Brian Loring didn't set out to ride the wine boards to success in the wine business, which is probably why he was able to do it at all. The wine boards -- Internet bulletin boards/chat rooms such as the West Coast Wine Network (run by San Diego's own Brad Harrington) and eRobertParker.com -- are not a good place to show up and flog your latest creation. The posters are a savvy bunch, many of them with deep cellars and oceans of experience. And they like their commercial independence -- they're not in the business, not beholden to anyone. They're in it for the fun of it. You show up as CabFan2005 and start raving about the hedonistic fruit on your new Extravagance Reserve Cabernet (Egostroke Vineyard), and you're liable to get called out and flamed. The reason they didn't blast Loring when he started writing about Loring Wine Company? In part, because he was one of their own.
For now, Brian Loring still has a day job -- he writes software -- and it was through a couple of coworkers at Hughes Aircraft that he discovered the wine boards back in 1998. "It was just wine geeks talking about wine -- finding new wines, telling about good experiences at wineries, asking silly questions like 'What's your favorite wine?'" Loring, a longtime devotee of Burgundy and California Pinot, became a vocal regular. Then, in 1999, he bought three tons of Pinot Noir from his friend Norm Beko at Cottonwood Canyon; two years of helping out at harvest time had left Loring with the fever that convinces a body to abandon reason and start making wine.
Fortune smiled upon him. "As a newbie starting out, I had no mad skills or anything," he admits. Pinot Noir was his great love, so naturally he wanted to make it -- but Pinot is not known as a forgiving grape. Part of its reputation for inconsistency, suspects Loring, comes from the fact that producers are often "dealing with fruit that's just on the edge of ripeness. At that point, it's really fragile."
Early on, however, he found himself getting into vineyards planted with newer, heartier clones, clones that produced riper, heartier fruit. (Loring buys all his grapes.) "Once you get rolling, the connections are just there. I found Clos Pepe on the Internet. I was going to get grapes from James Ontiveros, but he had to drop fruit and didn't have any left for me. So he convinced the guys at Garys' Vineyard to sell me some fruit. Once I was there, it was easy to get into Rosella's vineyard, which is owned by one of the Garys. And Adam Lee at Siduri called me and told me that Keefer Ranch had some fruit available. We watch out for each other; we're all kind of buddies." (Another example of the peculiar noncompetition between winemakers who by rights should be fighting desperately to dominate their share of the relatively tiny wine market.)
Fruit from these new clones, says Loring, "is not as delicate; it's not as much 'the heartbreak grape.' People say that you have to have all gravity flow in the winery when you're making Pinot" -- meaning, you let gravity take the juice from crusher to fermenter to barrel and so on, so as not to bruise the fruit through any kind of violent force. Such a setup is usually too expensive for a newbie operating out of a warehouse, but Loring was saved by his beefy new grapes. "I pump everything, and I don't think it beats the wine up at all; it's happy to be treated like Syrah or anything else.
"I started sending out a kind of early blog as e-mails to a bunch of people about what I was doing," recalls Loring. The e-mails formed a Winemaker's Diary, and somebody began posting them on the West Coast Wine Network. "People started asking questions, and before you knew it, they started signing up for the mailing list. Then when they said to other board members, 'Try Brian's wines; they're really good,' those other members said, 'Okay.' It was word of mouth, in a sense, but because of the boards, I've gotten as far in three years as I might have in ten years without them. The wine boards brought pennies from heaven -- or, thousands of dollars from heaven." They helped give him the wherewithal to double production year after year, to set up contracts with top-flight growers. "Today, I'd say at least half of my mailing list is people that are on the boards" -- though as the scores and press begin to pile up, Loring is beginning to get more signups from elsewhere.
Now, he says, "I try to be really careful not to market myself when I'm on the boards. I try not to talk about my wines unless someone asks a question or attacks my style of winemaking. I spend most of my time talking about other people's wines. The guys who run the boards are cool with it; I think they like having winemakers and vineyard guys participate. It kind of rounds out the discussion."
But if he doesn't use the boards as a selling platform, he's happy to use them as a tool for customer care. "I could be in upstate New York for two weeks, testing sonars in a barge in the middle of a lake, but when it's time to go to dinner, I can have five or six dinners set up in Syracuse or Rochester or Corning. It started as just survival on business trips; I didn't have to go back to the hotel room with a cheeseburger and watch TV. But then it was, like, 'Gosh, these people are on my mailing list, it would be nice to put a face to the name, have a little more connection with the customer.' I've met hundreds of people on my mailing list through the boards. I'll add an extra day to my New York business trip and drive down to Philadelphia. Or I'll stay overnight during my Chicago layover and hook up with some people for dinner."
If it's a grand affair like the recent eRobertParker.com offline tasting at the Pamplemousse Grill, Loring may bring some barrel samples. "I figure the winemaker ought to bring something interesting, and it gives my customers a feel for the vintage. I do that sort of thing way more often than formal winemaker dinners, where you stand up, say your piece, and sit down. I've been very lucky -- demand has exceeded supply. I don't have to schmooze and sell the wine. I can just talk to the people who have already bought it and thank them."