The Wine Teacher

Matt Francke, the new owner of San Diego Wine Company, didn't grow up drinking wine at home. "I wasn't really introduced to wine unless I was around my Uncle Pat," he recalls, "and I didn't take any interest until I was closer to 21. That's when I visited him in Nevada, and he took me down into his wine cellar, started showing me older vintages of things, going over the history of wine. Once, about 15 years ago, a couple of hours before I got on the plane to go home, he said, 'Let's sit down and have a glass of wine and a pastrami sandwich. Watch the transformation of the wine, what it does with the sandwich.' The wine was a 1970 or '71 Louis Martini Petite Sirah. I was a neophyte, but I did appreciate the effect -- it was one of those moments where you say, 'Wow, that's cool. '"

Francke's Uncle Pat was a good person to have as a first teacher in wine, especially the business side of wine. "He's been in the wine industry since 1958, when he started working retail at Safeway in Redondo Beach. About four years later, he became the Southern California wine salesman for Gallo. Eventually, he moved to Nevada and started selling wine for Steve Wynn, who had a distribution company back then. He was starting when the modern era of California wine was just in its infancy. The people he knew were people like Robert Mondavi and Louis Martini; he'd have regular conversations with them, because he was bringing in their wines. He started relationships with all those people."

Uncle Pat "has a very strong personality. He loves to involve people, bring them into his home and entertain. And it always revolves around his passion for food and wine. I just kind of fed off that." But Francke wasn't long in learning the difference between the romance of entertaining and collecting and the grit of sales. "Once I expressed interest, he said, 'Come by and visit me. If you want to sell wine, if you want an introduction into how to sell wine, Gallo is the place to start.' It's amazing; you go through the who's who in the wine business, and you find that a lot of them started at Gallo. That was their training ground. 'Of course,' warned Uncle Pat, 'you're not going to be selling wine. You're going to be selling boxes. '"

Uncle Pat took Francke with his sales team to "the Gallo Empire in Modesto. It's its own little city, with these carts that go around on tracks -- as in Jurassic Park. When they take you to where they make their sherries, and they open these huge doors -- it's like something out of either Jurassic Park or King Kong. This wave of sherry-smell that rushes out just overwhelms you; it's so memorable. Seeing the glass factory, the nonstop production. I wasn't extremely excited about selling boxes, but it was truly one of the most remarkable places I have ever been."

Years later, after a stint in the restaurant business that taught him a little bit about running a successful operation, "especially in terms of professionalism and the importance of letting your staff have some autonomy," he started looking around the wine world again. "I looked into sales, but then I stumbled across what was then Thomas Jaeger winery. They were just going through their transition to becoming Orfila. I worked in the tasting room and gave tours, and after they started getting their production up, I volunteered to start trying to get the wines into the San Diego marketplace. I did that for about two years; it was very, very difficult," partly because of the entrenched San Diegan hesitancy to embrace local wines. "Still, we got into some good places -- Pacifica Del Mar, George's at the Cove."

Running around San Diego gave Francke a chance to check out the city's wine shops, and in 1993, he wandered into the newly opened San Diego Wine Company. "I noticed an ad, and it seemed like a unique concept for this town" -- warehouse-style sales, cardboard cases floor-stacked in a bare box of a store, a sales plan based on low margins and high volume. "I loved the no-frills aspect of it -- here's the wine, here's the price, signs telling me a little bit about it. I felt it was a shop for everybody. For me, a big-ticket item was around $15, and I remember he had a Caymus Cabernet for $15.95. That would be my go-to wine, that and the Estancia meritage. Everywhere around town, it sold for around $11.95, but here it was something like $9.95."

"I kind of started a relationship with Tom Kowalski, the owner. It'd be the middle of the week, while I was on a sales call, and in those early years it was quiet in the store. We'd talk about the wines; I'd talk about wines I'd found other places."

Kowalski eventually hired Paris Driggers to help him run the store, but he took Francke's number, and in 1998 he called for help during the holiday rush. "He said, 'I can't guarantee you a position after the holidays.' I said, 'Okay, if you're going to involve me, I want to be involved in tasting all the wines with you, making all the decisions with you guys. I want to show you what I know, what my palate is like, so that you can decide whether I'm capable of making those decisions. '"

Thanks to Uncle Pat's predilections, Francke's palate was "California, California, California. Still, I was confident. At Orfila, winemaker Leon Santoro would barrel-taste me, ask my opinions on the blends. When we had groups come on and sit down to evaluate wines blind, I always felt like I could describe them." And thanks to his own lack of a cellar, his palate was new, new, new. "I was a regular buyer; I drank what was on the market now. I'm not the guy who's going to have the story about the '82 Bordeaux or the great vintage Port. But to a degree, I think that helped me in this shop, because that's what this shop is about -- what's going on now."

As it happened, that turned out to be San Diego Wine Company's best holiday season ever, and when the dust settled, Francke had a regular gig. "I had done everything I could with Orfila. I never wanted to be a winemaker; I never had that in me. I enjoy wine, but making it is not something I wanted to pursue." Sales, on the other hand, ran in the family.

Over time, Kowalski began to step back and let Driggers and Francke step up. "Tom's concept was to have guys who knew what they were doing who he could pay to run his business. Once we knew his plan and how to carry on what he started, he left it in our hands." (Score one for employee autonomy.) "Paris and I started cultivating relationships with brokers. And having the relationship that I had with my uncle, I was able to bring in some brands that were hesitant about coming into the shop. My uncle's influence would get someone to answer the phone." Francke took it from there and managed to reel in Silver Oak and Duckhorn. "It was nice being able to say we had those wines, after years of telling people 'no. '"

In March, Paris left to buy into Bacchus Wine Market downtown. A while after that, Kowalski let it be known that he might be willing to sell.

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