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A to Z Wine Works

"A to Z Purchases Rex Hill Winery; Goldschmidt Vineyard Sold" by Christina Kelly, Avalon Editor/Writer, November 7, 2006

A to Z Winery, a small 2,500 case winery that grew to 100,000 cases this year, has purchased Rex Hill Vineyards, making it one of the largest wineries in the state.

Founded in 2002, A to Z Winery has catapulted like a rocket to the top of the wine-producing heap, despite the fact that the wine label has no permanent physical location. Bill Hatcher, who brought an extensive background in strategy and finance to the winery, created brand loyalty by pricing easy-to-drink Oregon Pinot Noir under $20.

The winery did not own any vineyards - Hatcher and his partners Sam Tannahill and Cheryl Francis secured contracts from numerous Oregon vineyards, keeping the identities of those vineyards a "professional secret." The name came from the fact that in the beginning, the winery did not know if its grapes would come from Winery A, Winery B or Winery Z as the partners protected the identity of the wineries and vineyards.

Originally, the two couples purchased bulk wine during a wine glut a few years ago. Gradually, as the bulk market dried up, the winery began signing long-term contracts for grapes. A to Z Winery leased facilities from six different wineries, including Rex Hill, to ferment, blend and bottle the wines.

Rex Hill Winery, founded in 1982, is owned by Paul Hart and his wife, Jan Jacobsen. The winery has a second label, King's Ridge, offering Pinot Noir under $20 per bottle. In published reports, Hart indicated the winery was a labor of love, but too much to handle as he eyes retirement.

In other news, the Goldschmidt Vineyard, owned by former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt was sold to an undisclosed California investor. The price of the 17-acre site - one of the oldest vineyards in Oregon - was also not disclosed.

Goldschmidt could not be reached for comment. His vineyard is thought to be one of the best in Oregon, with the fruit highly sought after by winemakers, including Lynn Penner Ash, winemaker for Dusky Goose Pinot Noir. In an earlier northwest-wine.com article, Penner Ash said she thought the Goldschmidt Vineyard was a spectacular site.

"There is an incredible dried cherry quality that is unique to that site," said Penner Ash last year. "The fruit smells like dried cherry tea, and then moves into a ripe red pear mouth feel. It produces a very focused, red-fruited wine that is incredibly rich and sweet."

Dusky Goose has been the estate label for the Goldschmidt Vineyard. The vineyard also supplies fruit to Adelsheim Vineyard, Patricia Green Cellars, R. Stuart and Penner Ash Wine Cellars.

Although details of the pending sale were not disclosed, an insider indicated that no formal plans have been announced and it would take a few weeks to wait and see what the new owner plans to do with the vineyard.

It All Comes Out In The Blend for A to Z Wineworks!

by Cole Danehower

"We will always have a really good wine and it will always be at a great value!" declares Deb Hatcher, one of four partners (and friends) in A to Z Wineworks - an innovative venture that adds a new wrinkle to the Oregon wine scene.

Instead of following the traditional route to Oregon wine success - planting vineyards, making wine - Bill and Deb Hatcher and Sam and Cheryl Tannahill have taken a radically different approach: these four industry veterans have become some of Oregon's first négociants.

A to Z Wineworks owns no vineyards and makes no wine. Yet the A to Z brand is experiencing rapid success, and the partners are literally scrambling to keep up. Food & Wine Magazine just named A to Z the best American Pinot noir under $20, and Bill Hatcher says their sales estimates for the year - 12,000 cases - is "way more than we projected."

So what makes A to Z so special?

A to Z was born out of the fortuitous confluence of two ideas.

On the one hand, says Bill "...it stemmed from a belief that you can do more with blending wines then you can working with a single-source entity." And on the other hand, as Sam explains it "with all the grapes coming on in Oregon, wineries have to worry about what to do with all the wine that doesn't make it into their top-level brands - there is excess inventory of good wine."

The idea behind A to Z is that these four friends can seek out individual lots of good quality finished wines, blend them skillfully to meld their individual characters, and then offer consumers a new wine at a value price that is - in essence - greater than the sum of its parts.

"We're offering a delicious low-priced product that will help everybody," says Deb. "The wineries are going to win because they can sell us what doesn't make their cut so they can focus on their brand quality; the consumer is going to win because we can raise the quality of 'what's left over' and give them higher quality wine at a good value; Oregon wins because eventually everybody moves up the price ladder because the wine is so seductive; and we win because this is our home, this is our life, this is what we do!"

"The pendulum has really swung in Oregon toward single-vineyard wines," says Cheryl. "We're not competing with that. We're not trying to be the 'Two Buck Chuck' of Oregon Pinot either. We do want people to use A to Z as an entré to Oregon Pinot noir, and other varietals as well. What we're trying to do is get everybody to know that Oregon wine is great!"

The Power of the Blend

The quality of the blend is all important to the success of A to Z Wineworks, so finding the right qualities in component wines is critical.

Most Oregon Pinot noir producers focus on making either single-vineyard designated wines or top-flight reserve blends that meet a certain stylistic form, both of which usually command premium prices. But in order to sustain the quality of their brands, wineries have to adhere to very strict standards in the character of the different wine lots that go into their bottles.

Sometimes, some lots don't measure up. Perhaps one lot has weaker color, another more grainy tannins; perhaps one has heavier black fruit, another may overemphasize strawberry notes. From the "home" winemaker's point of view, lots like these have weaknesses that make them unsuitable for their label, even though the wine is otherwise perfectly good - it just doesn't meet the profile they're trying to achieve.

Enter A to Z. From the négociant's point of view, each of these lots represents a potential value-added component of the blend they will create and bring to market.

"What we try to do is start with a large block that's representative of the quality we want and of the vintage," explains Bill. "Then we start working in a kind of inverted pyramid to add lots that elevate the whole."

This can be a difficult and exacting process - there is no formula for doing it right.

"We once tasted all the lots from one winery," recalls Deb, "and it was clear that one lot was the best, so intuitively you'd think putting that lot in the mix was the right thing to do. But when we did our sample blends, it was another lot that worked best when added to our base wine."

Luckily, A to Z can rely on the combined experience of the partners to parse the character of the wines available to buy. Sam Tannahill has experience in Burgundy and was winemaker at Archery Summit; Cheryl Francis was co-winemaker at Chehalem; Bill Hatcher spent 13 years as managing director of Domaine Drouhin Oregon; Deb Hatcher has been involved in the Oregon wine world for 18 years. Together, these veterans create the blends for A to Z.

Refining those blends with needed components is a constant process right up until bottling, as Bill explains. "Cheryl might say 'we need a little more sweetness,' or Sam might want a bit more tannic structure - so we go out and look around to see who is making that kind of wine and see if we can buy some to add to our blend."

And even though the process of achieving the best blend may sometimes seem casual - some sample blending is literally done at the kitchen sink - the reality is that tasting and testing is rigorous and meticulous.

Quality and Consistency Are Critical

Once the taste and texture - the organoleptic character - of the blend is determined, "running the numbers" to determine each lot's composition is vital. "These lots are made in all different places in all different conditions by all different people," says Deb. "Even though they are finished wines, they are finished with different yeasts and different balances; the potential for disaster is huge."

"We have to make sure the wines are stable," agrees Cheryl, "and that together they will make a stable product. We don't want customers saying five years from now 'I didn't remember A to Z made sparkling wine!'"

And they don't want customers to experience variations in bottle quality. "The taste of A to Z from the first pallet shipped will not be different from the taste of the last pallet," says Cheryl.

To help maintain their quality and consistency, they do not continue to add new lots to a previous base just because new lots become available. When they are out of the 2002 A to Z Pinot gris, for instance, they will not go back and blend some more just so they can release more A to Z bottles.

"People say to us 'If you're going to run out of Pinot gris, why don't you go out and source some more?' The answer is: 'Because we've made our Pinot gris for this vintage!'" explains Bill. Flexibility and Opportunity Are Bywords

Supporting Oregon is a vital part of the A to Z strategy. "The whole concept," explains Deb, "is to say to consumers 'let's taste what Oregon is like, let's see what the vintage was like - give me another glass!' If people get accustomed to that, then maybe they'll start thinking of Oregon as 'value' instead of 'expensive' and 'elite.'"

Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of the A to Z enterprise is the extreme flexibility the partners have in pursuing interesting opportunities. Indeed, part of the wisdom of the name is that it allows them to put together wines of all kinds - from A to Z.

"We started out realizing that we had the flexibility to make wine from the entire spectrum of each vintage in Oregon," explains Bill, "but really, with a name like A to Z, we can be open to any varietal or even any source anywhere in the world."

"A to Z has the potential to do some neat things," agrees Sam. "If, for example, we find the possibility of getting 100 cases of sparkling wine from New Zealand that taste really great, we have the flexibility to buy them and release it as an A to Z wine."

Because of this openness to opportunity, the A to Z partners are careful that their business grows horizontally rather than vertically. This is a different approach in a wine market accustomed to tiered layers of differently-priced premium wines from a the same producer.

"It makes no sense to our brand to offer a 'reserve' bottling of any A to Z wine," says Bill, "remember, one of our goals is simplicity." Cheryl agrees: "if things get complicated, we want it to be through adding new varietals or new regions, not new levels of prices."

It does make perfect business sense for A to Z to offer a wine that was sourced from, say, Washington - or even outside of the U.S. - as long as the wine achieves the brand goal of maximum value - which for the partners means high quality at a value price.

Maintaining the Brand Promise

The partners are adamant that the A to Z brand must always stand for value.

"What we want A to Z to be known for," says Deb, "isn't Sam, Cheryl, Bill, and Deb, or conceivably not even just Oregon. We want it to be known for offering the best price to quality ratio."

"The name is simple," says Bill, "and we want to make it simple for the consumer: you get a bottle of A to Z and it will be as good a wine, at as good a price, as you are going to find!"

Duo Winemakers Have Duo Wineries

Cheryl Francis is best known today for her work with Harry Peterson-Nedry in helping build Chehalem into one of the most respected wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Sam Tannahill is best known today for his work with Gary Andrus in helping build Archery Summit into one of the most respected wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Imagine what the potential is for this formidable husband and wife winemaking team as they launch their own personal label, Francis Tannahill!

In addition to their involvement with A to Z, Sam and Cheryl are busily engaged in making and marketing their own wine. As a couple, Cheryl and Sam want Francis Tannahill to reflect their deeply-held values, and it is their personal philosophies that will drive the character of the brand.

"All of our fruit sources will be farmed organically within a few years," says Sam. "That's really important to us."

They currently source their fruit from a variety of vineyards in both southern and northern Oregon, as well as Washington. "Not all of the vineyards are yet fully organic," Sam concedes, "but we're going to try and make it a requirement as we go forward."

Living what they preach, Sam and Cheryl's own 5.5 acre estate vineyard (called "Pearl") is being farmed biodynamically. The property, though too small to achieve full sustainability, is managed as close to the earth as possible - including the young grape vines.

"We have chickens and ducks and walnuts and olives and apples and cherries and figs - we make our own compost, the beef we eat is from our cows." And the vines, Sam points out, will be allowed to mature at their own pace, with the first harvest not being until the fourth leaf - at least a year later than is common for a new vineyard.

"We also want to offer the consumer high quality and good value," continues Sam. On the quality side of the equation, he describes the vision as focusing on "super-high end, very high quality, all gravity flow, no expense spared" wines.

And yet, on the value side, Sam and Cheryl are very sensitive to pricing. "We're not pricing our wines according to quality or scarcity . . . we're pricing our wines so that our growers and the people who work for us - and us - can have a sustainable wage and maintain a reasonable lifestyle that is fairly humble but comfortable." Of course, he adds, they're in business to make a profit, "but not gobs and gobs of money."

And, Sam and Cheryl are in business to do what they love. And since they love to drink Syrah, Gew┬črztraminer, and of course Pinot noir, these are the varietals they will concentrate on . . . at least at first! Unfortunately for consumers, quantities will be small. Their intention is that no single lot will be over 300 cases, and that total production will range from 1,000 to 1,700 cases. The first vintage, 2001 saw a mere 70 cases of Syrah and 125 bottles of sweet Gew┬črztraminer - to be released November, 2003.

"Wine in essence is an agricultural product," says Sam. "Wine is a humble thing, its a thing of nature. When you take it out of that context and put it up as a museum piece or a luxury, for me it loses some of its reason for being. Wine is meant to be enjoyed by people, it's not meant to sit in a cellar and impress people." With that attitude in mind, Francis Tannahill wines will be priced from $18 to $30.

With two such skilled winemakers making such personal wines, one cannot help but wonder at the mechanics of decision-making, especially amid the pressures of harvest. When asked "Who is the winemaker?" they answer, in unison: "We are!"

Bill Hatcher Has More Than One Wineworks!

Bill Hatcher jokes that people who know him won't believe a photograph that shows him actually working. But when you meet up with Bill these days, he is most likely hard at work making his own wine for Hatcher Wineworks, or sampling wine lots for A to Z Wineworks . . . or driving from one place to another to help keep both enterprises profitably driving forward.

For a man with a passion for poetry, a penchant for philosophy, and a preference for profit, the process of making his own wine under his own name has proven to be both an intellectual and creative challenge.

"When I write poetry I am dealing with the abstract and there is no timeline," he says. "I can work on two lines for two weeks getting them into the right context and saying exactly the right thing. But given the organic nature of wine, I am now dealing with the concrete, and decisions have to be made on the wine's timeline, not mine. After making a decision I might later wish I had done something different, but I can't go back and do it again - there is no eraser on the end of the pencil!"

The parallels between making wine for the Thanksgiving Weekend debut of his Hatcher Wineworks, and writing poetry for himself are striking. Just as a poet needs to understand the rules of different meter forms before he can decide when to break them for creative innovation, so Bill has observed that he must understand the technical aspects of winemaking before he decides to do something different to achieve the creative expression he's after.

"There is something you're reaching for, something that you want to express in the fruit," comments Bill. "To do that without constraint, you must compromise something else. But then if you want to play it completely safe, you'll probably get a wine that isn't very scintillating. The creative challenge is frustratimg . . . and fascinating."

Juggling the increasing demands of a growing A to Z Wineworks, with the demands of a growing Hatcher Wineworks, is also a challenge for Bill. "It is difficult," he admits. "A to Z is big enough that I can't just put it aside to make my wine, yet making my wine has its own demands."

2002 is the first vintage Bill is releasing from Hatcher Wineworks. Made at the Erath winery from grapes sourced from select Dundee-area vineyards, Bill is firmly convinced that blending is the way to go.

"I really believe that with few exceptions, you are able to get a more complex wine by blending. There are very few wines - like Chambertin - that are gestalts within themselves. It's like in cooking, you can always use salt and pepper, but why would you limit yourself to just that?"

The first release of Hatcher Wineworks is 391 cases of Pinot noir. "I'm really very pleased with it," says Bill. "For me, elegance is the hallmark of Pinot noir - not just simple prettiness, but a wine that has an integrity to it and a firmness of purpose. That's what I sought to achieve, and now that I taste it in the bottle, I'm extremely happy with the wonderful balance - I am really pleased!"

For the 2003 vintage Bill has increased his production capacity to nearly 750 cases. "I made 25 barrels of wine in 2002 and used only 16 in the blend. This year I have 29 barrels and I would guess I'll use about 75% of them for the final blend." Being rigorous in the quality that goes into his blend is vital, Bill believes, if he is going to achieve his goal of a balanced Pinot - that, plus the personal creative inspiration that takes Bill from poetic verse to vinous poetry!

Read an interview with Bill Hatcher Here

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