Winemaker Profile: Sam Whitmore of Whitmore Wines Co.

Sam Whitmore is the 32 year-old producer behind Whitmore Wine Co., a new Sonoma-based venture whose irreverent marketing advocates “social consciousness through social drinking.” An eight-year veteran in the wine trade, Whitmore released his first vintage (a viognier and a syrah) this Fall and comments on current wine trends and how to survive a densely populated market as a newbie without getting crushed.

Q: Screw cap or cork?

A: The screw cap is the best closure for wines that are not intended to be aged. Truly, most Americans don’t age their wines. I think the majority of wines are ultimately going to be bottled under screw cap. There are some benefits to the screw cap to me as a producer of wines, the first being that I don’t have to worry about corked wines. Another benefit is environmental – to produce a cork they have to strip the cork of a cork oak, process it and their typically using chemicals. It takes 90 years for the bark to re-grow. Being primarily made in Portugal where there’s not the same kind of EPA regulations, they’re also polluting ground water.

Q: Clearly you think caps are cooler then?

A: Caps are cooler. They’re easier. The only downside as a producer is that there is a small segment of people that don’t get it – and it’s probably bigger than I care to believe. There are people who won’t buy a wine because it’s in a screw cap, but I think that’s been changing over the last few years and continues to change. For me, I think it says, ‘We’re smarter, we get it.’

Q: Can one judge a wine by its label?

A: I think a lot of people do judge a wine by its label and make decisions about what they’re going to purchase based on the look of a label. People buy wine, typically, in three ways: First one is personal experience, which you can’t really get in the store. The second is a recommendation, whether it’s a magazine, or a friend, or a wine buyer or employee in the wine department at a grocery store. The third is by the look of the label. It’s really that simple. I think that third way is really the most common and it’s the way most wines move… As much as people hate to think about it, marketing is key – and part of that is having a good-looking label.

Q: When famously pitching wine for Almaden, filmmaker Orson Welles famously said for Almaden “We shall sell no wine before its time.” When is the best time to sell wine?

A: For wholesale, I would say August because that’s when a lot of the buyers are lining up their fall or winter lineups for the holidays. Most of the wine is sold in that last quarter of the year. The downside for me, producing wine as well as selling it, is that I couldn’t get out until the end of August for this new vintage that I had, because that’s when the syrah was ready to sell, so I released both wines at the same time. I’m out trying to sell a couple days a week but then I’m also in the cellar checking out grapes and crush and fermentation… It’s a tough place to be as producer and salesperson… So, I missed a few key opportunities because I was too late for them. There are a lot of people out there who are like me, who aren’t working six months out, they’re working just a couple months out.

Q: What can you tell about a person by the kind of wine that they drink?

A: I don’t know – I’ve definitely judged people based on what they’re drinking, how they’re drinking it and the kind of conversation they have. The more they drink, the more I like them. I have my thoughts on that but I don’t want to pass judgment. There’s a commercial on TV about ‘boxers versus briefs’ kind of people – the briefs people being the more conservative or not as wild. If you were to relate my wines to that, I’m definitely the boxer type. Jeans and flip flops versus khakis and dress shoes.

Q: If a grape falls in a vineyard and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

A: That’s a deep and esoteric question that we can spend many hours on. I would have to say no.

Q: Can wine improve one’s love life?

A: Yes, absolutely. I think it can improve many areas of one’s life.

Q: Is the market in Sonoma competitive or supportive?

A: I’ve found the market is pretty supportive. There are so many brands out there that if you’re competitive to the point of kind of getting nasty – you don’t want to develop a bad name. I try to be supportive of other wineries, big and small, and look for the good in all of it because wine sales are very relational. You can have the best product, but if you don’t have the right relationships or if you’re not able to get out there and build those right relationships, you’re out of luck.