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Also, I realized that in trying to make a world-class Cabernet, you're basically going to have three years worth of sunk costs before you sell a single bottle. And then you still have no guarantee you're even going to sell that bottle. Being a real sales and marketing guy, my answer to your question would very quickly be that one of the biggest challenges has been trying to establish a new high-end brand. Even though I've priced it at $100 a bottle, [this venture] is costly. But I like to say that for my hillside, I'm a low cost provider. And people usually laugh at that but then they get it once they take into account the soil, the sun exposure, the great winemaker, and everything else. [In this same area] you've got Screaming Eagle at $700 a bottle, Rudd, and Bacchus, the most expensive wine that Phelps makes. So, $100 might sound expensive for the area, but it's really not.
"One of the things I learned is that you can sell all your wine but it takes about ten years to establish an actual brand in the market."
Then going to market was interesting. One of the things I learned is that you can sell all your wine but it takes about ten years to establish an actual brand in the market. A textbook truism is that you're not really a brand until you're accepted by the consumer. In the case of wine, I think that takes almost ten years. Now I'm into my third release, so I'm fighting the same thing that a brand new winery does: "I've got this bottle of wine; will you please try my wine?" Just yesterday, I was at the Taste of Oakville — it's surprising how many people go to a tasting like that and taste only the wines that they've heard of, instead of trying everybody's wines so they have a benchmark! The new age consumers have access to an unbelievable amount of wine information, but how many of them make a point to try wines where there's only 500 cases made? Especially in today's environment, if they're going to spend $100, it's usually on something they've heard of. Sure, there's still a few out there who say, "I've read about you" or "I've heard about you" — but basically it takes ten years to get established and I'm just beginning that phase. But I am loving it; I mean, it's really fun! And I do have an advantage because I know everybody — I've been doing this for almost 40 years! I've been calling on people for a long time! So that helps. But it doesn't guarantee anything; you've still got to make good wine and keep fighting every day to hopefully get somebody to say, "Gee, this is really good stuff!"
Valuation through Validation
NM: How would you sum up into words what you're trying to do with Oakville East?
ES: We're just trying to make the greatest expression of wine we can make from this place. That's really what it's all about. And I think that if you talk to the makers of great wines in any place in the world, the ones that are really trying to be true to whom they are, they'd all say the same thing. The only differentiation we have is our place. I mean, we have three vineyards right next to each other and we harvest all three of them in different ways and at different times — because of the variation in the steepness, the sun exposure, the rocks underneath — it's just amazing. With this little project, we harvest twelve times, it's nuts! Which means we have twelve separate batches sitting around in different states of fermentation; it becomes expensive. But that's the really the best way to express the nature of the fruit.
To learn more about their story and taste the fruits of their labor, visit Oakville East online.
To learn more about the talent behind the photography of the Oakville East bottles and vineyards, visit Avis Mandel Pictures online.