A Little Story About How the World’s Greatest Cabernet Franc Changed My Life

cab franc wines
My wines lined up with my hero wines, including Clos Roche Blanche and Clos Rougeard

When I was new to the wine business – nearly twenty years ago (gasp!) – I worked for a distributor in Washington, DC.  We sold a portfolio of incredible wines from all around the world.  We also happened to sell the wines of New York wine importer Louis/Dressner Selections.  The wine company was founded in the early 1990s by Joe Dressner and his wife, Denyse Louis.   They championed wines from France’s Loire Valley and Beaujolais regions.

If not for Joe Dressner I doubt I’d still be in the wine business.

I was very green when I first started slinging wine.  But I was a fast learner.  I’d watch the seasoned wine guys in suits, who loved to show how much they knew about wine, running their gums ad nauseam to wine buyers all over the city.  Which translated, to me, to just memorize wine information sheets about a wine’s origins, maker, technical information and so on.  That would help me get the placement.  Or so I thought.

When I would listen in, these sales guys would mostly talk about what they liked about the wine, what they tasted and smelled, what they thought of the wine.  They weren’t sharing any helpful wine information at all.

This got me very nervous.  I felt reluctant to share my personal tasting evaluations and thoughts regarding the wines I had to sell.  We had hundreds of labels in our book – I hadn’t yet tasted them all!  How would I possibly sell them based on my experience with them when I had no experience with most of these wines?

It wasn’t clear to me, yet, what method would actually help me sell wine:  regurgitate a bunch of wine facts or dish out my opinions.

I started working in wine at an interesting time.  In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s there weren’t very many women sales reps beating the pavement in DC.  The few that were around were mostly middle-aged and looked a bit beaten down – you could see in the burgeoning lines in their faces that they had to do this the hard way.  Not the “old boys network” way.  Harder.  They had to earn respect in a painful way that the young Gallo boys would never have to.  This era was ripe in nepotism and cronyism – and building young men to be the next wine industry champions.

The other type of woman in the market was the young, skinny girl with giant breast implants that went from selling Budweiser to selling cheap “grocery store” wines to restaurant accounts.  They were called the Budweiser Girls.  They were not hired for their wine knowledge or expertise.

When I first started out in the wine business I was very aware that I was a unicorn.

I was young, conservatively dressed and thirsty to learn about wine.  I went to all of my accounts early and waited.  I would have to wait for hours for some of my buyers to see me.  Sometimes, after waiting a couple of hours, the buyers would tell me they were too busy and told me to come back the following week.  So I would.  This would go on for weeks.  Months, even.  I didn’t have a clue that I should just give up.  I naively thought this was the initiation process of being a new sales rep.  In some cases this was true.  But then I’d see new guys in neckties wait it out for a couple weeks and then they’d eventually get their big break in front of the buyer.  Just like that – they were in.

It was clear that I wasn’t going to move to the head of the line or get anywhere with many of these buyers.  Skinny French guys with long ponytails and suited Gallo types seemed to run the town.

Instead, I had to worry about whether or not I was showing enough boob.  I wish I was kidding.  I was young and a graduate of a woman’s college, which meant I was a feminist, which was kind of a dirty word even in the early 2000s!  I wasn’t about to show any of these dirty old sons of bitches (sorry, mom!) cleavage.  There had to be another way.  I don’t even want to get into the tragedy of how I had to sit on one of my buyer’s lap every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. in order to take his weekly wine order while the French ponytails and Gallo boys would snicker.  I would retreat into my car and cry.   I wish I was making this up.

I had sales goals that I had to meet each month and I was nowhere near my numbers.  I was legitimately worried that low cut blouses were my only way in.  I didn’t own any and loathed the thought of spending money, the little I had, on low cut blouses that weren’t my style.  So, to my demise, I refused to expose my peaks and valley and kept dressing like a chic librarian.  I continued to struggle to show wine to many of the buyers on my route.

Part of the job of a wine sales rep is to host suppliers (ie. a winery sales rep or an importer) for a day’s work.  The industry calls this a “ride with” or “work with”.  You pick up the supplier in your car and then you take them to scheduled appointments at your accounts.  The supplier shows the wine and hopefully makes placements on your on-premise customer’s wine lists or on your off-premise customer’s shelves.  You politely make introductions, pour the wine, then let them work their magic.  Work withs can be great if you can schedule a full day.  If you get a last minute work with, it’s a nightmare.  The supplier expects a full day with your top accounts and often you have to scramble to get at least a couple decent appointments secured.  It can be very stressful.

I had my first supplier “work with” with Joe Dressner in the spring of 2002.  I had enough top accounts that would allow me to schedule a full work day of appointments.  Luckily my boss gave me plenty of time to book solid appointments.  Truthfully, the accounts didn’t give a rat’s ass about me.  They all wanted face time with Joe.  At the time, I had no idea how cultish and amazing most of his wines were.  I was just happy to get confirmed appointments!

I picked up Mr. Dressner in my Honda Civic.  I was ten minutes early.  He was waiting for me which made me feel like I was fifteen minutes late.  When he got into my car he looked like a stern English Professor about to quiz me on Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and Pound.  I was intimidated.  In his New York manner, he looked at me with indifference and said, holding up a bottle of wine with an indistinct white label, “if you can’t sell Cazin in every account today, you have no business in the wine business.”

And that was the start of our day.  I felt sick.

What I soon learned was one of the most important lessons of my career in wine:  you pour the wine and then you shut up.

I would respectfully pour samples of wine in the buyer’s glass and wait to see what Joe was going to do.  At the fist appointment he chit chatted about some guy he knew in France who the buyer knew and they laughed about the guy’s horribly mismatched toupee or something like that and then got very serious about the said guy’s wife who had recently passed away from cancer and how the son didn’t want anything to do with the vineyard and what a shame it all was and how the said toupee guy would likely sell.  In that exchange wine was poured and Joe neither regurgitated a bunch of wine facts nor did he dish out one opinion.

They returned to the wine in the glass, which had nothing to do with the toupee guy.  The buyer ordered three cases of Cazin Cheverny.

It was a similar story in each account we visited that day.  Joe would strike up some conversation about something else and he’d let the buyers share their knowledge about the wines and then dish out their opinions with very detailed tasting notes.

That was the a-ha moment:  let the buyer be the expert he or she is and the buyer will buy.  

It was that simple.  If the wine was very good, as these wines were, they spoke for themselves.  The wine buyers typically knew everything under the Tuscan sun about  iconic and esoteric wines, they built their programs on being able to share quality treasures with their customers.

Distribution sales reps too often make the mistake of trying to tell the expert what the expert should already know.  Every now and again I’d bring a wine that a buyer wasn’t familiar with and, still, I would refrain from over-sharing.  I’d let the buyer taste and ask the questions and I was prepared to answer in short and concise sentences.  I never offered an opinion but asked the buyer what he or she thought of the wine.  That was part of my education – because I learned a lot about wine from these long-time old school buyers.  Yeah, you pour the wine and then shut up and listen.

And that was how I learned to kill it as a wine sales rep.  I passed the French ponytails and Gallo boys in line and started selling wine like a boss.  I guess I have Joe Dressner to thank for that, for helping me keep my job!  And I never had to waste my money on low cut blouses!  So I got to keep my dignity after all.

The Louis/Dressner wines were my everything.  We had so many wonderful brands to sell in our book.  But I always found myself playing favoritism.  Because these wines spoke for themselves.  I was most captivated by Clos Rougeard and Clos Roche Blanche.

It’s sad.  All these years later, the two Louis/Dressner wines that not only shaped my career but helped inspire my own wine label are no longer in production.  And in 2011, the year I made my very first wine from Cabernet Franc, Joe passed away.

I remember him telling me that Clos Rougeard was arguably the greatest Cabernet Franc ever produced.  It was a cult classic.  Tiny production.  Two brothers.  And I had the privilege to sell those wines in a very important food and wine city.  How lucky for me. And what an education!

I’m looking outside of my window now, here in Oregon, years and miles away from Washington, DC.  The trees are nearly bare with lingering red, gold and brown leaves.  My fermentations are nearly complete and I will soon press off the Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Gamay grapes.

It’s quite something to consider where I’ve arrived since my days of worrying about whether or not I was showing enough cleavage to sell wine to an older wine institution in our nation’s capitol.  Many subsequent years of sales, marketing and cellar work have positioned me to make my own wine.  For me, it was always about Cabernet Franc.

My “Loiregon” wines tell the story as best as they can.  Oregon is a different place than France.  But we can make connections.  When I talk about the subduction off of the Oregon coast that took place 250 million years ago and left behind in Southern Oregon a treasure trove of ocean bottom material, including blueschist rock, ancient marine fossils and mollusk shells, and the largest fan of high grade limestone in the state – you can make connections to that of the Loire Valley that was under a tidal basin 100 million years ago.  You can deduce why the same grape varieties thrive in these similar soil series.   You can feel why these wines might be kindred spirits or even kissing cousins!

I chose Cabernet Franc from Southern Oregon because the best Cabernet Franc in North America grows in these soils.  I believe arriving in Oregon was my calling.  My father is from Oregon.  I have roots here.  My Nordic family arrived in the wild west as farmers and makers.  Sometimes we get pulled far from our roots and part the process of healing our ancestral wounds is simply returning home.

If Clos Rougeard was arguably the best Cabernet Franc wine ever produced, perhaps there’s a chance I can make something special, too.  I would never claim to make the best Cab Franc anywhere.  But I am not just making wine for the fun of it.  I’m not interested in any “rock star” status, in fact, I tend to hide in my comfortable shell from public wine tastings and spotlights.   I do believe I have my work cut out for me and I’m determined to make a statement, even if in my own introverted way.

I chose the name “Clos Rogue Valley” for my reserve Cabernet Franc.  It was a kind of  respectful nod to the Foucault brothers, the founders of Clos Rougeard.  I love puns and word play and look how beautifully the word Rogue plays on the eyes alongside Rougeard.

ROGUE / ROUGEARD

There are many stories in the pipeline I’ll eventually tell about making Caberent Franc.

This memory piece is about how I learned how to sell wine and that it didn’t require me to lose my dignity by showing my assets in a time that expected me to do just that – and how this was connected to certain wines from the Loire Valley that changed my life.

That said…

I wonder what Joe would have thought of my wines.  I would like to think that he would have approved of my decision to focus on Southern Oregon Cabernet Franc.  I sometimes think about sending his wife a bottle.  She doesn’t know me.  There were so many sales reps selling their wines over the years.  If she were to come across this post, I would want her to know how much respect and gratitude I have for her family’s business.  As far as I know, Joe could have thought I was just another idiot sales rep he had to go along with for a work with.  I never even asked if I passed the Cazin test!  LOL.  I didn’t really sell a single bottle of wine that day – the wine sold itself!  I’m assuming that was Joe’s humor to lighten the pressure of working with a supplier.  I didn’t know him well enough after one work with to know his humor.  But I do get a good laugh out of wondering…