No Dribbling This Time!
Article By: Aimsel Ponti
Located an hour from Boston and a stone's throw from Newport, Rhode Island, is the Westport Rivers Winery, which is owned and operated by the Russell Family. A recent conversation with winemaker Bill Russell reveals the rewarding side of the business while also delving into its darker corners. Carol and Bob Russell bought the land in 1982 and eighty acres of vines were planted four years later. Their son, Rob, was and continues to be the vineyard manager. In 1989 their other son, Bill, came on board and began making wine. By 1991 they were open to the public and continue to keep Massachusetts on the map as a state quite capable of producing excellent wine.
BIG BUSINESS As the craft wine industry grows, there is a looming issue of whether small wineries will go the way of some craft breweries and be bought up by larger companies. Russell points to the history of American beer, noting that the top ten breweries control something upward of 8O% of the business. "Big business will tend to consolidate and then from that consolidated state things like craft beers will erupt in a reaction to a monopolistic state." He explains that what happened in the beer world is that all the beer that was available to people in the states pretty much tasted the same. Russell goes on to describe how the whole craft beer revolution has resulted in more shelf space for these brands, though they still only represent a tiny bit of the marketplace as in maybe 2 to 2.5 percent. With regard to wine, he sees the same thing happening. "Right now the big wineries, the big concerns like Constellation Brand or Beringer Blass, they're all getting bigger. The simple fact that Robert Mondavi sold out to Constellation just over a year ago is a significant sign of the times that the big winery concerns are getting bigger and that there's a consolidation going on." And, although these major corporations are buying up brands left and right while simultaneously stating that the wines are going to remain the same quality, Bill doesn't believe that to be true. "That's all nice and flowery prose but it's simply not correct. The big winery concerns have one thing on their mind: the bottom dollar." This he fears could result in not only a consolidation in the wine market but also one in flavor profile. "Chardonnays are suddenly going to - even though a lot of them taste the same now - taste even more like each other." How could this impact a winery like Westport Rivers? "I think initially it's going to hurt because they're going to throw an awful lot of money into convincing the consumer that this is the way wine's supposed to taste," speculates Russell. He also says that the fact remains that propaganda is one of the most powerful tools that can be used to convince people of just about anything. "That's just starting in the wine world, and I really hope that I'm just being negative and all of this doesn't really happen. It's good to be aware of it, of the possibility of it, then we can end up short-circuiting it and not allowing it to happen." Russell contends that all it takes is for customers to say: "I'm not buying these brands that are part of these big international concerns anymore. I want to support the small producer." When asked how Westport Rivers and other small wineries can combat this potentially damaging blow, Russell stands by his wine. "Because we're a small producer in an interesting climate, our flavor profile and structure of our wines are going to be different than the ones the big international wine concerns are going to be constructing. It's just a matter of whether or not the people will still find those wines from any region that are produced by the small grower that actually cares about how the wine tastes and creating a product that is delicious and goes great with food." Russell also fears that the large wine corporations, by way of massive ad campaigns, could significantly impact the smaller wine producers. And while he doesn't think that a level playing in the industry is a reality, he takes pride in how Massachusetts wineries deal with this. "In most cases, the wineries have built their market with their own money, their own 'rubber hits the road mentality', their own cars, sweat, ideas, and efforts," he says.
The DIRECT SHIPPING ISSUE The legislature recently overroad Governor Mitt Romney's veto, now allowing for direct shipping, though with very specific limitations. It is likely that this final version of the bill will sill face challenges. Because Westport Rivers, as well as all other Massachusetts wineries, are under the 3O,OOO gallon-a-year mark, the law doesn't really change anything significantly for them. At present, Westport Rivers can ship wine to all states, except those that prohibit it. Russell does however continue to keep a close eye on the final outcome of this law. "The ideal for the wine growers in this state, for these farmers, is to have the market stay the same way it is." Russell also thinks that ultimately this is a consumer issue and they are the ones who should have the say via, perhaps, a referendum. One concern for Russell is that whatever form this law ultimately takes it should be enforceable to allow everyone the same footing.
REELING in a BIG ONE Many small wineries sell through their own on-premise stores and sometimes through a distributor, as is the case with Westport Rivers. To have your wine in not one, but two renowned Boston restaurants is quite an accomplishment, and Westport Rivers did just that. Sel de la Terre and L'Espalier (both in Boston) feature Westport Rivers wine. "Both restaurants have a special cuvee that we make just for them," says Russell. As it turns out, Frank McClelland, the owner of both establishments, was the first to buy Westport Rivers' sparkling wine for a restaurant. L'Espalier's house sparkling wine is the "Cuvee L'Espalier". L'Espalier boasts about this on their website: "Nothing embodies the heart of a Provencal bistro more than a carafe of rose wine on the table, and Westport Rivers had produced a magnificent rose for us. Based on the Pinot Noir grape, it exudes a bouquet of fresh strawberries and raspberries that give way to a slight spiciness with hints of rhubarb and floral accents, making it a perfect match to any of our menu items." A plug like this is the stuff that dreams are made of. But how did Westport land this account in the first place? Russell credits his mother Carol. "We approached McClelland; we actually got out and my mom who was doing sales at the time sat down with him and his wine buyer at the time and tasted some of the wine."
A LOOK BACK at WESTPORT RIVERS Carol Russell's father and grandfather owned a winery many years ago in upstate New York - it's actually still open, just under different ownership. By the time Carol was born the family had sold it off and she grew up only hearing the stories. Russell speaks of his parents disdain years later for the rampant development and the corresponding disappearance of farmland when they were living in New Jersey. "For most of their lives they've been involved in preservation, especially farmland preservation effort." When Bob Russell and his business partners sold a company they owned he found himself with a sudden windfall of money and the chance to get into the wine business. After searches in Oregon, California and Washington, the Russells met Dr. Konstantin Frank while they were looking in the upstate New York area. Dr. Frank is the founder of Vinefera Wine Cellars and is considered one of the foremost patriarchs of vinefera grape growing in the US. "He pretty much told my dad it wouldn't be a bad place down there on the south coast (of Massachusetts) to start growing vinefera grapes so they started looking around here," says Russell. When they came upon an old dairy farm on the market in Westport, their fate was sealed.
LEARNING the ROPES Bill Russell got his education in winemaking two ways. First, he learned a great deal from Dr. Frank and, as it turned out, his family also bought many of their vines from Vinefera Cellars. Secondly, Bill met their winemaker, Eric Fry, who Westport Rivers then hired as a winemaking consultant. In 1989, Fry left Vinefera Cellars and moved to the Long Island area. This was also the first year Westport Rivers made wine. "He was my open book. He was not quite my mentor but rather a bottomless resource of how to do this stuff," says Russell of Fry's contributions. To Russell, history also plays a role in winemaking. "We've been doing it for 12,OOO years so it's not something new." He also underscores how different wine making is from other businesses. "Everybody talks to everybody about everything. You can call up the most well known, famous winemaker in the world and chat about winemaking." As far as Russell is concerned, information in the winemaking world is extraordinarily accessible through the ancient channels of human connection and conversation. "There are a tremendous amount of people in this industry that came into it sideways and they rise up from within or come from another business and have entered into winemaking and successfully made the transition."
A LOOK at GROWTH Sustainability is always a huge question mark with any business, especially a small one. However, Westport Rivers continues to prosper in an often very tight market. Bill Russell himself is personally involved with wine tasting events and knows that if he can get it into people's mouths, the wine will sell itself. "Last year we grew about 4O% over the year before and this year we're probably going to break into the low 2Os," says Russell. "I think it has a lot to do with years of hard work establishing Westport Rivers as representing real quality," he adds. With regard to advertising in the mass media, Westport doesn't do any of this. They do however have a relationship with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston and the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford, which are both co-branding partnerships. "We used to do a ton of advertising but we couldn't track that it was having any effect," says Russell. In 2OO4 Westport Rivers produced approximately 19,OOO gallons of wine. In 2OO5 that number dropped to about 6OOO gallons as a result of 12 consecutive days of rain this past fall, though Russell wasn't particularly concerned about this.
GRAPES from ACROSS STATE LINES Westport Rivers has sourced grapes on two occasions for different reasons, and Russell is open to it happening again if the need arises. "We did buy grapes from Long Island for red wine production from 1994 to 98, as well as a batch of grapes from California in about 1999," says Russell. Westport Rivers was attempting to establish a market for an inexpensive, crisp white table wine. They bought some grapes from California and marketed it as Riversong. Unfortunately it never really took off and the idea was tabled. Russell also says that if something like a hurricane came and wiped out their vineyards that they would be buying grapes from somewhere else for sure.
ON the DARK SIDE As with any business, the wine world has its unfavorable elements and we take a look at some of these through the eyes of Bill Russell. "There's an awful lot of business that's done cash-in-hand; buying your way into restaurants, buying your way onto menus, buying your way into getting case displays in stores." Russell claims that sometimes this is done literally with cash in hand and other times via things like sending someone on a trip or buying a restaurant its advertising. "There's an awful lot of money that goes around from the big business to keep their position expanding," says Russell. Another tricky element, according to Russell, is how much power the distributors have. "They have a tremendous amount of sway in the marketplace, and if you work with them it can work out very well for your brand." Westport Rivers works with United Liquors and Russell speaks highly of this relationship saying, "They've been very good to us." Ultimately, Russell subscribes to the school of thought that says that business is built by relationships more than anything else. There are a few other things that Russell likes to classify as pet peeves, for example flavor profiles, which he thinks can be dictated by the media. "We tend to give the media too much sway over our lives." He also takes issue with the 1OO point wine rating scale. "The press and the media should point out the bad bottles of wine that are out there. The rest of the ones that are acceptable and drinkable, great, let's write about them from a qualitative perspective rather than a quantitative one." He further lashes out what he considers to be a level of corruption with some wine magazines saying, "If there's any place where there's actual collusion it's between the big business wineries and the big business wine magazines. They are really hand-in-hand and even though it's been documented, people are slow on the uptake about it, or they think it doesn't really matter."
FUTURE ASPIRATIONS "We just want to keep doing it better; not necessarily go bigger or wider in distribution," says Russell. "We continue to look in-house at the quality, and focus on growing the best grapes we can and making the best wine we can." He points to the pride many New England businesses take in having their products be the best in the world, even if it's still a secret. "It's that idea of 'we're an undiscovered country and we're not going to tell you how to find your way there'." At present, Russell says that the elastic band is barely being stretched, and he believes his wines biggest fans are the ones here in Massachusetts, which suits him just fine. "We would be so flabbergasted or honored if all of our wine got consumed in Massachusetts and we just couldn't make enough to satisfy the people from Massachusetts."
The FINAL ANALYSIS Despite unpredictable weather patterns and a constantly changing market, Westport Rivers looks as if they are here to stay. From a business standpoint, however, Bill Russell knows all too well and feels strongly that the further you get away from the dirt, the more money is exchanged for greater and greater economic gain. "The most eye opening perspective is to realize that those people who are closest to the ground, those people who are working the dirt, make the least amount of money in this industry." On a positive note, he captures the success story of Westport Rivers with a storybook summation. "When we put up 8O acres of grapevines in Westport, people thought we were crazy, and when we said we were going to do sparkling wine, people thought we were really crazy." As it turns out, the Russell family read the tea leaves right and poured their heart and souls into establishing their winery as a well-respected destination for wine aficionados from New England and beyond.
Westport Rivers WINERY is known for its sparkling wine. They also produce a popular Chardonnay, among others. Bill Russell believes in doing a small amount of one thing well; very well." We decided we'd limit ourselves and pursue excellence within the limitations," he says.
Whites and Roses
On the near horizon for Westport Rivers releases is the 2OO1 Brut and the 2OO2 Blanc de Noir, and then the 1998 Blanc du Blanc followed by the 2OO3 Chardonnay.