If there’s a sure thing in life, it’s to expect the unexpected. This certainly applied to me when it came to a career path. Call it chance, fate or dumb luck, but a seemingly insignificant moment became life changing. Simply put, being in the right place, at the right time can make all of the difference. In addition, it’s also about how you handle a situation when the unexpected takes place. This is how I ended up in the wine business.
The path to this business was highly unlikely, as no one in my family, past or present has had anything to do with wine. To take it a step further, business ownership was not the norm in my family. That said, I’ve spent my entire working life in the wine business, a good part of it owning a specialty retail store. Now, more than thirty-five years later, I can’t imagine being in anything outside of wine.
It began as a high school kid when I landed a part time job in a suburban Detroit area wine shop in 1981. I stocked shelves, unloaded trucks, bagged ice, along with other various grunt work duties. There, I befriended Lester, a semi-retired night manager who was more than a bit obsessive about wine. It had been an integral part of his life for more than fifty years and he made no secret of it.
Most nights, Lester would have a late supper in the shop’s office. One evening, he said to me, “Polish boy, try this wine”. To this day, I recall seeing the bottle of 1966 Chateau Cantenac Brown. At the time, the name meant nothing to me, but I did find the gold and black label with a slightly gothic look as confusing, imposing, and maybe even a bit sinister. With some hesitation, I gave it a try. With the first taste, I nearly wretched. Who could manage to choke this down? This is exactly what Lester expected to happen. After he stopped laughing, he gave me a copy of Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wine, the gold standard reference book of its day. He said, “take this home and read about what you’ve just tasted.” I was not overly enthusiastic about it and even a bit agitated. It was like I had been punked before the term came into its current meaning. In the worst-case scenario, if I had no interest in the book, at least I could use the voluminous piece as a doorstop.
That night, with a freshly made bad impression, I read about the wine that nearly gagged me. Slowly, it started to sink in that wine is much more than just something to drink. I began to see it as an epic story. There were aspects of science and art, culinary connections, politics, religion, business and on and on. It’s about people, places, tradition and those breaking the mold. It’s about it being a part of the social glue for a millennium. With each vintage, the deck is reshuffled again. And, the fact that wine comes from many of the places that I hoped to visit was an added bonus.
For the next few years, Lester and I tasted, read and discussed nearly every wine sold in the shop. I found it groundbreaking and definitive. My appreciation for what I was tasting grew by leaps and bounds. I had found my calling or maybe it had found me. I worked my way up to store manager and at the age of twenty-three, I decided to move away and open my own wine shop.
In retrospect, the chance of succeeding as an inexperienced young man with a start-up, owner operated fine wine shop was slim to none. It was clearly a case of instinct over intelligence. Cash poor, but ultra-determined, the business slowly took hold as a place to buy, unique, different, interesting wines that spoke of place and pedigree, made by people that had a passion for their trade. The formula worked as the business slowly took hold. While it was a success, it was also a dinosaur business model, with limited reach. I loved what I was doing, but I also found it confining.
Inspired to broaden my horizons and to put the pieces into place for the next step in my career, I entered the notoriously difficult Master of Wine program. With a typical annual, global pass rate of about 5%, I set out for the ultimate prize within the wine trade. The exam consists of three sections. Included are three days of blind tasting (identifying a total of 36 wines), four days of written essays (today’s exam has five days) and a dissertation. After some humbling setbacks, I managed to become the nineteenth North American to pass the exam in 2002. In doing so, it broke a four-year drought in which no one in North America had successfully passed the program.
In passing the exam, I was now at a crossroad in my career. After sixteen years, I chose to sell my shop for a new chapter in the corporate side of the wine world. For nearly another sixteen years, I found myself working for some of the largest wine retailers in the U.S. and Australia. Much of my time was spent traveling to nearly all reaches of the wine world. Often times, it came with a necessity to work with the behemoth wine producers of the world. At times, I saw wines corporatized, commoditized, homogenized and marginalized, influenced more by accountants than winemakers.
Currently, the wine business is going through major changes. The recent proliferation of online wine retailers is changing the market and driving much of the growth. Many web-based businesses have built a platform of selling private label, bulk wine, close outs and wines from virtual wineries, without making it overtly known to their customers. Some are simply marketing fronts for much larger organizations. It feels disingenuous. This is my impetus for the creation of Stellar Bottles.
At Stellar Bottles, the mantra is in the polar opposite direction. The best small scale brick-and-mortar wineries are searched out from all around the world, many with histories that go back multiple generations. The most consistent, iconic, quality-driven family producers, along with the newest up-and-comers with real brick-and-mortar wineries are partnered with through an extensive global network. These are wines that will not leave you indifferent. They have the it factor! Many are made by sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. They are the types of wines that do not find consumers with large marketing budgets, but rather are discovered through actively searching them out. It’s all communicated through a non-geek speak featured wines page that provides all that you will need to know about how the wines were made and taste, along with the people and story behind them.
Whether it’s wine or any number of other products, people are increasingly putting a higher value on items they trust and view as authentic
and artisanal. With Stellar Bottles, wines are assessed under a core belief that the best is a result of obsessive attention in the vineyard and
typically a minimal manipulation within the winery. This allows for the most expressive, authentic and pure experience, along with the truest
sense of place. This is the essence of true artisanal wines. This is the sole purpose behind Stellar Bottles. I still have that old copy of the Alexis
Lichine Encyclopedia of Wine. I can’t imagine where I’d be today, if I had taken a different path and simply used it as a doorstop.
About Stellar Bottles LLC, www.stellarbottles.com
Based in Concord, CA. The company was formed in 2018, sales launched in 2019. As a monthly wine subscription business, our obsession is finding the finest artisanal wines from classic and cutting edge wine regions from all around the world. The focus is customer friendly options that offer flexibility to meet personal needs. We’re a no frills business model that goes direct to the source
whenever possible. We’re connected via a broad global network. We travel extensively to visit our supplier partners, along with attending major wine fairs and competitions throughout the world. For further inquiries, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org