Thought it was time I took over the blog responsibilities from Brian and posted my own thoughts!
In 2012, Brian and I decided to custom crush our own wine. We purchased actual grapes from a desirable Napa vineyard, bought a new French Oak barrel, blended the juice, and had it bottled. We had high hopes for the end product - after all, we considered ourselves pretty knowledgeable about what goes into winemaking (and more importantly, what comes out of winemaking). So after our wine had barrel-aged for a sufficient amount of time, we had it bottled, and we lovingly labeled each bottle by hand. The resulting product was the true inaugural vintage of Claudine Cabernet Sauvignon.
And it was… underwhelming.
Drinkable? Yes. Impressive? No.
It just didn’t “wow” anybody, and we wanted to put our grandmother’s name on something better. It turns out there is a material difference between drinking lots of wine and making it. Who knew?
So the question became: how do we produce better wine without actually MAKING it ? As with so many things in life, the answer would soon present itself.
About 18 months after making our first vintage of wine, we were approached by a friend who works for a high-end winery with some excess Cabernet to sell. This was some amazing wine, and we had the opportunity to buy it at a great price. The growing season had produced incredible quantities of excellent wine, and it was simply more than they could sell to their own customers under their own label.
Why would wineries ever want to sell their juice in “bulk” (this is industry lingo) to a couple of novices like us? Why don’t they just bottle everything they’ve produced and try to sell it all under their own label, and try to maximize their own profit?
Here’s the rub: every year, the amount of grapes produced from each acre of land changes based on the growing conditions. In great years, there is an abundance of wine; in lean years, there is less. Another variable in the winemaking process is the blend. One year, a Cabernet Sauvignon might have 20% Merlot or Cab Franc blended in and the next year, only 5%. In the latter case, the winery would then have a few extra barrels that they won't ultimately use.
Makes sense to this point, doesn’t it? What doesn't change much from year to year is demand for any particular brand of wine, and this leaves wineries with several options:
1) They could store surplus production, and wait for customers to buy it eventually. But storage costs can quickly eat into future profits. Not to mention the cash-flow considerations.
2) They could have a ”fire sale” (the kind we see facilitated by websites like lastbottlewines.com, winewoot.com or winestillsoldout.com). This option, however, damages their overall brand, and can upset loyal customers who already paid full retail price. Plus, once you see a wine for 50% off on a website, how likely are you to pay full retail for that same wine in the future? Not likely.
3) They can sell their excess juice to a couple of [good looking] entrepreneurial guys. *clears throat.*
Sorry: we can’t disclose our sources
And this whole idea is known as being a negociant.
According to the infallible internet source, Wikipedia, a negociant is:
“A person who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the result under its own name”
The French have been doing this for several centuries. In America in the 1970s, Kermit Lynch re-introduced European wines to American consumers in this fashion (if you haven’t read his book: Adventures on the Wine Route, you’re missing a must-read for all wine enthusiasts).
More recently, Cameron Hughes has brought this business model into modern times by buying large quantities of excess wine from fine wine producers and bottling it under his own label for (literally) pennies on the dollar. Where Claudine Wines differs is that we can make our model work with 3-5 barrels. In turn, this small lot production allows us to preserve the personality of each individual offering.
So how, exactly, do we get from a winery with excess wine to a bottle of Claudine?
When we approach or are approached by wineries with possible "orphan" barrels, we begin by tasting the wine directly from the barrel to ensure that we are only sourcing top-quality wine. Once we confirm that a wine that meets our standards, we then put into motion our process to get the wine from the cave to the bottle to your table. We keep our projects small (approximately 3-5 barrels at a time) to maintain the most rigorous quality control, with our goal to sell a majority of our wine soon after bottling. This helps us avoid excess storage costs and, subsequently, provide superior value to our customers.
Because we don’t have high overhead (mortgage, land, machinery, employees) to maintain, we have the luxury of only producing wine when we feel it is of exceptional value. As a result, we don't have a wine club that ships at regular intervals, and we don't hold on to wine for very long. What you see on the website (or through an email) may be here today and gone tomorrow.
In short, we built a wine company that only produces exquisite wine at tremendous value.