well I am representing them and their vision. From afar, it may be tough for them to see until I can produce results. For many producers, this hasn't happened yet.Sensitive to this, I need to be available and have a strong vision and strategy for each producer.

Lesson #4-My brand and the other winery's brands within ampelography are irrelevant to the winery I am dealing with at that moment. The winery wants to know I am focused on them. Talking about other wineries makes it sound like I'm focused on someone else.

So what am I doing wrong? Nothing. I am just learning how to communicate better (not necessarily more).When I set meetings, present wine, or decide to not set meetings, I need to be accountable in each instance. I need to be able to say what is going on with the strategy, and ideally head off concerns at the pass before they feel they need to approach me with them. Keeping the client happy is not about appeasement, but about helping them to eventually "trust me". I can't possibly expect them to do this out of the gate. I've already asked them to trust me more than any sane man would. I need to prove to them that my methods and strategy are sound. I need to let them see how the proverbial sausage is made. Many of these wineries are run by winemakers and all are family owned. Something that should not be taken lightly. I will need to make sure I do everything I can to earn their trust. I need to be a sincere advocate for their business and the health of their growth. I will also need to make sure I am sensitive to their concerns and make sure I put them at ease with each concern.