San Francisco, Calif.
Winemaker Sabrine Rodems organized the Wines of Danger tasting to feature wine brands owned and developed by winemakers. The winemaker for Wrath Wines also has her own label, Scratch.
—Winemakers who set out to establish their own brands often find the path to success fraught with challenges and obstacles. And the idea of differentiating one brand in a sea of thousands can be downright terrifying.
Knowing this, winemaker Sabrine Rodems organized a group of fellow vintners under the name Wines of Danger. Rodems, winemaker at Wrath Wines
in Soledad, Calif., also makes wine under her own label, Scratch. In fact several Wines of Danger members have full-time jobs and produce their wines on the side; others have struck out on their own, devoting all their time to their wine brands. Rodems said the idea of forming a joint marketing effort took hold during a camping trip some winemakers and their families took to the Sierra Nevada.
Rodems said she worked with a friend in public relations to come up with the name and marketing materials, admitting the name “Wines of Danger” is a bit tongue in cheek.
But there is some actual danger to it: Rodems said part of the inspiration for the name came after the tip of one of her fingers was ripped off in a bottling line. The finger was sewn up and is back to normal, but the experience was a telling reminder of the dangers (both financial and physical) that she faces as a winemaker. “It’s like being an acrobat without a safety net,” she said.
Wines of Danger is holding a tasting for trade and media at The Press Club in San Francisco on Aug. 12. For a complete list of the participating vintners, visit winesofdanger.com
Looking for representation
A small brand can find success by gaining a good foothold in just one major market. Rodems said she’s hoping the tasting will help her and her fellow winemakers land deals with restaurants and other on-premise accounts or even find a distributor. “A lot of us are looking for brokers in the city,” she said.
Scott Sisemore has been making wine for more than 20 years, but he decided to focus on his own brand, Waxwing
, in 2006 so he could be a stay-at-home dad for his newborn son.
Right now the brand pays for itself at around 400 cases, but Sisemore would like to see it grow and become more of a commercial success. The winemaking is relatively easy for someone like Sisemore who worked as a winemaker at Ravenswood Winery
, Rosenblum Cellars
and Pellegrini Family Vineyards
. It’s all the other challenges like finding new sales accounts and marketing that’s hard. “Making it viable financially, that’s where the danger comes in for me,” he said.
Sisemore said his winemaking style has evolved to a lighter touch. He seeks to craft wines better suited to pair with food, and to that end he’s turned his attention to cool-climate fruit primarily from the Sonoma Coast. One of Waxwing’s current offerings is a 2011 Pinot Noir that came in at just 12.1% alcohol. “I think it’s a little dangerous throwing that guy out,” he said.
He said some of his winemaker friends suggested ways to bump up the alcohol in order to make the wine a little more consumer-friendly, but he says, “I tried that, and you know, it didn’t make it taste any better.”
Rodems said that is another “dangerous” aspect of brands run by winemakers: The wines reflect their vision and tastes and not that of a marketing department. “It’s not only that it’s your own money, it’s something that’s not particularly mainstream,” she said.
She said her dry Riesling has a pH of 3.2 and described it as a “screamer,” while her 2011 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir was made with 50% whole-cluster fermentation.
But it’s not just the stylistic touches that make these wines or winemakers different.
After he graduated from the University of California, Davis
, Matt Reid and his wife Marcy Webb came to Napa Valley in 2004. Reid said they figured they would stay for a few years before moving on to a less-developed wine region.
Instead they fell in love with the valley and now live in Calistoga, Calif. “The one thing we didn’t like was how expensive the wines were,” he said.
That led him and his wife to found the People’s Wine Revolution winery, with the tagline “Ruling class wine at working class prices.”
Reid’s 2011 Napa Valley Syrah, which is sold out, was priced at $18; his 2012 Dry Creek Valley Viognier costs $15.
As a side project to his full-time winemaking gigs, Reid said People’s Wine Revolution was successful at 2 to 3 tons. In 2012, he began working on the brand full time, and he’s hoping to sustain the same level of success at 12 to 14 tons.
Committing to low prices is a tough road to take, but to keep costs down Reid says he finds “far-flung vineyards” and helpful growers. He lost his Napa Valley Syrah supplier, but this year he has some Bennett Valley Syrah lined up as well as Petite Sirah from Suisun Valley. He said he’s hoping to build his market in San Francisco by lining up a few more accounts from the Aug. 12 tasting.