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Working with Wine

Selling Wine in Mason Jars

I’m holding a bottle of wine it's taken me almost sixty years to make. I pull the cork and pour a few ounces into a more-or-less clean Mason jar. It seems we are going back in time.

Decades ago, when I was building a new fine wine distribution company, I would take winemakers that are now wine legends - Angelo Gaja, Dominique Lafon, Josh Jensen, Tony Soter, Cathy Corison, Richard Sanford and others around Chicago, where we would pour samples of their wines into small plastic cups and try to convince buyers to give these newcomers a shot. Needless to say, those buyers never got a glimpse of the true greatness of these wines and winemakers out of those little plastic cups.

Fast forward from the 1980's to 2017 and selling great wine is a lot more glamorous, right? Sharing your wines with the sommelier at Castagna or Nostrana could not be more pleasurable - if you make good wine that is. Yet, all to often, we've not progressed beyond those pitiful little plastic cups.

In states that allow both distributors and retailers to sell wine and spirits, the profits from spirits make their cash flow work. These profits from quick, large-margin spirit sales are the lifeblood of large liquor stores, which give them the opportunity to build broad, but slower selling wine selections. In states like Oregon, where spirits sales are ridiculously limited to state controlled “liquor stores” that means amazing wine and spirits stores like K&L, Binny’s and Zacky's cannot exist. In state controlled Oregon, grocery stores have a significant advantage over wine-only shops as they have many other products to give them the cash flow required to support the inventory in their wine department - just like full-service liquor stores in other states.

This means that I spend a lot of time in Oregon selling wine to grocery store buyers. While tasting wines with buyers in the back room of a grocery store out of old Libby glasses may not have the panache of sampling your wines in Riedel on white tablecloths it's just as important to your sales. Also, most of these grocery store buyers are just as serious as any sommelier. They too are passionate to find wines that their customers will love. Also, like a sommelier, they are out on the front lines and if the customer does not like a wine they are just as likely to blame them as to blame the winery.

It's not a bad system. Or, at least it used to be not a bad system. Fine wine and corporations do not mix well and management at some important Oregon chains are taking their local buyers out of the game and sending them home with Mason jars of wine in their backpacks.

No longer can you taste your wines with these buyers. You go into the back room, among the storage shelves of dog food and canned goods and pour your samples into well used Mason jars or some other even less glamorous receptacle. You pour your wines into old jars or bottles as the buyers are no longer permitted to taste wines on the job. Which, as that is a big part of their job seems, well for lack of a better word, stupid.

We go to a lot of work to be sure our wines are presented and sold in the proper condition. Pouring them into a Mason jar that is then tossed into a backpack, that may spend time in a hot car or that then may not be tasted for days is not fair to us or the final consumer. Grocery chains should treat both their wine buyers and the wines they buy with more respect considering the significant profit they generate for these corporations.

Next time you buy a wine in a grocery store you don't enjoy, please don't blame the wine buyer. The wine they tasted from that Mason jar after it had sloshed around in their backpack while they rode home on their bike on one of those one-hundred degree days last week probably did not taste much like the bottle of wine you took home.

In thirty years we've graduated from plastic cups to Mason jars. A long way, baby, we've not come.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeared in the Dracaena Wines blog series"Pursue Your Passion""the story of one person in the wine industry, as told by them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

Cornerstone Updates: Wine Time Machine

Just as the vines are thinking about flowering in vintage 2011, we are preparing and finishing the 2009 vintage reds for bottling. In wine you always are touching the past and the future simultaneously. It’s hard to think of an industry where your key focus for the month is something you’ve made two years before that you won’t sell for another whole year.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of winemaking. The ability to be working in the past, present and future all at the same time is as enticing at the wines we make.

The seasonal cycles set our bottling season. Just after winter pruning it’s time to bottle the whites and rosé and ,as bud break flows into flowering, its time to bottle the red wines.

Our 2010 whites and rosé are already in the bottle and are just being released for sale this month. This includes the zesty Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, Cuveé Musque and the dry, intensely aromatic Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé. New for us, and a wine we’re very excited about, is our Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Napa Valley Riesling. Our Riesling is dry as a bone with incredible floral and mineral aromatics and flavors.

Next into the bottle will be our 2009 Stepping Stone red wines: Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but you’ll have to wait at least six months to taste those when they’re released this fall. For more immediate gratification we have something new for you: Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Rocks!. We have a red Rocks! and a white Rocks!, each are blends of different varieties that will change from year-to-year depending on what inspires us. The defining terms will be delicious and fun. The Rocks! wines are house wines for Cornerstone lovers.

In July, as the grapes are ripening in the warm Napa Valley sun, we will bottle our 2009 reserve selections: Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and our new benchmark wine, The Cornerstone, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, crafted to be a Napa Valley classic. Only 100 cases will be produced and it will be released in 2012 after a year of bottle aging.

There is another time element to this year’s vintage which ties us to an even older vintage, 1991, our inaugural vintage. As we approach our 20th harvest it is thrilling for us to be releasing innovative wine full of personality and the individuality that has always made Cornerstone one of the Napa Valley’s most dynamic wineries.

Starting next week we’ll be pouring our 2010 Stepping Stone whites and rosé in our Yountville tasting room. Please join us for some tastes of the past, the present and some hints of what the future holds: our wine time machine.

Sticky Fingers

My arms are covered with sweet, sticky grape juice up to my elbows. I can't believe how sweet it is as I lick my dripping fingers. This is the experience of hand sorting grapes before they are destemmed and enter the fermenter. It is a great experience as it really brings home to you that wine comes from grapes. The finished product has little to do with the flavors of the fresh fruit (except in a very general way), so for the consumer the wine in their glass is only intellectually associated with the fruit it came from.

This only reinforces my dislike of over-oaked and over-manipulated wines as these characteristics only further separate the finished wine from the vineyard from which it came.

Farming

One thing that being at a winery almost every day, is that you begin to see it more and more as a farm, as compared to the finished bottles most people think of when a winery is mentioned.

As I arrived at the winery this morning, the normal early morning calm was replaced by a large crew harvesting the vineyard in front of the winery by hand. As they swarmed through the vineyard you could not help but be reminded that those same hands had also picked the marionberries, apples, tomatoes and all the other fruits and vegetables that the rich soils of the Willamette Valley grow. It is hard work for little pay and the pickers are exclusively immigrants from various Spanish speaking countries south of the United States. For them, the grapes are no more romantic than any of the other crops they have sweated over during the course of the year.

Despite its pure agricultural birth, wine has transcended all other farm products and become romantic and collectible. A product people are willing to argue heatedly about on dozens of wine discussion forums. Those men and women, who were out in the vineyard at dawn, would think that quite funny.