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 appeard in the Dracaena Wines blog series "Pursue Your Passion" "the story of one person in the wine industry, as told my 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.

Eat a Peach

I did not want to hear what I knew would be bad news. But she delivered the feared message anyway. The lady at the farmers market from whom I'd been buying perfect peaches from for the last month nonchalantly announced that this would be her last market for the season. No more perfect peaches until next year. Sad news indeed.

These peaches were so juicy and sweet that I had to eat them over the sink. I would savor every morsel down to the pit then wash my sticky hands as I contemplated eating another. With each luscious bite of these delicate wonders I thought with pity about all the pastry chefs in the world. It must be hard on them to realize that with all their years of training and talent that nothing they can conjure up can surpass the pleasure of an unadorned perfectly ripe peach. Any addition would actually be a subtraction distracting from the purity and lush layered flavors of my simple peach.

When Mother Nature delivers perfection to you, you should leave it well enough alone. When something is perfect any additions only take away from that perfection. We don't add movements to Beethoven's Fifth, add another chapter to Moby Dick or splash some more paint on a Jackson Pollock. Yet when it comes to food and wine we can't seem to resist. More is not always better.

In 1984 my tastebuds received enlightenment, but it was not from a wine, it was a peach. In that year I had been invited by Neil and Maria Empson to join them on a tour of all the wineries in their Italian portfolio. This experience was a culinary and vinous voyage of discovery. I was immersed in amazing wines, foods and people for the better part of a month in an unparalleled educational opportunity. Yet among all of those incredible taste experiences the one that sticks to me the most is a single perfect peach. We were having one of those idyllic Italian lunches on a gorgeous day in Piemonte with Bepe and Tino Colla. In the Italian way, fruit was served instead of dessert. I don't know if it was the peach or the growing enlightenment of my tasting ability, but this beautiful white Italian peach seemed to just explode on my palate. My mouth still waters just writing about it over thirty years later. Each time I have a peach, my mind goes back to that table. I am always trying to return to that experience of a single unadorned peach.

Now it's September in the the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon and it has been literally a picture perfect growing season. While harvest is coming to an end in California and well underway in the Willamette Valley, we are just getting started in our Siskiyou mountain vineyards and only the first fruit destined for rosé has arrived at the winery. The fruit on the vines looks perfect. What should you do with perfect fruit? Simply as little as possible.

At Troon Vineyard the bins of fruit come in and we tread them by foot - red, white and rosé. Then we let the native yeasts start the natural process of fermentation in well used French Oak barrels. Anything we try to add will only take away as nature is only asking us to be stewards of the wine in its voyage from the vine to the bottle. In winemaking we should always be asking ourselves not what we can do, but only what we absolutely have to do.

As I roll my last perfect peach of the season in my hands it is clear to me that the sublime is to be found only in purity. Simplicity is not the same as simple. With focus and clarity the true complexities of experience can only be relished when the extraneous distractions of the world are either removed, or perhaps, more importantly, never added. For me this is the real definition of "natural winemaking".

Tonight after dinner I will savor one last perfect peach. I can't think of a better preparation for harvest 2016.

Bitter Pleasures

It really irritates me. Standing in line at the coffee bar when all I want is an espresso. In front of me there is long line of people ordering incomprehensibly complex drinks, of which the least important component is coffee. I think there should be an express line for those of us ordering a simple expresso. It's a bitter fact that we espresso lovers have to live with. Because Americans don't like bitter we have to wait in line while they bury their shots of espresso under anything and everything that will hide the actual flavor of coffee.

In Italy bitter flavors are embraced by the culture. They love bitter herbs and salads and bitter drinks. The prelude and conclusion of many a meal is a bitter beverage. Start with Campari and end with Fernet Branca. In between there you'll probably find some radicchio or arugula among the long list of bitter flavors loved by Italians. There is another thing always on the Italian table that often has bitterness too - their wine.

I notice that bitter element in my favorite Italian wines and it's that character that makes them such an extraordinary match with food. That little touch of bitterness in Barolo or Brunello is magic at the table. It also adds another layer of complexity beyond simple fruit flavors left on their own. I find this character in my favorite red wines, and many of the whites, from anywhere in the world.

Just as we Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide any hint of bitterness in our coffee we've done the same things with our wines. Overripe, over-extracted fruit bombs with excessive alcohol, new oak and significant residual sugar are wines with no edge, no bitterness. Round and jammy wines with no acidity, no tannin and not even a hint of bitterness satisfy palates that bury a shot of espresso under milk, chocolate and whipped cream. We've turned our coffees and our wines into desserts.

Bitterness is what brought me to southern Oregon. Not personal bitterness, but that fact that I tasted it in the wines grown in this region. Not as hot as California and not as cool as the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon seems to be just the right place to grow wines that are richly flavored, but that still possess a little tartness from natural acidity and that have that wonderful streak of bitterness to hold up and enliven the natural sweet fruit flavors in the wines grown here.

Once I finally get my espresso, I'm glad I was patient enough to wait in line while they were making milkshakes masquerading as coffees for those in front of me. The same goes for the Applegate Valley, I'm glad I was patient enough find my way here. The best things in life always have an edge to them. Things that are round, soft and easy are rarely of lasting value. You need just the right amount of bitterness in life to keep things interesting. Minds and palates that are unchallenged quickly become bored.

There is nothing boring about making wine in the Applegate Valley.