'If you're having trouble getting over your fear of sommeliers, here are a few tips on how to make him think you are cool...ask him to recommend a German Riesling...Your sommelier knows that German Riesling in its semidry form currently represents the best white wine value and that it's the most food-friendly wine on the planet."
-- Jay McInerney, "How to Impress Your Sommelier, Part One," in A Hedonist in the Cellar.
Case in point: Damon Goldstein and his wife Sabrina Bochen opened Truly Fine Wine, an import/distribution/retail operation specializing in German wines, back in December of '06. After their grand opening, they celebrated by repairing to the 3rd Corner for dinner. Recalls Damon, "One of their wine buyers came up and sat next to me, and he said, 'I'm so excited to meet you. Do you have Charta Rieslings?' I looked at him and said, 'How do you know what that is?' Charta is an association of wineries in the Rheingau that create a dry, structured, food-pairing wine. It's more floral in bouquet, with more candied fruits on the palate, but still with wonderful acidity." I'd never heard of Charta before speaking with Damon -- and I'm a big fan of Riesling -- but the sommelier knew.
The trick is making sure everybody else knows as well. Damon is enamored enough of his product that he's able to ask, "How can there not be a market for this?" but sensible enough to admit that "the big unknown for us going into this was how the public, the wine-drinking community, was going to perceive us." Still, he has reason for hope: "The U.S. is fast becoming the largest importer of Riesling. Imports are up 28 percent in -- I want to say in just the last 12 months." And numbers aside, there's always his own experience.
"I met my wife in 1998 -- a 'love at first sight' kind of thing. She's German, and she was here in San Diego for three weeks. Two weeks later, I was in Germany. I was graduating college, and I said, 'I am in love and I am going to see this girl.' I spent two weeks over there -- got to meet her family -- and she took me through German wine country. The first tasting was at this small estate in the Rheinhessen; the cellarmaster was a 90-year-old woman. She took us into her home and tasted us through these wines, and my wife was translating, and I was sitting on the edge of my seat, thinking, 'Oh, my God. I've never had anything like this.' I came back with half a dozen Rieslings. On special occasions, when friends were over for dinner, I'd open one and watch the expressions on their faces. My wife and I married six years ago, and we've kept on traveling back and forth -- six bottles turned into two cases, and there was always more interest. I got to watch the excitement build; I got Chardonnay drinkers who had no idea of what a real Riesling was. They drank their first glass and they were converted. Friends were asking for this stuff. We knew there was a market for these wines."
Damon had been running a restaurant franchise company with his brother -- six Cold Stone Creameries and two Quizno's -- and he was burnt out. "You have to know your food cost, or you're subject to 'shrinkage'" -- the mysterious disappearance of delicious inventory. "I was working 100-hour weeks, and we had the gamut of awful things happen -- armed robberies, assaults." After four years, they decided to sell. "My wife said, 'You've had a little bit of a capital event. What do you want to do with your life?'" It took a while, but eventually, he figured it out: "I wanted to spend more time with her family over in Europe and work with a business model I could embrace, something we could both get into that had some growth opportunity." Hello, Truly Fine Wine. "It just sort of snowballed. I drank a lot of good wine, ate in good restaurants. I wouldn't say that I knew a ton about wine -- I've learned a lot in the past year. I look at wine as a lifelong process. It's like golf -- you can never get that good at it, you just practice and practice and practice."
Selling the company bought Damon time, which is what he needed to make a startup work. To gain a toehold in an already-niche market, "We wanted to work with lesser-known estates, ones that weren't yet exported to the U.S." That meant research outside of the usual (read: English-language) channels -- a job made easier by having a German-speaking spouse. "We'd be on the Internet from six until midnight, reading. We contacted 50 estates. Then we went to Germany and visited 20 of them. Of those 20, we selected 8 to work with initially. And from those 8 estates, we probably tried 200 wines in two and a half weeks." That's what comes of working with producers who can take one varietal -- Riesling -- and render it in a host of different styles. "Have you tried my Kabinett Fineherb? What about the Sp...tlese trocken? The Charta? Ah, and here are my dessert Rieslings..."
During their visit, they narrowed the 200 wines to 65. Then they asked for samples to be sent here. "We went through everything, over and over again -- we had neighbors come over, we had wine people come over, we had people who knew nothing about wine come over. We'd do a 15-Kabinett tasting, narrow it down to 8, then go buy every Kabinett we could find in town and put those up against ours. That's how we ended up with our initial 35 wines" -- running the gamut from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese in weight, from bone-dry to raisin-sweet in sugar content, from Riesling to Huxelrebe to Sp...tburgunder (German Pinot Noir) in varietal. "I have a couple of producers who do traditional, double-fermentation Sekt (sparkling wine), but I thought, 'What's the market for German sparkling wine going to be?' In our first three months of operating, I got asked for it every other day. And I've had tons of requests for Gewürztraminer. Once you get going, you can get feedback and make adjustments."
Initial feedback has been positive. "My wife worked with Sieman's, and one of their VPs was this amazing German guy. He came in with his wife -- they're German to the core -- and they tried the Blees-Ferber Sp...tlese Trocken and this Hans Lang Sp...tburgunder. They looked at each other, and this huge smile came cross their faces. They said, 'You don't know what this means to us; we can't find wines like this here.' They bought a case of each. I didn't know how dry Sp...tleses were going to be perceived, but people love it, they love the mouthfeel. We're bringing in three more on the next order." The less experienced, meanwhile, are opting for the Blees-Ferber Piesporter G...rtchen. "People who want something a little bit sweeter cling to it. If they're used to a buttery Chardonnay, this has some of that creamy character."