CONTINUING our interview
with Harmon Skurnik of
Michael Skurnik Wines
(Click here to return to previous page)
Part 2: What exactly do
you guys do, anyway?
APJ: Lets 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. Were based in New
York and 95% of our business is conducted there and in New Jersey.
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 were 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, were 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 were not rushing them.
APJ: I want to get into Terry Theise later, because Im personally
excited about that deal. But right now, lets 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 dont
realize how complete his collection is.
APJ: His Tuscans dont suck.
HS: Exactly. But if you read the Wine Spectator, youd think
they dont exist.
APJ: How long have you been working with Marc de Grazia?
HS: For over 10 years. I believe were 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 dont know squat
APJ: But wait. If hes 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, thats our business. Thats part of the value we bring to
the product. Marc de Grazia is very selective about the wines he
offers, and were very selective too. Were selective of everything we
bring in. And our name goes on the bottle as well as Marcs.
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 thats an important point. Especially for people who
want to try European wine, but feel swamped by all the different producers
and languages and varieties.
Its a great secret for picking out good
wine even when you really dont know what the heck youre 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 hes involved, youre 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 wed 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 theres a quality revolution and all that. But for Italian
wines, this happened around 8 to 10 years ago.
So were getting into a new phase with
Italy. Where theres a lot of acceptance. And consumers are really going
for certain, high-quality, small estates.
Part 4: Whats so
great about small estates?
APJ: Lets get into the "small" part. Small estates are
pretty much all you do, right?
HS: Yes, thats 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 theyre 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. Its a
different kind of business with a different goal.
The wines can be very good. But youll
seldom produce great wine when thats your goal.
On the other hand, when you have an artisan
producer who has a small vineyard thats 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, theres a certain
number of days. And then he harvests.
And down in the cellar, theyre 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: Lets move on to how you and Michael got started in this weird
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 werent getting exposed.
APJ: And then what?
HS: Well, Michael got into the business first, of course. Thats 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 youre looking for work, why dont
you get a job as a waiter here. It looks like they make some money."
And thats 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 wasnt.
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.
Kevins 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: Thats a fascinating piece of history. When people talk about
Chateau Montelena now, its like theyre such an old, established
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, lets bring it to the masses. And
thats been Kevins thing ever since.
So Michael was there while all this was
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 Kevins
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 didnt 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
HS: He got offered a job by a local wholesale company and started
representing some of these new California wines. He was their only
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 Michaels 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 nobodys
heard of these wineries and theyre very small. Just 100 or 200 case
outfits, some of them. But you have a license. So can you bring them in
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. Theres 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
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 Michaels job at Mommessin didnt look so
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 moments 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 Id 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, Ive got more business than I can handle alone. Quit your
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
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
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 Ive traveled and where Ive visited...well, they think its
romantic and a fabulous way to earn a living.
HS: And it really is!
I mean, of course theyre
not thinking of all the hard work. The days when youre traveling from
cellar to cellar and its freezing and youve got to taste a hundred
wines in a day and your gums are falling off. ...
And we do work really hard and theres a
day-to-day grind. But you know, its a fabulous way to make a living.
APJ: So lets 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. Its a big responsibility.
APJ: How do you and Michael divide up responsibilities now?
HS: I guess its 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. Its come to the
point where were so aware of each others 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 weve had with our selections
are a direct result of having two complementary palates at work.
APJ: Explain that. How do you work when youre tasting together?
HS: We play off each other. If one of us likes it and the other one
doesnt, we discuss it. And sometimes the one who doesnt like it
wins. "Hey, you may like it, but youre not recognizing this part
So were constantly bouncing our impressions
off each other. And when we both hit it when we both know weve
got something were almost always right.
APJ: Do you have very different preferences in wine?
HS: At this point, I think were pretty similar in what we like.
APJ: And whats that?
HS: We dislike tons of new oak, when the wine doesnt 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. Its 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 theyre the ones who make the best wine.
Take Helen Turley, for example. Shes still
one of the very few winemakers in California who really knows Burgundy and
knows French wines.
Her winemaking techniques are no secret
theyre 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, whats to argue about?
HS: Well, we still have differences of opinion! Sometimes even shouting
matches. And thats good; it keeps the selection process dynamic.
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