When they hired me years ago, they said that working at Binny’s would be a great learning experience. Then when I took a job in the office, they said the same. When they offered to send me to California, they told me how much I’d learn. This is one of the things that I love about my job, about Binny’s, and about wine in general: there’s always something new to learn.
Last weekend, a group of Binny’s employees headed out to California. We would visit several Gallo facilities MacMurray Ranch, Frei Ranch, and new to the Gallo portfolio, the William Hill winery. It may surprise you that the Binny’s folks on this trip weren’t the managers and wine buyers (though they do get the opportunity to travel) but were the wine consultants and other employees in the stores who do a lot of the customer interaction. See? It’s that Binny’s emphasis on education.
(Click the images to see a larger photo.)
It is easy to get swept up in the beauty of California. I had been to wine country once before, but it was early in the spring, before the vines had leaves. This time, however, the countryside was breathtaking. These broad valley floors between huge hills, all planted in vines, all producing wine, there’s a certain weight to that. Our visits to the different Gallo vineyards took us across the valleys, up to the hilltops, the vineyards stretching out literally as far as I could see.
It is awe-inspiring, to me at least, to see an endless supply of the source of wine, something that I’ve sold pretty much my whole working life. And if you want a good time, ride through Napa in a bus full of wine nerds. Every time you drive pass a winery, everybody gets excited. And there are a lot of wineries. The conversation goes like this: Sterling! Mumm Napa! Quintessa! What did that sign say? I missed it! Pine Ridge! And on and on.
Throughout the trip, the education continued. Your appreciation for a wine increases as you stand with a glass, looking out over the vineyards that are the source of what you are enjoying. You can walk out into the vineyards and pick a few grapes and taste them, and then spit the seeds and skins back onto the dry, rocky soil.
We visited a Gallo winemaking facility, a huge industrial complex with massive silver silo-like tanks and a seemingly endless barrel aging room room. We enjoyed a blending seminar, mixing Bordeaux varietals to shape the expression of a Cabernet Sauvignon as is frequently done in California Cabernet, and had a contest to see who could make the best blend. The people, too, were full of information about the wineries the history of the properties, the people behind the wines, and Gallo’s commitment to the land, and on and on. Something you forget is that, aisde from the money and glamour in the wine industry, parts of wine country are still essentially agricultural, and the people who grow the grapes are farmers who work every day with things like plants and dirt. That’s something.
In California, you get to drink wine. Lots of it. Throughout the weekend, we tasted most of the MacMurray Ranch and Frei Brothers portfolios, all solid wines for the money. It was good to get reacquainted with these values. At the William Hill Winery, we tasted across most of their portfolio; bottles opened included wines from before the Gallo acquisition and after expect a stylistic shift in the William Hill wines with the new releases in the coming months the chardonnays will be more complex with more oak and less angular acidity, and the new focus on the reds will place more emphasis on elegant blends and approachable varietal bottlings.
At the Frei Ranch, our bus broke down, and we were stranded for hours. What a place to be stranded! We ended up missing out on our visit to Louis Martini (a bummer, the Martini wines are excellent and always a value) but to make up for it, they opened bottles of E&J Gallo Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004, 1997, and 1994, and a fantastic bottle of Zabaco Toreador Zinfandel. I guess I was the only one geeked up enough to hunch there balancing a great glass of wine and a pocket legal pad and a pen, sketching down my impressions.
The hospitality was amazing, the food was unbelievable and the accommodations were um excessive. I’m not being hyperbolic. One dinner, for example, was a barbecue held on the floor of a redwood forest bordering a Russian River vineyard. Another was a king crab dinner with crab legs bigger than anyone could believe at a table overlooking a vineyard in Napa, the sun setting over the vines. Hell, even the boxed lunch we got on the bus was great what a peanut butter cookie!
The folks who went on this trip will probably read this blog entry and say that it doesn’t do justice to the good times we had. It’s difficult to quantify. It is doubtless that a major reason the trip was so great was the people Binny’s people, but also our hosts from Gallo and from our local distributor. We shared a great time, had a lot of laughs, and learned a lot together. I learned that I can’t always control everything that comes out of my mouth. And that timeliness is subjective.
Anyway, go to wine country in California if you get the chance. And know that the people who greet you in the aisles at Binny’s are always learning, and are always eager to share their enthusiasm about wine, and with good cause.