Go West, Young Men

All for the love of Pinot: Three Austinites make serious waves in the world of wine

This is a story about three Austin men, all three in love with wine. Each took a separate path and arrived at a different destination. They were willing to take a chance, leave their comfortable existences, and risk whatever money they had to follow a dream. It's also a story of family support, and good guys finishing first. They were attracted to one of the world's cruelest mistresses. That mistress is a grape, but not just any grape. It's a mean-spirited, cantankerous grape that will languish in the lousy-to-awful range unless you have just the right weather, the right land, the right workers, and a kiss from God. When everything falls in line, it is also the most magical and alluring of all grapes: Pinot Noir.

There's an old saying that serious wine lovers always end up slaves to the Pinot Noir grape. Like your first experience with a passionate lover, a great Pinot can leave you yearning for another encounter immediately after your last and lead you on an unending search to re-create the experience. Two things make matters impossibly worse: The wine made from Pinot Noir can be some of the most expensive on Earth, and it is a notoriously difficult wine to follow. There are seldom two good vintages in a row, and there are so many small producers that having a good knowledge of the field is a full-time job. Still, Pinot lovers won't be deterred.

And that is the story of these three ex-Austinites. They took the step from being consumers to makers. Recently, I went out to the Oregon-California Pinot hot spots to find what had made them leave their comfortable lives in Austin to pursue this wildly unpredictable grape as a life's work. Each had his own reasons, but all had two things in common. They had worked in the wine business in Austin and wanted the chance to be winemakers. These are stories of people with a passion who took enormous risks, beat the odds, and have become very successful at what they do.

Cuisines String
Photo By Wes Marshall

Anthony King -- Winemaker at Acacia Winery

We stopped in the Carneros area just south of the town of Napa, Calif. Anthony King had invited us for the Harvest Party at Acacia, a gathering of all the workers to celebrate finishing the grape harvest. At the party, most of the attendees were speaking Spanish, the music was Mexican, and the cooks were all from Michoacán. As we looked around for Anthony, the presence of all these folks reminded us again that so much of our food, clothing, shelter, and even wine in the United States arrive courtesy of the hard-working men and women from Mexico. We finally eyed Anthony, talking and laughing with some of the workers. He was cradling his 6-month-old daughter, Gabriella, in his arms, and grinning like one of the happiest men on earth. He handed Gabriella off to his sweet and lovely wife, Kara, and took us for a ride through the vineyards.

On a hilltop, overlooking the inner traces of the San Pablo Bay, with a lovely sunset to the west, we started talking about how Anthony arrived at Acacia. He had been working at Holt, Rinehart and Winston as an editorial assistant. Several of his friends wanted to start learning about wine, so they asked Michael Villim to teach them about tasting. After a year, Villim started his restaurant, Mirabelle, and could no longer teach. In the meantime, Anthony had devoted himself to the subject and was able to start teaching the classes himself. One of his friends had started writing for the Chronicle and recommended Anthony as a wine writer.

His passion for wine was growing. Kara, who loves wine but doesn't share the thirst for the details, kept giving Anthony more wine books and paraphernalia. Then, in the spring of 1997, he decided to go back to school and take a full load of chemistry and biology in hopes of being admitted to the University of California at Davis' prestigious wine program. It wasn't easy. Besides taking full-time classes, he was writing. He also decided to try to work for the Austin Wine Merchant and learn from John Roegnik, one of the smartest people in town about Pinot. He heard through the grapevine that Jim Johnson of Alamosa was a Davis grad, so he called and offered his services working the harvest, fully expecting to be turned down. Instead, Johnson welcomed him and helped him get prepared for a life in wine, teaching him about tasting and vineyard management. After 15 months, the University of California offered him a slot. Anthony and Kara picked up and headed off.

He needed some experience working in a winery, so he called around to a few promising wineries. Acacia saw his possibilities and gave him a part-time job helping in the cellars during crush. Later, they offered him work in their lab. Anthony already had a bachelor's degree in physics, so the program took him only two years to complete. For his final project at UC-Davis, he used Acacia's Pinot Noir and did a study of tannins and color. The wine he made impressed the bosses, and Anthony became a full-time worker for Acacia.

After explaining all of this, he looked at his watch and told us he had to go back to the party to see his interns before they left. When we went back to the party, I was thrilled to see how much affection everyone felt for Anthony.

Anthony has reason to be happy: 2003 has been a good year for him. His daughter was born on March 26, and Anthony loves being a daddy. From the standpoint of his career, everything is going great. He is well liked by the managers at Acacia. In fact, on Dec. 12, Anthony's boss told him they were going to promote him to winemaker. From having an idea in 1997 through schooling and working his way up from the bottom, in six short years, he has made it into the big leagues.

Cuisines String
Photo By Wes Marshall

James Cahill -- Associate Winemaker at Soter vineyards

Up a small road in the hills above Yamhill, Ore., we found Soter Vineyards. This is where Tony Soter had come to start a small artisanal winery. He had already shown the ability to make some of California's best Pinots at his Etude Winery. A few years ago, he sold it to Beringer (he is still the winemaker), and, at the same time, had two children. He decided that the Napa lifestyle wasn't right for children and started working on a way to move his family up to Oregon. After the huge success of his high-priced California wine, Soter wanted to start something small and build it up. Everything would be based on preserving quality. He started construction of his new showplace and hired a talented associate winemaker and ex-Austinite, James Cahill.

We met Cahill on a beautiful Oregon morning. He was working on getting the new storage facility up, crushing the grapes, starting fermentation, and a few other duties. In other words, he was working about 18 hours a day, seven days a week. And he was as happy as an exhausted man could be. He showed us around, obviously proud of the quality-minded approach to everything in the winery. And just as obviously snowed under with work. He was gracious with his time, but he was also the man in charge during the single busiest time of a winery's year. Feeling some empathy for his position, we had a quick look around, promised to talk via phone, and let him get back to his job. As we left, he had already jumped back in the fray, working hard, but proud to be working on exactly what he loved.

When we got back to Austin, John Roegnik helped fill in some details. "James originally came to me at the Austin Wine Merchant because he wanted to be more deeply immersed in the wines of Burgundy," Roegnik explains. "Then, through my connections with Beaux Frères, James was able to get a part-time job working the harvest." Roegnik is characteristically understating the importance of that connection. Beaux Frères is one of the United States' greatest and most sought-after Pinot Noirs. Having that on your résumé is a coup. John even gave Cahill sabbatical standing so he could go up, work the harvest, and still have a job waiting for him back home in Austin.

The volunteer gig turned full time, and he ended up staying at Beaux Frères for five years. When he heard that Tony Soter was selling his prize-winning Etude Winery to the Beringer Blass corporation in order to start up a new venture in Oregon, Cahill jumped at the chance to work with an acknowledged master in the world of Pinot Noir. Cahill is now the associate winemaker, working under Soter's supervision, and he is learning a lot. Besides making stellar Pinot, they are also producing a high-end sparkling wine that is good enough to start attracting some champagne makers to Oregon.

Roegnik is proud of his friend. "James is a heck of a guy who applies himself 110 percent," he says. "He is really missed here in Austin, but we know he's doing great work up there."

Adam and Dianna Lee
Adam and Dianna Lee (Photo By Wes Marshall)

Adam Lee -- Co-Owner of Siduri Winery

Adam and Dianna Lee are blessed. First, they are almost goofy in love with each other. Ask for a picture of the two of them, and they act like teenagers who just decided to go steady. They have a great son, Christian. But when it comes to wine, they have been positively sanctified by the serendipity gods. They pulled a crazy stunt, one they immediately regretted, and it ended up changing their small pipe dream of a winery into one of the most respected Pinot Noir labels in the United States. Here's how it happened.

Adam started off in Austin working at Austin Wine and Spirits. He had gone by John Roegnik's store (notice how that name keeps popping up) looking for work. Roegnik sent him to look for work with his boss, Sam Kindred (one of the principals of the Austin chapter of Les Amis du Vin, and a brilliant wine person). Sam mentored Adam, who showed tremendous gifts in the marketing arena. Later, Adam had an opportunity to go work at Neiman Marcus' wine department in Dallas. There, he met the manager, Dianna, and they fell in love. They thought they would enjoy making wine, but there were a couple of small problems: Neither had any experience, and they had a grand total of $24,000, about 1% of the normal capitalization for a tiny winery. ("Probably about $3,000 was mine and $21,000 was Dianna's," Adam says candidly.) Nevertheless, Dianna comes from a family of entrepreneurs -- with a printing business in Ennis, Texas -- and the couple was willing to roll the dice and put everything they had into play. Now their other problem raised its head. They didn't know how to make wine.

There is a fine line between bravery and imprudence. Consider this. Adam and Dianna don't know what they are doing, and they are 99% undercapitalized. With two strikes against them to start with, they decided they wanted to make Pinot Noir. That would prove to be either a strikeout or a hat trick.

Adam went to California and found a job in the tasting room at Lambert Bridge. Dianna followed and also found a job at Lambert Bridge. Every day off, they would go to local wineries that made stellar Pinots, places like Rochioli and Williams Selyem. While there, they would innocently ask questions and receive a mini master's education on the various aspects of winemaking. When they felt some confidence, they put an ad in a local paper asking to buy Pinot Noir grapes, and three vineyards replied. They picked their favorite and contracted for an acre, an area that should have produced enough grapes to make about $10,000 worth of wine.

They probably should have named the winery after St. Michelina, the patron saint of insanity. Instead, they named it Siduri, for the mythical Babylonian barmaid. Their first obstacle emerged when the label design met with problems from the watchdogs at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The BATF's vision statement is "Working for a Sound and Safer America ... Through Innovation and Partnerships." It turns out that the BATF didn't like the depiction on the label of Siduri's nipples. Adam and Dianna had to airbrush the nipples off the label to get approval. So much for innovation and partnerships.

Adam and Dianna wanted to make sure their first vintage was a good one, so they kept thinning their crop, hoping to increase the intensity of the grapes. With little experience, they ended up dropping their yield so low that they could only make about 150 cases of wine. Add the cost of four barrels and the rent for equipment, and their $24,000 was gone. That was 1994.

The next year, critic Robert Parker, the single most influential voice in the world of wine, was in Santa Rosa. Adam and Dianna got a little drunk one night and decided to find out where Parker was staying and drop off a bottle of their new wine. In their inebriated state, it seemed like a good idea. When they woke up sober, they realized what a terrible mistake they had made. What if Parker hated it and gave it a bad review? Their budding winery would be ruined. They rushed over to the hotel, hoping to retrieve the bottle before Parker picked it up. When they got there, they found out he had just left and had taken their wine with him. As far as they were concerned, their winemaking days were done.

Two weeks later, they got home and there was a message on the answering machine. "This is Robert Parker. I tasted your wine and loved it, but I've lost the information you left with it. Could you send me another copy?"

They danced around the apartment for hours. They called friends and played the message over and over. Maybe there was still some hope for their winery. Another three weeks went by and Robert Parker's review came out. The verdict: Siduri was a stunning new winery, one that all Pinot lovers should carefully watch. Their entire production of 150 cases flew out of the winery. But even then, they had only made enough money to break even. Then they had a brilliant brainstorm. They could sell futures for next year's wine and use the money to finance the next vintage. It worked. They decided to find other vineyards for Pinot and began a program to make a set of single vineyard wines complemented by a less expensive series in which they blended grapes from various vineyards.

Since then, Siduri has become a critical darling. Nearly every one of the 17(!) Pinots they make gets scores in the 90s. People stand in line to buy their wines, and they generally sell out early in the year. Dianna and Adam now make 5,500 cases of wine annually (a couple of million dollars' worth, but who's counting?).

Common Threads

Here are three dreamers, all from Austin and all called by a love of wine and a passion for Pinot. I hope you'll pardon me if I get a little sentimental. After all, it's the new year, "Auld Lang Syne" and all that. To me there are two very important common threads. First is the courage that these individuals demonstrated when they jumped headlong into a career path fueled by sheer passion. The second is how hard work, allied with the loving support of family and the assistance of friends, might just be able to chip away at enough roadblocks to help make those dreams come true. My New Year's wish is that all of us learn a little from these folks and that we become inspired to be bold in following our dreams and helping others to follow theirs. Happy New Year! end story

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