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Following Dad’s Footsteps

Posted on  | May 24, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Fathers provide wisdom, guidance and inspiration. Some also pass along a passion for the wine and spirits business.

The wine and spirits industry can be a very small world, at times almost like a family. In some cases, it literally is. Every year as Father’s Day approaches we speak with fathers and their children who both work in the beverage alcohol business to learn what inspired them.

Wild Turkey father-son distillers

Jimmy Russell grew up in the bourbon business. “As a kid in Lawrenceburg there were four distilleries, and I had relatives at each one.” The son and grandson of distillers, Jimmy went to work at Wild Turkey at age 20, starting out in quality control and working his way up to Master Distiller.

Since Jimmy’s son Eddie joined Wild Turkey, it has been less a passing-of-the-torch than a sharing of it: The two have worked side by side for almost 33 years, and have an unbelievable 90 years of combined distilling experience between them.

Unlike Jimmy, Eddie did not grow up wanting to work at the distillery: “I went there for a summer job and after a couple of weeks I realized it was home for me.” His early responsibilities included rolling barrels, dumping bottles, stacking cases and mowing grass. (“I made him start at the bottom like everyone else, so that the team would respect him,” Jimmy recalls.) After a few years his dad instructed him on grinding grains and making the mashes. Over time he honed his tasting skills and began creating the blends alongside his father. Several years ago, Eddie launched his first solo product, Wild Turkey 81.

Just how do they differ? “Eddie would tell you I’m hard-headed and old-fashioned,” says Jimmy. Eddie phrases things a little differently: “I think the difference between Jimmy and me is that I like to experiment with different things and he does not want to change anything. I would never change what he has spent almost 60 years building, but would like to try new things to bring in new consumers.”  

While the hallmark Wild Turkey profile—“lots of body, lots of flavor,” as Jimmy describes it—has remained unchanged, Eddie has pioneered the distillery’s newer expressions: the Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old, Russell’s Reserve 6 Years Old Rye, Wild Turkey Honey and, most recently, Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, one of the richest bourbons they’ve ever made.

Jimmy has come around on a lot of this innovation; he even admits that his drink of choice is Russell’s Reserve, served neat. “The younger generation is always wanting to try new things, but Eddie doesn’t go way out on a limb; he likes the old-fashioned way we do things here and he embraces tradition.”

Not much has changed at Wild Turkey in the last half century, yet the outside world’s appreciation for bourbon has sky-rocketed. Therefore, Eddie spends a lot more time abroad than Jimmy ever did. “The export market is such a bigger part of our business than when I started,” says Eddie, whose recent travels include Japan, Australia, Brazil and the UK to promote bourbon. “I think we have great opportunities to showcase and teach the foreign markets that we have a natural and great tasting product. The interest in bourbon all over the world is at its highest I have seen in my 32 years.”

And the bourbon consumer is changing, he adds: “This is the biggest challenge to growing our business. We were always an older male business until the last five to 10 years. Today, it’s younger consumers—men and women—who are driving growth in bourbon.”

Perhaps the only thing that brings Jimmy more joy than working alongside his son every day is getting to see the fourth generation in training. Eddie’s son has been working as a tour guide at the distillery on his summers home from college. “He seems to really enjoy it here,” says Eddie. “I want to treat him just like my dad treated me by not pushing him to do anything; I want his career to be his decision.”

Pahlmeyer Wines, Napa Valley

Pahlmeyer doesn’t exactly seem like a brand that needs new life breathed into it. Fetching high scores and critical acclaim every year, selling out upon release and with a wait list for the mailing list membership, the Napa Valley standard-bearer has been the envy of many of its neighbors since it was founded in 1986.

“But I was coasting,” founder Jayson Pahlmeyer confesses. “I wasn’t in the market much, nor was our former winemaker.” What changed? Jayson’s daughter Cleo joined the company five years ago. “When Cleo came on board it revitalized me and our company,” he says. “Cleo has been like a jolt and gave me so much more excitement about this business.”

It was with tremendous enthusiasm that Jayson got into the wine business in the first place, back in the mid-’80s, as a passionate connoisseur who wanted to create the “biggest, boldest, richest Bordeaux-style blend possible in Napa,” he recalls. “Some prefer sophistication, but I’ve always loved power. You’ll find tremendous consistency in our wines.” Launching just as the cult wine phenomenon was getting started, Pahlmeyer made wines alongside Shafer and Colgin at the Napa Wine Company.

Over the years, production of Pahlmeyer’s flagship red ($125 a bottle) has hovered pretty closely around 4,000 cases annually, which means that there is enough to have decent national availability but not so much that it is hard to sell. “My philosophy all along has been to keep it accessible—we are in every state in the union,” he says. During the recession, wide distribution helped Pahlmeyer: “If I had to push 1,000 cases through New York that would have been tough, but we had wines all over the country, unlike most cult wines.”

When Cleo, who was working in San Francisco for Williams-Sonoma, heard there was a job opening at her family’s winery, she asked if she could apply. “When I heard that, it was my dream come true,” says Jayson. “I never would have asked her to do it, because I didn’t want her to feel pressure.” Cleo moved back to Napa and started as national sales associate and now serves as communications director.

Cleo’s arrival has helped usher in a new era for the winery, fueled as well by two new winemakers, Kale Anderson, director of winemaking at the Napa operation, and Bibiana González Rave for Pahlmeyer’s Sonoma Coast vineyards. Nothing happens quickly when vineyards are involved, and Pahlmeyer’s Sonoma vineyard, planted in 2001 in what is referred to as the “Extreme Sonoma Coast” with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is just now seeing its true potential.

“This year we will make vineyard designate Pinot Noirs from this property,” Cleo explains. “We are letting Bibiana use her artistic abilities to create the best possible wines from this vineyard. It’s not about what style we want, but about seeing what this vineyard can do.” The company also plans to release some lower-priced (yet still luxury) offerings in the $40 price range. All these new wines will hit the market in 2014.

Experimentation is happening at Pahlmeyer’s Napa estate as well, with Anderson trying out tarps to “induce” drought and extend the growing season which will add concentration and flavor to the wines.”

With his new winemaking team in place, and his daughter steering the company towards an ever-brighter future, Jayson Pahlmeyer will soon find himself in a new role: Grandfather—Cleo will give birth to the newest member of the Pahlmeyer clan later this year.

retired, Vice President,
Director of Wine, Charmer Industries

Director of Marketing, Lauber Imports


When Herb Schutte entered the wine business in 1963, the challenge of the day was getting people to drink dry table wine. “At that time in this country, people mostly drank dessert wines like sherry and port, and jug wines from California,” he remembers. Schutte started as a clerk and then a sales representative for North America Wines, and took a job with Charmer Industries seven years later, with the creation of their new wine company.

“French wines like Burgundy and Bordeaux were just beginning to be accepted in the marketplace, and nobody knew much about them,” he recalls. And that included the sales force: “We had liquor salesmen selling wine who had absolutely no wine education, so we had to teach them.” Schutte gave Kevin Zraly his first job in the wine business, as a sales rep, then hired him back in the early 1980s as a wine educator for his team. The company put in place a serious wine training program with in-house educators. “We had to take that knowledge and go out and build the demand for fine wine in New York.”

Fast-forward several decades to 2002, when Herb’s son Paul enters the business and the landscape looks quite different: The demand for fine wine was thriving and the average consumer had become incredibly sophisticated. “There are different challenges today,” says Paul, who took a job with Charmer (after a stint at NBC) as an on-premise merchandiser and account development specialist, and in 2005, moved to Southern Wine & Spirits when they entered the New York market. “Today consolidation and regulation are the big obstacles in the market; it’s really changed the way we do business,” says Paul. “I would say one of the biggest challenges we face is keeping the heart of the wine business true to itself, being able to tell the story and drive the passion for both small family-owned wineries and large suppliers alike while maintaining our position as a market leader.”

Paul might not have multiple decades of experience in the industry, but he has the perspective of someone much more seasoned, as a result of watching his father as he was growing up. Herb remembers bringing Paul to a sales presentation and wine dinner when he was about 11 years old. “Afterwards, he said, ‘Dad, you get paid to do this?’” Herb recalls.

About the same time, father and son made a work trip to Italy together, and Paul saw first-hand the relationships his dad had formed with family-owned wineries: “Even as a child, I realized that his business wasn’t just a numbers game, it was about relationships and heritage. I saw that my dad was selling a product that was a story and passion—not a widget—and that was really appealing.”

As Herb’s career was winding down—he retired in 2005—Paul’s was just heating up. Starting out as a district sales manager in Manhattan, he went on to work in operations and purchasing, and now serves as the Director of Marketing for Lauber Imports, a division of Southern Wine & Spirits. “I was thrilled when Paul joined the industry,” says Herb. “He has done a terrific job and I see him expanding his role even more.”

Though Herb is no longer in the business, his reputation lives on; not a week goes by when someone doesn’t mention his name, attests Paul. Colleagues remember him for his integrity, loyalty and work ethic—“the main principals which I try to live by. It’s a pretty simple formula,” says Paul. “It’s a relationship business. It might be more cutthroat today, particularly with all the larger companies we do business with, but at the heart of the industry, it’s all about relationships: People want to do business with people they like—my dad taught me that.” 


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