Drinking the St. Helena Kool-Aid
Bob Dye should have known better. After he moved to St. Helena in 2001, the former IT marketing exec spent three years living the good life. But, after his wife took a position with the vintners' association -- just to keep her active mind busy -- the couple's social circle began to include winemakers and proprietors up and down Highway 29.
Dye didn't need three decades of marketing experience to recognize the winery business for what it was -- a rich man's folly. Over the previous couple of years, Dye had seen plenty of guys take the plunge, only to realize that they weren't nearly as wealthy as they thought they were. Still, as Dye observed in late 2004, the market was taking off like a jackrabbit. Tiny boutique brands were not only gaining a foothold, but selling out on release, many fetching triple-digit prices. Bob Dye didn't realize it at the time, but he was beginning to sip the St. Helena Kool-Aid.
Everywhere he looked, small brands were popping up, almost none directed by a high tech marketing executive schooled in the art of branding and the analytics of multivariate testing. In December 2004, just for the heck of it -- or so he told himself -- Bob Dye began placing calls to the top vineyard managers in St. Helena, capitalizing on his wife's Rolodex. Grape prices were climbing. The best sites were in high demand. The time seemed right, as long as Dye kept a lid on his enthusiasm. Charnu -- the brand name he'd come up with -- would be a hobby, something to keep him occupied. Less than a hundred cases. What was the downside?
Over the next few months, Dye rolled back the clock, working fastidiously, tossing away the good life for a far more exciting one. He called in chits from a couple of friends and convinced the Stantons to sell him a couple tons of Cabernet Sauvignon. Then Bob did the same with Lewelling. Both were handshake deals, the best kind. As long as Dye paid his bills, the yearly contract would be renewed. With two tons of the best St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon money could buy in his back pocket, Bob began scouring the valley for young winemaking talent. He'd find just that in Mark Porembski, the wunderkind Cabernet-maker who had honed his skills with Les Behrens at Behrens and Hitchcock.
"It really seemed like such a tiny risk," Bob told us. "I spent top dollar at Lewelling and Stanton. When Mark signed on, I was flying high. The first vintage was 2005. 74 cases! Sold it out in a few weeks. We made a little more in 2006. No problem. But then I did what I swore I'd never do. I guzzled the Kool-Aid."
Beginning in 2007, Mark Porembski crafted 12 barrels of Charnu, producing 300 cases. In 2008, Porembski would turn out one of the richest, most chiseled Cabernets of his storied young career. Again 300 cases. Deep purple-black to the edge with voluptuous aromas of crushed black fruits, violets, and red currants, the attack is fabulously rich and suave -- taking a sleek page out of a Melka playbook -- the dusty tannin finish bracing, yet supple.
"Had we released the 2008 Charnu in a normal market," Dye lamented, "it would have disappeared in a snap. After all, I didn't wing this. I had a plan. I had four small wholesalers signed up in New York, Chicago, LA and Texas. My mailing list was growing. But when the door slammed shut, the wholesalers clammed up -- and my mailing list customers seemed more concerned about paying college tuition than buying Charnu."