Proportion and scale are important in wine, particularly when it comes to matching food and wine at the table. A powerful dish will overwhelm a slender wine, no matter how elegant, and vice versa. It works that way in the sales chain, too. It’s hardly ever the case that a large, well-capitalized wholesaler will willingly seek out a tiny family property to represent. There simply won’t be enough wine to bother with, and since no one in the market knows the property or its wines, interest has to be drummed up, patiently, one retailer at a time. For the big guys, it’s a lot of work for too-little return.
The outcome might well be that these tiny estates and their oft delicious, occasionally quirky wines would never be known beyond their own village cafe or local auberge; never reach the appreciative audience they deserve. That quality wines from small-scale properties continue to make an impact on our market is reason to rejoice. It’s all thanks to the efforts of a new breed of wholesaler, one who is more of a match in size with the mini-properties he represents; someone for whom patient hand-selling of little known estates, regions, and varietals is his bread and butter.
Oscar Hernandez, 31, launched Boston-based Olmstead Wine Company in the spring of 2011 with just this idea in mind. A native of the city’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Hernandez worked in restaurants in New York City while a student at NYU, then stayed on to rise from busboy to general manager with the Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group where his responsibilities eventually involved buying wine . He knew early on that he felt at home in the world of food and wine, but it took a while to realize that owning an eatery, bar, or retail shop wasn’t in the cards. By 2009, he was back in Boston, working shifts at Formaggio Kitchen and at Sportello, an upscale cocktail bar in the citiy’s Financial District.
Good wine is good wine and I’m not militant about any of this.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed working around wine until I left New York,” Hernandez says. “I tried hard to figure out what I could do that would put me back in contact with it.” One day, after reminiscing with a friend about the exciting small-production, natural wines he had enjoyed in New York, and were not available to him in Massachusetts, it occurred to him that this might his entry point. It was simple idea: bring the wines he had grown to love in New York to a growing community of natural wine enthusiasts in his hometown.
“The idea just hit me one day that this was it. I reached out to my contacts in New York who put me in touch people they worked with and it began to look like it might work.”
Raising money (around $40,000) and getting the required state permits took about a year and a half. ”I started at the smallest level possible,” Hernandez told me. “The basic expenses are permitting, warehouse space, working capital for everyday operations and, of course, inventory. To be truthful, I didn’t plan as well as I might have, but I felt more comfortable taking a risk with this than with trying to open a bar or retail shop where the stakes are much, much higher.”
Hernandez considered seeking a position with a wholesaler or importer to get a feel for how it’s done, then decided against it. ”I just didn’t want to deal with it,” he says. ”I was willing to learn as I went along. That’s not always the smartest way to go, but just didn’t want to work for other people anymore. And my thought was, that for the kind of wines I wanted to represent, the time was right.” Instead he used the 18 months to reconnect with everyone he knew in the Boston wine world, talking up his project.
“There was already plenty of good wine around,” Hernandez says. “But not necessarily the kind that changes people’s minds.”
If you’re going to try to jump start a new business, it pays to have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish. For Hernandez, this was easy: “The producers I want to do business with make extremely personal wines, wines that change not just from vintage to vintage, but sometimes from bottle to bottle and glass to glass. These are natural wines, the kind that can only be made on a small scale. It starts with organic or biodynamic, chemical-free farming; the second part is what happens in the cellar. The biggest issues for me here are wild yeast fermentations and very careful, minimal, use of sulfur – perhaps only at bottling. I always find that wines develop differently when there is no inhibiting sulfur at work.
Sulfur keeps fresh, fruity flavors intact – that’s why they say they use it. But, to me, sulfur preserves a wine by killing off a lot of bacteria and I don’t think it works the way it’s said to. I think what it does is make the wine consistent from bottle to bottle.
There are fantastic wines that are not made this way. Good wine is good wine and I’m not militant about any of this. But I do feel that natural wines have been underserved in this market. Beyond this, I’m looking for something that’s delicious. At the end of the day even more important than these natural practices or even good stories, is that the wine should taste good.”
I want to buy a bottle of wine from someone that I want to share a bottle of wine with.
To taste good, Hernandez says, wines need to be balanced, to show a certain amount of acidity, offer a good amount of fruit, and, if a red wine, some tannin. “For everything to be present but nothing overbearing – that’s what makes wine drinkable and versatile with food.”
Hernandez works with five companies importing wine from Europe: Artisanal Cellars, Massachusetts-based SelectioNaturel; Zev Rovine Selections; Jenny & Francois; Vignaioli Selection. Wines in the portfolio’s domestic book are bought directly from the properties, mainly in California. The latter include Farmers Jane; Hobo Wine Co.; La Clarine Farm; Forlorn Hope; Pied à Terre, and Scribe Winery.
Given his enthusiasm for wine made in a self-consciously naturalist style, how, I wanted to know, does Hernandez decide who are the right people to recruit for the portfolio? It turns out it isn’t particularly complicated.
“The wine that I most want to represent is one that I find delicious. I’ve met the winemaker personally, connected with him (or her) and think they’re great people. One of my favorites is Herve Ravera of Grain de Sénevé, a humble, friendly, family man who does everything himself on small scale out of passion and love. He farms just 2 hectares [about five acres] of vineyards that rise on steep hill around his house in the Beaujolais, plows with a horse. His tools look like they came from a museum of antique winemaking.”
“The last time I visited him in his very simple house his wife served a coq au vin and some cheese from down the road. We ate lunch while their baby crawled around the floor. There’s something about a guy like that who works very hard and is content with his life. He decided he wanted to make natural wine, but he thinks what others decide to do is fine. He’s exactly what I want my winemakers to be, and it comes through in the wine he makes. In the end, I want to buy a bottle of wine from someone that I want to share a bottle of wine with.
I love to see people get excited about Herve’s wine. For someone in Somerville or Cambridge to bring one of these wines home without really knowing what he’s bought, and having a great experience with it – that is really exciting for me. I’m really happy to make those connections when I can.”
Three years in, the business is profitable, but Hernandez admits to some growing pains. His warehouse space is in Taunton, Massachusetts, almost an hour’s drive from Boston, and one of the more surprising challenges he’s faced involves the mundane task of physically moving wine from the warehouse to his customers shops and restos.
“It can take a really long time just to get from one part of Cambridge to another,” he says. It’s very basic — how to get a truck across the city, and it’s not a it glamorous, but it has to be done. All the logistics, the little stuff.
I have friends who work in tech and I’m always jealous that they’re not involved in moving heavy things from one part of the city to another. I’m trying to outsource that.”
Five Olmstead wines at Central Bottle now
NV Podere il Saliceto “Falistra” Lambrusco di Sorbara Secco. Color of pink lemonade; some haze; little in the way of aromatics, light and fully dry with light strawberry-raspberry-like fruit and some soda-like minerality. This is party wine par excellence. $22
2011 Paterna Colli Aretini Chianti. Bright, limpid, rather pale pinky-crimson. Nicely loamy aromas, some cherry notes beneath. Texture is lightly coarse, but pleasantly so. Some lovely cherry-tinged fruit and loamy elements. Love the classic scale and delicate quality of the fruit. $23
2011 Domaine Bobinet “Du Rififi à Beaulieu” Vin de France. Extremely charming, light-bodied red from 100% pinot d’aunis grapes. A cinnamon candy (minus the sugar) for your mouth. Such fun to drink. $33
2012 Chateau Tire Pe “Diem” Bordeaux. Lively, bright, purple-red. Undergrowth and alluvial-salty aromas. Mouth very lean and juicy. A bit tart with simple, fresh. extra zippy red fruits. Some very fine-grained tannins. $17
2012 Domaine de Quissat “Cent Pour Cent” IGP d’Agenais Rouge. Lovely, simple, juicy sip with nice, steady, ripe, round fruit. Younger cabernet and merlot vines. $19
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