What is the definition of being successful? Is it making more money than you know what to do with? Is it having letters after your name that people aren’t even sure what they mean? Or is it simply being happy? When Mike and I decided to enter the wine business, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road. We were realistic. We understood that we would neither be an overnight sensation, nor ever be as recognized as Robert Mondavi. That’s not why we entered the business. We entered the wine industry because we love wine and it was our dream to own a winery. We chose to not just wish or dream about it, we made a conscious decision to make it happen. We chose to Pursue Our Passion.
It’s a scary thing chasing down your dreams, but if you don’t enter the race you are never going to win. One of my favorite sayings about Pursuing Your Passion was made by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He very eloquently stated, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” He knows you need to take risks. You need to leave the safety net that tethers you to your comfort zone so that you can experience what happens next.
In this, what has become a monthly tradition, a guest blogger will tell you their story of how they pursued their passion in the wine industry. These people understood what Van Gogh meant by “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
I was first introduced to Craig when I participated in a #Winestudio session. The first week, Craig had made two comments that hit home with me and instilled the fact that I knew I liked him. First he stated that he had a single goal, “To make great wine!” There was something about how he
said typed it and backed it up with the comment of “We craft wines of purity and energy to bring pleasure to your life” that struck me as special. Then when he answered the question of what his favorite wine, I had to hold back the urge to jump on a plane and head to Oregon to meet him in person! (we will be visiting this summer.) You can read my post, Straight Forward Winemaking with Troon Vineyards here.
Craig’s story has a bit of everything including Presidential scandal, European excursions, business takeovers and even guns! It is truly an amazing story and I am honored he has agreed to share it here.
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 epitomized 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-with – 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 than 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 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.