Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hoosier Native Suceeding in Sonoma

Growing up in Kokomo, In., and earning a management degree at Purdue University seems an unlikely path to a successful boutique winery in California's Sonoma Valley.

But Erik Miller has achieved the unlikely career path with the success of Kokomo Wineries, named after his Central Indiana hometown. It's a story of two Purdue roommates and a fourth generation Sonoma grape grower combining their passion.

Miller talking wine early this year
"I had a buddy who moved out to Sonoma County when we were at Purdue," Miller said. "I came out and visited him and just fell in love with the place. It was really weird for a guy from Indiana to come to San Francisco and all you have is public transportation. Then I saw Santa Rosa and thought it would be big enough to support a career and still small enough for me to fit in and be comfortable."

But Miller's start in the wine business wasn't instant for the transplanted Hoosier. He took his Purdue degree in Organizational Leadership, and Supervision and went to work in the financial services business. But he wasn't happy.

He accepted an offer to do harvest work for a California winery. "That's how I became passionate about wine," he said. "I worked with grapes in the outside and watched the winemaker working. I put all my effort then toward that career - being in the wine industry."

Miller's love for Kokomo made naming the winery easy. Working with his college roommate Josh Bartels and grape grower Randy Peters gave him a team to direct the winery's success. He also thinks being a Hoosier has its advantages.

"I think there is one thing we have in the Midwest and it’s this stereotype that we're hard workers," Miller said in the modest winery offices. "That has been a connection with me and Randy and some of the other farmers out here that we're down to earth, salt of the earth kind of people."

Peters, on the other hand, is a fourth generation farmer. His family produced fruit and wine grapes for decades. "We didn't have much money growing up," Peters said. "We were growing fruit and wine grapes but working on a low margin. My dad had a second job."

Peters credited Miller's hard work and integrity for their 'handshake contract' and shared success. "The honesty and integrity of Midwestern people is true," he said. "Growing up here I've always had a passion for raising the fruit but now I can see the end result."

Growing up Peters would watch the family harvest be sold off to very large producers and dumped into 10,000 gallon tanks with fruit from all over the region. Now his grapes to go vineyard designate wines that represent his work as well as the winery.

Miller makes wines widely available in the Midwest. His Cabernet Sauvignon is a big fruity but well-balanced wine that can be found in many wine shops.

"Maybe people will try the wine because the name is comforting too them," Miller said. "We don't spend extra money on the showboat things, the tasting room and winery but we will not take shortcuts on the equipment it takes to process grapes. We use the best oak we can buy, and make sure we're sourcing the best possible grapes."

Miller may have Midwestern industrial roots growing up in Kokomo but his wines have been lauded by the biggest competition in the world, The San Francisco Chronicle's annual wine contest. 

Note: In four years I've not done a two-part column. But if you want to learn a lot about wine, talk to a winemaker. Next time Miller will talk about some of his wine-making philosophy.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Tasting Room Delivered to Your Door

The internet has revolutionized the wine industry just like many other businesses. In the last decade or so, wineries have improved their websites, embraced blogging, Facebook, and even new platforms like Twitter and Pinterest.

Around the time of the 2007-08 economic downturn wine flash sales sites exploded onto the scene often offering premium wines at heavily discounted prices. Many of the sites have come and gone but some have become very successful. Earlier this year, Forbes reported Lot18 hauling in an average of $2 million a month in revenue.

A standard bottle, TR bottle, wine from the TR bottle
One of my personal favorites is Wine Till Sold Out or wtso.com. These flash companies approach wineries and buy inventory that was over produced, or not moving quickly enough to meet the demands of the winery’s cash flow expectations.

The upside to such sites is consumers have the ability to buy much better wine at discounts consistently around 30-40 percent and often up to 50-60 percent.

But there is another internet wine site that has gotten lots of press and causing a buzz bringing sampling to your living room. Tasting Room.com sells six-packs samplers of wine in 50ml or 1.7 oz. bottles. While that sounds like a dribble it is enough wine for two or three tastes to determine if you like the wine.

Then you can buy a full bottle from the site at near regular prices. The novelty here is you can taste before you buy much like a tasting room. The six packs are packaged by the wine type or region or by celebrity endorsement. The six packs range from $19.95 to just over $30. You can sample wines by the grape, region, celebrity picks, a single winery and more.

Tasting Room.com was the brain child of Tim Bucher. He started developing a system to sell the 50ml bottles for trade and press samples. He was never interested in the discounted flash site approach.  He told Wines & Vines he had no interest in selling normal sized bottles for less calling that “a race to the bottom.”

He developed a proprietary system to transfer wine from the traditional 750ml bottle to the smaller samples.

The company got its start in 2009 and has been remarkably successful, so much so they added higher end wines to the lineup earlier this year. The created a Wines by the Glass program that offers 100ml bottles with wines from Silver Oak, Duckhorn, Patz & Hall, Williams Selyem, Hess, Coppola, and others. 

Wines are sold individually in the Wines by the Glass format or in boxes of four single servings. So in other words you can buy wines from this internet site three different ways – in samples, by the glass, or in full size bottles. The business model is different because they are not selling discounted wine but a chance to taste before you buy.

My personal experience was with a six-pack sampler – the Michael Chiarello (celebrity chef) Holiday Pinots selection. The six wines were all from California. The labels were Domaine Carneros, Fess Parker, Papapietro Perry, Patz & Hall, Laetitia, and Lucas & Lewellen. I was able to taste the six different wines for less than any single bottle would have cost. The six wines I sampled ranged from $23.99 to $53.99. They were well preserved and tasted great.

The real beauty of a site like this is a chance to expand your palate. To taste the six wines above you’d have to travel to California or shell out more than $225 to buy the six 750ml bottles.
In photo: A regular-sized bottle of Pinot Noir, the sampler Pinot, a sample emptied into a large Pinot Noir glass, and sampler pack.