Mystery Label

"Everybody, once in their life, should sell whiskey in Chicago," says Ira Gourvitz, owner of Fallbrook Winery. "Because after that, nothing, for the rest of your life, will ever surprise you." Gourvitz did it from '66 to '69 (a period of Chicago history that saw its share of surprises), as a Midwest manager for Seagram's. Before that, he worked for them in New York. "I knew all the distributors. I knew how distribution worked. I understood the Seagram philosophy — how you sell, who you sell to, what you have to get done."

An idyllic second career as a Sonoma County grape-grower gave Gourvitz a new angle on the potable market. So, when he headed south to San Diego some 14 years ago, he was not without resources. "I've been doing this a long time. Most of my friends own restaurants, or have moved up the chain in hotels. And I know distributors from my Seagram days. The guy I worked for back then used to say, 'My friends buy my product. You don't need more customers; you need more friends.' That's really true. The consumer is very fickle. You've got to sell the guy who's selling the product. That's the guy who's got to believe: the retailer, the bartender, the restaurant owner."

Gourvitz had the contacts. And after a while, he had a line on a product. Gourvitz knew Kerry Vix, who was running the Arciero Winery in Paso Robles. "They were fairly new then. They had built this huge winery, and they basically had no sales. I told Vix my idea, and he said, 'Whatever you want. '"

The idea was private labeling. "The private-label business initially came about when a winery had extra wine. They'd say, 'Let's sell it really cheap, dump it off to these restaurants, let them sell it to customers who say, "Gimme a glass of white wine." ' I had to figure out a way to get into these accounts, because no one was going to buy bulk wine. But I knew all these guys who owned restaurants. I said, 'Look, we can take your logo and put it on the bottle and sell it to you as your house wine.' They said, 'You've got to give it to us at a pretty good price,' and I said, 'I can do that.' I didn't have any overhead."

There was no overhead because Gourvitz was just moving, labeling, and delivering the product. Someone else was making the wine and bottling it, and someone else was storing it: John Culbertson's Fallbrook Winery in Fallbrook. "There's a law that says you can ship unlabeled wines from one bonded winery to another bonded winery. It was a neat little business. We were buying maybe a truckload every month — or every other month — eight to ten thousand cases. I got a couple of really good accounts downtown, and then it kept getting bigger and bigger. Distributors that I had known back in Florida and Georgia said, 'We've got accounts who have seen the private labels.... '"

The shift to winery proper began in 1996, when the man who owned the note on the Fallbrook property decided to foreclose on Culbertson and offered the place to Gourvitz at an outstanding price. "He said, 'I don't want to deal with it.' There was nothing there -- I mean, the buildings were there, but the vineyards had been left. But at the price we paid for it, we could afford to redo the vineyards, redo the buildings, really fix it up." Together with his wife Pepper, and with the private-label business to float him along the way, Gourvitz began building up the winery -- acquiring equipment, sourcing fruit -- until, in 2000, he was able to release his first wine. The name on the label: Pepper Lane. (There was some confusion over who owned the Fallbrook name, so at first, Gourvitz looked elsewhere. "My wife's name is Pepper, and when my daughter went to school in Italy, she lived with this artist who had this painting. I said, 'Let's see what happens. '")

A year later, winemaker Duncan Williams joined the team. "Duncan had been in the Shenandoah Valley, but his family is from Point Loma, and he wanted to move down here. He had a one-acre vineyard up there, and he talked to Culbertson and said, 'Could I rent some space, try to make wine from my vineyard?'" When Gourvitz started producing his own wine, Williams approached him. "He's been here ever since."

One of their first projects together can still be sampled: Trasiego. No vintage on the label, no varietal, no appellation, just "Red Table Wine." Not an easy sell at $18 retail — or, for that matter, at any price. But the wine deserves a hearing.

The name is a Spanish term for racking wine from barrel to barrel. A fitting title, since half the wine in the bottle is a Mexican version of a Spanish grape, Tempranillo. Explains Gourvitz, "I met the guy from Chateau Camou, Ernesto Alvarez-Morphy. My wife and I went down to the Guadalupe Valley in Baja a couple of times and visited him. He said to me, 'There's a guy who is a really good winemaker: Fernando Martain,' late of Bodega Santo Tomás. 'He's got a small winery — Cavas Valmar — and he's making some good wines.' So I met Martain. He was trying to interest me and some friends of mine in a vineyard, so I went down and we talked back and forth. Every time, we'd taste some of his wines, and we kept coming back to this Tempranillo that he had in French oak barrels. One day, he said, 'Why don't we talk about making business together?'"

Martain brought six barrels up to Fallbrook; there, it was blended with six barrels of Gourvitz's California Merlot. "It was so good. We made a private label for an account in Tucson called Terra Cotta — a big, high-end restaurant. They were going to have a dinner for Bush and Fox, and we were going to ship all this wine down there. Half Mexican, half U.S. — it would have been perfect. But that was right before 9/11." The dinner never happened. "And the Feds wouldn't even give us an appellation. The lady was looking through her book, and she said, 'There's no appellation 'Baja California. There's nothing in here. So don't have an appellation. Just Red Table Wine. '"

But don't believe the lack of hype. "It's continued to improve in the bottle," says winemaker Williams. "It's one of my favorite wines. It's old-world style — very dry, a little bit of an earthy, peppery streak. The tannins are just right, and it's got a balance of that bottle bouquet versus young fruit character."

"It's on the list at the newly redesigned restaurant at the Hotel Del," adds Gourvitz. As are the Fallbrook Sauvignon Blanc and Special Selection Cabernet (the name confusion has been cleared up). Things have changed a bit since the private-label days. "It was sort of a natural progression. I had a winery, I had equipment, I had a winemaker. I said, 'Now we need to flip this over, do 30 percent private and 70 percent of our own label.' I went into the accounts and said, 'If you're happy with the house wine we've been selling you, just give us two wines on your list.' How could they turn us down?" Finally, about two and a half years ago, Gourvitz felt confident enough to go in and up the ante. "I'd say, 'We've been doing this for a long time — let's pour Fallbrook. '" It would be more expensive, but "your house wine will be better, and you'll be building a local brand."

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