A Charmed Life

Anthony Terlato — importer, distributor, marketer, and now winery owner — never intended to write a book about his life in the wine business. He was content being the guy in the background who made things happen: who got Robert Parker to meet with and “discover” Rhône superstar Michel Chapoutier, who made Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio the monster brand it became — heck, who began importing both Mateus and Lancer’s back in the day. Rather, the idea came from one of his PR workers. “She said, ‘You cook lunch with Count Alexandre de Lur-Saluces of Château d’Yquem. You go to dinner with Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Robert Mondavi has been your friend since the 1950s. You think that’s not interesting to people?’ ”

Terlato wasn’t convinced. “For me, cooking and having lunch with Alexander, smoking cigars and drinking ’34 d’Yquem is a workday” — nothing special, nothing worth putting between covers. But then Terlato invited his old friend Ramsey Lewis, a jazz pianist of some renown, to his annual duck-and-risotto dinner — Dan Duckhorn of Duckhorn Vineyards on the duck, Anthony Terlato on the risotto. “Lewis was staying at my house — he was doing a concert in the area. We had all these guys from Napa, and one after another, they came up to me and said, ‘You know Ramsey Lewis?’ Then, the next morning, Ramsey Lewis says to me, ‘I couldn’t believe it. Every time that door opened, a legend walked in.’ ” Each side was impressed with the other, and Terlato was the nexus. “I called my PR gal and said, ‘Pam, maybe I should write a book — let me write it for the future of my family, open a bigger door for the kids. You look at families like Antinori and Frescobaldi — they’ve been around for 600 years. We’re in the third generation; I guess I better start writing about it. The next generation won’t remember all the things that my father did.”

The result — Taste: A Life in Wine — begins, not surprisingly, with Terlato’s father (and mother, and grandmother…). In particular, it begins with his father’s acceptance of wine bottler Anthony Paterno’s invitation to come to Chicago and open a liquor store back in the mid-’50s. The store, Leading Liquor Marts, carried Premier Cru Burgundy and First-Growth Bordeaux, and it wasn’t long before Terlato was doing his own blind tastings so as to better serve the discriminating customer. It also wasn’t long before he was moving the bargain brands to the back of the store, doing his first work as a marketer. “Why put a $2 bottle of wine at a customer’s fingertips when he has $5 to spend?” he writes.

Over 50 years later, the industry giant is still worrying over mundane (but crucial) things such as product placement and price. “The other day,” he said over a glass of his wine at Island Prime, “I saw a Pinot Grigio from one of Gallo’s wineries — $6.49, unbelievable. The box and the glass cost more than that! Then they had my Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio stacked right nearby” at over $20. Not a friendly juxtaposition. Later, he opened a bottle of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier, the fruit of an Australian joint venture between himself and the great winemaker. “It sells for $18 retail — that’s improperly priced. I promise you it will not be at $18 very long.” He skimmed a press report. “Here’s a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle that says it ‘overdelivers.’ That’s a sign we’re underpriced. We can’t be $10 more or $10 less than the brands I perceive to be our direct competition. Otherwise, how do you compete in that ballgame? A lot of people go into a store, and they don’t know a lot about wine. If your wine is $20 cheaper than someone else’s, who’s going to believe that it’s as good, or better? I wouldn’t believe it if somebody said it to me.” Such sincere frankness is part of Terlato’s charm, both in person and in print. When he thanks a waiter for carrying one of his wines on the list, there is nothing perfunctory about it — the chairman of Terlato Wines International is still taking care of the customer.

This may be part of the reason for the response he’s gotten to Taste. “Nobody has said to me, ‘This is a great wine book,’ ” he lamented. “I’ve heard, ‘This is a great work-ethic book. You should give this to the business school at Northwestern.’ And I’ve heard, ‘It’s wonderful to read how you get along with your family — your two sons.’ ”

It’s true: many pages are devoted to the mix of personal and public lives that comes from running a family business. Terlato spent whole days during his honeymoon tasting wines with Robert Mondavi. He taught his boys never to take a walk in baseball — “I wanted them to know the purpose of the game was to hit the ball.” And there’s plenty of heady work-ethic stuff in the mix, starting even before Terlato left his father’s business to sign on with his father-in-law at what eventually became Paterno Imports. “The idea behind working with [Paterno] was that we would be able to distribute fine wines at some point. I thought it would be an easy transition. But my father-in-law was selling kosher wine and Burgundy at 99 cents a gallon. I’d dress in a shirt and a tie and call on Madison Street, and there would be bums in the doorways. I was selling cases of pints of wine for $6.95, and back at my father’s store, I had been selling ’47 Lafite in 1955. I hated that work.” But he did it, right alongside his buildup of the company’s fine-wine portfolio.

It’s that buildup that makes it a shame to think of Taste as simply a business book, because it’s also the story of a charmed life. Again and again, instinct and plain good luck do things for Terlato that work alone could never manage. A chance seating by importer Alexis Lichine landed him the chance to represent the French legend’s wines. Getting Lichine helped him get Frank Schoonmaker, another early titan, and the French bubbly house of Roederer followed soon after. He befriended Chapoutier before Michel took over the operation from his father. The operation had fallen on hard times, and the bank was getting ready to foreclose. Terlato buoyed Chapoutier, and that won him the winemaker’s loyalty. When Chapoutier found the spot for his Australia project, he called Terlato and invited him to put his name on the label.

The book is full of stories like that; Terlato’s career tracking right along with the development of the American wine palate. But then, just when it seems he can do no wrong in the wine business, he starts buying wineries. The distributor becomes the owner. It begins with Rutherford Hill in 1996; renovations and upgrades, undertaken to burnish a faded brand, cost him $7 million. He pours $11 million more into Chimney Rock and another $5 million into Alderbrook. And on and on.

The work has brought success, and on his own terms. In a kind of homage to the Santa Margherita wine that brought him so much success, “I made this Pinot Grigio in the Russian River Valley for $22 a bottle, where I should be planting Pinot Noir that I could sell for $50.” (It became the first wine with his name on the label: Terlato Family Vineyards.) “So I said to my winemaker Doug Fletcher, ‘You’ve got to make me the best Pinot Grigio in America. Can you do it?’ He says, ‘I can. And if not, we can always blend it into something else.’ We just got an article — a journalist wrote, ‘It’s the best Pinot Grigio I ever tasted.’ I was kind of excited to see that.”

But he didn’t spend his millions for the sake of getting good press. Nor did he spend just to have his name on a great bottle of wine. Rather, he says, “I wanted to leave something concrete to my grandchildren. If I’m going to bring them into this business, I need to leave something concrete for them. When you’ve got children, you spend your whole life wanting to make their life good. If you haven’t, you’ve failed. I wanted them to have a good life.”

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