Ξ July 7th, 2009 | → 9 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Wineries, Young Winemakers |
My good friend, and occasional contributor to this space, Brandon Miller, has taken the plunge: His passion for wine, especially Pinot Noir, has gotten the better of him and he has decided to offer his own label, Coleman Nicole. Brandon has been a prolific writer of tasting notes. He has tasted wines far and wide. He can speak fluently about most of the wines of California, certainly the varietals, but also of Oregon. Yet he is not a wine geek, nor does he hoard rare bottles. He is first and foremost a wine lover. His knowledge base is in tasting. A humble family man, it has been my great pleasure to know him and his lovely wife, Denyce, these last few years.
One last note: What I hope especially comes through in the following interview is the great joy Brandon took in discussing his adventure in winemaking, every step.
Admin Well, Brandon, how exciting, how delightful it is to see you here in San Francisco, at the restaurant Yuet Lee in Chinatown, and to see this lovely bottle of wine you’ve given me, your Coleman Nicole Rosé. Where on Earth did you come up with this idea? How did you find the patience to persist?
Brandon Miller I wanted to come up with something a little different. I didn’t want to create a wine company that was solely based on the marketing of the label. I didn’t want to come up with a clever name; I appreciate those names but I didn’t want to come up with a catchphrase name like ‘Sojourn’, that kind of thing. So I took my children’s middle names and created a wine company. I floated it around with a few people. Most people say to me, ‘hey, how’d you come up with that?’ They kind of give me a funny look first, and then when I tell them about my children they think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!
As far as having the patience to persist, when I started I had to tell myself you got to give it 24 months before there is going to be any real traction. And then after that you’ve got to give yourself another three years to create a company that makes something that people like and enjoy on a regular basis, and flock to.
You’re well-known in certain circles to be a strong Pinot enthusiast. And you’ve brought here today this Rosé of Pinot made from fruit sourced on the Sonoma Coast. Are all your wines Pinots? Are they single vineyard designations?
BM That’s what we’re trying for, yes. With the ‘08 vineyard we’re 100% Sonoma Coast Pinot. We’re not adding in Syrah, or anything to mess with the flavor. I’m a Pinot varietal nut. I love the flavor. I don’t really want to mess with that. Now, we will mess with different clones here and there. But we want to stick with a true…, and I hate using the word ‘terroir’, I really do, because I don’t think half the people out there really understand the definition, or they have there own definition, which is completely fine. But I really want people to be able to say this vineyard brings these characteristics on a semi-consistent basis; and I love the purity of that. I really do.
So, yes. It’s going to be 100% Pinots and we’re going to try like hell to stick to single vineyards.
How much wine have you made this first time out? What about barrels? A thousand questions….
BM The first year, ‘08, we did eight barrels, so we did roughly 200 cases, somewhere in there. Half of that is new French oak and the other half is neutral oak. We’re not messing around with any Austrian or American oak, it’s all 100% French. It’s going to age anywhere between 14 and 18 months depending on how we feel the juice is doing. For ‘09 we’re going the same route. We’ve changed a few coopers. The Remond cooper we’re finding to be just a fantastic barrel, so we’re going with 25% of Remond alone.
It’s been interesting having to go through clearing house and watching the euro to make sure you’re at the right price. It’s certainly different than the game I’ve been used to.
And what about the price point? How did you settle on it?
BM I actually did a lot of research before I decided on pricing. I looked at all the competition, looked at all where all the single vineyard stuff is, where blending is… I’m the type of person that’s not going to want to raise prices on my loyal customers. So, when we designate ’single vineyard’ we certainly have the ability to go higher in price as the farmers need to make their money; but $38 a bottle for us seems to be right in the middle of not taking advantage of people and still making a little bit of money. (laughs) I mean, we’re very small on our margins because we don’t own vineyards, and I’m still learning the winemaking trade, so I have a winemaker. I couldn’t even be considered to be the associate winemaker. I’m like the associate winemaker who wants to be a winemaker who is in training for it all. So we have to pay for that, as well. We’re trying to meet in the middle, and the research told me that between the Siduris and the Kosta Browns, the big Pinot guys here in the United States, we thought that was a fair price. [Brandon mentioned to me, though it was not recorded, that the rosé might sell for $12 to $15-Admin]
And what about your wine style? What are you after?
BM I have to admit that I fell in love with Kosta Brown. But I’m also a huge Rhys fan and a huge Rivers-Marie fan. I think the grape in general just brings so much on all the different levels that when it’s done right, it can be done right big and it can be done right laid back. Done right, it’s just delicious.
Our style is probably on the bigger side, but we’re not as big as Kosta Brown. A lot depends on how we bought our grapes in ‘08. We had to buy them through a different winery and they had the say as to when they were picked. The brix went a little high on us. This year we’re going to tone it back just a little bit.
We’re doing both a Pommard clone and some 777. I enjoy the Pommard clone. I really enjoy the meatiness, the thickness of the grape, I love the mouthfeel. The 777 can go a little more fruity and then get a little bit on the bigger side, of course, depending on when you pick. My deal is always balance. So if it’s big or laid back or Burgundian, it must have balance.
About that, Burgundy. People are always looking for the next best Burgundy wine here in the West, and I include Oregon in that, too. I’m a huge Oregon Pinot fan. I think that since this is California, this is what California gives to the Pinot grape, so let’s enjoy it. There’s so much good wine out there it’s just not worth pigeon-holing who we are as winemakers. Most people love Burgundy, it’s pricey, but to go with that more elegant style? I would bend that way. But I’m still feeling it all out.
How did you come by your vineyard selection?
BM The first year, I’ve got a plan where I want to start with Sonoma Coast. I love what Sonoma Coast brings. I also love what Russian River brings. I tend to like some Russian River Pinots a lot better than Sonoma Coast. But Sonoma Coast was where we had our ‘in’, that’s where we were able to buy from first. Russian River is a little more locked down when it comes to buying fruit. But once we a couple of years under our belt with Sonoma Coast we’re going to move and do a Russian River bottling. And then probably Anderson Valley and Mendocino. Then we’re going to move to either the Santa Lucia Highlands or the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some of the stuff coming out of the Santa Cruz Mountains is really, really difficult to ignore. It’s really top-notch juice. And if we get big enough then hopefully one day we’ll do an Oregon bottling. I think that’d be fun.
Did you go to a bank and present them with a five-year plan? How did you secure financing? You’re smiling…
BM To say that did it all on my own would be a lie. (laughs) It’s four families that have a passion for wine. I am the biggest owner of the company but the four families, my mom and dad, my wife and I, my brother and his wife, and a very close family friend, we all put up the funds to do this. I did write a full business plan. We are an llc, it’s completely legit. We all consider ourselves investors. There is a pay-back schedule; there are responsibilities there that make this a true business and makes me watch the finances very closely. But I did not have to go through the pains of going to a bank to try and secure money for it.
So much of the wine business is payment up front…
BM Yes. Barrels, grapes, barrel racks, bins, the list goes on and on and on. Stainless steel kegs for our rosé… it keeps going and going. And I didn’t realize that there were that many costs involved. But we have some cool toys now! (laughs)
Where is the winery located?
BM The winery, so ‘08 was at Silenus Vintners, across Hwy 29 from Trefethen, right next to Laird; ‘09 is going to be at a brand new facility called JuiceBox, also in Napa. A new building, a beautiful place, everything is new. I think as of this date there are six wineries in there making wine. A cool facility.
Everybody I’m involved with, I’m close to in the last year doing this, most those people are moving over to JuiceBox as well. It’s a neat little community we have going on there.
Have you talked with distributors? Will your sales be subscription-based?
BM I have an allocation system I wrote. I’m in IT by trade so I created the website, I designed everything myself, and I’m writing the back end for it. Within that back end I’ve created an allocation system. We’re doing things a little different on the allocation system. You get points for being on the list per year, you get points for the amount of money you spend. But I wanted to be a little more viral so I came up something I’ve not seen anybody do: if you ask for Coleman Nicole in a restaurant let us know what restaurant you went into for dinner and asked. And we’ll give you some allocation points. If there is a Pinot Noir-only blog out there and you comment on a thread “Hey, has everybody tried Coleman Nicole?” Let us know. We’ll give you some allocation points. We really want to be viral. We want technology to work for us, like everybody else does. But it’s a cool way of getting the community out there and getting the name out there.
So, yes. It will be allocation-based only. And if we get to a point where we’ve got too much inventory then I’ll be footing to restaurants and boutique wine shops. I do not want my wine in Safeway or BelAir or grocery stores, at this point. I just don’t want that.
Are you looking into competitions?
BM No, I haven’t. But I will. I would love to be in Pinot Days next year. We’ll definitely submit for scores even though I’m not a big ’scores’ guy anymore. I used to be huge into scores but this journey has changed my perception on all that. But, yes, we’ll put it out in competitions. See what people think. I’m very realistic. Somebody’s going to absolutely love our Pinot and tell everybody about it, and somebody is going to hate our Pinot and tell everybody they hate it. That’s the name of the game in wine.
But I think if people realize the care we’re taking, and the hands-on approach we’re taking in every aspect, from hand-bottling, hand-labeling, hand wax dipping of the Rosé, people will look at that in an appreciative light. I would hope the judges at competitions read on our site the care we take. I don’t know. I’m very gray on that, if that’s even fair to say. A person’s palate shouldn’t judge a wine on the story of how the wine was made. A wine should be judged on how good the wine is. On the other hand, I do want people to know the care I take in the wine.
Have your children participated in the winemaking, the labeling?
BM They love it! My son, Davis Coleman Miller, is still a little young. He doesn’t quite understand the name on the bottle is him. He’s three. But my six year old Mattie, Madison Nicole Miller, she is very into hand-dipping the bottles with me. Yesterday she slapped a rosé label on her chest and slapped a label on her back and went up to grandpa and said “Look, Papa! I’m a good bottle of wine.” (laughs)
She’s very in tune to what we are doing. And I’m trying to train her on how she can maybe tell what wine is served by the shape of the bottle. I’m really trying to educate her on wine. And my son as well, when it’s time.
By the time my son was 16 he had tasted a couple dozen grower Champagnes. We went to France not too long ago. Outside Cahors, the wines from there I quite love, and again in Carcassonne, we would enter a cooperative, a tasting room and have two glasses put in front of us! Very civilized.
BM Because of the taboos surrounding alcohol in our society I think a lot of children are missing out on that artform. I really appreciate parents that do that with their children, to teach them about wine. It takes the bad mystique about alcohol away if it is part of the meal.
And if a young person develops an appreciation for wine how can they ever drink vodka?
BM Or swill! That’s how I was in college. I had a lot of friends who went through the micro-brew craze in the 90s. And I had my share. I enjoyed that hand-crafted beer aspect of things, but I was always much more into wine. My parents always had wine on the table. From the time I was about twelve years old, they always gave me a little, tiny glass of wine to enjoy with my meal. That’s all I got, and I knew it was something to be respected. I miss that in society. I miss seeing my friend’s parents being more open to teaching the art and craft of wine at earlier ages.
Wonderful speaking with you, Brandon. Thank you for the bottle of Rosé.
BM Thank you, Ken. My pleasure.