Sunday, October 2, 2011

Richard Serrano of L'eft Bank: Selecting Domestic and Austrian Wines – Part I of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Richard Serrano, Wine Manager of spirits and domestic and Austrian wines with L’eft Bank Wine Company, 4918 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI about the wine business.

His bio on the L’eft Bank site ( states: Raised on beer and tequila since the age of 12, Richard had his first sip of White Zin at the age of 26, and declared it righteous. A bottle of cheap Chilean Merlot followed a week later, and there was no turning back. After a brief flirtation with high-alcohol fruit-bombs, two years in wine retail tempered and matured his palette. He now spends his time in the Sisyphusian pursuit of finding Domestic wines that emphasize balance, purity, and terroir. Known as the company hothead, he spends his off time listening to acoustic blues, reading Decanter, and trying to find old bottles of Roussanne on closeout.

MWS: How long have you been with L’eft Bank?
Richard: Six years.

MWS: How many domestic and Austrian wines in L’eft Bank’s portfolio?
Richard: As far as wineries go, we represent, give or take, about 75 domestic wineries. Within those wineries there are multiple SKUs. Austria: I am carrying wines from about 15 different producers from Austria.

For L’eft Bank, total, with everything we represent we have about 2500 different SKUs in inventory.

MWS: How do you select wines? What do you look for? How do you put your wine portfolio together?
Richard: You have got to strike a balance. I was a retail buyer before (with Sendik’s in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin) and so that gave me buying experience.

One is region – (not all distributors work this way – some of the big corporate houses just carry whatever their liquor companies happen to own*) but I try to do it from a terroir basis. So when I look at California, for instance, obviously Napa and Sonoma are major areas, so I want to have multiple producers representing regions within those areas.  For instance in Napa, it is important to me to have both mountain growers – people like Smith-Madrone from Spring Mountain making wine with mountain-grown fruit along with people in key bench land areas like the area of Stag’s Leap represented by Shafer and Regusci.

I want to cover a region completely with both terroir and stylistic differences within that.

And then coming down the state, representing areas such as Paso Robles properly and Santa Lucia highlands and Santa Cruz mountains and so I want to have a broad representation of all those areas of the state.

At the same time I also have to look at price points. There are the lower-end wines, the bulk type products -- those are the ones that keep the lights on. They allow us to play with the more terroir-driven wines. So I also need to make sure that I have all the price points covered. Do I have domestic Cab, Chard, Merlot, Zin represented at $7.99 on the shelf and at $8.99 and at $9.99 and up to my $14.99 categories. So all of that comes into play.

*[MWS: Constellation Brands can illustrate Richard’s point about wine labels that are owned by liquor companies. Constellation Brands’ wine labels include Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois, Blackstone, Estancia, Ravenswood, Mt. Veeder, Kim Crawford, Inniskilin, Jackson Triggs, Black Box, Franciscan, Ruffino, and Simi; their beer brands include Corona, Modelo, St.Pauli Girl, and Tsingtao; their spirit brands include Svedka, Black Velvet and Paul Masson Brandy. Thus, a big corporate wine distributor would likely carry the entire lineup of wine labels regardless of the quality of wine. One wine distributor in Madison refers to itself as “a Gallo house”. Gallo’s lineup includes Louis M. Martini, Mirassou Vineyards, MacMurray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco, Ecco Domani, Frei Brothers,Red Bicyclette, Bella Sera, Turning Leaf, Black Swan, Sebeka, Twin Valley, Barefoot Wine, Redwood Creek, and Bridlewood.]

MWS: How many Napa Cabs in your portfolio right now?
Richard: Maybe 30-35 in inventory right now.

I have access to more but I can’t carry them all. For instance I have got some producers that make other single vineyard Cabernets and I don’t bring in everything. We have one producer that does five different Napa Cabernets at different price points from different areas and I carry three of those.

MWS: Let’s say I am an aspiring winemaker in Napa and this is going to be your 36th Cab. What would lead you to add me?
Richard: First I would say stay out of the industry. The market is overloaded with labels, the consumer is confused, shelves are bulging with too much product that is not moving out the door. When I got into the industry in 2000, there were I think 3,000 bonded wineries in California and now there are over 6,000 bonded wineries. There is just too much.

But if you were an aspiring winemaker a couple of questions I have immediately.

One, tell me something about yourself. Do you have experience and are you making the wine? I don’t really get excited by a guy who has millions of dollars and hires the top-paid consultants to make his wine, and he buys fruit on the bulk market, and puts on a fancy label and asks for $100. That’s not a real narrative.

If you had a little plot of land, and you were growing your own grapes, and you were making it yourself, then that’s more special to me. Or maybe your family has had a vineyard for a couple of generations and you were always selling grapes, and then you decided to start your own winery – that can also be compelling.

It would also depend where you are, where those grapes are going to come from, and what your price point is going to be.

And also frankly what is the label going to look like. I have some wineries come to me, where I like the wine, I like the price point, and the label is so hideous that I just know that I am going to run into a brick wall with every buyer I show it to. I have seen labels that are so ugly that even if the wine is good, I know that every time I take it to a buyer they are going to give me a hard time about it. I have a lot of rocks that I push up the hill; I can’t have all rocks that I am pushing up the hill in my portfolio. Some things need to work on their own.

Then if it looks compelling to me then the usual next step is that you send me some samples and I try them and that is the real deciding factor.

MWS: So when you try these wine samples what are you looking for?
Richard: At the end of the day, when I taste a wine, since I have been doing this for a long time, I know what a Napa Cab that is going to retail for $20 should taste like, and if someone is going to send me one for $50 I know what that should taste like. Now that is not to say that they should all taste the same but I know if it is delivering $20 worth of Cabernet. So I am looking to see if what is in the bottle matches the price point. That’s not always the case in California, because land prices are so inflated.

Secondly if it is a terroir driven wine then what is important is typicity in region and typicity in grape variety.

So for instance, Zinfandel can be made in a million different styles. Stylistically it is all over the board. However, Zinfandel does really show off its terroir in California more than other grapes, more than Cabernet. So for instance a Dry Creek Zin from Sonoma should be balanced and much more elegant than a Zin from Lodi which is going to be more fruit-forward, and more rich and more mouth-filling in the palate. Both styles have their own things to say. If I am looking at two different Zin producers I want them to represent that.  If somebody sends me their Dry Creek Zin, and it is really gooey, and over-the-top and tastes like it should be coming from a much hotter region, then that is going to give me pause. At the same time, if I was looking at my portfolio and I see that most of my Zin producers are making a very elegant style, well then I need a Zin that has got more gooey fruit. So there are a lot of factors always coming into play.

The next posts will discuss selection of wine producers, Austrian wines, and changes in the wine industry.


  1. Great words from a great man. Interesting source of information for those who would like to venture into the wine business.

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  3. A very good and informative article indeed . It helps me a lot to enhance my knowledge, I really like the way the writer presented his views. I hope to see more informative and useful articles in future.

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