With the sale, Lee agreed to stay on at Siduri for three years. That time has now expired, and his official status with Siduri is in limbo, though in a recent interview in Santa Rosa, he said he would like to pursue several projects with Jackson Family Wines.
Meanwhile, he’s launching a project of his own, with a marketing twist. The Clarice Wine Company will still feature pinot noir, from two iconic pinot vineyards, Garys’ Vineyard and Rosella’s Vineyard, both in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Central California. Lee has been buying grapes from both vineyards for Siduri since its initial vintages in 1999 and 2001, respectively. There will also be a Santa Lucia Highlands blend of juice from the two vineyards.
But instead of selling wine, Lee will be offering membership in an exclusive community built on social media around the wine. Membership opens this month, limited to 625 people, each paying $965 for a yearly subscription. Every member will receive a case of wine in October, four bottles of each wine. A members-only website will publish two articles a month to provide a wine education aspect. Lee has recruited several industry figures to write these articles, including Scot Bilbro of Marietta Cellars on the art of blending wines, and Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast magazine on wine writing. There will also be a social-media-style chat site where members can exchange ideas on wines, restaurants and travel advice.
“So many people have great ideas about travel and wine, so it will be great to have more than 600 like-minded wine lovers at your fingertips,” Lee says. “We are trying to make this wine concept much more of a community than ever before.”
The membership model is Lee’s way to circumvent the obstacles facing small wineries in the traditional distribution system. As wholesalers consolidate, the market is favoring large-production wineries; those producing just 700 cases or so can easily get lost in the mix.
“I don’t think the way small wineries are selling their wine is working very well,” Lee told me. “We relied on tasting rooms, then on wine writers. But there are so many tasting rooms.” He mentioned Los Olivos, a small town in Santa Barbara County that has become a wine mecca with dozens of tasting outlets. “And the age of the critic is waning. The difference between a 90-point rating and 89 points doesn’t sell a wine anymore.”
Lee evoked the memory of Robert Mondavi, the wine visionary who promoted Napa Valley, not just his own winery, in the 1960s and beyond. “We need someone like Mondavi for small wineries today,” he said. To that end, Clarice members will be invited to at least one event each year at another winery. This year’s will be at Limerick Lane, a Sonoma County producer of top-notch zinfandel.
“Wineries are struggling to get the attention of distributors,” Lee says. “So we need to cross-market each other.”
And there’s one other aspect to the marketing. “Consumers want the story,” Lee says. “They want to know what’s behind the winery, or the dogs behind the winery.”
Behind Clarice is Lee’s grandmother, Clarice Phears, who helped raise him in Texas in the mid-1960s. “She taught me a lot about winemaking,” Lee says. Well, sort of. Lee’s grandfather was a farmer who came home for dinner not at a given time but when work was done, so Clarice favored one-pot meals that could just get better the longer they simmered on the stove or in a slow cooker.
“She always said if you put the carrots, potatoes and spices in at the beginning, they blend in together better than if you add them at the end,” Lee recalls.
Modern winemaking takes a different view. At Siduri, Lee has followed the current trend of micro-vinification, fermenting and aging different vineyard lots or clones of pinot noir separately, then choosing the best to blend into the final wine. With Clarice, he is fermenting various clones and vineyard lots together, then blending the best barrels. The grapes are picked earlier and fermented more with whole clusters to get the tannin and flavors from the stems. It’s old-school California vs. modern technology.
Lee had assembled the final blends for the three 2017 Clarice wines a few days before we talked. I loved the rich, mouth-filling Garys’ Vineyard, as well as the deeper, more restrained Rosella’s Vineyard. They should both get better by the time they are released in the fall.
Traditional winemaking, untraditional marketing. A delicious blend.
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