Article By: Fred Bouchard
BOB McGINN • 58 • New York and New England Sales Manager • Ferrari-Carano Winery, Napa
Loyalty, familiarity, experienced, known quantity . . . 2O years with one team like Carl Yastrzemski. Solid citizen, loyal soldier. McGinn has been professionally linked, one on one, with the prestigious Ferrari-Carano label, being their exclusive representative since 199O. McGinn's personal and professional histories are impeccable. McGinn addresses the elephant in the living room: that since the beer and spirits worlds have been sucked up by a dwindling number of major conglomerates, the wine field is the last bastion for smart entrepreneurs, and the retailers' and distributors' best area for carving out a unique, profitable portfolio. New at Ferrari-Carano's state-of-the-art Sonoma estate are separate wineries for white and red wines, single-vineyard Cabernet blends, and a Pinot Grigio.
STEADY POSITIONING The Carano family hasn't changed its program and style a great deal since I joined them. Their idea then was to make consumer-friendly wines also attractive to sommeliers, as restaurants have always made a large share of our market. Nor has the house style changed from year to year: they've simply bought more quality vineyards so the winemaker can craft consistent wines each vintage. The Caranos started in 1985 but didn't release their first wines until 1987, about 2OOO cases. Today, we're up to almost 2OO,OOO, but the style and sense of value remains. We constantly survey the competition and keep our prices below them. Whether it's a wine list or a retail shop, our prices won't be at the top, but, say, in the upper third.
SOLID FOUNDATION It's part of my personality; I like a stable environment. In my 25-plus years in the business I've tried to work for companies that are well-capitalized, family-run, and have a future, have a plan. I worked for Robert Mondavi for 5 years, and have been with the Caranos now since 199O. The two wineries fit the same profile. The Caranos are well-capitalized, own all their own vineyards, always work on good projects, and have products that are easy to sell. The Caranos' direction of the winery is what impresses me, as well as making the highest quality products available. All of this makes it a very nice way to get out of bed and go to work.
NEW CONCEPT With Prevail, we've taken a marketing cue from our consultant, Philippe Melka [Napa-based Bordelais 'roving vintner' making terroir-driven reds also for Lail, 29, Dalla Valle]. We focus on retail slightly more than restaurants, as the acceptance curve for new high-end wines tends to be longer. We've developed our two best Cabernet vineyards, West Face and Back 4O, as individual entities. West Face gets more sun, Back Forty less sun but excellent exposure and better drainage. Starved for water and under stress, the grapes produce tremendously intense berries. As we go forward from the 'O3 vintage, both of which had about 1O% Syrah, we'll see Back Forty increasing and West Face decreasing in Cabernet, to about 95% and 85% respectively.
CAREER MOVES I was head guidance counselor at Doherty High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, when Proposition 2.5 came along in 1981. I'd run the Worcester Wine Club for some years, a group of enthusiasts for whom retailers and distributors would hold tastings. I could wait out the education freeze or jump into the wine business, and I chose the latter. I answered an ad in the Telegram to a post office box, which I recognized because the local Mondavi rep had presented to the club. It turns out Mondavi needed someone to run public tastings and seminars, not sales, which was right up my alley. Too bad we don't see that much these days: Mondavi was way ahead of the curve in public education - with seminars in oak (hard and soft grain, aging, and barrel toasting) and recognizing flavor components (sulfur, tannin, sugar). The seminars raised public awareness and educated palates, whether the audience was the Boston Sommelier Society or private wine clubs.
LOCAL ROOTS We have a good working group, my colleagues around the country. Steve Meissner, our national manager is an East Coast guy, comes from Connecticut. He's worked the street, worked with Dreyfus Ashby, in fact, he worked for Marty's [Seigal]; for a while - Meissner and [Tom] Schmeisser!
PLAYING the CORNERS When beer and spirits magnates advertise heavily, consumers come in looking for those products. There's no hand-sell on the floor because you have a guaranteed (or pre-sold) customer. What those customers are looking for is not an alternative product but straight savings on national brands - that 3O-pack or handle - at the lowest possible price. Stores compete with each other to shave pennies off the unit cost, hoping that the customer will buy something else while he's shopping. You don't see that so much with wine, because there are so few dominant brands that are price-sensitive and there are so many small producers that a retailer or restaurant can focus on - to the exclusion of national brands. So, savvy retailers and sommeliers will have a hand-picked mix of popular brands, limited release items, personal selections. Then the customer or diner can come in, take comfort in the familiar brands, but also items that they're not familiar with that they might want (or can be convinced) to try. Wine drinkers are more open to try new things, while beer and spirits drinkers show more brand fidelity, tend to be less experimental and suggestible. They're more open to handcrafted items than mass-produced.
CONSUMER DUMBDOWN What you see now among consumers is either people buying by numbers - the ratings of Parker, Tanzer, wine spectator - or going for 'concept' wines where they don't have to know anything. Forget appellations, geography, topography. It's a cute list - Little Black Dress, Red Bicyclette, Red Truck, Lulu B., Mad Housewife, Daisy, Marilyn Merlot. You open it up and it's palatable; you look at the label and it's funny. That's your discussion point. End of story. They use grapes that are tasty and not expensive: a little Cabernet and Zinfandel, a lot of Carignan and Grenache. Shades of 'hearty burgundy' and 'rhine wine'. Don't forget: in the 197Os and '8Os, California's most widely planted grapes were Carignan and French Colombard. Today they still need these filler grapes to make wines in the $1O range.
HOME MADE WINES? At wine dinners, Italo-American enthusiasts like to talk about their homemade wines. I've made wines at home, and would not care to do it again. When you pick Barbera or Muscat grapes at 22 Brix and put them on a rail car to ship them east, the lugs arrive a week later, the grapes are desiccated and they're reading 28 to 29 Brix. Home winemakers often use a basic yeast like Fleischmann's that nothing will kill, so the wines keep on going, over the top in alcohol, like port. A savvy winemaker would tell you to cut the must with water, but that's not in grandpa's recipe! That's why homemade wines end up with very high alcohol. Sangiovese is extremely prolific and oxidizes quickly: put it in the bottle purple and it comes out brown. To avoid that, prune it down to about three tons per acre, and blend in Cabernet to reduce the oxidant level. So even after 1O years, our Siena - usually 75% Sangiovese, 2O% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec - and other blends are a rich purple.
GRAPE TRENDS Our sales force has a lot of input in terms of sales and marketing concepts. We're always searching to read trends. Sideways pushed Pinot Noir into the public eye a few years ago, and Merlot declined; now Merlot is back up, but Pinot Noir has stayed. About 6O% of our wine is white, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. But now that Pinot Grigio has become a hot grape, watch for a Ferrari-Carano Pinot Grigio in May. Another spring item that will make it to Massachusetts is Tre Terre Chardonnay, lovingly crafted by three winemakers in our Russian River estates; it's less assertively oaky than our Alexander Valley, with delicate citrus and apricot notes.
LOOSE GROUPS We're noticing dining trends, too. Young people are less taken with formerly upscale dining habits. They're not looking for white tablecloths, tete-a-tetes at the traditional dining hours. They like to come in late, gather as a group, graze in a lounge-type atmosphere. You see restaurants keep their four-tops around the edge of the dining room with the middle as a center for cross-table conversation and a loose, genial gathering. That means more wines by the glass and cocktails, with fewer bottles sold. Less orders off the formal menu and more grease-board specials. Private clubs are getting big in New York, where groups come in and buy set-ups. They'll pay $2OO for a bottle of Absolut with glasses and ginger ale. They'll get a bottle of Cristal and flutes, some big reds in balloons, and entertain their friends. It's less like bar service, and more like room service! You have an extremely narrow list of drink options - a few beers, a few greaseboard wines, some spirits - and set-ups.
LAST READ I watched Wayne Dyer on PBS and was intrigued by his book, The Power Of Intention. We can take ourselves much too seriously. As we change the way we look at others, the reactions we get from others will change. If we approach people we consider as 'tough' (whether personally or in sales) in a fresh way, we often find their attitudes toward us change. Also, changing priorities - work? family? We all ought to rethink these things, go through periods of reassessment.
TRADE NOTES My experience with sommeliers has been varied. Some are open to suggestion, and some are not. Those who are not make selections that are very personal. Certain establishment you look at the list and you have no idea where these wines are coming from. It makes it difficult for the customer to make appropriate decisions. All restaurants serve the top spirits and beers; but wine lists should have a certain amount of recognizable major label wines. Why is there discrimination against major wine suppliers? To retailers, I would say, the major retailers in terms of dollar volume (A= $5m, B= $1m, C= under $1m). These can range from Marty's and Martignetti's to bullet-proof shop-fronts. It's tough for suppliers like us to be represented in smaller shops. A lot of these larger retailers also have their own wholesale and distribution sides.
PACKAGES Clean, conservative packaging and labels quietly proclaim elegance. These have been the domain of Rhonda Carano. Our proprietary glass is all imported and is quite unique. The style of the package and weight of the glass all create a sense of value.