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CONTINUING our interview
Harmon Skurnik of
Michael Skurnik Wines

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Part 2: What exactly do you guys do, anyway?

APJ: Let’s move on to a very basic question. What exactly does your company do? I mean, I know that you basically distribute to New York and New Jersey. But you also recently became a national distributor...

HS: Primarily, we are importers and wholesalers. We’re based in New York and 95% of our business is conducted there and in New Jersey.

The Skurnik California portfolio reads like a wish list of everything a collector ever wanted and couldn't get. Above, two of the most famous wines made by Helen Turley.

     And we’re exclusive regional representatives to several hundred wineries from around the world. Mostly California, France, Italy and Spain.

     Our customer base is strictly wholesale -- shops and restaurants. We sell nothing direct to consumers.

     At the same time, we’re expanding on a national scope. First and foremost with Terry Theise. We recently struck an agreement to represent him nationwide. And that opens up all sorts of other opportunities, but we’re not rushing them.

APJ: I want to get into Terry Theise later, because I’m personally excited about that deal. But right now, let’s talk about how the distribution business actually works. I think a lot of folks, including me, are really in the dark about what goes on.

     I mean, I know Marc de Grazia has a fantastic portfolio of Italian wines. And you distribute them in your territory. But where does his part end and yours begin?

HS: Well, Marc de Grazia is based in Italy. Did you know, by the way, that he was born and raised in the states? Both he and his brother were.

     Anyhow, he has three major customers in the states. Estate Wines in California. Vin de Vino in the Midwest. And us on the East Coast.

     And his portfolio is fantastic. He gets a lot of attention for the Piemonte wines, but I think a lot of people don’t realize how complete his collection is.

APJ: His Tuscans don’t suck.

HS: Exactly. But if you read the Wine Spectator, you’d think they don’t exist.

APJ: How long have you been working with Marc de Grazia?

HS: For over 10 years. I believe we’re his number one customer in the world. We go out to Italy twice a year...

Part 3: How to pick out good wine even when you don’t know squat

APJ: But wait. If he’s so good — and I know he is — and he takes care of the Italian end of the business, why do you and Michael go out there twice a year?

HS: Well, that’s our business. That’s part of the value we bring to the product. Marc de Grazia is very selective about the wines he offers, and we’re very selective too. We’re selective of everything we bring in. And our name goes on the bottle as well as Marc’s.

     And we think this helps the consumer. I mean, the name on the back of the bottle should be a good guide for buying quality wine.

APJ: I think that’s an important point. Especially for people who want to try European wine, but feel swamped by all the different producers and languages and varieties.

     It’s a great secret for picking out good wine even when you really don’t know what the heck you’re looking at.

     For example, when people ask me about buying German wine, I say, do what I do! When in doubt, turn the bottle around and look for the name Terry Theise. If he’s involved, you’re probably getting a good wine at a good value

HS: Well, I think more consumers are looking at the back label and recognizing that certain importers mean quality. And so our reputation is on the line. So we’d better be right.

APJ: Are you seeing increased interest in Italian wines?

HS: Hmm. Actually, I think the interest is maturing in our market. Around the rest of the country, people may be discovering Italy, but New York is a pretty cosmopolitan market.

     Spanish wines are being discovered, and people are realizing there’s a quality revolution and all that. But for Italian wines, this happened around 8 to 10 years ago.

     So we’re getting into a new phase with Italy. Where there’s a lot of acceptance. And consumers are really going for certain, high-quality, small estates.

Part 4: What’s so great about small estates?

APJ: Let’s get into the "small" part. Small estates are pretty much all you do, right?

HS: Yes, that’s intentional. We look for small, family-run, artisan producers. We want the wines to be special. They have to taste like the terroir. They have to have a special style as well.

APJ: What do you mean by special?

HS: I mean, not produced to appeal to the biggest possible audience. But made to reflect who the producers are and where they are.

APJ: I guess it works to mutual advantage. The small outfits are exactly the ones who need your expertise most. And they’re also the ones that give you the most unusual wines.

HS: Yes. And the largest wineries are truly factories. When you make millions of cases, your big challenge is to make as uniform a product as possible. And you think about market-share and stuff like that. It’s a different kind of business with a different goal.

     The wines can be very good. But you’ll seldom produce great wine when that’s your goal.

     On the other hand, when you have an artisan producer who has a small vineyard that’s maybe 80 to 90 years old...

APJ: Like for instance..?

HS: Take Livio Sassetti at Pertimali in Brunello. He knows his vineyard. He harvests by the moon.

APJ: By the moon? He really does?

HS: He really does. From the time of bud-break, there’s a certain number of days. And then he harvests.

     And down in the cellar, they’re checking the lunar charts all the time. They would never bottle unless the moon is just right. Because the moon affects the gravity and the particles in the wine.

APJ: You believe this?

HS: I believe he makes great wine!

Part 5: How to get into the wine biz

APJ: Let’s move on to how you and Michael got started in this weird business.

HS: Well, it all started when we were growing up and our parents got the wine bug.

     It was 1970 when our parents went to France for the first time. I was 12 years old. Way before the company started!

     They were Scotch drinkers. Scotch on the rocks. Then they went to France and were transformed.

     They came back and became a good customer of Sherry-Lehman. They were buying cases of ‘61 Bordeaux, ‘61 Chateauneuf du Pape. For a song!

     Then they built a little wine cellar in the basement. It was actually a walk-in freezer. My Dad was in the frozen food business. He got a deal on a walk-in freezer. They set it at 55 degrees, set up racks and they had a wine cellar.

     And from that point forward, they served wine with dinner. It was on the table. So we got exposed to fine wine at a time when other young people weren’t getting exposed.

APJ: And then what?

HS: Well, Michael got into the business first, of course. That’s why it bears his name.

     By the mid-70s, he had moved into New York City with a wife and young child. He had just graduated from college and was looking for work.

     I lived there too. We both lived in Tribeca before it was fashionable.

     And I remember I went with him to Windows on the World. That was the hot new restaurant back then. And I looked around and said, "Hey Michael, while you’re looking for work, why don’t you get a job as a waiter here. It looks like they make some money."

     And that’s what he did.

APJ: Just like that, they hired him?

HS: He lied about his experience. He said he was an experienced waiter, but he wasn’t.

     But he got a job as a lunch waiter and then became a dinner waiter. He did make some very good money, by the way! Got a lot of tips.

     And he befriended Kevin Zraly. Who was the very young, wunderkind, sommelier of Windows on the World.

     Kevin’s claim to fame was that he recognized the importance of California wines. He was the first New Yorker to bring in all sorts of small estates that nobody had ever heard of. Like Chateau Montelena and Chateau St. Jean...

APJ: That’s a fascinating piece of history. When people talk about Chateau Montelena now, it’s like they’re such an old, established outfit...

HS: Yes, remember, it was in the mid-70s that the first California boom really started in New York. And Kevin was a big, big part of that. He made Windows on the World the restaurant for California wine.

     Kevin was really young and he was like a revolutionary. He said, enough with this staid, conservative, stuck-up approach to wine consumption. He said, let’s bring it to the masses. And that’s been Kevin’s thing ever since.

     So Michael was there while all this was happening.

     And then a job opened up in the cellar there. And Michael pursued it. Took a big pay cut. All so he could inventory the wine, sweep out the cellar, and that kind of stuff. But he was Kevin’s first assistant sommelier there. Did it for about two years

     Naturally, he learned a lot about wine. There was tasting galore.

     Kevin had a great list of Bordeaux as well as the California stuff. ‘53s, ‘59s, ‘61s. When people didn’t finish their bottle, Michael got to taste it. And they popped a lot of bottles in the cellar, too.

     So he got a very fast wine education. They used to call it "Windows on the World University." A number of people who worked there have become pretty prominent in the wine business.

APJ: So when did Michael finally figure out how to make money at this?

HS: He got offered a job by a local wholesale company and started representing some of these new California wines. He was their only salesman.

     So he learned how to sell. Then he took a job with a Burgundy negociant, Mommessin. And traveled all over the country for them for several years.

APJ: And when did he take the plunge and go on his own?

HS: A guy named Ray Wellington had taken Michael’s old job at Windows on the World. And now Ray was working at the New York Restaurant Group. They included Smith and Wollensky, Post House Club, and so forth.

     And Ray looked up Michael and said "I want to bring in some wines from California."

     He said, "The problem is that nobody’s heard of these wineries and they’re very small. Just 100 or 200 case outfits, some of them. But you have a license. So can you bring them in for me?"

     And Michael said yes.

APJ: So what were these small outfits?

HS: One of them was Williams Selyem. And Talbott. And a winery called Plam. And three others.

APJ: When was all this happening?

HS: Around 1987. And this worked so well that Michael decided to look for some new outfits. He went out to the Monterey Wine Festival and got charged up with the California wine scene.

     Then he went to Calistoga and wandered into the All Seasons Café.

APJ: Here we go again! I did another interview recently where we wound up at the All Seasons Café in the late ‘80s.

HS: It was happening place! Anyhow, the woman he was talking with said "Wait right here. There’s someone I want you to meet."

     She picked up a phone and called Helen Turley. And Helen came down to the All Seasons Café and had a drink with Michael.

     At the time, of course, Helen was unknown. She had just left B.R. Cohn and was hired by this guy named Sir Peter Michael.

     But Helen had actually spent a lot of time in New York. At one, point she worked at Sherry-Lehman on the floor, believe it or not. So she appreciated what New York was about — and knew about the restaurant scene. And she really want this new wine from Peter Michael to be served in New York restaurants.

     So she gave Michael the wine to distribute.

APJ: Neat! Who else did he meet back then?

HS: Well, it was around this time that he met Randall Grahm.

APJ: Let me interject here for readers that Randall Grahm is the owner of Bonny Doon.

HS: Right. And he was doing stuff that was very unusual in California at the time -- making wines like Le Cigare Volante and Old Telegram. The Rhone thing.

     And Randall took a chance on Michael and gave him an exclusive in New York. Which was a big deal -- Randall became our first sizeable supplier.

     Well, with little things like this happening...suddenly Michael’s job at Mommessin didn’t look so exciting anymore.

APJ: So what did he do?

HS: The big break came with Kermit Lynch. Who had a complete line of very good quality French wines. And Kermit decided to take a chance on a new company also.

     And the minute that Kermit gave Michael the line, Michael called me up. I had told him a year before that I was ready to drop my career at a moment’s notice...

APJ: What was your career?

Part 6: What a way to make a living!

HS: I was at BBDO [an advertising agency]. Truthfully, I was kidding when I told Michael I’d quit my job! It was like "When you can afford me, give me a call." As if he ever would.

     But then Michael actually called. He said, "Come on, I’ve got more business than I can handle alone. Quit your job."

     And I did. The next day.

APJ: So had you been tasting all these wonderful wines all along?

HS: No. I had no experience in the wine business. But I came in on the marketing side originally. I started setting up tastings, things like that.

     Of course, I immediately started tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines. And I got a fast education.

APJ: How did it feel? It must have taken some guts to plunge into this cold.

HS: It was scary. Because at the time I came on, we had little real income. Up until Kermit Lynch there was maybe enough income for one person working alone. But landing Kermit Lynch gave us the idea that we had a company here.

     And it was a lot more fun than crunching numbers for an advertising agency.

     I gotta say, every time I mention to friends about where I’ve traveled and where I’ve visited...well, they think it’s romantic and a fabulous way to earn a living.

APJ: And...?

HS: And it really is!

     I mean, of course theyre not thinking of all the hard work. The days when you’re traveling from cellar to cellar and it’s freezing and you’ve got to taste a hundred wines in a day and your gums are falling off. ...

     And we do work really hard and there’s a day-to-day grind. But you know, it’s a fabulous way to make a living.

APJ: So let’s flash forward to the present.

HS: Things have evolved greatly in the past 12 years. In the beginning, it was Michael, me and a shared secretary. Now we have 35 employees, whose livelihoods are at stake. It’s a big responsibility.

APJ: How do you and Michael divide up responsibilities now?

HS: I guess it’s pretty unusual, but I think we share almost every responsibility. Wine selection, tasting, traveling — we travel together. And also the organizational duties. We both help run the company.

APJ: Do you go to the same countries? The same cellars?

HS: Yes, we mostly go together.

     There are a few exceptions. It’s come to the point where we’re so aware of each other’s palate that we can split up from time to time. Like last April, I went to France without Michael, and that was fine.

     But most of the time we do travel together. And I think that a lot of the successes we’ve had with our selections are a direct result of having two complementary palates at work.

APJ: Explain that. How do you work when you’re tasting together?

HS: We play off each other. If one of us likes it and the other one doesn’t, we discuss it. And sometimes the one who doesn’t like it wins. "Hey, you may like it, but you’re not recognizing this part of it."

     So we’re constantly bouncing our impressions off each other. And when we both hit it — when we both know we’ve got something — we’re almost always right.

APJ: Do you have very different preferences in wine?

HS: At this point, I think we’re pretty similar in what we like.

APJ: And what’s that?

HS: We dislike tons of new oak, when the wine doesn’t warrant it. We really love the best of European wines, even though we started out California-based. And we search for California wines where the winemakers have looked to Europe, and have applied those lessons.

     You know, California is a really a Garden of Eden for wine. Fabulous growing conditions. It’s a dream to be a winemaker in California — you can do whatever you want. Even so, there are a lot of very uninteresting wines in California.

     But those who take European winemaking principles and apply them to the absolutely pristine fruit that you can get in California — they’re the ones who make the best wine.

     Take Helen Turley, for example. She’s still one of the very few winemakers in California who really knows Burgundy and knows French wines.

     Her winemaking techniques are no secret — they’re what Burgundians are doing all the time. Natural fermentation. Extra stirring of the lees. Bottling unfiltered. She learned all these sorts of things by studying what goes on in Europe.

APJ: So if both you and Michael like this, what’s to argue about?

HS: Well, we still have differences of opinion! Sometimes even shouting matches. And that’s good; it keeps the selection process dynamic.

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