Step One – Steal Grapes
In the fall of 2006 I found myself, even by my own admission, doing something I should not have been doing, standing in the falling rain, picking Cabernet grapes behind the St. Helena library in Napa Valley. Lets just say these were not my grapes. After hauling two large trashcans back to my garage, I made my first wine. And it was terrible. I put a picture of my dog on the label and stuck it in the back of my cellar. Ignoring the obvious question, “why did no one pick expensive St. Helena Cabernet?” I continued on.
2007 found me out in the same vineyard, this time hauling four large trashcans. But I learned from my mistakes; I needed help. So, I solicited my friend and his two small children, we went out in the cool dusk of October and picked enough to make ½ barrel. But alas, the results were exactly the same: tannic red wine. And then, two months later I had the reason. The vineyard owner pulled the vines, as they had been diseased for years. It turns out one man’s trash is another man’s garbage.
Step Two – Buy Grapes
In the summer of 2008, having learned my lesson, I asked all twelve of my friends to chip in $125 so I could buy ½ ton of Dyer Vineyard Syrah, one used barrel, and supplies to make 25 cases of what would prove to be the launching pad of Montagne Russe. Side note: I called the label “Three Balls In” which not only ends in a preposition but is a reference to bocce score, which to this day no one understands.
Step Three – Get Caught by the Federal Government
As the wine project grew in the garage, “Three Balls In” went from 1 barrel to 3 barrels, to 6 and finally to 12 barrels in 2013. During the Pinot harvest that year I got some water on my neighbor’s driveway. Now, in my defense our driveways were 24 inches apart and it was 105 degrees out. Even so, Ross (picture the old guy from UP) wrote a profanity-laced tirade via email about getting water on his property. To this I simply replied… well, let’s just say I picked three choice words.
And there you have it. If someone asks how you get ATF, California Alcohol Beverage Control, and the Napa District Attorney called to your house at lunch time in September, that would be your Jeopardy!-style answer. After answering questions to federal agents for 2 hours I thought all was well, until they launched the “investigation”. Federal prison wasn’t how I wanted to spend most of 2014. I had other plans. After hiring an attorney, and four months of wrangling, we agreed I would dump four of the twelve barrels on the ground and pay an $89.90 fine. Yes my friends, your federal tax dollars at work. The question I get most often: did the agent have to watch you pour the wine out? And the answer is, yes. The agent met me at my garage and we drove down to the Napa dump, opened the spigot and we watched 240 gallons (100 cases, 1200 bottles) of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Pinot Noir pour on the ground.
Step Four – Start Again
So as you can image, that was a pretty traumatic experience. But out of the ashes arose “Montagne Russe” (mon-ton-yah roos) which means “Roller Coaster” in French. As a side note, my good friend Andrew asked me if I was interested in designing a roller coaster for our senior project at Cornell Engineering. I thought that was a much better way to spend my senior year than knee deep in math and thermodynamics. Roller coaster is the perfect description of our journey and a fitting name for our nascent winery. Twenty of my friends and two business school professors gave me the seed capital in 2015. We found new vineyard sources, refocused on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, migrated to the Sonoma Coast from Russian River, and graduated out of my garage (for obvious legal reasons).
Step Five – Score 95 Points
We made 10 barrels of wine in 2015. And by some stroke of luck we were able to get three of the wines in front of Robert Parker. We scored 95 and 94+ on the Springhill Ranch and Dragon’s Back Pinot Noirs, and 91 on the Silver and Gold Chardonnay. Just to see our name with the Aubert’s, Kistler’s, Rochiolli’s, and other heavy hitters was truly awe-inspiring.
Obviously, this is not how I would intentionally go about it today. A couple hundred dollars in antacids, a great lawyer, and some fortuitous luck made this Roller Coaster come true. Our tag line is “Enjoy the Ride”. With wines like ours how can you not?
Winemaker, former engineer, CFO, ex chef, amateur saxophonist, gold medalist in the pole vault, and champion of disadvantaged puppies around the globe
Ok, I didn’t win a gold medal in the pole vault, that’s just silly. But so were the origins of Montagne Russe, and that story is true.
Angel Note: Find Montagne Russe 2017 BirchBark Pinot Noir on Cellar Angels for a limited time and enjoy special pricing and proceeds to your favorite cause!