I was fortunate enough to grow up in the bay area with a family that loves and appreciates wine. From as far back as I can remember, my parents would make trips up to Napa Valley and Sonoma County to visit some of their favorite producers like Duckhorn, Cakebread, and Silver Oak. I can remember them enjoying wines in quiet tasting rooms, often in private settings, while my brother and sister and I would run around these incredible properties.
I lived my life not really thinking about wine or paying much attention to it, but it was always around and all my dad’s friends had dubbed him “the wine guy”. We grew up in Castro Valley, a suburb of Oakland in the east bay. In 2006 when my dad was venturing into retirement, he started working with a friend on a small wine project which was basically a négociant that would buy premium lots of bulk wine, bottles and sold directly to a members-only list.
After a couple of vintages, it was clear that the model, operation, and pretty much the entire program was not performing at a level that was sustainable. In 2008 after a series of questionable decisions, and even worse execution, my dad and his partner began thinking about dissolving the company. They still had some wine on hand and no real thought of how to sell it.
Another thing was happening. I was beginning to find real interest in wine. While the business was struggling, it did open my eyes to the industry. I had helped ferment a couple of small lots with our winemaker, I was involved in a couple of blending sessions and cleaned up behind him as he worked barrels and other cellar tasks. More importantly, I was often tasked with driving tanks to wineries where we were buying bulk and I’d end up meeting talented people in beautiful places. It was interesting and fun, and nothing like my job as a Glazier working highrise construction.
Livermore Valley was also starting to gain some momentum and recognition for improvements in quality. We discovered that there was excellent wine being produced in Livermore Valley. There was high-quality fruit being grown all around, and great Cabernet could be had for a fraction of the prices of Napa and Sonoma. My family and I saw real potential here and began learning more about who was farming, what was available, and where we might be able to set up shop.
First order of business—we were going to work through our existing inventory that was mostly purchased bulk wine and abandon the négociant model. Going forward, we were going to produce our own wines with a focus on single-vineyard offerings from the region’s most respected growers and vineyards. In 2009 we produced our first wines from grape to bottle and by November, we secured warehouse space in town and launched a brand based on Livermore Valley wines. This was the birth of Nottingham Cellars. These wines were met with great praise from the press, with many accolades, and almost overnight Nottingham Cellars was a force in Livermore Valley.
Over the next 3-4 years we saw tremendous growth. We continued to grow our footprint adding more warehouse space and were moving some real volume. By 2013 we had grown to almost 20,000 cases. We landed a deal with one of CA’s bigger distributors, we were shipping wine to multiple brokers and small distributors across the country. Locally, we were on fire.
We were not the only ones experiencing growth locally, it seemed as though the region was hitting a stride and we were riding the wave. The quality of wines across the region was continuing to improve, we were reaching new people, and the trade was finally showing interest in Livermore Valley. I was the youngest winemaker in town making some pretty good wines and people were digging it. Virginie Boone from Wine Enthusiast was giving the region some solid coverage, which at the time was huge. Until then none of the big media outlets would touch Livermore Valley.
As many small wineries do, we started experimenting with many grapes. I was young, curious, and was under the impression I could sell anything we made. We quickly grew the portfolio to a collection of a few brands and a SKU count of 25 plus.
In 2014 we had a serious reality check. The cost of fruit in Livermore started to rise significantly. Which at the time we believed was a good thing. If growers make more, they can invest more in the vineyard, grow better fruit, and in the end, our wines would be worth more.
That logic looks great on paper, but it wasn’t the reality that we lived. The prices were rising to levels of more prestigious regions but our reputation was not. Actually, Livermore Valley seemed to be losing steam in the market. Virgine, who was basically our lifeline to the rest of the wine world, had just been asked to start covering Napa and Sonoma and would no longer cover Livermore Valley. It seemed like right when we were hitting a stride as a region, the rug was pulled out from under us. Admittedly, early on we were mavericks. We took on a lot of wine, vineyards, and programs and the momentum had us confident.
The next couple of years were filled with major challenges, sleepless nights, and exhausting days. We felt like we were running in mud and going nowhere fast. The thought of dissolving the business was real, and on several occasions, we started planning for the end.