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Profile: Bob McGinn

• 58
• New York and New England Sales Manager •
Ferrari-Carano Winery, Napa

Loyalty, familiarity, experienced, known quantity . . . 2O
years with one team like Carl Yastrzemski. Solid citizen,
loyal soldier. McGinn has been professionally linked, one on
one, with the prestigious Ferrari-Carano label, being their
exclusive representative since 199O. McGinn’s personal and
professional histories are impeccable. McGinn addresses the
elephant in the living room: that since the beer and spirits
worlds have been sucked up by a dwindling number of major
conglomerates, the wine field is the last bastion for smart
entrepreneurs, and the retailers’ and distributors’ best
area for carving out a unique, profitable portfolio. New at
Ferrari-Carano’s state-of-the-art Sonoma estate are separate
wineries for white and red wines, single-vineyard Cabernet
blends, and a Pinot Grigio.

Carano family hasn’t changed its program and style a great
deal since I joined them. Their idea then was to make
consumer-friendly wines also attractive to sommeliers, as
restaurants have always made a large share of our market.
Nor has the house style changed from year to year: they’ve
simply bought more quality vineyards so the winemaker can
craft consistent wines each vintage. The Caranos started in
1985 but didn’t release their first wines until 1987, about
2OOO cases. Today, we’re up to almost 2OO,OOO, but the style
and sense of value remains. We constantly survey the
competition and keep our prices below them. Whether it’s a
wine list or a retail shop, our prices won’t be at the top,
but, say, in the upper third.

part of my personality; I like a stable environment. In my
25-plus years in the business I’ve tried to work for
companies that are well-capitalized, family-run, and have a
future, have a plan. I worked for Robert Mondavi for 5
years, and have been with the Caranos now since 199O. The
two wineries fit the same profile. The Caranos are
well-capitalized, own all their own vineyards, always work
on good projects, and have products that are easy to sell.
The Caranos’ direction of the winery is what impresses me,
as well as making the highest quality products available.
All of this makes it a very nice way to get out of bed and
go to work.

Prevail, we’ve taken a marketing cue from our consultant,
Philippe Melka [Napa-based Bordelais ‘roving vintner’
making terroir-driven reds also for Lail, 29, Dalla
Valle]. We focus on retail slightly more than
restaurants, as the acceptance curve for new high-end wines
tends to be longer. We’ve developed our two best Cabernet
vineyards, West Face and Back 4O, as individual entities.
West Face gets more sun, Back Forty less sun but excellent
exposure and better drainage. Starved for water and under
stress, the grapes produce tremendously intense berries. As
we go forward from the ‘O3 vintage, both of which had about
1O% Syrah, we’ll see Back Forty increasing and West Face
decreasing in Cabernet, to about 95% and 85%

I was head
guidance counselor at Doherty High School in Worcester,
Massachusetts, when Proposition 2.5 came along in 1981. I’d
run the Worcester Wine Club for some years, a group of
enthusiasts for whom retailers and distributors would hold
tastings. I could wait out the education freeze or jump into
the wine business, and I chose the latter. I answered an ad
in the Telegram to a post office box, which I recognized
because the local Mondavi rep had presented to the club. It
turns out Mondavi needed someone to run public tastings and
seminars, not sales, which was right up my alley. Too bad we
don’t see that much these days: Mondavi was way ahead of the
curve in public education – with seminars in oak (hard and
soft grain, aging, and barrel toasting) and recognizing
flavor components (sulfur, tannin, sugar). The seminars
raised public awareness and educated palates, whether the
audience was the Boston Sommelier Society or private wine

We have a
good working group, my colleagues around the country. Steve
Meissner, our national manager is an East Coast guy, comes
from Connecticut. He’s worked the street, worked with
Dreyfus Ashby, in fact, he worked for Marty’s
[Seigal]; for a while – Meissner and [Tom]

beer and spirits magnates advertise heavily, consumers come
in looking for those products. There’s no hand-sell on the
floor because you have a guaranteed (or pre-sold) customer.
What those customers are looking for is not an alternative
product but straight savings on national brands – that
3O-pack or handle – at the lowest possible price. Stores
compete with each other to shave pennies off the unit cost,
hoping that the customer will buy something else while he’s
shopping. You don’t see that so much with wine, because
there are so few dominant brands that are price-sensitive
and there are so many small producers that a retailer or
restaurant can focus on – to the exclusion of national
brands. So, savvy retailers and sommeliers will have a
hand-picked mix of popular brands, limited release items,
personal selections. Then the customer or diner can come in,
take comfort in the familiar brands, but also items that
they’re not familiar with that they might want (or can be
convinced) to try. Wine drinkers are more open to try new
things, while beer and spirits drinkers show more brand
fidelity, tend to be less experimental and suggestible.
They’re more open to handcrafted items than

What you
see now among consumers is either people buying by numbers –
the ratings of Parker, Tanzer, wine spectator – or going for
‘concept’ wines where they don’t have to know anything.
Forget appellations, geography, topography. It’s a cute list
– Little Black Dress, Red Bicyclette, Red Truck, Lulu B.,
Mad Housewife, Daisy, Marilyn Merlot. You open it up and
it’s palatable; you look at the label and it’s funny. That’s
your discussion point. End of story. They use grapes that
are tasty and not expensive: a little Cabernet and
Zinfandel, a lot of Carignan and Grenache. Shades of ‘hearty
burgundy’ and ‘rhine wine’. Don’t forget: in the 197Os and
‘8Os, California’s most widely planted grapes were Carignan
and French Colombard. Today they still need these filler
grapes to make wines in the $1O range.

At wine
dinners, Italo-American enthusiasts like to talk about their
homemade wines. I’ve made wines at home, and would not care
to do it again. When you pick Barbera or Muscat grapes at 22
Brix and put them on a rail car to ship them east, the lugs
arrive a week later, the grapes are desiccated and they’re
reading 28 to 29 Brix. Home winemakers often use a basic
yeast like Fleischmann’s that nothing will kill, so the
wines keep on going, over the top in alcohol, like port. A
savvy winemaker would tell you to cut the must with water,
but that’s not in grandpa’s recipe! That’s why homemade
wines end up with very high alcohol. Sangiovese is extremely
prolific and oxidizes quickly: put it in the bottle purple
and it comes out brown. To avoid that, prune it down to
about three tons per acre, and blend in Cabernet to reduce
the oxidant level. So even after 1O years, our Siena –
usually 75% Sangiovese, 2O% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Malbec –
and other blends are a rich purple.

Our sales
force has a lot of input in terms of sales and marketing
concepts. We’re always searching to read trends. Sideways
pushed Pinot Noir into the public eye a few years ago, and
Merlot declined; now Merlot is back up, but Pinot Noir has
stayed. About 6O% of our wine is white, mainly Chardonnay
and Sauvignon Blanc. But now that Pinot Grigio has become a
hot grape, watch for a Ferrari-Carano Pinot Grigio in May.
Another spring item that will make it to Massachusetts is
Tre Terre Chardonnay, lovingly crafted by three winemakers
in our Russian River estates; it’s less assertively oaky
than our Alexander Valley, with delicate citrus and apricot

noticing dining trends, too. Young people are less taken
with formerly upscale dining habits. They’re not looking for
white tablecloths, tete-a-tetes at the traditional dining
hours. They like to come in late, gather as a group, graze
in a lounge-type atmosphere. You see restaurants keep their
four-tops around the edge of the dining room with the middle
as a center for cross-table conversation and a loose, genial
gathering. That means more wines by the glass and cocktails,
with fewer bottles sold. Less orders off the formal menu and
more grease-board specials. Private clubs are getting big in
New York, where groups come in and buy set-ups. They’ll pay
$2OO for a bottle of Absolut with glasses and ginger ale.
They’ll get a bottle of Cristal and flutes, some big reds in
balloons, and entertain their friends. It’s less like bar
service, and more like room service! You have an extremely
narrow list of drink options – a few beers, a few
greaseboard wines, some spirits – and set-ups.

I watched
Wayne Dyer on PBS and was intrigued by his book, The Power
Of Intention. We can take ourselves much too seriously. As
we change the way we look at others, the reactions we get
from others will change. If we approach people we consider
as ‘tough’ (whether personally or in sales) in a fresh way,
we often find their attitudes toward us change. Also,
changing priorities – work? family? We all ought to rethink
these things, go through periods of reassessment.

My experience
with sommeliers has been varied. Some are open to
suggestion, and some are not. Those who are not make
selections that are very personal. Certain establishment you
look at the list and you have no idea where these wines are
coming from. It makes it difficult for the customer to make
appropriate decisions. All restaurants serve the top spirits
and beers; but wine lists should have a certain amount of
recognizable major label wines. Why is there discrimination
against major wine suppliers? To retailers, I would say, the
major retailers in terms of dollar volume (A= $5m, B= $1m,
C= under $1m). These can range from Marty’s and
Martignetti’s to bullet-proof shop-fronts. It’s tough for
suppliers like us to be represented in smaller shops. A lot
of these larger retailers also have their own wholesale and
distribution sides.

Clean, conservative packaging and labels quietly proclaim
elegance. These have been the domain of Rhonda Carano. Our
proprietary glass is all imported and is quite unique. The
style of the package and weight of the glass all create a
sense of value.