It was October 12, 2005, I was washing bins, getting them ready for the next morning’s pick and I got the call. The warehouse in Vallejo where we stored our wines was on fire. Our entire second vintage – all of our 2003 wines – were in that building. I knew it wasn’t good. But I figured, you know what? There’s nothing I can do about it, and I kept on washing the bins. I was hopeful, but deep down inside I knew. We’re toast.
I’d been a medic in the army during the first Gulf War. I didn’t see combat, but I knew it was always around the corner. Then as a registered nurse I worked in the ICU and Cardio/Pulmonary Unit at Summit Medical Center in Oakland. I was good at recovering patients and I always got the sickest ones. I think it’s because I was even keeled; I never really stressed about it. Personality’s a big thing in any working environment. If you’re having a bad day, everyone around you has a bad day. It can be very toxic.
At the hospital I kept getting promoted and promoted, but I wasn’t really trying that hard. By the time I was 29 I was in an administrative role reporting directly to the hospital’s CEO. But I thought, there’s no way that at 29 I should be managing 1700 nurses. Some of them had 30 years experience on me.
I’d gotten into wine during college at St. Mary’s. You had to take a lifestyle type course during the January term, and since I was paying my way through school and couldn’t afford to travel, I took a wine appreciation class with a group of friends. I got really intrigued with it, spent more and more time reading about it, drinking it, traveling to wine regions, doing tastings, meeting people.
Some of the first guys I met in Napa Valley were Dan Dawson and Thomas Brown. It was 1997. Dan ran the All Seasons wine shop in Calistoga and Thomas was working there part time. There was a notice of a wine tasting at All Seasons in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a tasting of 1993 cult wines -- Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Araujo, Grace, Dalle Valle, Colgin, Bryant Family -- all the new cults. I remember my ticket cost $50. We had 10 different wines. They were the new wave. The economy was doing well and there was a lot of excitement about these new wines. They were getting big scores and setting the stage for a new era in the Napa Valley.
So many of the people I got to know when I first came to the valley grew into legends. Things were changing. Until then, if you wanted to get into the wine business, it was about going to U.C. Davis or Fresno State, getting your degree, working your way up through a large winery.
But there was a group of younger guys – Thomas Brown, Pax Mahle, Wells Guthrie – they were going to be successful without the traditional ladder of an enology degree from Davis, etc. We were all friends; it was a little like high school. They were taking a different route, and I started thinking, if they could do it, why couldn’t I do it?
My uncles have a phrase: “Mexican ingenuity.” It means you’ll figure out a way to do something. That’s the way I’ve looked at life in general. In a perfect world you would have everything on paper, projections set out, everything mapped out. Had I been more of a business man, I might not have started down this path. I would have had too many questions, too many restrictions. But I saw Thomas Brown doing it. Pax Mahle was doing it. They didn’t have it mapped out. They hadn’t reached success yet. But they just knew they were going to do it. I believed in them. That was big for me. I just believed that they were going to be successful.
In late 1998 I was up in Napa and I saw a place for sale. At the time my wife and I were renting in Walnut Creek. She wasn’t even with me but I called her and said I wanted to put an offer on the house. By 5 pm that same day the offer was accepted. I thought oh boy, I’m moving up to Napa Valley. I still had my job in Oakland, but I figured if I’m going to go into the wine business there’s no better place to be than Napa Valley. I’d always been focused on Napa; it was prestigious, world-renowned.
“When you think of California wine, you think about Napa first. That’s where I wanted to be.”
The following year I took a month off from the hospital and worked harvest at Livingston Moffett Wines with John and Diane Livingston. John Kongsgaard was there and I knew he had a unique philosophy about winemaking. I was kind of intimidated because he was already well known; his Chardonnays were really sought after. But he came over and shook my hand and said “From one Juan to another Juan.” That’s what he said. I thought that was really cool. He drove an old beat up white pickup truck.
I’d been toying with the idea of importing wine, but after that harvest I decided, ok, production is where I want to go.
In 2000 my friend Pax Mahle was starting his own label. At the time I was thinking of applying to work for Les Behrens of Behrens & Hitchcock, but then Pax said he was starting up and I thought well, I’m going to help Pax out. Pax said I should see if I could work with Les because I’d get better experience there. But I thought Les already had enough people. Pax needed me more than Les needed me. So I spent the harvests of 2000 and 2001 at Pax Wine Cellars. It was great experience for me. Pax was so small, and I got to do a little of everything. That’s when I started spending more time in the vineyards; I spent hours pruning, thinning, even picking. I picked 3 tons that harvest. I remember going to the Farmhouse Inn in Sonoma one night in grape-stained shorts and a t-shirt to celebrate. We had three bottles of Maya Cabernet. Anyway, that was my favorite part, the grape growing. I was really intrigued by that.
“Juan helped me out with my first couple of vintages, like any friend would help another friend. I remember that day we picked grapes. The harvest crew had cancelled and it was me, Juan and my partner. Juan had worked all night at the hospital, then drove up and started picking with us at 7am. We took the fruit back to the winery and processed it. I remember looking over at him at dinner that night and thinking he hadn’t slept in 30 or 40 hours.”
At this point I was cutting back my hours at the hospital. I’d work 12 hour shifts on the weekends which gave me flexibility during the week. I also started to do part time work for Fred Schrader and Margaux Singleton at Enoteca Wine Shop in Calistoga. I worked for them about four days a month which allowed me to do trade tastings. I was their only employee and I was exposed to a lot of wines. That was in 2001 and 2002.
In 2000 I met Wendell Laidley, my first business partner. He had a house in Calistoga and would come into the shop on weekends. We talked wine – he was into collecting – and we started seeing each other socially for dinner, that kind of stuff. One night in 2001 we talked about starting our own project.
That’s when I started putting feelers out about getting fruit. I realized that even though I knew a lot of people in the valley, getting grapes – the kind of grapes I wanted -- was going to be challenging. You may have a lot of friends who are growers, but their fruit isn’t necessarily available. It’s under contract.
I probably got rejected by about 40 different growers. I asked everyone I knew -- David Long, Steve Sherwin, Mike Wolf, every vineyard manager I knew, Jim Barbour, David Abreu. I was throwing darts. I figured, worst case, they’re going to tell me no. Most people didn’t call me back, and when they did, there was nothing available. But with Steve Sherwin, he said hey, if you do get some fruit, why don’t you make it up at my winery? So at least I had a home, which was a big step at the time.
So I’m calling growers and they’re all asking me who’s going to make my wine? I realized I needed to have a winemaker. It wasn’t something I could take on myself. I was married and still working at the hospital. It would have required a lot of research on my part, and time that I just didn’t have.
So I started calling some of the top winemakers. I called Celia Masyczek, Mia Klein, Françoise Peschon, Mark Herold – and the first thing they’d ask was where the fruit was coming from. It was a Catch 22. I’d say I didn’t have any fruit but I do have a winery. But that wasn’t necessarily a positive since Sherwin was all the way up on Spring Mountain. That actually made it even more difficult.
This is 2001 and things just don’t seem to be lining up. Then it got so close to harvest, and I said, you know, let’s not worry about it, let’s take our time and do things right. There was fruit out there but it wouldn’t have been a good starting point.
Mike Hirby was working at Behrens & Hitchcock with Les Behrens, making Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. He wasn’t consulting at that point but he had his own project – Relic. He was making Syrah and Pinot, and I figured if he can make Pinot (which at the time I thought was a more complicated wine to make) he can make Cab. We tasted together all the time and I knew he had one of the great palates. So Mike agreed to make our wine.
“I still didn’t have vineyard sources, but I had two of the three pieces.”
In 2002 I went to Fred (Schrader) and said I’m going to meet with Andy Beckstoffer about getting some fruit. I wasn’t expecting Andy to say yes, but when I walked out of the meeting, I had five tons of To Kalon. It helped that I knew Fred because Andy was selling fruit to him, although Fred didn’t have any reviews at this point.
This is what I’ve always felt: if you’re a good person, and you surround yourself with good people, good things will come your way. I was with a great group of people. Andy said to me, “You know what Juan, I have no clue what kind of wines you’re going to make because you haven’t made wine before. But you’ve surrounded yourself with a great group of people and something tells me you’re going to be alright.” I think he was used to seeing folks come in to the valley with a lot of money and no skin in the game. Where the business side of it didn’t matter. It didn’t have to succeed. It’s a hobby. For me it mattered, and I think that made a difference to him.
“Juan appeared to appreciate fine wine and he was passionate about what he was doing. He was starting small. I knew Mike Hirby was a good winemaker. I took a chance.”
My wife Paige was working part time for Dominus, and I knew they were selling fruit to some cult wineries. I thought maybe I could get in there. Literally the day after I saw Andy I was able to acquire five tons of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot from Dominus. So in back to back days I went from nothing to acquiring ten tons of fruit from To Kalon and Napanook. That was the start.
Steve Sherwin is a general contractor, a developer. He was building a winery at the time, but it wasn’t finished when we started our first harvest there.
If you look at the winery now it’s a two story facility. The second floor is at ground level and the tanks are subterranean. In 2002, that outside shell wasn’t there. The flooring wasn’t there. The concrete wasn’t there. Because it was just dirt, we couldn’t drive a forklift on it. We had to use a back hoe to remove the picking bins from the trucks, which was a nightmare. We had plywood, but you can imagine how sticky and grimy everything became.
The truck that brought the To Kalon fruit in broke down; it didn’t show up until 4:30 in the afternoon. 4:30. It was windy and we had portable lights set up outside. We’re up there under the lights, sorting, me and Hirby. It’s the 2002 vintage so we have a lot of raisins. Finally I called Wendell and his wife and said you’ve got to help us sort. So we sorted until 3 in the morning.
“And I thought, there is no way we’re ever going to scale this. This is just the pits.”
We were so exhausted we decided we’d just clean it up in the morning. We couldn’t see anything anyway. When we came back, everything was stuck. It was a nightmare. It took us eight hours to clean everything up, eight hours. And that was the first day of harvest. By the end of that day I remember thinking, no frikkin’ way. What did I get myself into?
By the time the Napanook fruit came in things went a little smoother. We crushed 6.67 tons that year.
It was 2003 and I was still working at the hospital; still commuting down to Oakland. I was working one of the night shifts and it was really quiet, so I started looking at the ads in the classifieds, seeing who’s selling barrels, who’s selling tanks, etc. And I read this ad:
Available: Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon, hillside vineyard, fruit previously went to Opus One, call…
I left the hospital at 7:30am and by 8 I got a hold of Tom Farella. I went up to the vineyard and immediately fell in love with it. Mike Wolf was farming it. It was pristine. Amazing location. I called Mike Hirby and said you’ve got to check this site out. It’s completely different from anything else. That’s what we wanted. And I was able to acquire about five tons of Cabernet from Farella.
“I still remember Juan pulling up in his Honda Civic while I was out getting the mail. He had on his scrubs and it looked like he’d been up all night. I was a bit skeptical. But he pulls out this bottle – some cult Cab that he had a one-bottle allocation of – and he was grinning ear to ear as he showed it to me. He was so thrilled to have that bottle in his possession. His passion was so genuine, so self-evident. And he knew a ton about wine. I believed he’d try to do something special with our fruit.”
“We’ve doubled our size from 2002, which for some reason I’m thinking is a good thing.”
We’re estimating we’ll have 10 tons between To Kalon and Napanook and another 5 tons from Farella.
Then David Abreu comes into the picture. I’d met him through Les Behrens. And he offers me 20 tons from a couple of his best vineyards. That kind of fruit doesn’t come around that often, so me, being the wise businessman that I am, said, sure, let’s do it! So what if we’re quadrupling our size in one vintage? We’ll work it out. And we went from 6+ tons in 2002 to 35 tons in 2003. We hadn’t done it before, but I knew it was possible. We were doing bin fermentations. And I’d seen other small wineries doing it on that scale -- Behrens & Hitchcock, Sherwin. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I also knew we had the capability.
At this point Sherwin’s promising we’ll have the concrete slab up at the winery. We’d be able to use the forklift. Everything would be finished, it would be easier to clean. We had the tanks. 2002 was a challenging growing year, but we made it work. And 2003 went a lot smoother.
We haven’t sold a bottle of wine yet. I wasn’t exactly worried about it, but it’s in the back of my mind. I still have my day job. But people are bugging me about names for the brand. One night a whole group of us were at Didier Loustau’s house and we went around and came up with words. I think we came up with around 400 or so. One of the words was Realm.
“Juan called me up one day and said ‘I need to find a name for my wine.’ So we got a bunch of friends together – I think there were around 17 of us – and I made a big batch of paella. Everyone brought wine and we were sitting outside and we just started throwing out names. Some were serious, some were jokes; we said whatever came to our minds. At about 2 or 3 am I sent everyone home. Juan went home with a notebook full of names. It was Pax’s wife, Pam, who came up with Realm.”
At first it didn’t hit me. But the next day I was going through the list, page after page. Realm. As in the realm of possibility. We hadn’t sold a bottle of wine. We didn’t have a single person on the mailing list. We had all this inventory of great juice but no clear idea of what we were going to do with it. But I knew we’d figure it out. And I had the name.
“From ‘blessed plots’ come outstanding Napa reds”Wine Spectator (Feb. 25, 2005)
It’s early 2004 and we have in barrel the 2002 To Kalon, 2002 Napanook, 2003 To Kalon, 2003 Napanook, 2003 Farella, and 2003’s from the two Abreu vineyards. We had five vineyards, and the question was, what did we want to do with them? Do we blend them? Keep them separate? The geek in me wanted to keep them separate, but some of the lots did seem to complement each other. To make things more complicated, with the exception of To Kalon, we weren’t allowed to use the vineyard names on the label.
To Kalon was easy. It’s an appellation itself, separate, no matter what. And we knew we wanted to keep the Napanook Merlot separate. I loved the Right Bank blends of Bordeaux and all the components were there for a really great Merlot from Napanook. The only thing was we couldn’t use the Napanook name. We also had Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from David Abreu’s sites, but we couldn’t use those vineyard names either. We had to have some kind of naming system so people would understand the wines.
A collector friend of Wendell’s came up with this quote from Shakespeare’s King Richard II: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm…” He thought maybe we could use it on the website. I looked at Mike Hirby and the lightbulbs went off. Let’s use Shakespeare as the theme. It’s endless. So in 2002 we came out with Tempest – that was our Right Bank blend from Napanook. And in 2003, it was The Bard (our Cabernet Sauvignon blend) Tempest and To Kalon. Eventually we added Falstaff to the lineup, our Cabernet Franc blend.
In late 2004 we started releasing the 300 or so cases we’d produced from 2002. I had a small list of people I’d met people through Enoteca and through Steve at Sherwin, but what really helped was when my buddy Pax put a link on his website. I immediately got about 150 more names. This was before the era of e-commerce and website shopping carts. We had the old traditional three-fold mailer, and we’d send out 20 envelopes a day. I’d hear the fax machine go off in the home office and get all excited.
By the early spring of 2005 we’d finished our mailing.
In March I left the hospital and cashed in my 401K.
In October, the Vallejo warehouse burned and our 2003 vintage went up in smoke.
When I left the hospital, I’m thinking, ok, all I need to do is weather the next three months, then we can start selling the 2003 vintage and we’ll be okay. Paige had gone through breast cancer; she was doing well but it was a major stress. Plus, I wasn’t home much, trying to keep Realm afloat.
The 2005 vintage was a big one, and when I learned about the fire, all I could think about was how we were going to pay our bills after losing the entire 2003 vintage. I knew the insurance would be a nightmare, that it would take a long time to sort it out. We were out a million dollars and had all these bills just around the corner.
It was an arson fire. We were one of 85 wineries that lost their wines. Relic, Sherwin, Caldwell, Von Strasser, Whitehall Lane – they were all in there. There were rumors that part of the building had not burned. But I kept thinking, would a really good winery sell wines that had been in a fire, even if they weren’t affected? Would I buy a wine that had been through a fire? No. So that was my answer. I knew I couldn’t do it.
But when I toured the remains of the building I saw that the heat had actually melted the cardboard off the cases. The corks were intact, but each bottle was missing about an inch of wine. As I walked through the warehouse I could hear the wine seeping out of the bottles slowly.
We were just getting ready to sell that wine, but now we had to tell our growers that we couldn’t pay them for a while. It was going to be a long couple of years.
Another problem was that many customers had already paid for the 2003 vintage. I’d sent out emails earlier and we’d taken over 200 orders for the 2003’s. So we sent another email -- not quite begging -- but telling our customers about the fire and that we weren’t sure what would happen with the insurance. We said we’d do our best to refund everyone, but asked if people would be willing to put off receiving their wine until the 2004 vintage. Only three people said they wanted their money back. Three people…out of 200. It blew me away. We didn’t even have much of a track record – we’d only released one vintage at that point. Looking back, I can’t believe people were so generous. If I could get on a plane and thank each of them personally I would. If you happen to be reading this, wow, thank you, man.
Our growers also came through for us. Some were really small, and we tried to pay them as quickly as we could. But others were incredibly flexible. I remember Andy Beckstoffer saying “As long as you’re not going out of business, you’ll pay me when you have the money.” We owed him the most. Had Andy really put his foot down, we wouldn’t be around. It says a lot about him. We did eventually pay him back, but I’ll never forget how he helped us out when we needed it most.
We wanted to make a thank you gesture. So we decided to make a wine called The Phoenix, blended from some of our best barrels – To Kalon, Madrona Ranch, Napanook. We told our customers that for every $100 they’d spent on the 2003 vintage they’d get a bottle of The Phoenix. We only made 45 cases of it; it was a one off. The Phoenix - grace from ashes.
Paige and I separated on December 31, 2005.
There are so many people who have helped me along the way, without whom Realm would never be what it is. Paige is one of them. She was never involved in the day-to-day, but she gave me the okay to give the wine thing a shot and cash in my 401K. I couldn’t have started without her support. She knew that I needed to be up here. She did it for me.
Another person who’s been a huge influence, a huge support, is Jeff Smith, who has Hourglass. I first met Jeff back in 2000 before I was in the business. Tra Vigne would have these cult wine flights, and during auction week I remember going to one where they had Screaming Eagle, Harlan and Colgin. They also had the 1997 Hourglass, and it was really cool because it was next to all these cult wines and it was one of the favorites of the group. Jeff was there and that’s when I first met him. We’ve been friends ever since.
So for the first four years of Realm I worked out of a home office, but after the fire, when I really needed some help, Jeff said “you should move in here.” Jeff had leased the whole bottom floor of the Pritchard Building in St. Helena. There were a bunch of other small wineries in there – you had Jeff, you had Mindy Kearney who was with Wolf Family Vineyards, there were other brands like Switchback Ridge and Lail; Hundred Acre was upstairs. It was a nucleus of really cool brands and we’d share experiences and information about the business. We each had our strengths. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to learn.
There are a lot of people who come and go in the business, a lot of people you meet, but I can’t think of anyone who’s had a bigger influence on me business wise than Jeff Smith. He’s just a great, generous guy.
2006 was about stabilizing things. We slowly pushed up the timing of our releases so we could pay our bills. Our 2005 production had been huge (by our standards), and 2006 was down a little, about 1300 cases. It was also our last vintage at Sherwin. When we started we were at 300 cases and Steve was at 800. By 2005-2006 we were averaging 1500 cases and he was at 2500 cases. We were busting at the seams.
We started to look for a new home. I was putting feelers out when the people at Boswell contacted me. They were building caves and asked if we were interested in moving in. They were initially planning on 4,000 linear feet but ended up building 12,000. So we brought in our own tanks, our own equipment. We were finally catching up on our bills. And we moved in 2007.
We bumped up production a bit and also decided to play with Cabernet Franc -- that’s when Falstaff started. The vineyards were pretty much the same; we had Dr. Crane (which we’d started getting in 2005) and a few more blocks in To Kalon. We had Farella. We were at a bigger facility but it was still mostly Hirby and I. Then Scott Schultz came on board for harvest. We knew him from Bouchon. He had no experience, didn’t even know how to drive a fork lift. We’d put pallets out in the parking lot and let him practice. Now he’s gone on to do his own label, Jolie-Laide. 2007 was also when MJ Tsay worked her first internship with us.
2007. My divorce is final. My 401K is dry.
“I quickly discover that making wine is the easy part; selling it is the hard part.”
In 2008 and 2009 we slowly continued to grow the brand. I’m on the road a lot. I quickly discover that making wine is the easy part; selling it is the hard part. Our reviews are good, but you still have to sell, and as an owner no one can sell the wine better than you. If you provide a great experience for people, that’s what sells the wine. Half the time when I’m with customers we’re not even talking about wine, it’s more about life. That’s what resonates with people. I can geek out with the best of them, about Ramonet White Burgundy or F.X. Pichler. But I can also talk about a start-up, I can talk about sleepless nights. You have to be a chameleon in this business, adapt to who you’re talking to.
There used to be anxiety. With my background there were times when I would be at an exclusive club somewhere, and guess what, my name is Juan Mercado. I really stand out. I can’t talk about boarding school or where I summer. Not that people are judging me, but I’m stressing -- what am I going to talk to this guy about, what is he into? The only thing we have in common is wine.
I get it all the time, how long have you been with Realm? What do you do for them? Well, I actually started it.
But typically I surround myself with people I know. Two or three people who are friends, who make it easy. Then I don’t have to entertain, they entertain themselves. My favorite thing is to do a dinner party in New York. Give me five minutes and I’ll put together the best party because it will be 10 people who don’t know each other. But they’re going to have a great time. It’s a puzzle, all these personalities, and they’ll entertain themselves and I don’t have to talk about wine.
I learned it from Pax. If you make yourself available, people really appreciate it. First you have to have a great product. But you also want them to buy it when you’re not there. If you can do that, you’ve got a great relationship.
Mike Hirby left after the 2010 harvest. We had a great 9 year run, and 9 years is a long time in this business. He took us from 300 to 2500 cases, and I honestly believe Realm wouldn’t be where it is today without him. He’s an outstanding winemaker -- a real natural -- and a great person. We went through a lot together. But we were struggling as a relatively new brand, and he’d started his own label, Relic, plus he had other consulting clients. I understood his decision, but still, I was like, now what? As hard as the fire was, it was harder losing Mike. I just never expected him to leave.
“I knew his palate really well, and I knew how talented he was. He was incredibly passionate.”
When Juan told me that Mike Hirby was leaving I said, let me know what I can do to help. Juan and I had been friends and roommates for six years, and I knew he needed to blend his 2009 wines. I said I’d ask Michel Rolland to help out. Michel was one of my mentors – I’d become good friends with his son-in-law in school.
I said, yeah right. I’m sure Michel’s going to want to help me blend. I’d known Benoit since 2004. We’d met at a Halloween party in Yountville. I was a priest and he was a drag queen. At the time I was still at the hospital. We had just bottled our first wine. And he and I just clicked. Then he went to South Africa for a while but when he came back we reconnected. I moved in with him when my wife and I separated. I remember he had a Ford Escort wagon, with no heat or anything. He called it the Silver Bullet, the American Dream.
I’d met Michel before. He’d come over when Benoit and I lived together; we’d eat guacamole and chips and watch soccer. I’d also introduced Michel Rolland to Andy Beckstoffer a while back – one of Michel’s clients from Bordeaux wanted to meet him. So he knew who I was. But when Benoit called and said Michel was going to help us blend the 2009s, I was blown away. Michel was in town and it all happened really fast. We got together on a Sunday at Meadowood, and Benoit brought Michel and we made the blends.
We started to talk about bringing Benoit on board. I knew his palate really well, and I knew how talented he was. He was incredibly passionate; he wanted to make the very best wine he could from any particular site.
But I was concerned about the friendship. I was afraid that if we worked together we wouldn’t be as close. I spoke with a lot of people to try to wrap my brain around it. They all said you know Benoit is the right guy for you, who else are you going to hire? I knew they were right, but it was the friendship part that worried me, not the talent. That wasn’t a question.
Later on Juan asked me if I wanted to make the wine at Realm. I checked with Michel – I check with him on every move I make. I asked him, if I take on Realm, will you be interested in working with us? He said yes; he was excited. I think partly because it meant we’d work together again, and partly because he saw it was a group of young people working with great vineyards and that it would be a fun thing for him. It was definitely a move he made from his heart.
Benoit joined Realm in February 2011.
I came to the States right after I graduated in 2004 (from L’Université de Bordeaux). I’d become friends with Michel’s son-in-law while finishing my masters in oenology there; Thierry was doing his masters in biology. For four years we were always together. Then he came to California and worked at Harlan and he said, come on Benoit, it’s fun, you’d like it here.
When I graduated I was offered a job right away to run three different wineries in two appellations in France. It was a good package, but the mentality was not there. I’d worked in Bordeaux, and I didn’t want to stay there. I wanted to explore, to have fun; I wanted it to be great.
“When I graduated I was offered a job right away to run three different wineries in two appellations in France. It was a good package, but the mentality was not there.”
So I refused that job and took a three-month internship in Napa working with Andy Erickson. He was working with Hartwell, Favia and Ovid, and Michel put us together. I met Andy for the first time in St. Emilion and asked him if we could extend the internship to 18 months if all went well. And that’s what happened.
I helped with all of Andy’s projects. It gave me a chance to navigate the valley. I had to leave in 2006 because of my visa situation and that’s when I worked for one of Michel’s clients in South Africa. I came back in 2007 and worked for Andy again; by that time he had eight different projects. It was great but I saw it was time to take the chance to do something on my own. So Andy gave me one of his clients, Jack Quinn. And then Hartwell Vineyards.
When you’re a consulting winemaker you get job offers from time to time, and there were a couple of opportunities that came along right around the time I started helping out with Realm. Prestigious wineries, established names – it was really tempting. But I wasn’t sure what kind of freedom I’d have to make my mark. I’ve seen too many people in golden jails, where they have a great name to add to a resume, but they don’t have the freedom or power to grow or change things.
I wanted to be known as building something with a team of young and energetic individuals. Joining Realm was a chance to earn something, to express myself, write my own story and become who I want to be. We know where we want to go. We want to make great wine. You can buy a house that’s already done or you can build your own. It’s harder in a sense, but it’s exciting mentally.
We need to succeed and prove that we know what we’re doing. We need to be known as one of the top producers in Napa Valley. Compete at the highest level.
Benoit is very interesting. He comes from a middle class family in Bordeaux, but in France if you’re not born into a wine family you’re not going to rise up in the ranks of the wine world.
There are a lot of French winemakers who come here but don’t really embrace the American wine industry. They come here for the experience. Benoit was different. He had read Wine Advocate, he was interested in Colgin, Bryant, Screaming Eagle. When his professors asked him where he wanted to work, he’d tell them and they’d say where the hell is that? No, no, you want to go to Dominus or Opus. Benoit’s very outgoing, very charismatic. One time he had to go back to France because of visa issues; he hadn’t been there for four years but he called me after only three days and said he wanted to come back to the U.S.
We hired Benoit in 2011. Which happened to be the worst vintage Napa Valley has had in 45 years.
“Talk about being thrown to the wolves. Rain, cold, heat spikes, mold. Vines shut down really early.”
In mid-2011 Scott Becker and I have lunch. We met when he was at Harlan. I first got to know him through Michael Browne (of Kosta Browne); Scott was helping Michael when he was starting CIRQ. Scott and I had been at wine dinners together.
Juan and I met through mutual friends. Juan’s the mayor of Napa Valley; he knows everybody. At the time I was working for Bill Harlan, who’s been an incredible mentor to me in the wine industry. It’s hard to say enough about Bill; he’s one of those visionaries that just don’t come around that often. But I was at the point where I wanted to do my own thing.
So Juan and I are sitting at the bar at Cook, and I’m picking his brain about Realm. How he got started, how it developed, etc. From the outside looking in it seemed successful, maybe a benchmark for something I’d like to do on my own. So I said to Juan “I’d really like to congratulate you on what you’ve done with Realm; I’m thinking I’d like to do something similar to that.” He looked at me and said, “Good luck.”
Then he laid out his story, how the thing evolved. He talked about begging for fruit, holding down two jobs, cashing in his 401K, the fire, all the risks that he took. I couldn’t believe how he’d put himself out there.
Initially we talked about Scott doing his own thing, starting something new, or maybe collaborating on something. At the time, Wendell was looking to pull back. Scott wanted to know where Realm was going. But he didn’t know what all the issues were.
Somewhere in the series of conversations I said maybe we could do something together.
So then the ‘11 vintage comes along. More financial things are piling up at Realm, and we start to seriously talk about working something out.
Juan had done a phenomenal job developing this brand, but he was stretched too thin. He was doing a little of everything. He was involved on the production side, he was the face of Realm in the market, he answered the phone, did the tours. At some point, things start to drop. That’s where the business was. That’s where I saw the opportunity.
If you could take the seed of what had been planted, this idea that Juan embodied -- the realm of possibility. Here was a guy with no capital, no formal training, no history in the business, and he just came in and convinced Andy Beckstoffer to sell him fruit from arguably one of Napa Valley’s finest vineyards on the strength of his passion and belief in something. If Juan could do that on his own, I thought, if we had the right team in place, the right capital and the long term vision, what could Realm become?
That’s what interested me. What started to energize me. Realm had traction, awareness, interest, and in some ways it hadn’t even been managed all that well.
I look at Realm in the context of Napa Valley’s evolution over the last half century. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s you had the first wave after Prohibition. Families like the Cakebreads, Mondavis, Davies, who came in and established wineries before anyone knew about Napa Valley. Before it had the reputation it does today. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s a second wave came in – vintners like Harlan, Colgin, Araujo, Bryant. Land values had changed, and these folks had successful careers prior to coming to Napa. They bought land and changed the game, took quality up exponentially. They really showed what Napa Valley could do. That was the era of the cult winery. And instead of working through the traditional wholesale system, these wineries sold most of their wines directly to consumers. It was a new way of doing business.
Then in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s you had a new generation come in. Wineries – like Realm, Behrens & Hitchcock, Pax Wine Cellars, Kosta Browne, Schrader – that were buying grapes from great vineyards -- exceptional growers – and competing with the cults. They didn’t own any dirt, didn’t have much capital to speak of, yet they were trying to play with the big boys, punching above their weight.
That was Realm. Juan certainly didn’t have capital; he’d bootstrapped the whole thing. But he had these vineyard sources, these relationships in the industry and this cool following. And he had an amazing story. One you couldn’t make up.
“I don’t know many other brands with this kind of story. The trials and tribulations. The same level of grit and determination.”
Juan and I had the military in common. I’d played football at the Air Force Academy; I was a fullback. It was a brutal position; you end up on the ground every single play. It fit my personality, though, the kind of position where you grind it out. I still remember the quote above the door to the practice field:
“On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”
It was an awesome experience... character building.
After the Academy I went into the military; I thought it would give me the opportunity to see the world. I’d wanted to go to business school, but had to put it on hold. Then 9/11 happened. By December of 2001 I’d been on my first deployment. I spent a lot of time in Central Asia and the Middle East. It was a challenging time, and life changing. I did see the world – or part of it anyway – and the military put me into situations that required leadership and solving problems. Attributes that would serve me well later on. It was such a privilege to work alongside those men and women. Looking back though, I always think how fortunate I am to be in the wine business. The worst day in wine is better than the best day in some of the places I saw when I was in the military.
On one of the trips back the plane broke down and we stopped at the Aviano air base in Italy. I decided to take some leave, rented a car and drove over Piemonte. I was kind of into wine, but I’d never studied it. My family has a dairy farm in Wisconsin so I was naturally drawn to the agricultural aspect of wine. Plus my mom was a phenomenal cook and I grew up around great food -- wine seemed to be an extension of that.
“...the light bulb goes off; it’s that sense of place.”
I checked myself into a small B&B in La Morra, one of the small villages. The proprietress didn’t speak a lick of English and I didn’t speak Italian. I had no formal tours or anything set up, but I started walking around. I didn’t go to any of the famous estates – I didn’t have any context for it. But I did go to a few places and learned about Barolo, about Nebbiolo, the undulating hills, the fog.
I went to dinner and told the waiter: I want to drink something from here. He said “here?” Yes, here. I was by myself, which was weird enough. There was no one else in the restaurant. So he says, okay,and looks out the window: “there, this row, count two up, one, two.” He brings over a bottle and I drink it. And the light bulb goes off; it’s that sense of place. That stuck with me. It was a village level wine at best. I may never drink a bottle of that wine again, but I’ll never forget it. Not that it was a grand bottle, but it was that sense of place.
I got out of the military in 2006 and was finally able to go to business school; I figured it would give me a couple years to figure out what I wanted to do next. I applied to Harvard Business School. Did my interview on the Afghanistan border on a satellite phone with a second and a half delay.
I attended HBS and in my first semester I went to a wine tasting and Jack Cakebread is there. He was in his late 70’s and I was impressed that Jack himself came. I walked up to him afterwards and introduced myself, told him I was passionate about wine, but particularly passionate about the business of wine. He kind of sized me up and said give me your phone number, I’ll call you.
I forgot about it. But the next week I get a phone call from his assistant, Connie, ”I’ve got Jack Cakebread on the line for you.” He gets on the phone, “Scott, I was thinking about what you said. What are you doing for Christmas break? If you’re really serious about wine, come out to Napa Valley. We’ll put you up in the vineyard house, put you to work and see if you’re cut out for the wine business.”
All during business school, every break, every summer, I’d go out and work at Cakebread. They were relatively short stints, but I learned so much. I pulled hoses in the cellar, stirred the lees of Chardonnay barrels, sampled grapes, eventually gave a few tours. Every day started in Jack’s office at 6 am; I’d talk to him from 6 to 7, then go do my job.
Jack had been in the Air Force during the 1950s. We had that in common. I wouldn’t be in Napa Valley today if it weren’t for Jack Cakebread. What I learned from him about the business of wine was incredible.
After business school, there was no question in my mind that I’d go into wine. My friends were going into finance or consulting in New York, and I headed to Napa Valley. As anyone in the industry can tell you, wine isn’t the smartest way to make money. There’s probably no product harder to make or sell than wine, especially when you factor Mother Nature into the equation. It’s an enterprise that requires more than its share of patience, capital and luck.
But I was drawn to it. It’s an intellectual challenge. The idea of making wine into a viable business; that excites me. There’s a value to wine beyond a financial calculation. Something near magical; a liquid that brings people together. The backdrop to a life well-lived.
“It’s an enterprise that requires more than its share of patience, capital and luck.”
I met Bill Harlan through Jack. I was working for Vic Motto and Mike Fisher; they’d started Global Wine Partners and I somehow convinced them that they needed someone to do all the models, all the financial work. I’d spent my time at business school studying finance and I’d done a couple of field study projects and worked on transactions.
So I’m at this lunch and it was Jack Cakebread and Roger Trinchero, Joe Phelps, Carmen Policy, Bart Araujo – all these vintners, and I sat next to Bill. Bill, who has a way of piercing right through you, cut right to the chase. He asked me, what are you going to do when you grow up? Where do you want to be? We talked, and started to work out a deal – I’d come work for Bill. Help him with some of the vineyards and property he was looking at for his new project, Promontory. It was a chance to work with one of the wine industry’s most inspiring figures, a person with incredible vision, attention to detail, focus.
And I loved it, loved spending time with Bill, the family and team there. It was an experience of a lifetime. But over time I realized that I didn’t want to just work for Bill Harlan. I wanted to be Bill Harlan. Or at least try to become even a shadow of this man I saw as one of the true giants in the industry. I would do anything for the Harlan family – that’s how much they mean to me. But it was time for me to do something on my own. That’s where I saw myself next.
I’ve been so blessed to learn from vintners like Bill Harlan, Jack Cakebread, Bart Araujo, Bob Davids from Sea Smoke. These guys are all entrepreneurs, visionaries, pioneers…and it’s both a privilege and an honor to call them mentors. I wouldn’t be here without them and Realm wouldn’t be where it is, nor would it have the ambition it has today, without them. Wine naturally attracts people with passion, with a belief in creating something special. Bill, Jack, Bart, Bob — all have their own life stories, their own set of circumstances, but they share a certain spirit, an ethos really. Now they also share a personal investment in some guy named Scott who is trying to build on what they’ve done.
So then I saw the opportunity to partner with Juan. I was almost magnetically drawn to him and the story of Realm. Benoit was also a huge factor. He’d turned down a job at a cult winery to work at Realm. Why? And Michel Rolland. Why is he working with Realm? He could work with any winery on the planet. Or he could be on a beach somewhere in southern France. Why is he involved?
“There was something here, a confluence of events, a gravity force that was bringing us together.”
Scott and I started to talk in mid-2011. By mid-2012 we had structured a new partnership and vision for where Realm could go.
It was readily apparent from day one that Juan and I approach things from the complete opposite ends of the universe. We had to survive a bit of a turnaround. Juan had gotten it to this level, but it needed something else to take it to the next level. They were trying to grow without having the cash to support it.
Here’s one of the greatest things about Juan: he spent 10 years of his life in this business and never took a paycheck. That’s how much he believed this thing was going to work out. He may not be the savviest financial guy, but he understands people, he understands relationships. I didn’t fully appreciate the problems the business had coming into it. There must have been 100 people who had an issue with Realm. Yet they all said, “But I love Juan…”
It was such a relief to have Scott here. Totally. You couldn’t scale it the way we were doing it. When you’re doing everything, you can’t concentrate, you can’t focus. You’re moving so fast but you can’t keep up. You put protocols into place but they don’t work. Scott provided structure, which the business needed. We were able to be more proactive, plan for the future, look ahead.
Now we’re beginning the second chapter. We’ve been through chapter one with all the trials and tribulations. Now we’re in chapter two and we’re taking it up.
Before the restructure, Realm was good enough. On the strength of its wines, its vineyard sources and its people. But it wasn’t great. I’ve always believed that the first 97 or 98% is easy. It’s the last 2% you can spend an entire lifetime chasing. A lot of people say, you know what? 98% is good enough. And sometimes it is. But for some things in life, it’s not good enough.
“It’s that last 2% that makes you or breaks you.”
So we’re always looking at everything we do. Vineyards, growers, winery, wines – we look under every rock to figure out how to improve quality, how to start moving the needle on that last 2%. We’ve re-tooled everything about the way our wines are sold, so that the customer experience is second to none. It’s all part of this next chapter for Realm.
A friend of mine has a saying: “Big vision, small steps.” You can’t take it up 10 notches all at once. Not without a big check. We take little steps each year. We’ll always have variation with Mother Nature, but our understanding of the land and our wines gets better year after year. The bar gets higher every year.
Within a year we’ve turned the corner, but we’re still a work in progress. What I love about this job is you never feel like you know it all. It’s always progressing. You start each year with a certain amount of knowledge and finish with more. At the finest level it’s all about the details. Your thinking changes. I call it permanent movement.
Realm has this momentum, this path. It stems from that start-up ethos, which still guides us today. We are punching above our weight. We are playing with the big boys. This isn’t a hobby or a lifestyle. This is about a philosophy and building something, something that involves friends and family and all the people and relationships Juan and the rest of us have built along the way. It’s that next generation of Napa Valley. When you look at the next generation, we want Realm to be considered among the elite, one of the iconic wineries in the valley. In the near future, maybe we’ll have our own winery, our own vineyards. We always have our eyes out, and it’s certainly one of our goals. But in the end, it’s not about a particular size or even about owning a piece of land. It’s about a particular impact. And the impact that we want to have on Napa Valley and on those who are inspired by Realm’s story.
It’s been a roller coaster and I’m very fortunate. There’s still plenty of growth, plenty of upside. Not in terms of size; it’s more about improving vineyards and wine quality. If you’re really passionate about wine, those are the things that drive you.
“We’ll never be satisfied.”