Meet Our Sponsor: 90+ Cellars
About Our Sponsor: Winestyr
Meet Athletic Brewing Co-Founder Bill Shufelt
Since 2009, TFL sponsor 90+ Cellars has been building partnerships with winemakers around the globe in order to bring good wine to Boston at a great price. These days, you’ll spot their label in shops throughout New England, as well as online. We caught up with co-founder and wine director Brett Vankoski learn more about 90+ Cellars’ story, get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the Boston-based brand works with wineries around the world, and find out what wine trends to look out for.
TFL: Can you tell us how 90+ Cellars got started?
Brett Vankoski: I met Kevin Mehra in the summer of 2009 while working behind the counter at Vinodivino in Newton. He told me about an idea he had to purchase unsold inventory from highly rated wineries around the world and sell it under a new label he named “90+ Cellars”. That night, I emailed him asking if he wanted help. A month later, the first containers of wine arrived, and we began traveling to wine shops and liquor stores selling 90+ Cellars door-to-door. At the time, my wife and I had just purchased a new home, we had a one-year-old son, and I think I was making about $150 a week.
TFL: For those unfamiliar with the term, what is a négociant, and what is your take on it?
BV: If you type “négociant” into Google translate, the definition that pops up is “trader.” Essentially, it’s someone who is involved with the buying and selling of wine in various forms: grapes, finished wine, or bottled wine.
My take is that négociants have been in existence for nearly as long as wine has been made and sold. Historically they aggregated the production of small growers and producers into a commercially significant volume that could be marketed and sold.
This is the role of the négociant today, but it manifests in various forms. For example, 90+ Cellars purchases finished wine from many growers and producers for our own label. But some traditional growers and producers have also launched négociant labels in addition to their domaine wines, primarily in wine regions where land is expensive, like in France’s Burgundy region. These “micro-négociants” typically take a much greater role in the production of the wines compared to a larger merchant label like us that mainly tastes and selects wines.
TFL: How do you build relationships with wineries?
BV: We might start a relationship with a winery because they find themselves with more wine from a vintage than they can sell under their own label—because their crop was larger than usual, sales were less than expected, or they decided to make more wine from their vineyards instead of selling the grapes. If our customers like the wine, we might ask the winery if they’re able to supply us in future vintages. We tend to work with wineries who are also growers with significant vineyard holdings. By working with us, they’re able to convert more of their grape harvest into wine, which tends to be better for their balance sheet.
TFL: Traveling the world to find the best wines seems like a pretty sweet job, especially right now when we’re dreaming about traveling again. What’s that like?
BV: There is nothing better than work travel to wine regions. I truly have the best business trips. This time last year I was in Burgundy attending the Hospices de Beaune auction. My work has taken me to France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Chile, and up and down the California coast. I love walking the vineyards that grow the grapes that make our wines, and meeting the people who are working so very hard to grow and make the wine. It gives me a perspective of what life is like in countries all over the world and their view of the United States. We are important to them, and there is a long history, especially in Europe, of cooperation and ties to our nation. I wish that more Americans recognized the dedication and commitment that people all over the world have to their craft, and that we can learn so much if we would take more time to listen. I can’t wait to get on a plane again and visit my friends overseas.
TFL: What wine trends are you excited about?
BV: In general, I’m not a fan of trends. I like tradition and history more than trends. There is something about the way certain things have endured over centuries that appeals to me. I once read that tradition is simply a long history of innovations that worked. Therefore, the trends I get excited about are the ones that allow wine to express itself in its purest form. I like the movement toward organic and sustainable viticulture; the thinking that the best wines are made in the vineyard; less new oak is better; a wine’s balance is more important than its weight; and a wine’s natural acidity is underrated.
TFL: What 90+ Cellars wines would you recommend to sip on during the holidays?
BV: I’m a big fan of pinot noir, and this is the time of year for mild red wines that offer flavors of ripe, red berry fruit along with a bit of savory earthiness. We just released two Collector Series pinots, one from California’s Sonoma Coast and the other form Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills, a sub-region of the Willamette Valley. These are probably the two best places in the U.S. for pinot noir. California’s Sonoma Coast offers up a wine with ripe fruit flavors and heft, backed up by longer maturation in barrel. The Oregon counterpart features laser-like cherry fruit intensity along with a gentle, floweriness that keeps going well after your first sip. Trust me. This is a good thing.