Eight years ago, Pam Starr left a position at the venerable Spottswoode Winery and went into partnership "with a very old and historic vineyard. That way, I could make an estate wine without actually buying a piece of ground. The history of the Crocker vineyard goes back to 1870; it was a partnership back then as well." The property's old stone winery didn't survive Prohibition -- it's now a weekend residence -- but the vineyards have responded to Starr's efforts at resuscitation, and she now produces a Cabernet-Merlot blend, a Cabernet Franc, and a Sauvignon Blanc. Crocker & Starr wines "have developed a nice underground following," she says. Her annual 1400 cases of Sauvignon Blanc "are gone in less than six months."
In the beginning, she sold the wine herself. "But when I released my third wine, I was making wine for five other people while creating my own label, trying to write PR material, run a little office, and sell my wine. As a wine-growing consultant, I started wines for people who could then concentrate solely on promoting themselves. They could put themselves on the fast track, because that's all they did. But if your winery isn't big enough to pay yourself, and you make wine for other people to pay your mortgage, there's a sort of balance that has to go on." She hired a broker. "I did the invoicing, I carried the debt, and I contacted my customers directly. But the broker gave me six pairs of legs on the streets to introduce my wines to people." An underground following is flattering; an aboveground following might be enough to pay the mortgage.
Starr liked her broker. "He was fabulous in the years that were economically fat in this country." But even so, "I decided a couple of months ago that I wanted to be more involved with my customers. They really like being involved with the winery directly; it makes them feel like they have a personal investment in the wine. They can teach their staff to sell it more directly. It's not about just another wine in a book; it's about knowing me and how I make my wines." So she went back to being winery-direct, this time with an in-house marketing assistant.
In-house is not on-the-street, however, and so there was still the matter of actually meeting customers -- both prospective and established -- and filling their glasses. "It would be fun if we could all sell our wines over the Internet and have talking, interactive sessions, but that's not the way it works. Maybe someday." So when Ren Harris from Paradigm Winery encouraged her to join up with In Vino Unitas, she listened. Signing on wasn't cheap -- $2500 to cover expenses for three gala trade tastings: one in Los Angeles, one in Orange County, and one in San Diego. "You start thinking, 'Is my market going to be down there? How many cases do I have to sell?' " But Harris, who had gained 35 new accounts during his last In Vino Unitas tour, "is someone who I respect and admire, and I felt like he could teach me the ways of his success. I said, 'Okay, I'll do it.' "
In Vino Unitas, says Susan Cannon, who is the regional sales manager for the Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars, "started out as a group of friends who all hang out together and share information, because we're winery-direct and don't have the benefit of a sales team." Cannon chatted with people from Grgich and Chateau Montelena about "who's paying, who's in business, who's out of business, who the current wine buyer is. We just decided to put the group tasting together -- nobody has time to come for just one or two wineries -- and we called anybody who was winery-direct to see if they would be interested.
"When we started," she says, "it was really a time when we needed exposure. The economics of the wine industry had changed drastically. It was post 9/11. It was a recession. It was the dreaded '98 vintage" for California Cabernet. "It had started pre-9/11. The economy was faltering, and everybody was raising their prices to phenomenal levels. Then it all hit the wall. Maybe wines were being sold, but were they selling through on the wine list? That was my pitch to Phil Ross at Diamond Creek. They make maybe 1300 cases, but their wines are quite expensive, so it's not something that flies off the shelf. They come down and meet everybody, and it starts a relationship. It keeps them in touch." The group encouraged principals to attend; it added cachet and a personal feel. Besides Starr and Harris and Harris's wife Marilyn, the San Diego tasting featured (among others) Heidi Barrett of La Sirena, Matt Meyer of Meyer Family Cellars, and Boots Brounstein of Diamond Creek.
Sometimes -- as with Paradigm -- it provides an occasion for first contact. "We'd just never been there," says Ren Harris. "We'd never knocked on a door. We didn't know where the doors were. All of a sudden, they came to us, and they were happy with the wine, and it's worked out quite nicely. In the case of San Diego, this is a way to touch base with about 170 individuals who buy wine and either sell it in restaurants or shops."
The first In Vino Unitas tour featured a dozen wineries, but the group lost Chateau Montelena and Jordan to distributors before the second tour. "We needed a bigger roster, and we needed money," says Cannon. "So we went to Wally's, which is one of the premiere accounts in L.A., and said, 'Who's winery direct?' " Wally's led to Paradigm, and Paradigm led to La Sirena and Crocker & Starr. Everybody handles some aspect of the work, and leftover funds get sent back to the wineries. "We're just a group of people who are looking to take care of our own business, rather than hand it over to an outside distribution system," she says.
Three years in, participants are becoming regulars, and by now, "People are calling us. No one would be doing this if they didn't need something out of it. Diamond Creek is still with us. I've had two e-mails from Neal Family Vineyards saying, 'Thank you for including us.' Everybody kept saying, 'Why are they here? They're not opening new accounts.' I don't know. They must have felt they needed some exposure; you never know if an account this year is going to be an account next year."