Monday, July 23, 2012

Gray Sees Distribution from Little Guy's View

With more than 6,000 U.S. wineries and around 20 distributors in Indiana it should not come as any surprise only a small number of wines reach the Hoosier state.

That was what struck Derek Gray, Graybull Organic Wines, back in college when sipping wine at Oliver Winery with some buddies. He realized there could be some money made in the wine business. He started as a home winemaker then moved toward a distributorship.

“A lot of wines were not available in Indiana,” Gray said. “I thought there was a business opportunity. I’ve always wanted to own my own business since I was a kid.”

So he started as a distributor hoping to sell 50 cases a month to cover his warehouse cost. He was starting his business while working at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. He still does some work for the Indy drug company. A distributor is the middle man in the three-tier system. He buys from wineries and importers then resells to retail outlets.
Derek pouring at a private tasting.
Gray started in 2006 and cut back at Lilly in 2009. His business growth has been steady and impressive. “Even if you’re growing at 20 to 40 percent a year all of your money is going back into the business.” The business has grown 30 percent already in 2012, he said.

Starting a new distributorship is like staring down the neighborhood bully in Indiana. “Restaurants are horribly difficult to get into especially if they’re established with one of the big distributors,” he said. “The big boys will use everything they can to shut out everybody else. They will print menus for free, which is legal. They will give them corkscrews. They give them all sorts of stuff.

“They use the economic power they have and then put grocery store wines on those wine lists and they get away with it.”

Gray wanted to operate his business and portfolio differently. “We have an eco-friendly niche,” he explained. “We work hard on customer service. We now have retailers coming to us because they’ve heard about our customer service.”

Gray carries 400 labels in his portfolio. He stresses customer service and getting the details right for his customers. “I would argue our wines are solid across the board. If they don’t sell I weed them out. They are family-owned wineries, many are highly rated, and most get 85 points (from critics) or higher.”

Gray targets smaller retailers and wine stores.  He sought out the best organic wines in the U.S. and works with importers to get the best organic wines from abroad.  Gray admits organic wines are not going to be age worthy but for wines at the $10-$14 retail price point the wines will be fruit forward, easy to drink and low to no sulfites.

The business has grown from that necessary 50 cases to thousands each month. It recently led Gray to partner with another distributor to represent his wines. 

“I was an amateur wine maker. A bottle of wine is a living thing; it’s an experience. It is a connection to the land and connection to nature. To me, that’s the big part of the fun in the wine business. People in the wine industry are eccentric and interesting.”

Derek’s Picks:
The wine distributor enjoys a beer after work but when it comes to wine he recommends Washington State’s Columbia Valley to New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. “The red blends of Washington come from great family wineries, small production and they to really great wines at a great price point. The New Zealand Sauv Blancs used to be all grassy but are more complex now.”

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes Grapes Sense every other week for 18 Midwestern newspapers. Contact him at:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Understanding Bordeaux Matter of Left or Right

It's time to discuss Bordeaux. Of all the world's wine regions it's probably the most legendary and mystifying. It's not easy to understand France's iconic wine country but it's possible.

The French, of course, make it difficult to understand any of their wine regions.

The French labeling system tells you the producer, the appellation (region) where the grapes were grown, and the vintage but those darn French don't tell you what grapes are used for the wine. That's old world wine making and you'll find the same from Italy and Spain. Burgundy isn't Burgundy at all it's Pinot Noir. The Loire Valley is Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. Champagne is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and some minor varietals

Vineyards of Saint Emilion
Bordeaux is largely Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are other grapes but we'll get to that.
If you know just a little about Bordeaux it’s probably all the confusion over left bank and right bank. Let's try to simplfy. The area is divided by the Garone River running about 375 miles through the southwest region of France and a bit of Spain. The river divides Bordeaux right down the middle.

The left bank is the one closer to the Atlantic Ocean. The soil has gravel allowing for good drainage - ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. The right bank has limestone and clay soils which act like a sponge when it rains keeping vine stock roots moist long after the rainfall. That is perfect growing conditions for Merlot.

If you can remember those simple facts Bordeaux gets a lot simpler. We've mentioned Cab and Merlot but the area also grows Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, and Malbec. Bordeaux wines are driven by the two dominant grapes but almost never 100 percent Cab or Merlot. So remember Bordeaux is always going to be a blend.

Now, let's say you've seen Sideways one too many times and you're convinced you don't like Merlot. That is probably because the only Merlots you have ever tasted was crappy Merlot. The right bank wines of Bordeaux which are Merlot driven will surprise you. The blends are big and rich and might even make you think you're drinking Cabernet.

The left bank wines, and particularly the areas of Medoc, Haut-Medoc, and Margaux are where the insanely expensive French wines are produced. But that still leaves more than 15 other appellations on the left bank for you to explore. There are more than 20 appellations on the right bank, perhaps the best known is Saint Emilion. And those wines are beautiful.

The French love regulations when it comes to making wine. Let's just say what grapes grown, how long those grapes are aged, and virtually every step of the process has some government regulation.
It's highly unlikely you're going to find Bordeaux wines in your neighborhood supermarket or neighborhood shop. But retailers with larger inventory and shops catering to wine enthusiasts will definitely have Bordeaux wines. But with just under 10,000 wineries how do you decide what to buy?

I'd suggest you start with your preference of Cab or Merlot and go from there. There are plenty of good Bordeaux wines at value price points.  But keep in mind that Bordeaux’s high end goes to thousands of dollars per bottle for the world's best wine.

Grape Sense has always focused on finding a small wine shop where the proprietor knows wine. That's never more true than when buying Bordeaux.

Having visited Bordeaux recently, it’s not as complicated as it seemed before. We can argue if Bordeaux makes the world's best wines. But it’s a region wine enthusiasts need to sample and understand.


Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes Grape Sense every other week for 18 midwestern newspapers.