What exactly do you do as a wine broker? Tell me a bit about the wineries you represent.
As a wine broker we represent wineries all over the world. Pilar Wine Brokers – named for Ernest Hemingway’s boat – has a very strict process of representing those wineries. We seek to represent only value-oriented (not meaning cheap) wines and broaden Mississippi consumers’ access. We generally represent wineries that produce very small amounts of wine. As supply and demand dictates, these generally come at higher prices, but are still world-class wines. You’ll never catch us pushing something simply for volume. We’ll let the big guys handle that, and we will stay focused on our core: small production, hard-to-find, delicious grapes.
As far as wineries go, we have a number of great business partners all around the world, although mostly in California. Some of these wineries are gigantic, and some have quite small productions. Some even have very humble beginnings, as in the case of Papapietro Perry, where two families got together and started making wine in the basement and is now one of the premier pinot noirs in California. Regardless, they all have a story. We Mississippians like a good story.
You’re quite successful in the technology world as the CEO of Soigne Corp. Why be a wine broker when you already own a tech company?
Because I like to lose money, apparently! (Just kidding.) – Being a technical person by nature, I am very inquisitive. I remember my first introduction to wine (from a technical perspective) was when Millsaps College held a night class on it. A few friends signed up for it and I thought, “Why not?” Boy, did that start something. Most people probably attended the class to drink good grape juice and hit the next bar on the way home. I, on the other hand, was full of questions: What is the difference between pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon? How is wine made? How in the world do they keep the bubbles in that bottle? Wine is very scientific and technical.
For a great wine to be produced, three things have to be absolutely perfect: the grapes at harvest, the fermentation process and aging. People use different methods and test for different outcomes along the way of each process. It’s fascinating! Every wine is like discovering something for the first time. For example, our Phifer Pavitt cabernet sauvignon – out of the bottle with five years of bottle age scores 93 points (per people that know a lot more than me, but I do enjoy the wine!). Those smart folks then took the same vintage (how a wine’s age is classified) and rescored it after another five years in the bottle. It scored 97 points! How can that be?! Same bottle, same vintage, same everything! Wine is a living and breathing thing (literally). Grapes live, yeast during fermentation is alive! Even the compounds during aging are always changing! Maybe I’m too big of a nerd, but to me it is fascinating.
While visiting my Napster friends in California, I would always make time to visit wine country, not just on any old tour but with someone I got to know in Santa Cruz – Michael Martella. At the time, Michael was producing fantastic wines, particularly pinot noir, for Thomas Fogarty. For whatever reason he always went out of his way and spent countless hours with me. Back then I didn’t know I would one day own a wine brokerage, but fun enough, we actually represent his wines today!
Point being, and after a long-winded explanation to a simple question on one of my favorite topics, you ask: why own a brokerage? We get to provide Mississippians with quality products, do something we love and deal with winemakers around the world. What could possibly beat that? Making a living, I guess.
How do you think being from Mississippi has influenced your palate in particular?
Food and climate. Lots of people are either red wine drinkers or white wine drinkers (for whatever reason), but I enjoy both. Let’s face it, Mississippi gets hot. Very hot. Regardless of temperature, we all still find time to do some sitting on a patio. Sometimes there isn’t anything better than a cool, crisp white wine or rosé while sitting on a patio enjoying the smoldering summer heat and humidity.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that Mississippians also like to eat – generally pretty varied foods, but mostly with a pretty healthy dose of fat content. Whether a steak or pork, chicken or seafood, we have it all, and there are always wines to pair with everything. I was recently at a wine tasting for one of the casinos on the coast. The winemaker started talking about pairings and the food he grew up on. “Now this,” he said, “would pair well with Hamburger Helper.” It’s true – don’t make wine too fancy, don’t wait for the special occasion for that special bottle. As someone else in the wine business in Mississippi once told me: “Let wine be the special occasion.”
What is your number one pet peeve when it comes to consumer preferences on wine?
This is a great question, because I’ll bet readers would think “Oh, he’s going to say, ‘someone putting ice cubes in their wine’ or ‘wine in a box.’” Wrong! While I’m not a fan of either habit, I really wish people would give rosé a chance. Men generally don’t go for rosé while out, I suppose because it’s not manly. Some people think it’s white zinfandel – just so the readers know, zinfandel is red, always. Rosé, like champagne or sparkling wines, can be produced from all different types of grape varietals. Next time you are in a liquor store in Mississippi, ask for Babylonstoren rosé. I promise you won’t be disappointed.