How to succeed in business by turning lemons into joy juice
"We're told that our Zinfandel is one of the three top selling wines in Sweden," says David Phillips, President/Owner of Michael-David Winery. "I guess the Swedes like to barbecue!"
While polishing off his huevos rancheros in Phillips Farms (more than just a produce stand, but also a fantastic bakery and café, while also serving as Michael-David's tasting room) on Hwy. 12, David talked about the family business's growth and success — which also mirrors the growth and success of Lodi's wines and vineyards in general.
"I grew up running through the vineyards and fruit orchards across the way," David says, pointing towards the vineyard area across the highway between Turner and Woodbridge roads, along the Mokelumne River. "The original family homestead was 160 acres of vineyards, orchards and vegetable farms, first started by my great-great grandparents in the 1860s.
"Of course, I was also working in the fields by the time I was ten, just like I have my 15 and 12 year olds doing — they've spent plenty of quality time doing various jobs in the winery or helping out in the café," he tells us. "My older brother Michael (CEO of Michael-David Winery) and I are fifth generation Lodi farmers, and our kids represent the sixth generation.
"Grapes have always done well in Lodi. A hundred years ago Lodi was responsible for at least 25% of what was being bottled as California wine; for the longest time, a lot of that going out to the wineries in Napa and Sonoma. But by the time I rejoined the family business in 1989 (after graduating from UC Davis 1987 and doing short stints in Europe, South Australia and New Zealand), the family was still relying on crops like peaches to pull the family business through.
"We had vines that documents show were planted as long ago as 1872 —mostly Zinfandel, of course, which we still use, and Petite Sirah and assorted other grapes like Cinsault, which go to wineries like Turley and Bonny Doon — but in the eighties and nineties, most of what we grew went to Sutter Home. When the glut came in the late nineties, and we lost our Sutter Home contract, we were left with the only thing we could do, apart from pulling out the vines and planting more peach trees: we made wine."
Thank heavens for that: can you imagine a wine world still lost in the thralls of "White" Zinfandel (not that we didn't love it), without reds like 7 Deadly Zins — a roly-poly, spicy mouthful of kickaboo joy juice, priced ($14-$16) for no-nonsense, everyday wine drinkers? Or a wine universe without Michael-David's Earthquake Zinfandel or Petite Sirah (around $28), blowing away the connoisseurs who appreciate unique wines "of a place" (i.e. terroir).
Driving through the family plantings, which has grown to about 700 acres (supplying about half of Michael-David's current production), David continued the saga. "In 2000 we were producing and selling about 6,000 cases of wine. In 2010 we will surpass 300,000 cases. We now work with another 70 growers, who by and large are farming sustainably like us.
"We quickly penetrated the entire U.S. market, and we now sell in eleven other countries — including Canada, most of Europe, China and Southeast Asia." We asked David what he thinks can be attributed to the "overnight" success. "Well, we do have fun, eye catching labels," he tells us, with a mischievous gleam, "and we always have something new coming out. 7 Deadly Zins is by far our most popular wine, but wines like our Petite Petit (a riotously flavorful blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot, retailing for about $18) and Lust (a super-powered ultra-premium Zinfandel, about $59) have been flying. But just to show how much interest has grown in Lodi itself — not just in reasonably priced Zinfandel or unique styles of Petite Sirah — our Rapture (a Lodi grown Cabernet Sauvignon retailing for about $59) has been on fire in recent months, selling out in both stores and restaurants.
"The only wine that has been on the slow side has been Syrah, which we think is due to a little bit of a glut on the market. But we're still big believers in it, and Syrah was one of the four first wines bottled under the Michael-David label in 1984. The fruit we have coming off our Syrah blocks is fantastic, and going by our past success, we think it's only a matter of time before consumers catch up on that, too."
If anyone should know, it's the Philips brothers, Michael and David!
TODAY'S TASTE OF LODI : 2007 MICHAEL-DAVID 6th SENSE SYRAH
Melts in your mouth, not in your hand: Who doesn't like smoky bacon, or chocolate covered berries? Throw in some cracked pepper and a dash of cardamom and essences of violet, and you have a weird tasting dish. But when you taste all these vivid sensations in this meaty yet round, smooth, meltingly rich red wine, you just wanna write home and tell everyone about it; especially considering the price (less than $16 in most retail markets).
Seeing dead people: Michael Phillips was the first grower to plant Syrah in this part of Lodi — the region's oldest sections located west of the city of Lodi, also officially known as the Mokelumne River AVA (American Viticultural Area). The Phillips' Syrah blocks were also the first ones managed by Michael's son, Kevin, which is why if you turn the bottle around you will see Kevin's eye peering out from inside the bottle. Why ask why? Just drink up and enjoy the fruits of Kevin's labor!
Fire in the hole: When you savor a good Syrah like the 6th Sense in certain food settings — like Chinese, Korean or Mongolian styles of meats, marinated in lusty mixes of soy sauce, garlic, cinnamon, sesame, ginger and/or star anise — you can't help but think: this is what wine and food matching is all about! Syrah's sweet violet and black and brown spice tones have a natural affinity with exotic styles of meats. Here's one guaranteed to titillate the senses:
Korean Style Barbecue Beef Shortribs
3 lbs. English (or Asian) cut beef shortribs, scored
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sesame oil
¼ cup sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
3 stalks green onions, minced
2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
Combine marinade ingredients and pour over shortribs in zip-lock plastic bag (or in shallow Pyrex sealed with plastic wrap); marinate overnight in refrigerator. Broil (or grill) 8-10 minutes on each side until desired doneness.