In the genus winemakerus, there exist several known species: the flavor fanatic, prone to discuss such things as stone fruit, blackberry, and hints of leather; the vineyard junkie, captivated by weather patterns, bud break, and soil type; the process wonk, focused on the crush, blending, chemistry, and ageing; and the historian, reliant on traditional ways and storytelling to inform the future. But to the surprise of winethropologists everywhere, a new species was recently unearthed in Santa Barbara County: the marketing master, a rare breed much more concerned about the branding of wineries, public perception of the industry, and profitability of entire regions than the actual juice that flows in the glass.
This discovery came a couple weeks ago, in the form of Larry Schaffer, the assistant winemaker at Fess Parker Winery and owner of Tercero Wines. During a tasting of his wines in March, Schaffer-who was in sales and marketing of educational supplies and children’s pop-up books in a former career-couldn’t stop talking about his self-ordained role as Santa Barbara wine country’s top promoter. “Most of marketing is not rocket science,” Schaffer explained. “It’s a matter of doing it.” And he certainly does it every week by contacting distributors nationwide, monitoring online bulletin boards, and pestering publications to shine more light this way. And every Friday, he travels far and wide to show off his own Tercero label, meeting face-to-face with buyers, bloggers, and tasting clubs to get deeper into the marketplace.
Though he’ll admit to adoring the aromatics of everything from grenache to orange juice, Schaffer’s proud to be a salesman at heart. The 45-year-old UC Berkeley business school grad, who left his previous career because he felt like his “mind wasn’t being used,” first considered just becoming a wine dealer. “I’m not a wine collector. I’m not a wine geek, per se,” he explained. “But as a marketing person, the wine industry was wide open.”
Before he made that leap, however, his “saint of a wife,” Christie, encouraged him to go all the way, and he agreed. “I’m coming at this as a second career,” Schaffer explained, “and it’s no holds barred.” So he took the requisite science classes at an Orange County junior college where he then lived, and soon returned to his undergrad alma mater UC Davis for its graduate wine program. For two years, he commuted-via cheap Southwest flights-between the O.C. and Sacramento, and can only recall one weekend when he didn’t fly home.
Though he had emotional connections with Davis-he and his wife met there in the “Tercero” dorm and they have a daughter named Davis-Schaffer didn’t want to stay nearby in northern California’s wine regions. “I really had no interest in working in Napa and Sonoma,” he explained. So he headed south, even though the UC Davis pedigree doesn’t go as far in Santa Barbara County, where many winemakers are self-made or were schooled in the trade at either Cal Poly or Fresno State. Landing at Fess Parker Winery in May 2005, Schaffer now works with head winemaker Blair Fox to make quality wines and remind the public that the sometimes ridiculed winery-it was, for instance, the setting for the anti-cool winery Frass Canyon in the film Sideways-is worth revisiting.
Luckily for me and my friend Jared Brach-who allowed us to taste in the accurately reconstructed and decorated comandancia, or commander’s dining room, at El Presidio State Park where he works-Schaffer also makes some great wine for Tercero, a truth solidified by high scores from critics and a nod from Wine Spectator as one of the best up-and-coming Rh’ne-style vintners. From his grenache blancs and single-varietal Rh’ne reds to his gew¼rztraminer (called “The Outlier” because it’s not a Rh’ne) and “Christie Cuvee,” Schaffer’s wines proved both pleasant and interesting, with enough distinction between vintages and varietals to make for good conversation. He’s chosen to focus on Rh’nes because he likes the diversity and their “upset potential”-and also because pinot noir is too expensive.
His next move is a collaboration with Fox, Dave Potter (co-assistant at Fess Parker and owner of Municipal Winemakers), and Mikael Sigouin (winemaker at Beckmen and owner of Kaena Wines) in the new label called Thread, which will focus on grenache and syrah. “We’re all moonlighting already,” said Schaffer, referring to everyone’s side projects outside of Fess Parker. “So now we’re kind of moonlighting from our moonlighting.” But even that has a marketing motive. “Anyway we can get the name out there collectively, the better it will be,” said Schaffer. “We can never get enough notice.”
Larry Schaffer will be pouring his Tercero Wines at both The Winehound’s (May 9 at 4:30pm, at the S.B. Museum of Natural History) and Elements’ (April 25 at 6:30pm, County Courthouse) wine futures events. See tercerowines.com.