Growing & Winemaking


Winemaker Interview: Joel Gott

May 2011
by Laurie Daniel
Joel Gott grew up in the wine business: He’s a fifth-generation winemaker. His grandfather, James Gott, was a winemaker and president of Inglenook in the Napa Valley during the 1960s and 70s, and his father, Cary Gott, founded Montevina in the Sierra Foothills, made wine at Mumm Napa Valley and was president of Sterling Vineyards. Joel started in the business after high school as an apprentice to winemaker Mike Lee at Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma County. He started Joel Gott Wines in 1995.

Gott has followed a fairly traditional approach with his eponymous brand, which he works on with his winemaker wife, Sarah. Not so with Three Thieves, the company he started with Charles Bieler and Roger Scommegna in 2003. Three Thieves, which aims to bring value to the consumer and is known for its innovative packaging, started with Zinfandel in a one-liter jug and now produces the Bandit brand in Tetra Paks as well as a brand called The Show, which is in a more traditional package. Three Thieves also produces and distributes the Newman’s Own wines. The Thieves’ most recent endeavor has been a television show for the Cooking Channel.

Along the way Gott, 40, and his brother, Duncan, also revitalized Taylor’s Automatic Refresher—renamed Gott’s Roadside—a St. Helena burger spot that now has three locations.

Wines & Vines: How did you and your partners come up with the Three Thieves name?

Joel Gott: We were getting wine at a steal and selling it to the masses. There were three of us, and we considered ourselves thieves because of the prices we were getting. It all came together and just seemed to make sense—that we were creating a legend of some sort.

W&V: Your first packaging innovation for the Three Thieves brand was the one-liter jug. How did you decide on that package, and why did you discontinue it?

Gott: We decided that a one-liter jug would be such an iconic package to sell Zinfandel in—as it had been done in the 1940s and 50s. After the first vintage, 2003, we expanded to Napa Cab, and after the third vintage we expanded to Tempranillo from Spain and California Syrah. We did this because the Zinfandel was so popular that we decided to offer more compelling wines to our customer base. There was a lot of nostalgia attached to the jug, but it had somehow lost its appeal in the modern age, so we decided to revive it. We were continually surprised at how well it took off, and the brand grew much bigger than we anticipated. Ultimately, we were making 100,000 cases per year. After about five years, we finally decided to discontinue it because the jugs had run their course.

W&V: Why did you decide to put your Bandit wines in the half-liter and one-liter Tetra Paks?

Gott: Tetra Paks are very common in other countries, and after we all came across it on several of our individual journeys, we thought it seemed to make a lot of sense to bring it to the United States for several reasons; 2004 was our first production year. Not only was it a progressive idea, but there were a lot of advantages to it. Environmentally they are much lighter and easier to ship because there isn’t the weight of the glass. It’s dramatically cheaper to use Tetra Paks (under 10 cents per Bandit package) than to buy glass, corks, labels and foils. That allows us to spend more on the wine. We don’t hear a lot from retailers about liking that it takes up less space, but we do hear a lot about the retailers struggling to find the best place to display and cool the wine. Because it’s not a conventional shape, it adds another dimension to their layout in the store. The biggest concern was whether or not it would catch on. People love it for a multitude of reasons: They bring them backpacking, camping, concerts or anywhere glass isn’t allowed, such as poolside. Plus the wine is good, so they aren’t sacrificing any of the taste. Our current production is 300,000 cases.

W&V: How do you have to change your winemaking practices for wines that are sold in Tetra Paks? Does using the Tetra Pak present additional challenges?

Gott: Tetra Paks are unique in the sense that they are foil-lined paper, so you’re not filling bottles. Filling boxes is more technically challenging, and there are limited bonded facilities that are able to “box” alcohol. We have worked in Italy, Oregon and California for filling. You can’t put high-acid wines in them because they’ll eat the packaging, so we really had to balance out the pH and TA. We do this by de-acidifying or acidifying, balancing the wine before we ship it. We try to produce the wines in small batches so we can keep the product as consistent as possible, and the consumer will get the freshest wine. We bottle monthly in 10,000-20,000 case runs. We don’t have a consume-by date, but a produced-on date that runs across the top of the package. We would like to think that it is all consumed in the first 12 months of its life, but it can go as far as 36 months out before there is a noticeable change. It took us years of learning how to manage production from spoilage to correct shipping, distribution and winemaking. It was quite the learning curve.

The Show Goes To Music City

If the eye-catching bucking-bronco labels for one of the Three Thieves brands, The Show, are reminiscent of an old poster, there's a reason: The labels were designed by Hatch Show Print in Nashville, Tenn., which produces posters for everything from concerts to sporting events and political rallies.

Joel Gott says it was Charles Bieler's fascination with Hatch that brought the Three Thieves to the printing company. "Hatch Show Print is an amazing, old-school and original letterpress print shop, so we started working with them and their art to see what we could use to make wine labels," Gott says.

"You'll see their work all over the place, you just don't necessarily know it unless you're familiar with them and the process. They use hand-carved designs for their block prints and then lock it in with whatever colors you choose."

The label design used existing block prints, Gott says. He likes the Hatch designs so much that he has the company create posters for the releases of his Joel Gott Wines.
W&V: Although the Bandit wines are in unconventional packaging, the wines sold under The Show, another Three Thieves brand, are in glass bottles closed with a cork. Why go the traditional route with these wines?

Gott: We put The Show in traditional glass bottles with a cork because it seemed to fit the brand better. It’s a big, bold wine with a big, bold bottle, and that’s what we wanted to convey. Whereas the Bandit wines brand is a little more “outside-the-box” thinking—or should I say “inside-the-box?”

W&V: You’re using the Stelvin closure on your Joel Gott whites. Did using a screwcap present any winemaking challenges?

Gott: We just had to educate ourselves how to properly prepare the wine for using a cap instead of corks. If I prepared the wine the same as for cork, it would have too much sulfur. We also had to figure out the proper headspace because there’s no cork. We use Stelvin to retain the freshness of the white wines and for ease of entry. I love when I get white wines that are crisp, acidic and have sweet fruit. Stelvin preserves the freshness for my palate.

W&V: Are you considering bag-in-box or kegs for on-premise sales for any of your wines?

Gott: I do like them, but I’m not considering any projects right now that I want to share with the press. Charles Bieler has an amazing new keg company called the Gotham Project. They’re kegging wine from Chile, Germany, California and upstate New York that are all great quality wines, and they’re really making a big impact with keg by-the-glass wines.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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