What happens when you take one of the hottest winemakers in California, Celia Masyczek, and combine that with Howell Mountain Fruit? Cornerstone Cellars. If you read Wine Blogs, you probably know about Craig Camp, if not, check out the Wine Camp Blog on the links portion in the left margin. Craig is one of the the top bloggers, and expert sales and marketing gurus. He landed at Cornerstone about 6 months ago. I've know both Craig and Cornerstone for some time. The business seems like it keeps getting smaller! I've been a fan of the Cornerstone Cabs for a while. Their powerful, age necessary, Howell Mtn Cabs are a bit of a throwback. The Napa bottling is slightly more fruit forward, but should still lay down for 5+ years. Production is limited to a mere 1800 cases. They have been making great strides at sustainability from a winemaking perspective and are sensitive to their carbon footprint. These world-cals Napa Cabs are a great addition to ampelography!
Anyone that loves to sell wine knows that telling the story is the best part. CG di Arie has the most unique story of all. Chaim, owner and winemaker is known as Cap'n Crunch! Why? Because he invented it! In fact, Chaim was such a prolific food scientist, that his worked shaped your childhood, at least from a food standpoint. Astronaut Food, Hidden Valley Ranch, Power Bars, Crunchy breakfast cereal, Chaim has his thumbprint all over the salad days of Food Science. He retired in 1998 to follow his dream of starting a winery. He and wife, Elisheva, purchased over 200 acres in El Dorado County. With a new approach to winemaking technology, Chaim has built a gravity flow winery on a hillside for Zinfandel and Rhone Varietals. He has also pioneered a technique called submerged cap fermentation, that allows skin contact without releasing volatile flavor components. By treating his wines in such a way, he has developed a "House Style" that emphasizes texture without being too alcoholic or tannic. Couple the new approaches with his fruit sources, which include the original "Grandpere" vineyard that Renwood made famous in the 1970's, and the potential is endless!
Drew Family wines have been sort of ubiquitous throughout and within my Wine Career for the better part of the last 10 years. Back in the day, I was a big fan of Babcock wines. They made a ton of different wines,all interesting, but really rocked the Pinots and Syrahs (Not to mention the Cab franc!). At this time, Jason Drew was one of the Assistant Winemakers. I was honored enough to host Bryan Babcock's only Annual Winemaker Dinner in Santa Barbara. On one occasion he trotted out his 2 assistant winemakers and Peter Cargasacchi of Cargasacchi Vineyards. This is when I met Jason. Even though we're about the same age, Jason, had already finished a successful Growing career and now moved on to Winemaking. This seemingly rapid career growth came from a very unassuming source. Jason has an easy temperament and tends to pepper sentences with phrases like "right on!". Eventually, he started his own winery, and eventually left Babcock with the blessing of Bryan. His early releases were exciting and good as he began to find his style. Eventually I brought his wines to Ohio, and he has clearly evolved. Jason is now making World Class Pinots and Syrahs. He is certainly on a very short list of coveted new producers of Pinot Noir, he has received quite a bit of play in the press giving him scores that are really impressive, but not from the Oak-Monster loving critics that have initials like J.L. and R.P. One thing I really like about Jason's wines are his ability to bring unexpected flavor components to wines. He is sourcing quite a bit of fruit from Mendocino now, and has really championed this up and coming appellation. In addition to his Mendocino Wines, you will still find first rate bottlings from the Central Coast. I can't help but believe that Jason's background in Vineyards helps him to really find the true fruit character. I couldn't be more excited to once again be representing the wines of Jason and Molly Drew.
Eric Ross is a boutique winery in the heart of Sonoma. 15 years ago, 2 Photographer friends from the Bay Area that shared a passion for many thing including baseball, food and wine decided to try their hand at winemaking. The winery is now solely in the hands of Eric Luse (John, original partner, retired a few years ago). Eric's opinions about the style of wine and french food set the house style. He makes Pinots and Chards with character, balance and restraint. Carignane finds it's way into several bottlings, and Eric has actually tamed this varietal. Perhaps Eric Ross is most famous for their Zinfandels. Made from a variety of great vineyards over the years, the Zinfandels are powerful and earthy but not overly extracted. Zinfandel can be a product of it's terroir as much as many of the more esteemed varieties, Eric has learned what this finicky variety needs to show it's true character. All this and the inclusion of several Rhone varietals make this an exciting winery to represent.
One of the events that reshaped my entire perspective on California wine took place in a "potato bunker" in Dry Creek in 2006. We met Doug Nalle at his winery. He was very skeptical as to why we were there ,and why we would want to sell his wines. Doug is maybe the most opinionated Winemaker I've ever met, a claim he would gladly admit to. Doug suspiciously tasted us through a lineup of wines, as he began to realize that we sort of got it, he started digging through the back of his winery, reminding me of Yoda in his excitement. He broke out 15 year old Zins that had alcohol in the mid 12% range. They aged like Bordeaux! Doug has mastered the art of making beautiful wines with low alcohol. He is best known for his Pinot Noir (which has a very apparent Lactose quality you rarely see outside of Burgundy)and Zinfandel. His Zins will reboot your perception of the entire varietal. elegant, acid structure, balanced red fruit. Old Vine extraction is maybe a little overrated. Doug told me last week that Zinfandel is the absolute hardest grape work with. He also proudly declared that high alcohol wines are falling out of favor, a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. Never being one to follow trends, his high quality wines are very consistent in their style. It's nice to see the seachange come back to lower alcohol wines, but even if it didn't, I'd know that Doug would continue to craft long lived benchmark wines just as he has been for 20 years. We are proud to add Nalle Winery to our portfolio. If you are looking for some good wine geek entertainment check out his side labels for his Zins on his website.
Anyone that knows me knows that I looove the Rhone. Almost more importantly, I am fascinated by US producers that come very close to replicating Rhone wines. In the coming days, this will be a recurring theme. I met Dave Corey on Facebook. I'd never met him, got a friend request, and saw that we knew like 6 of the same people. So I friended him (like you've never friended somebody you don't know). And then I checked out his site. One Friday, about a month ago, he said "anyone know a good California Broker?" and I said, half jokingly, "How about Ohio? (I was just putting a wish list together) He responded with a sort of strong opinion about how someone really needs to understand wine to sell his. This sounded like a challenge right up my alley (witness one of tomorrow's announcements)! I convinced him to send me some samples, and guess what, they were awesome! The only white he sends me is primarily Grenache Blanc; clearly he has confidence in his wines. Each of the wines have structure and balance, tons of Grenache and Rhone Varietals. We chat a few more times, and as he loosens up, I realize that not only does he have some strong opinions, they seem to be correct, even if sometimes unpopular. Want to know how to pick out a great winemaker? They are usually the most righteous. Core is an excellent producer with a few different labels under it's umbrella. This one will be fun! Learn more here.
We are very excited to make our first winery announcement. We will be representing Medlock-Ames! If you aren't familiar with this exciting winery, check out their website here. Perched atop Bell Mountain in Alexander Valley, they are crafting Bordeaux Varietals with great style and structure. The quality that I always am reminded of is the texture of their wines. The tannins are from the beautiful fruit they use, not from oak. As a result, their wines are like velvet on palate. This winery is completely off the grid. They are solar powered, and use organically grown grapes. Gravity flow, low yields all the right things. Read more at their site, and keep an eye open for tasting notes.
I have a really good friend in my cousin's husband who hails from the Atlanta area. Among other things, he is a huge Georgia Tech fan. Me being a pretty big Wolverine's fan, listen attentively to his comparisons of the vapid nature of both Georgia and Ohio State fans. We unofficially agreed years ago to root for each others teams out of respect for each others sports views. Somehow, I now despise Georgia Bulldogs just as I despise Buckeyes. I am now beginning to rethink my position. As I have been trying to build this business, I have called upon many friends and associates for counsel, one individual has been especially helpful and dependable, Mat Garretson. First, checkout his blog, it's a hoot. You may not make the connection, but Mat Garretson is best known as the proprietor and winemaker of Garretson Wine Co in Paso. He had so many great lines on his website and tshirts, one was centered around hi wine called "Craic" (pronounced crack). I also remember something to the effect-"No Chardonnay, No Cabernets, No Whining" Sadly, Mat had to pull the plug on the winery back in November due to a very tough business climate. As Mat has been networking looking for his next move, we hooked up. His experience and perspective has proved to be invaluable. It continues to prove that every connection you make in this, or any business can come back to be worth it's weight in gold. Respect your connections! As you climb any ladder, it's often the people above you that can bring up to the next rung. Mat will land on his feet,and has some solid options in front of him in the Wine Business. He is also a big Dawgs fan as evidenced by this label. So between Mat,a nd the fact that the Lions are probably going to pick Matthew Stafford #1 (and set the organization back another 5 years). I'm starting to feel like I may need to rethink my stance on the "Dawgs"!
As we are getting closer to our official launch date (4/1/09), I am finding that there are a few details that need to be handled. The inevitable exchange of information and paperwork from the wineries. The actual business needs to register with the state. And then there's all the liquor licensing, for each state. Not so fun, but getting done. Think of me Friday as I spend more time than I'd like talking to each individual state liquor board. Good news, looks like we added winery # 10 today. This is a big deal. 10 is the minimum of where I wanted to start. I am pretty confident we'll get 2-3 more through the weekend. I've got my fingers crossed about that one I mentioned yesterday also.
I continue to be unable to get too specific in my acquisition of new brands. I am going to try to tell a story that hasn't ended yet. For you, it will be a serialized drama, for me, just drama. But hope survives. As I was putting together a wish list of wineries, I picked producers that were realistic because of past relationships, and producers that I am really passionate about. Last week, I had a wild hair, and feeling very good about my presentation, I sent a random email to a winery where i have virtually no contacts, but have always been a big fan. I met the owner once, but I'm sure he doesn't remember me. "Hi, you met me once at a restaurant where I worked, can I be your exclusive agent in 4 states?". I proceeded to send of a fairly impassioned email (didn't want to seem to eager though, right?). Now this winery is very important in the New World, particularly for their great wine, but almost as significant in their championing of sometimes unpopular and quirky ideas. Nonetheless, true visionaries. The sort of producers, were they included in the ampleography portfolio, that would help to define it. I mean, they get it. The problem is that they have been around for a while, in fact, they were bigger and are now smaller. This means that a) they already have strong distribution channels b)they may have downsized to accommodate their new focus. No chance, right? well, sometimes I do things that can seem outside of my grasp at the moment. Sometimes, they pay off.So I fired off the email to some names I found on their website(LinkedIN would frown on this) and I tried to figure out the method to their email addresses and assimilate the owners as well. I didn't expect much. But today, an hour ago, I received a response. The owner said kindly no. But, the Sales Manager, thought it may be a good fit nonetheless (maybe). So, now I need to sell myself on why I can do this, and why I'm the right fit. No pressure. So I'm cooling myself down, thinking about the next step. To even get this far is still a coup, So I'm pretty excited just based on that. Wish me Luck!!!
I learned something 2 weeks ago, that now has worked it's way into my skill set. I learned how to make sure you have a message. I am applying this to a wine brand. as I'm thinking about producers and their wine lineups, I'm am seeing that there is opportunity in narrowing the focus. In France it's easy, if you're in Burgundy, you make Burgundy, you can make chardonnay or pinot or both. That's pretty much in. In California, you have about 150 choices. What if you want to make everything? Well, I guess that's what a wine club is for. For my purposes, it helps if i have one line about a producer to explain their story. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what that one thing is, but it's getting easier. I've learned that I don't need to categorize based on the varietals grown. Maybe there's a common thread running through everything... hmmm....
I decided that one of the cool elements of this company would be based upon a seemingly forgotten concept, a handshake deal. A handshake deal means more than any binding contract. It brings sincerity and honesty to the dialogue. What it doesn't do is define the threshold. It's almost like when you're a kid and you're not sure when someone becomes your girlfriend until you hear them say it. I think I "officially" have several wineries, but the official announcements are yet to come. This is mostly due to my neurotic nature. Who do I announce first? How do I not offend anyone? Does anyone even care besides me? Probably not! Stay Tuned, I'll start naming names this weekend.
As I began to flesh out the concept of a Sales and Marketing company, I began calling some of my friends on the production side to get their thoughts. My timing was lucky. Many were looking for some help selling in secondary markets. With the economy stagnating, producers that would ordinarily consider adding employees might need to curb growth. Smaller producers were also having a very tough time having their voices heard within the larger markets in the Midwest. I started asking a lot of detailed questions, and got a lot of answers. What I discovered was the more I asked, the more my concept fleshed it self out.
First post was about how I got the ball rolling, I'll break the time continuum a la Lost once in a while. This one is what's happening right now. I have had many people read all of the Q & A's on the home page,and I keep finding myself writing editorially. The problem with this is that when I write a Q & A specific to business, I need to "can" the editorial. I feel like it is where it needs to be now (at least until someone else inspires me to fix it). I have edited that thing 5 times, and Brad has re-posted that many times. Brad also did a great minor tweak to the video. Tightened up the language and made the map part linger a bit longer. I really do love that video. The song is Spoon "The Book I Write". It's from the movie Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell. Spoon is probably one of my favorite bands from the last 5 years, and the energy is perfect. Everything is moving very well, thanks in large part to freinds and family helping out. I can already tell, if this is successful, it will be because it was a collaborative effort. On major hurdle passed today, got a positive email from someone I will need to work pretty closely with. Let's just say I wasn't sure what I'd get, but so far so good.
About 6 months ago, I really began to feel that there was a need in the wine industry for advocates. I don't just mean people that got behind and supported something. I mean people that really got their hands dirty. People that felt that there was good work to be done, and that great wine (and great food) was worth championing. To me this is the difference between active and passive (thanks to a friend of mine that remembers high school English better than I do, now I have this stuck in my head). This is totally selfish, and self important, but the need exists. The need also existed for myself, and a few other like minded people, to control our own careers. You are only as good as the producers you sell, absent of any creative output, that defines you. I've been working the distributor side for a while now, and it suites me pretty well.However, I felt like I was obliged to do a lot of stuff I didn't really like, to do, and the stuff I really liked to do was happening less and less. This is no different than any other job, but the bigger you get, the less sense it makes to have a wine geek like myself pitching chains. So change is all around! Cliched but true. You make your own luck. whatever. I took stock of what I'm good at, what I like, what I'm not good at, and what I don't like to do. I also discovered that there are great producers that make great wines, but they're not selling the right amounts in my geographical region. Could this be a business idea? There are a lot of wineries whose products I really love. Is there a way to align myself with them? What am I good at? Enthusiasm of a little school girl, a pretty good palate, creative problem solving,biting sarcasm (this doesn't really help anyone), and a utopian wine idealism. OK, pieces are in place, what comes next?