Négociants With A Mission
June 30, 2011 by Doug Haugen
A look at Maison and Cork House wines
Up until about twenty-five years ago, the world wine market was largely dominated by négociants, wine dealers who bought grapes, must, or wine in various states of completion from smaller producers, and assembled it all into their own signature wine programs. Because individual producers couldn’t make enough wine, were too small to afford production equipment, or had limited access to consumers, they’d sell to a négociant who could make better use of it.
The last couple of years has seen a resurgence of négociants in the wine industry. It was bound to happen. In retrospect, the return of the wine négotiant seems inevitable.
The growth of the Washington wine industry has been nothing short of explosive. In 1999, there were a mere 160 bonded wineries in the State, and according to a report by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, there were 686 wineries operating with non-retail licenses in 2010. According to a recent report by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, grape production increased by three percent in 2010 from the prior year, which may seem small until you consider that this number represents a record high in Washington. We crushed 160,000 tons of wine grapes last year, whereas we were producing a mere 70,000 tons back in 1999. As far as bottling goes, we bottled 21,468,124 gallons (equivalent to about 81,265,690 1.5-litre bottles) of still and effervescent wine in 2010, and in 1999, we bottled just 6,815,620 gallons (about 25,799,924 1.5-litre bottles) of still and effervescent wine. And consumption? According to statistics from the Wine Institute, nationwide wine consumption was at about 2.02 gallons (about eight bottles) per person per year in 1999, and has increased to 2.54 gallons (about ten bottles) in 2010.
|Washington Grape Production (tons)||70,000||160,000||+128.6%|
|Washington Wine Bottled (gallons)||6,815,619||21,468,124||+215.0%|
|U.S. Wine Consumption (gallons per capita)||2.02||2.54||+25.7%|
The question, then, is where’s the limit? Wine consumption continues to grow, but it doesn’t appear to be growing nearly as fast as production. The law of supply and demand would dictate that either prices should fall to move more goods, or that supply should decrease to match the demand. What we’re seeing is a little of both.
With the economy in the crapper, we’re still seeing trends of increased wine consumption, but by and large, the increase comes from less expensive bottles. Some wineries have adjusted the pricing of their wines, and some, to protect the integrity of the brand, have released second labels with lower price points to generate revenue through volume rather than margin. Still more are simply bottling less. But, if you’ve got contracts on the fruit, or you’ve got an estate vineyard, bottling less means that you’ve got a bunch of leftover vino that you’ve already paid for with dollars and labor that becomes a financial liability. If you want to recoup your costs, you’ve got to liquidate.
That’s where the négociant comes in.
We’re all familiar with the Charles Shaw model (now a Trader Joe’s exclusive)–buying up surplus wine at pennies on the dollar, dumping it all in the hopper and churning out cheap wine by the tanker-full. Savvy business move, and occasionally even palatable, but as anyone who’s consumed any amount of Two Buck Chuck will tell you, you never know what you’re going to get. My friend Valerie once told me that she’d go to Trader Joe’s and buy one bottle of Chuck, open and taste it in the car, and if it was drinkable, go back in to buy a case.
Today’s négotiants aren’t peddling cheap bottles of plonk, though. On the contrary, we’re seeing talented winemakers buying up nearly-finished surplus wines from premium wineries and seizing an opportunity to blend tasty vino that can be sold at a value price. And some of them, like Paul Beveridge and Travis Scarborough, are also using négotiant wine programs to pursue worthy causes.
Paul Beveridge is the owner/winemaker of Wilridge Winery, has a founding stake in The Tasting Room with locations in both Seattle and Yakima, is president of Family Wineries of Washington State, and as a lawyer by trade, has played an integral part in much of the state legislation over recent years that benefits wineries in Washington. After twenty years making wine, he finally planted his own estate vineyards in Naches Heights, and has been experimenting with biodynamics. But all that wasn’t enough. With a goal to be the “greenest winery anywhere,” Paul started up a project called Maison.
I met up with Paul in December at Bottlehouse in Madrona to talk about it. He looked right at home in the cozy little converted-house wine joint on 34th Avenue. As I would come to find out, this is because this was his home for twenty years, and the basement of the place still functions as the production facility for Wilridge Winery (he and his wife traded their honeymoon to France for a down payment on the house right when they got married). At Bottlehouse, they had Maison on tap, and after a short debate over whether the wine being piped up to the bartop was Cabernet or Barbera, the server brought us a couple of glasses of round and friendly Cab.
Maison is a négociant wine, with juice sourced from a variety of well-respected (though understandably undisclosed) wineries around the state. Paul launched the Maison project for two reasons. First, he has an underlying life mission of contributing to world peace, which functionally narrows to environmentalism in practice (he spent much of his law career focusing on environmental issues). “Also, with the recession, I needed a second line of wines. People quit buying $50 bottles of wine,” he told me, “and, I’m looking at it and I’m going ‘How can I do that?’ Well, if I can eliminate the bottle, the cork, the capsule, and the label, that’s huge.”
He started researching the use of kegs for wine, discovering that the use of hydrogen nitrogen for pressurization in a keg also protects wine from oxidation. Distributing the wine in kegs wasn’t so easy. While federal law allowed it, state law prohibited the use of kegs for wine due to an interpretation of the legal record.
They also put the kybosh on his second idea, refillable bottles, because Washington takes a very conservative stance. While nowhere in the law were these practices prohibited, nowhere were they explicitly allowed, so no one would authorize a license for it. But, after haggling with the Attorney General, he finally got the green light and charged ahead. Now Maison can be found on tap at a bunch of locations in Seattle, and the number of locations where bottle-exchange can be done is growing.
The Maison refillable bottles aren’t exactly growlers, though I can’t help calling them that. The current health code, while allowing folks to bring bottles back to a brewery to be refilled, still doesn’t allow the same for wine. However, a person can buy their first magnum of Maison for $25, and then exchange the empty bottle for a full one for $20. Since it’s a three-liter bottle, you can equate that to two regular-sized bottles at ten bucks a pop. The extra five bones is the bottle charge, which you won’t pay again as long as you exchange old for new. Paul washes and sterilizes the returned silk-screened bottles (no relabeling necessary), refills and re-corks them, and they’re ready to head out again.
Under this model, there is next to no waste, lending directly to Paul’s environmental bent. And, because Paul is blending négociant wine for the program, the cost stays low for premium vino. Everyone wins, including the earth.
“Cork House” & “Cork for a Cause”
Travis Scarborough is the owner/winemaker for Scarborough Wines, formerly O’Shea Scarborough. After he and Darryn O’Shea parted ways in 2010, Travis continued to make wines in his signature style. In fact, he went full-steam-ahead, leaving his day job with a distributor, and dedicated himself to his own winery full time. After considering the success of his second label “The Rebel,” a value red historically blended from O’Shea Scarborough juice that didn’t make it into the bottle under the premium labels, he decided to take advantage of the wine glut in Washington, and launched his négociant program, Cork House.
In May, I hung out with Travis at Cork House’s tasting room/event space on Capitol Hill in Seattle. When I first heard about Cork House, I thought it was a new wine bar in my neighborhood, but every time I tried to go, it was closed. Later, I found out that Cork House was Travis’s gig, and after shooting him a (playfully) disgruntled email, found out that I had it all wrong. Cork House wasn’t a bar open daily for the public, but rather it was a warehouse and event space for an entire wine program under the same name. (Cork House is already shopping for a new location, because the tide of gentrification is washing away his building and depositing more condominiums in its place.)
Taking on a new partner, Joshua, to work with him on Cork House, Travis began carefully selecting and buying surplus vino from wineries around Washington State. This is harder than you would imagine when you’re building a wine program that not only offers high quality at a low pricepoint, but will also remain fairly consistent from year to year. ”The hardest part when you’re making négociant wine is making it the next year,” Travis told me, “because you start off with a really good wine, and then you’ve got to back that up.”
Buying wine that was all but finished, he had to pick wines that had quality, affordability, and would blend well to create the palate profile he wanted for his own finished product. Buying wine as a négociant may save production time (you don’t have to harvest, crush, press, ferment and age), but it still requires a dutiful winemaker’s expertise in selection and blending to turn out a bottle worth buying.
It can be nerve-wracking. Wines are purchased based on samples from barrels or stainless steel vats (knowing that they’ll be selling off the wine, some of the original winemakers don’t introduce the wine to barrels). Considering that the wine will arrive essentially ready to blend and bottle, the négotiant worries that the sample is representative of the lot as a whole. There won’t be time or unused equipment available to age it further or give it a lot of nurturing between the time it arrives and the time it gets bottled. After the taste test, spending a lot of time chemically testing the sample and analyzing the data helps predict how well the wine will lend itself to the blend. And then you just have to hope that it’ll arrive at your door in good condition.
Like Paul Beveridge, Travis has a cause. More accurately, he has a lot of causes. Each year, he allots some of the Cork House juice to make a blend that can change the world. When you buy a bottle of “Cork for a Cause” red blend for just $19.99, three dollars go to your choice of one of ten causes. You can choose between fighting breast cancer, supporting animal rescue, saving the earth, supporting our veterans, stopping hunger, supporting emergency relief, supporting child health, supporting autism awareness, fighting HIV/AIDS, or fighting testicular cancer. Travis likes to call this “drinking responsibly.” On their website, an even better slogan appears: “Drink generously.” Easy to do when the wine is as solid as it is.
Travis selects these causes by partnering with GreaterGood.org, a charitable hub that routes donations to a network of trusted charities. When you choose the cause you’d like to support, the bottle dons a sticker specific to the good work you’re doing for the world.
There are plenty of other négociants in the marketplace these days, too. For example, Proletariat is a recently-launced négociant program, and like Maison, is also distributed in kegs. Be on the lookout for négociants, where you’re likely to find great wines at great values, expertly re-purposed by the talented winemakers you’ve already come to love and trust.