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GOTTA LOVE 'EM, continued

Continuation of interview with Les Behrens and Bob Hitchcock
CLICK here to return to beginning of interview 

Part 3. Now Joe Bob Hitchcock wanders in...

     ...and, as if on cue, Les excuses himself

     This may sound confusing, but it actually works out very well. Bob handles the business end of the winery, and I'm brimming with questions about it.

     For one thing, B&H has earned my special allegiance as a consumer by charging less than half the price exacted by other cult wines. Cheap it ain't, but in the Napa Valley scheme of things, it's a pretty good deal.

     For another, I can't help noticing that this winery looks...

     Well, let's call it low-key. For all I know, Les and Joe Bob may have enormous egos, but you'd never know it from looking around. As if to underscore this point, Joe Bob walks me to the crush pad in back of the barrel-room.

He points at two metal objects I can't quite identify...

     "Okay, what are they?" I ask.

     "Our first two fermenters," Joe Bob smiles. "They're actually dairy tanks. Les never found any fermenters that work better. We salvaged one from a cow pasture. It was almost buried.

     "But the reason I'm pointing them out is that they say something about our philosophy. Our attitude has always been -- spend anything you must on the quality of the grapes. But if it's not going to make the wine better, we're very careful."

     He points to an equally odd-looking plastic construction attached to the wall. "Here's another example. We sort the grapes here. And your hands get awfully sticky after hours of this work. We thought it might be nice if we had a hand-washer up here. So Les fixed this up from a big plastic jug and a spigot he found somewhere. It could have cost hundreds. We spent a few bucks."

     Next he walks me over to a contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg himself.

     "What's THAT?" I gape.

     "That," says Joe Bob with fatherly pride, "is our grape bin dumper. When we shopped for one, they seemed awfully expensive. Les looked them over and said 'I'll bet I can build something just as good out of wood.' He spent maybe $500 on parts and here we are. Works great.

     "That crusher next to it was a little more costly. We got it second-hand from Shafer for about $5,000."

     "Let's back up a little," I say. "Exactly what was your starting capital?"

     Joe Bob grins like a Cheshire cat. "Zero."

Part 4. Starting from absolute zero

     He then launches into a story that I sense he may have recounted before. That's okay by me. It's a doozy.

     "I'd been living up in Humboldt County for quite a few years. I was a business and tax consultant.

     "Les was a woodworker. He'd built a facility for one of my clients, called Finnish Country Hot Tubs. We didn't know each other yet, but we would very soon.

     "It all started when the owners asked me to help them sell their business. They wanted to take the proceeds, retire and live in France.

     "I ran the numbers, then came back to the owners with a different idea. Instead of selling the business, I suggested they hire someone to run the place for them. They'd keep their equity and make more money too.

     "They liked the idea and went for it -- but I didn't realize they'd be hiring my wife, Lily, to run the place!

     "Needless to say, Lily started spending a lot of time there. And Les was always coming in to work on the hot tubs -- that's how we met Les and his wife Lisa.

     "Lisa was and is a great cook. We thought her meals were awesome and kept encouraging her to follow her dream..."

"So eventually Lisa and Les opened up their own restaurant..."

     "Lisa ran the kitchen," Joe Bob continues. "Les did the maitre d' and sommelier jobs. And Les doesn't do things halfway -- before long, he was really getting into wine.

     "He wanted the best stuff for the restaurant, especially the Napa Valley wines. When people told him certain wines were impossible to get, he went down there to see for himself.

     "You may have noticed that Les is very personable. He'd go around, knock on doors, meet the winemakers, talk with them, and before long, they were friends and he was getting all these hard-to-find wines.

     "This went on for a while, and the winemakers could see how much passion he had for this. They started asking him, 'Les, why are you just buying wine? You should be making it!'

"There was only one problem. He needed capital."

     "But that didn't stop Les," Joe Bob recounts, "He actually considered selling off his personal wine cellar to raise money." 

     "Meantime, I was watching all this and thinking, 'I wonder if there's a business here?' I'm a financial guy, so I started asking Les some basic financial questions.

     "I did a little figuring -- I decided there was money to be made. And it looked like Les was having fun, and I could bring something to the picture. So I offered to do the business part while Les took care of the wine."

Part 5. "Partnerships are tough,
but we seemed to get along..."

     "I remember I went to the bank and came back with an envelope full of cash," says Joe Bob Hitchcock.

     "I gave it to Les, he drove off in a borrowed truck, and came back loaded up with grapes, barrels and equipment. 1993 was our first vintage. We made 7 barrels of wine -- 175 cases. It wasn't as good as the later stuff, but it was a start."

"During 1994, Les devoted himself to becoming a winemaker..."

     "And let me tell you, Les is an absolute sponge for information," Joe Bob continues. "He's always listening, always learning, always wanting to know more.

     "He talked to the winemakers he admired most, listened hard, soaked it all up, and distilled it into his own philosophy.

     "The wines were getting better, and we produced more of them. From 1994 through 1996, we were making 750 cases a year.

     "At first we actually stored the case goods at my home," Joe Bob says. "This was Humboldt County where temperatures stayed pretty cool.

     "Anyhow, now that we had the stuff, we had to start selling it. We went around to stores and restaurants mostly around Humboldt County, selling a bottle here, maybe as much as a case there."

"Then Les dropped a bottle of 1994 Merlot off at Oakville Grocery..."

     "They called back and ordered five cases. We were delirious -- wow, five whole cases!

     "They did what's called a case stack. You stack the cases on the floor and put up a big sign. Special! $13 a bottle!

     "But a funny thing happened. After a while, Oakville Grocery called back and said 'It's not selling. We think the problem's the price. Would you mind if we raised it to $25 a bottle?'

     "So Oakville Grocery just about doubled the price -- and the wine flew out the door."

     Joe Bob pauses a moment. "Have you ever seen the movie, 6 Degrees of Separation? That sort of describes what happened to us next..."

Part 6. "Those five cases changed our lives..."

     "It's amazing where they went," Joe Bob remembers, "and what happened as a result."

     "Pretty soon a guy from Jersey was calling me and saying 'I just tasted your wine and I want to distribute it in New Jersey.' Okay, I said. Then another guy from Jersey called and asked the same thing. Too late, I said.

     "Then a friend of one of the Jersey guys -- a man named Noah Bass -- calls me and says, 'I want to sell your wines in New York. I'll buy everything you can let me have.'

      "Things were happening too fast. 'Hold on," I said. 'I'm not sure. Let me think about this for a while.'

     "The very next day, at 8 am, Noah was on the phone again. 'I'm going to bug you every day until you say yes,' Noah told me. So I caved. 'Okay Noah, how much do you want?'

     "We agreed to start him with 30 cases. I took the wine down to American Canyon to be shipped-- and a man asks me, 'Noah Bass is distributing your wine? That's pretty impressive. How long did you have to bug Noah to take your wine?'

     "This was February of 1997. In May of that year, we bottled some more wine -- and we thought it was pretty special. I called Noah hoping he wanted to buy more wine.

     "To try and impress Noah with how good the wine was tasting, I said, 'One of these wines is so good, it's the kind of wine we wish Robert Parker could taste.'"

"Noah then floors me by saying, 'Well,
I taste wine with Bob all the time...'"

     "And here I was just hoping that Noah might give me a lead!

     " 'But listen,' says Noah. 'Bob Parker doesn't want to taste just one wine. He's not interested in one-wine wonders. I'd have to show him a wide range of your stuff.'

     "So Les and I send Noah seven different wines -- five from 1994 and two from 1995. And Noah arranged a tasting with Parker in June of 1997.

     "The day after the tasting, Noah calls me at 8 am Pacific Time, as he usually does. I'll never forget what he said. The first words out of his mouth were..."

Part 7. "Robert Parker is going to make you a star..."

     "'What do you mean, Noah?' I asked. 'What did Parker say?'

     "Noah tells me, 'Over and over, Parker just kept repeating two things. I am blown away and Who ARE these people?'

     "Sure enough, when the next Wine Advocate comes out, Noah faxes it to Les and me. The article begins by asking 'Who are these people?' Parker gives one of our wines 88 points, scores the rest in the 90s and calls us The Winery Discovery of the Year. You'd better believe that changed everything.

"Suddenly, my phone started ringing off the hook..."

     "My office was in a shed apart from the house," Joe Bob Hitchcock remembers. "I'd rigged up a light in the house that would flash when my business phone was ringing."

     "On the day the Wine Advocate came out, Lily came up to me and said, 'I think your light must be broken. It's just staying on -- it won't go off.'

     "I went over to the office and found 30 messages on my phone. They all said basically the same thing. 'Hi, I'd like to get on your mailing list.'

     "Over the next few days, I got 300 more calls just like that, all asking to get on our mailing list. Finally I called Les and said..

"Uh, Les, I think we'd better get a mailing list going..."

     "We realized this was our big break, " says Joe Bob. "All we needed to do was sell our homes and businesses in Humboldt, move down to Napa Valley, and do it for real.

     "Easier said than done -- we still had no money. "But again we had a stroke of fortune.

     "Les saw an ad in the paper for a bonded winery that was up for rent in Napa. This never happens. We were so lucky! So we grabbed it, moved our operations into the rented winery and started making wine under their bond. [Editor's note: A commercial winemaking facility has to be legally "bonded."

     "I stayed up in Humboldt for one more year to make money and keep the cash coming.

Part 8. Getting great grapes

     At this point, Lucy scampers over and again grabs the spotlight. "How old is she?" I ask.

     "Four years old," Joe Bob replies. "She's actually mellowed out a lot." He's not finished his story yet, but I sense it's time for a few more questions.

APJ: Let me interrupt briefly and ask you -- how did you get all these people with in-demand vineyards to sell you their grapes, when you were so new to the business? Did the Parker reviews help?

JBH: I'm sure. But also, 1997 was a great year with a big crop. People had stuff to sell. Growers started coming to us, offering their best fruit and asking "Could you make a wine just from my fruit?" They wanted to know what their grapes were really capable of.
     And we were willing to do it. Make a very low-production wine just from one vineyard lot. 

APJ: And Les is a very personable guy...

JBH: [Laughs] Yes, and he does a fantastic job with the fruit he gets. So we're constantly getting great new fruit.

APJ: Okay, let's get back to your history. When did you buy this place on Spring Mountain? And why did you buy a place all the up here if you didn't intend to plant a vineyard?

JBH: That's easy -- we bought land up here because it was the last cheap 20 acres for sale in Napa Valley. You think it's easy to truck the grapes all the way up here? This location was the only thing we could afford!

APJ: But you said you had no money. How did you finance it?

JBH: Well, I started out by going to our bank -- a very sound place, that wasn't taken in by the Internet stuff that was soaking up so much loan money back then. Basically, went into the back office, told them our plans, plopped the Parker reviews down on the table and said, "we want a loan."

APJ: And...?

JBH: Our banker said, "Sure thing, but we need some money down." And of course, we had nothing approaching the kind of money he required for a down payment.

Part 9. Raising money the B&H way

APJ: So where did you get it?

JBH: We had to get creative. When we started in 1993, Les and I went out to people we knew and asked each of them for $2,500. The offer was that we'd repay them, of course, but every lender could buy our wine at 5% below wholesale.
     We originally raised $40,000 that way. But now we needed $75,000 for that down payment on the land.
     Well, I figured I could do it if I could get 15 more people to kick in $5,000 apiece. And I had some good fortune again. The first person I called -- a woman I'd known for many years -- didn't even let me finish my spiel. She interrupted me and said "Okay, I'm writing you a check for $75,000."
     "Wait a minute," I said, "I was just going to ask you for $5,000."
     "The ink's drying right now," she says. "The check's for $75,000. You want me to tear it up?"
     So we bought the land. And just in time. We did our '97 and '98 crush in the rented winery, but then we had to move out. And we had the land now, but things got a little hairy in the summer of '99.

APJ: What went wrong?

JBH: Well, we knew we had to do the '99 crush in our new space up here. But you need a permit before you can build, and by spring of '99 we still didn't have a permit. Finally, Les told the authorities -- look, we must do our crush here this fall or we're out of business. We're building!
     They gave us permission to dig the foundations. But we were way behind schedule, so we started and never stopped.
     By fall of 1999, we had our crush pad -- but the winery was still under construction.
     We had no electricity, so we had to run everything off generators. It was stressful. Sometimes at night the generator would run out of gas and plunge us into total darkness -- but somehow we kept things going.
     We had no plumbing. See there? [Points.] We had a beautiful outhouse back there.
     But by 2000, we had the winery building, a bathroom and electricity. 2001 was our first year of full production and profitability.

APJ: Let's talk about profitability. I've heard that a lot of California wineries are facing tough times right now. How are things going for you? Sounds like you built your winery on the cusp of the biggest wine-bust since the late '80s. Everybody's been raising prices -- even in the '98, '99 and 2000 vintages -- and consumers are rebelling. Some producers are going under. Am I right?

Part 10. Keeping prices fair

JBH: No question, many people are have a tough time. But we've never been doing better. We've been very, very careful about spending. And we've gradually raised our prices, but we've noticed that a lot of customers appreciate not being taken advantage of.

APJ: Amen to that. There's a lot of anger out there among people who have been on certain mailing lists.

JBH: Well, for a long time, Les and I were wine buyers ourselves, so we identify with that. So we're not going to raise prices through the roof. We're paying our bills -- and we're happy with what we're making. I'm the money guy and I feel I've managed things to the point where we're secure in our operations.
     I don't want to jeopardize that by departing too much from what got us here. Want to see our cave?

     We walk over to an attractive stone entrance built into the side of the mountain. It's well-constructed and designed, but not ostentatious. Still, I know these things are not cheap to dig.

Part 11: Buddha's keeping an eye on things

APJ: Well, this has to have cost you more than $500!

JBH: [Eyes light up.] You think so? This may be the cheapest cave in Napa Valley. Know how we dug it? A neighbor came by with a D8 Cat, and dug a deep trench.

     Then we roofed it over, covered it all up with the dirt that came out, lined the insides with gunnite, poured the floor, and here we are. See that little fan all the way in back?

APJ: Yes, what's it for?

JBH: It brings in moist, cold air from underneath the mountain. That's our climate control.

APJ: Is that a Buddha I see in back? What's he doing there?

JBH: Buddha's sort of keeping an eye on things.

APJ: It still amazes me that you've got twenty acres practically next door to Pride and you haven't planted a single vine.

JBH: Well, you know, you have to set priorities. It would require a major investment, not just in money, but in time. And life only lets you do so many things. Lisa is our vineyard expert and she would sort of like to plant, but when we've talked about it, I've said, "Lisa, where you are you going to find the time to do it? You've got two young kids, the winery, you've got other projects -- don't you already feel maxed out?"
     Well, she would find a way to do it, but we are buying awesome grapes. It would be hard to grow even better grapes.

APJ: One more question. You use artificial corks. I'm very sensitive to TCA, so you'll have no argument from me. But you're one of the most prestigious operations I know who's daring to do this. Most cult wineries are scared they'll turn people off. Who made the decision and why?

JBH: We made that decision on day one. When Lisa and Les were running the restaurant, they would do tastings where they'd open 30 bottles of wine. When you do that, you realize just how many are ruined by cork taint.
     So we view this as part of our quest for total quality. We never want to be faced with recorking and recalling wines.
     We've talked with people at St. Francis -- you know they've been doing this for years -- and they said they've never been sorry. Once in a while, someone calls to complain about the aesthetics, but when we ask them if the wine was good, the answer is always "Oh, we loved the wine." That's all we want to hear.

     As we close our interview, Joe Bob writes down his contact information for me, and I see the words "Gypsy King" in his email address.

     "Are you a flamenco fan? " I ask, referring to the popular group.

     "No," Joe Bob winks. "I'm King of the Gypsies."

     A subject for another interview, perhaps...

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