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Winemaker hopes and dreams

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Had coffee yesterday with a winemaker named Darek Trowbridge and his assistant winemaker, Steven Washuta. Darek owns the brand Old World Winery, up in Sonoma County. He’s related to the Martinellis, and founded Old World when he learned that there was no place in that winery for him.

Darek told me he hadn’t put much time or energy into marketing Old World, a mistake he’s now out to rectify. He was describing his dreams and visions, when suddenly it occurred to me that Darek wasn’t just speaking for himself. He was speaking, albeit unwittingly, for an entire generation of young winemakers, men and women who are embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. They’re coming out of V&E school, or perhaps transferring into the wine business from other careers, and entering a field filled with challenges and stress, at possibly the worst time to launch a winemaking career in recent history; but they’re game for anything. I watched Darek’s handsome face as he talked about winemaker dinners, his small distributor in Louisiana, his and Steven’s nascent efforts at social media, people he buys grapes from, the production level he hopes to achieve, and I thought about the many young winemakers I’ve run into lately, from Santa Barbara up through the North Coast. They’re all so hopeful and enthusiastic, so filled with energy and ideas, willing to endure just about anything to realize their dreams. And it struck me that, of all occupations in the world, making wine has got to be the most optimistic.

I’ve been meeting a lot more of these younger winemakers who have been below my radar, after the magazine divided California up into inland and coastal tasters, leaving me freer to sink down into the coast and meet these small, exciting producers. When I put the word out, via my blog, Facebook and personal contacts, that I was in search of this more or less hidden level of winemaking activity, I wasn’t sure what the response would be. In part, I feared that the smaller, younger producers wouldn’t be interested in a print magazine writer reviewing their wines in the traditional way. Because of my experiences writing this blog, I’ve been exposed, and rather strongly, to an anti-magazine attitude out there, on the part of Millennials who feel that everything that needs to be done can and should be done through social media. It wouldn’t have surprised me, then, to learn that a newer generation of winemakers had no interest at all in connecting with me.

Instead, it’s been exactly the opposite. Everywhere I go, people seem interested in making my acquaintance, and I am certainly delighted to make theirs. It’s been reassuring to find out that actual (as opposed to digital) relationships still matter in this business.

I’m going to work very hard at cultivating these new relationships. I want to help these younger, less well known winemakers achieve success. I still get irritated by the snobbery out there on the part of certain sommeliers, writers and, yes, some winery owners, who promote the same old stable of aging elite brands and turn up their noses at everyone else. I was talking just yesterday to a P.R. guy, an old friend, who just got a job with a super-famous Pinot Noir house in Sonoma County. They’d never sent me wines to review. I asked if that could now change. My friend said no, they just don’t send wine to anyone. To no one, I asked? Well, he said, they send to Spectator. I replied, live by Spectator, die by Spectator. It’s so 1990s, so yesterday, such an anachronism in a wine world that’s forward looking and thinking and open to change.

So, to all my new winemaker friends, present and future, here’s looking at you, kids.

  1. Your friend will continue to send Pinot samples to the W.S. because when they taste his wine it is grouped with other “super-famous” Pinots in a blind tasting. This guarantees a high score since the scoring scale is automatically moved up for this group. And a high score brings big orders from the distributor who knows he can sell big lots to retailers who know they can sell case lots to their clientel, who buy based on score. Only high scores from the W.S. and Parker do this. Social media and blogs don’t and no other publication creates such a direct, measureable impact. When something else does this all the wineries that are “so 1990’s” will be there lickety split.

    I would like to hear more about the”old stable of elite wines”. Are these old because everyone has already written about them and there is no story there to sell your publication? Because the story about the new, young winemaker makes a fresher story? Or is it because you think somehow this “old stable” has inferior vineyard or inferior winemaking and inferior wines to the “new breed”? Because if there is a true “old stable of elite wine” it includes the most famous properties in Bordeaux and in Burgundy. And dang it, I guess I am showing my age, because I am still a fan. But maybe I am just giving them a pass because they are FRENCH.

  2. Morton, my “old stable” is in California. I’m reluctant to name names, but everybody knows who they are. Or, to put it another way, I can’t tell you who the “old stable” wineries are, but if you name one and I agree, I’ll discretely blink twice.

  3. Greg Brumley says:

    Steve,

    Its nice to see Old World get whatever attention it can. Darek makes a very nice field blend, and a Pinot which is just gorgeous.

    His seems to face the common threefold problem of undercapitalization:
    (1) Insufficient distribution, and a full-time tasting room
    (2) Insufficient resources to adequately promote the wine & customer visits
    (3) Even if one can attract tasting visitors, it takes a while to develop those relationships into a stable customer base, and its hard to hang on while the base develops.
    On top of that, the “Old World” name is a bit generic to cut a branding niche.

    A lot of small wineries — old and new — are trapped in similar situations. Print media attention might help in the short run, and lead to enough quick cash for a winery to start a sustained new-customer program.

    Maybe some positive reviews in Wine Enthusiast will help Derek. I hope so; his product deserves to succeed.

    Greg Brumley
    mail@brumleygroup.com

  4. Greg thanks for the kind words and you definitely have clarity on the small winery predicament!

    Morton as opposed to the “Old Stable of Elite Wines” we are “Old World” not in continent but in concept. My grandfather, Lino Martinelli, was the son of an Italian immigrant who gathered his winemaking knowledge from his family, all if it coming from Italy. It’s a technique called “traditional winemaking” and is not that different than in France in concept though the details can sure be different. So I take that name because it speaks to what I want in my winemaking process though it may seem generic as Greg states. However there are other marketing guru’s who can’t believe that I got that name without a fight or a lot of money.

    Steve states that smaller wineries can be anti-magazine or anti-review in general and I have definitely lived that in my lifetime but I feel now that it is about relationships and community and if someone is as up front, curious, and real as Steve Heimoff then that is the kind of community where I want my wines judged whatever the outcome.

  5. Hi Steve,

    I just wanted to say that this posting gave me hope or rather it reminded me of why we, the young winemakers, are doing what we do despite the problems we face as small producers (ie. undercapitalization as mentioned above).
    At 35 years of age I was fortunate enough to have the funds to leave my old career and to pursue winemaking on my own. Now 5 years later, its a lot of work but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My wines are getting some notice, through contests and awards mostly, but even better than that, I’m making better wines every year. I figure I have 35 years or so left to make the best wine I can. Every year it gets a little easier because I can afford a new piece of equipment or two. My friends who own larger wineries tell me they don’t have the time to make wine the way I do…native yeast, gravity flow, small lots. I wouldn’t do it any other way.
    I make 12 lots of wine a year, 150 case lots of single vineyard designated wines….I know I’ll never get distribution with such small lots but its way more fun as a winemaker to make the different varieties from different vineyards.
    So THANKS for reminding me of the fun I’m having! Sometimes we forget, especially during crush!

    Anna Marie
    winemaker/owner of
    Idle Hour Winery
    http://www.idlehourwinery.com
    & the Queen’s Inn
    http://www.queensinn.com

  6. Hi Steve,

    I just wanted to say that this posting gave me hope or rather it reminded me of why we, the young winemakers, are doing what we do despite the problems we face as small producers (ie. undercapitalization as mentioned above).
    At 35 years of age I was fortunate enough to have the funds to leave my old career and to pursue winemaking on my own. Now 5 years later, its a lot of work but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My wines are getting some notice, through contests and awards mostly, but even better than that, I’m making better wines every year. I figure I have 35 years or so left to make the best wine I can. Every year it gets a little easier because I can afford a new piece of equipment or two. My friends who own larger wineries tell me they don’t have the time to make wine the way I do…native yeast, gravity flow, small lots. I wouldn’t do it any other way.
    I make 12 lots of wine a year, 150 case lots of single vineyard designated wines….I know I’ll never get distribution with such small lots but its way more fun as a winemaker to make the different varieties from different vineyards.
    So THANKS for reminding me of the fun I’m having! Sometimes we forget, especially during crush!

    Anna Marie
    winemaker/owner of
    Idle Hour Winery & The Queen’s Inn

  7. This post warms my heart on numerous levels. I will try and refrain from writing too much here, but I just want to highlight what an important post this is from Mr. Heimoff.

    We are in the early stages of a ‘wine renaissance’, and it is being led by young winemakers such as Derek (@ Old World), Tahmiene Momtazi (@ Maysara), Luke Bass (@ Porter Bass), Jared (@ Donkey and Goat), Kevin Kelley (@ Salinia, LIOCO), Jesse Skiles (@ Fausse Piste), Jim Maresh (@ Arterberry-Maresh), and many, many, many, more.

    Look at the energy behind Hardy Wallace and the innovation at the NPA. The movement is upon us. People ARE making a difference.

    This new blood (who in some cases comes from old blood) are establishing themselves on a new level, who tend to be making wines in “Old World” techniques. To this, I say hallelujah!

    For all of you wine lovers out there, it would be in your best interest to seek out these young winemakers and try their wines. See what they are doing and the genuine passion behind their operations.

    It is not glitzy, it is not glamorous, it is not about being a rockstar (but there is rock music) for these people. It is about creating a wine that is true to them, that respects the land, the workers, their community and more importantly you the consumer. There are no tricks here, there are no grand tasting rooms to WOW you. There is just a genuine, infectious passion for a lifestyle that seems to be in short supply these days.

    You can dismiss their techniques, dismiss their ‘lack’ of this or that, but you can never dismiss their courage and their dedication to their craft. And no, most of these wines do not come prepackaged with scores.

    This is something to discover, support, and believe in.

    We are coming full circle.

  8. Anna Marie, I am so in your corner. Of course, success depend on the WINES. Everybody has to make great wine. But the field is as open as I’ve ever seen it, so go for it. You have people just waiting and wanting for you to make great wine.

  9. Hey Steve,
    Another great entry to your blog. I don’t think of you as ever being part of the “old guard” or “traditional”. You have always been there to support and bring up conversations that the “other” don’t want to or don’t bother to write about.

    It’s amazing to me how many of new wines are out there, and how many of them are good wines. So for the consumer it’s a great time of discovery, and the interest for new wines and winery’s seems to be only growing. This is a time for label’s like Darek and myself to tell our stories and distinguish ourselves, in “non-traditional” ways.

  10. Hats off to you Steve for meeting with Darek and Steven- They put their heart and soul into it.

    Jeff- Thanks for the shout out and props for Kevin Kelley and I.

  11. Us little guys are definitely here, and expect neither distribution nor free press. We prefer to sell our limited amounts of handmade products directly, like in Darek’s and my case from small tasting areas in our homes/wineries . We tend to have neither employees, nor marketing budgets. We are in the business because we love wine, and we love making it, drinking it, and sharing our creations.

    I’m still surprised when someone has “Heard of Us”, and usually insist they probably remember the movie(s) and not us!

    BTW, our name came about because we wanted to call I wanted to call us “The Garage”, because we were in a garage on Westside Rd, in Healdsburg initially, but everything with Garage in it was locked up. Nobody liked the name “The Shed”, so we used an online thesaurus which suggested “Roadhouse” .

    Eric-
    Roadhouse Winery
    http://www.roadhousewinery.com
    Healdsburg, CA

  12. I’ve heard of you, Eric. I reviewed your 3 Pinots earlier this year. Really liked the RRV.

  13. Steve, regarding, “actual (as opposed to digital) relationships still matter in this business.”

    Actual is still very real. I’ve not given up sending press releases via snail mail, even though I’m the dinosaur on the block (but was one of the first to send them via Email). But, you know what? I still get reaction from the traditional writers with physical mail.

    And, I continue to send press releases via Email, because I saw the importance of that one coming about six or seven years ago.

    The millennials are shifting our way of doing business, and will have a hand at more and more social media, but there’s still nothing like “real.” I can’t giggle and exchange stories via social media, and neither can the millennials. (Thank God for that!)

    This is a great little story. I enjoyed it immensely.

    I love working with these small brands, because they’re so wide-eyed.

  14. Steve, I liked the blog and I have been in wine sales for 20 years working with small winemakers with no national distribution and no marketing. I have worked with Darek for a number of years and am always excited to meet some one new who is making quality wines before they are “discovered” by the media. We worked with Cain V and Caymus before they became buzz words in Napa. One of the problems I have is with the internet and competing with the winery for sales. Some wineries will work with us and we put their wines on the tables and cellars of the end user/consumer all over the country, barring some states but we have been very successful.

  15. Passion – at any age – is a joy to behold.

  16. As a “millennial” myself, Jo is right that we can’t exchange giggles (lol?) and stories via social media. After diving into blogging, twitter, etc… I’d say the experience has left me with many more actual relationships than I would have gained otherwise. It’s not a replacement for face-to-face, but it is a powerful tool for connecting like-minded people.

    I might be biased, but I love this article for pointing out that a big name doesn’t always mean the best wine. Once a winery becomes famous enough, however, the wine begins to sell itself and then they too are part of the “old guard” – I guess in a way that’s what we’re all aiming to be in the future, and the current old guard wineries were once in our position as well.

  17. Kudos to Steve for the story, and to Darek for his passion, commitment and sticking to his dreams. Its been a pleasure to get to know you this year, and enjoy some of your patient tutelage. Your time has come I think, as it does to all those eventually who give; the universe gives back; sometimes you just have to nudge it a little bit with some marketing, PR and visibility :)

  18. Thanks Steve.
    Back in 05′ I spent a year in Sonoma interviewing both established and budding winemakers and if you are not an optimist there isn’t a lot of room for you in the business of making hand crafted wines. And I share your bewilderment at both old school snubbing of anybody but WS and the chip-on-the-shoulder digital only crowd.
    To have the luxury of being able to dismiss all but one or two promotional outlets is something that no small winery hoping to survive can possibly do right now. While we have made close to 75% of our sales from relationships that started with social media contacts, we of course would love to have Spectator or Enthusiast to review our wines.

    My guess is no matter what the economic outlook you will never be stranded without a wide selection of good new winemakers to talk with and tell us about. And I love that about this business.

    Cheers, to everyone out there working to make the next great wine to be discovered.

    Alan

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