Food

After the fall: The stories of three niche wine makers

To paraphrase Tolstoy (poorly): All happy wineries resemble one another; each unhappy winery is unhappy in its own way.

As the economy continues to affect the California wine industry, there is a prevailing feeling of dread among industry analysts and producers; a recent report by Silicon Valley Bank, a major investor in vineyard properties, suggests that as many as 10 vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley alone are likely to be sold under distressed circumstances this year; in a survey accompanying the report, 7% of the region's producers considered themselves to be in dire financial shape.

Mat Garretson, John Buechsenstein and Michael Havens were unfortunate enough to be on the leading edge of that trend. Each had built a small, high-quality winery from scratch only to have it falter in the new economic reality; each has had to face seeing wines they crafted selling for dimes on the dollar at discounters.

And happily each man, to varying degrees, can testify to the fact that there is a life in wine that comes after.

In 1991, Garretson founded a wine organization called the Viognier Guild, established to sing the praises of an obscure white grape variety from the Rhône Valley that few Americans had ever heard of. That year, in his home state of Georgia, he organized a tasting of Viogniers from around the globe that amounted to the largest assemblage of wines employing the grape in history. The lineup included California producer John Alban, with whom Garretson would join forces to mount the annual celebration of Rhône wines and varieties we now know as Hospice du Rhône.

In 1994, Garretson moved to California to be closer to the action, taking sales jobs with various wineries, but in 2001 he decided to throw his hat into the Rhône ring, founding Garretson Wines in Paso Robles with his wife, Amie. He started small, but some initial critical success had him growing rapidly, from fewer than 1,000 cases to nearly 8,000 in five years. The expansion stretched his resources, and his long weeks on the road selling the additional wine kept him from his family and led to some neglect in the winery, and occasionally a less-than-pristine product. In the end, the financial burdens of a failed land deal forced Garretson to fold in 2008.

Garretson spent the next several months exploring sales opportunities for other California wineries and was mulling half a dozen offers when the economy went south — leading four of those six wineries to backpedal. So Garretson took a job directing the fine wine division of a Minneapolis-area wholesaler, Quality Wine & Spirits, for whom his many California friendships have proved to be invaluable.

Garretson has been in Minnesota for nearly a year. He's happy with his new job, happy to have left behind the stresses of winery ownership; he especially loves coming home to his two boys every night. But there are still times, he says, when he goes out in the market and introduces himself, "and they look at my card, and they say ‘Garretson — like the winery?' Of course, it's nice to be noticed," he says, "but what I'm really thinking is, ‘Gosh, where were you when I needed you?' "

• In 2003, Buechsenstein assembled a dream team of industry veterans to form its own international wine kingdom, the Sauvignon Republic. The team included Paul Dolan, the former winemaker at Fetzer; North Carolina restaurateur Tom Meyer; and renowned Sonoma chef John Ash. Their plan was to sell well-made, well-packaged, well-priced Sauvignon Blanc from three countries: New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.

Crisp, limpid, aromatic, these nervy whites would appeal to the growing Pinot Grigio set, a premium wine sold at a price that could be poured in restaurant by-the-glass programs. Plus, with suppliers in two hemispheres, they'd always have a wine or two in the market.

Critics loved the wines and the concept, and the wines sold well after the initial launch. But, admits Buechsenstein, sustaining early momentum proved difficult. "It's possible that Sauvignon Blanc hadn't quite hit its breakaway stride. We certainly didn't replace Pinot Grigio as quickly as we'd thought or hoped."

Sauvignon Republic wines always cost a bit more than other Sauvignon Blancs; considering the winemaking talent, that wasn't surprising. The problem was that Sauvignon Blanc rarely fetched a premium price to begin with, and although making it in three corners of the world isn't three times as expensive, the practice surely cost more.

With a retail price under $20, the Republic needed to sell a high volume of wine to be profitable, which meant working with larger restaurant chains or retailers. But the brand never consistently established those accounts. "We needed a placement at a good national chain like P.F. Chang's or Restaurants Unlimited, or a regional group like Legal Seafood," he says. "In the end, we never quite got there."

And he found that large volume producers could discount their wines more aggressively — a problem that was exacerbated during the economic downturn, when prices were slashed across the board. Sauvignon Republic's niche became increasingly crowded. In the end, the partners decided to forgo the 2009 harvest in California and this fall off-loaded their remaining stock to Trader Joe's.

All of the partners, of course, had "day jobs" to return to. Buechsenstein has returned to teaching in the wine programs at UC Davis and the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus. And he recently signed on with the University of California Press to edit an ambitious international anthology of the French concept of terroir, ranging, as he puts it, "from the beginning of time to well into the future." A project like that is practically enough to ensure that he won't stay out of winemaking for long.

• The story of Havens Winery is the most circuitous, and perhaps the most disheartening. Founded as a limited partnership in 1984 by Michael Havens, the winery earned over its 25 years a stellar reputation for Bordeaux varieties, as well as some of the more compelling Syrahs in California.

In 2006, when some of his initial investors wanted to cash out, Havens arranged for the sale of the brand and its inventory, in cash, to Billington Imports, a Virginia-based import company devoted mostly to South American wines, notably Catena in Argentina and Cousiño Macul in Chile.

The sale looked attractive at first to Havens. In addition to the infusion of cash, Havens would have access to distribution in a number of compelling new markets across the country. Better still, he got to stay on as winemaker and could maintain a founder's stake in the brand's health and well-being while being relieved of the burden of running the business.

But soon after the settlement, Billington's sales began to falter; so too did its payments to contractors and to the wineries it represented. Havens started hearing that his new employer was late in paying its bills for winery equipment and supplies, and even for some winegrowers he'd contracted with for years.

And then came the economic downturn. By late summer 2009, Billington was out of business, and the company's assets, including a sizable stock of unsold Havens wines, were released to a Woodland Hills liquidation company, Great American Group.

For the last six months, the wines from this respected brand have flooded the Los Angeles retail market and Internet websites as retailers took advantage of liquidation prices. Havens watched helplessly as his wines sold for a fraction of their worth, as the reputation of his brand fell with the fortunes of Billington and his name was inevitably listed as a casualty in stories about the economy.

That inventory, says Havens, will soon be sold out, and he's thankful that he'll no longer be getting e-mails offering steep discounts on wine he made. "I'll be free to move on to the next phase of my life," he says, adding, "It's a great relief not to be selling wine in this market right now."

And his next phase is nothing if not rejuvenating. With partner Morgan Twain-Peterson, Havens is ready to launch a small brand devoted entirely to Galician style white wines, made with native Galician varieties like Albarino, Treixadura and Godello. He's going to call it Abrente, a Gallego word meaning "the first light on a clear morning." It'd be hard to find a better image for renewal than that.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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