Just looking after the wine range of one of Napa’s premium wine estates is an enormous responsibility for a winemaker, never mind the prospect of being in charge of 15 wineries, and a portfolio of over 220 wines. Welcome to the world of Scott Kozel, E &J Gallo’s vice president for premium winemaking, who explains how he is involved in the business side of one of California’s most influential producers as he is managing the styles of the wines he helps to make.
Scott Kozel is a winemaker with the ability to look into the future thanks to the backing of the E&J Gallo family. He explains how sourcing grapes wine for the long term is so important in “crafting premium wines”.
You can talk to winemakers the world over and they all have similar traits. First of all they usually have a passion for wine (…it helps), their inspiration for wanting to be a winemaker normally has some back story involving a trip to France or an experience with Burgundy or Bordeaux…and they like talking about themselves.
Or if they don’t they have to because they are forever being asked their opinion be it by journalists like me, trade buyers or consumers at wine tastings and winemaker dinners.
What they don’t always have, though, is a good commercial brain or an interest in where their wines are sold, and how much for. For some their job starts in the vineyard and ends in the winery.
Not Scott Kozel. Gallo’s vice president for premium winemaking. Yes, he can tick off all the usual winemaker traits, but he also appears to be as comfortable in a boardroom, or a lecture theatre as he is a tasting room. Which probably lies in the fact he spent nearly 10 years working as mechanical engineer before making the move over to wine to study Viticulture and Oenology for two years at UC Davis University in California.
Kozel’s principle job is to oversee winemaking across the Gallo’s premium estate. Which is a pretty sizeable job in itself with some 40 winemakers reporting into him across 15 wineries. He also has the task of keeping on top of close to 220 wines that are produced across the premium portfolio.
“We have a great community feel amongst us. It’s very collegiate and convivial and there is lots of sharing. We talk to each other about what we are doing, what experiments we are running,” he says. “We’re all good friends too.”
Every year they will look to get together two or three times to bring bottles they like, or have picked up on their travels, to swap stories and share some food.
“That sense of community also involves looking after their career opportunities which is where the scale of the Gallo business is so important as it offers so many different ways for winemakers to progress”, adds Kozel. “We look at how can we help them get where they want to be say in 10 years’ time?”
Kozel is also very much involved in the business side of the company, including helping to decide which wineries or producers Gallo might want to work with, invest in or buy. When he is called in to ask his advice, his priorities are always the same.
“We are always looking for good sources for grapes from which we can make great wines for the long term. We are not just looking to buy a brand or a producer, we want to work with great vineyards to produce wines for a long time,” he explains. “Day in day out our focus is on crafting premium wines.”
For the Gallo business that has meant a constant stream of mergers and acquisitions as it looks to take greater control of its already impressive premium wines portfolio. A range that stretches across more than 50 wines and is very much available for buyers, restaurants and sommeliers in its key markets like the UK.
Of its recent acquisitions Kozel picks out the Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa and the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County as being particularly significant. The Stagecoach purchase brought with it access to some 600 acres of prime vines, across one continuous vineyard, in one of the most sought after areas in the state. The deals, along with a number of high profile acquisitions in the last three to four years, have helped cement Gallo’s reputation for seeking out prime estates and a commitment to help take them to the next level.
“We are looking to buy producers that can help sustain and secure Gallo’s long term future,” he adds. “We are, of course, reliant on market forces, but if the market sells the wine then we have to have the fruit to follow it up.”
“The group currently owns or controls a significant portion of the premium grapes it needs, but still maintains a balance of fruit they purchase and fruit they grow themselves”, says Kozel.
“We want to have a variety of properties that can create different tiers and styles of wine. Take Pinot Gris. We can make very different styles say from our J Vineyards or MacMurray Estate.”
But it is also important to have some uniformity across all its estates too, stresses Kozel. Not in terms of creating a specific style, but in how the wineries operate and ensuring that they each of their own distinctive strategy which together make the Gallo premium proposition all the more stronger.
“We also give each of our winemaking teams a lot of room to work and create their own styles,” he says.
Kozel is also heavily involved in working with Gallo’s large supply base of growers, and ensuring their relationships are carefully managed again for the long-term direction of the business.
Take last year’s extreme fires across California that saw many growers lose a lot of their crop. Aware of the financial burden many growers were facing, Gallo made a commitment to still pay the agreed contracted price for their grapes, as well as making a $1m contribution to the relief fund. “I think the Gallo family deserves a great deal of credit for that,” he says. “But if people are struggling, it’s the right thing to do to help.”
Kozel accepts there will be buyers and sommeliers who will be sceptical about
Gallo’s commitment to premium winemaking and that it will take time and effort to slowly tell its story and have the right wines in the market.
It’s why making the right acquisitions is so important for the wider business. Sommeliers, after all, are well tuned in recognising and knowing which wines come from the great producers, not always who the parent owner is.
Dig a little deeper into Gallo’s premium offer and some familiar, highly respected names come to the fore. Like Columbia, Louis M Martini, MacMurray, William Hill, Orin Swift and the previously mentioned Stagecoach and Talbott Vineyards.
Wines that Kozel and the Gallo’s UK premium winemaking team are now introducing to leading restaurants and operators around the UK.
Gallo’s premium offer has been ramped up out of recognition compared to what it was only five or six years ago. But then the US wine market has also been turned on its head in that time, with an enormous growth in premium wines as more drinkers switch away from beer and other categories to really invest in wine.
The last two to three years has seen double-digit growth for most price points above $10 in the US. The first half of 2018 has seen an 8% increase for $11 to $15 wines, 11% for those between $15 to $19, 11.6% for the $20-$25 price segment, and 10.4% for those above $25, whilst all wines below $11 are seeing falling sales (IRI).
Gallo hopes eventually to see similar growth figures for its UK premium business where it is working with key partners, like Enotria & Co, to seed the right wines into the right channels of the on-trade.
“We have great wines, it’s now a case of getting out there and telling the individual and unique stories we have about our estates and producers,” says Kozel, which when put together is a strong representation of what California can offer as a whole.
“We’re really creating an identity for California with what we are doing,” he adds.
His hope is that more buyers and consumers around the world start to become as familiar with the individual stories of Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles as they do with Burgundy, Bordeaux or Rioja.
That’s when it is easier to put the Gallo connection in context to great winemaking and a dedication to producing even better premium wines in the future.
A story Gallo’s premium team hopes to be able to tell key buyers in person not just in their restaurants by taking them out to the wineries to see for themselves.
“Nothing can quite beat getting out into the vineyards so that you can smell, touch and taste the wines for yourself,” he adds.