Life changing epiphanies often come to us under the most unusual of circumstances. Alan Baker’s epiphany came to him while sitting in a kayak when he opened a bottle of Riesling. Floating on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, drinking that wine—which he calls an “overwhelming” and “transcendent” experience—he never could have imagined that he would end up in California and have his own wine making operation, Cartograph Wines.
“I enjoyed wine but I wasn’t a fanatic until I kind of had my ‘a-ha’ moment, which was literally in a kayak with a bottle of ’98 Alsace Riesling. I opened it up, poured a glass, and I just really couldn’t understand how something that looked almost as pale as water could really have so much going on,” Alan said. “Everything else just shrank to the background. I had one bottle and went back and bought a case of it.”
Although Alan says he really enjoyed wine prior to that, his experience in that kayak changed everything. It led him to start exploring wines of every variety, from every corner of the globe, in pursuit of understanding both what he liked and what it was that made a wine truly great in whatever category it belonged to.
“That really helped me understand that there were wines that were truly transcendent, and the sum of the parts was much greater than the bits and pieces that were in the glass,” he said.
Soon Alan found that not only was he dedicating more and more of the income from his job as a recording engineer for Minnesota Public Radio to his interest in wine, but it was becoming a near-obsession.
“I got to the point where it was taking more and more of my brain, and I finally got to the point where I so was intrigued and it was taking so much of my time outside of work, I just figured, it might just be worth a shot to see if I could flip that equation on its head and have wine be the focus and maybe something else would be a hobby. But it took over everything at that point,” he said.
Soon Alan was telling his friends, family and colleagues that he was toying with the idea of leaving his job and going to California to learn more about wine making. The more he talked about it, the more he painted himself into a corner. After talking the idea up so much, he’d practically obligated himself to pursue seeing whether he could find a place within the wine industry where he might fit in, he said.
Alan began reaching out to wineries with an offer. If they would take him on as an apprentice and teach him every aspect of the business, in exchange, he would produce content for them about their wines—publicity through written blogs and podcasts on his blog, CellarRat.org, talking about their wines and the wine making process. His first takers were Unti Vineyards and Peterson Winery, both in the Dry Creek area just outside of Healdsburg. “People in Minnesota were like, ‘aww, geez, you’re throwing your life away,’ but the Californians were like, ‘yeah, well it sounds kind of crazy, but if you’re willing to try it come on out.’”
“I sold the house, threw the kayak on top of the Volvo and headed out West,” he said.
After working his way through vineyards, tasting rooms and learning about wine marketing, he caught a break when National Public Radio (NPR) agreed to host his podcasts on their website. Having the NPR brand behind him, Alan was able to open even more doors, allowing him to reach out to his wine making heroes to interview them about the wine making process and how they created great wines. Soon his podcast was getting between 12-13K downloads per month.
At that point, Alan realized that he wanted to make his own wine, focusing on Pinot Noir. But wine making is both expensive and resource intensive, he said, and money was starting to run thin. So he moved down to San Francisco and leveraged the podcast to crowdsource and fund his first commercial wine. By selling his listeners futures in the form of cases of wine and promising to document the process, he was able to buy grapes and rent space to make his wine from Crushpad, a winery in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood that made custom wines by the barrel for people who either wanted to try their hand at wine making for fun or were burgeoning vintners. Alan’s first creation was a 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, which he sold under the Cellar Rat name. Through his crowdfunding, he was able to sell and make 65 cases.
Crushpad then hired Alan to help them build out their web interface and virtualize the wine making experience. He also continued to make wine there and assist Crushpad customers in making their own wine.
“I couldn’t really have dreamed of a better place to land when as I drove out of Minnesota, but I couldn’t really fathom that. The whole thing is, just kind of work in the direction you need to go until you find the opportunity and pounce on it,” he said.
That was how he met Serena Lourie, his partner in both Cartograph and life. “She came in to make her own wine, and I was her consulting winemaker,” he said. “That’s where we figured out we shared more than just a love for fine wine, and we partnered up and realized that we wanted to start our own thing.”
In 2009, Alan and Serena decided to move to Healdsburg to pursue their dream of wine making and be closer to the grapes of the Russian River Valley. Although it was a “scramble” to get the paperwork necessary to start a winery (including an FBI background check since they were working with alcohol), they were able to launch the Cartograph brand with some 2008 Pinots from their Crushpad days and a 2009 Gewürtztraminer.
After spending much of 2010 trying to hand sell their wine to local restaurants, Alan said they soon realized that without having a tasting room or wine club to help them build an audience, it would likely take a very long time for the brand to gain recognition. So they partnered with another local winemaker, Stark, to open a tasting room on the edge of downtown Healdsburg in the summer of 2011. By 2013, they felt they’d grown enough to support their own space, so they opened the Cartograph tasting room about a block away from the Healdsburg town square last October.
Building on the theme of the individual journeys Alan and Serena took to become winemakers and the journey they were taking together, they choose the Cartograph brand name and a “map” theme for their brand and labels. (That theme is also echoed in their new tasting room in Healdsburg.) Each point on the Cartograph label represents a point on their journeys, from Serena’s family origins in Brittany, France to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where Alan was living when he had that momentous Riesling to Washington, D.C. where Serena first discovered California wines. Their journey together maps to San Francisco where they met and then to Healdsburg, where they currently live and run the business. Alan says having a story for their journey and the wine is an important way to set themselves apart in a crowded market.
“Making great wine is just the start of it. There’s a lot of great wine out there. If you don’t have a compelling story it’s much harder to get noticed. So we knew that we wanted our story front and center right on the label, so that every time somebody saw that logo, they would think of the story behind the wine,” he said.
Cartograph focuses on Pinot Noirs and the Gewürtztraminer, mostly sourced from the Russian River Valley and the Mendocino Ridge. After searching for a number of years for a Riesling crop he liked, Alan says they will release their first Riesling in 2013, an homage to ’98 Alsace Riesling that started his journey into wine. They will also have a Sangiovese available to wine club members only this fall—they chose that grape because it was the first wine he and Serena made together when she came to Crushpad to make wine. Sales are primarily through the tasting room and wine club and at restaurants in the Healdsburg area, but they are hoping to get their wines into restaurants in San Francisco this year. Alan is also hoping to start exploring a wider distribution this year, starting in Minnesota through his ties in the Twin Cities.
Alan says what he most enjoys are wines that are subtle, nuanced and complex. That was what drew him in with that Alsace Riesling—a transcendent quality that provided an overwhelming experience not because it was big and bold, but because it was exactly the opposite, he said. As a classically trained musician, he compares that kind of subtle engagement and transcendence to musical compositions. It’s also why he chooses to work with Pinot.
“It was all about the complexity and the subtley of it,” he says of that transformative Alsace Rieslig. “It was really something that drew me in as opposed to I sat back and experienced it. I fell into it rather than let it come to me. That’s what I love about Pinot as well – it’s a wine that if I’m doing the right thing, my role falls to the background and what I really hope to do is showcase these really exquisite locations from which we’re sourcing our grapes. It might sound a little cliché, that’s really the goal of what we’re trying to do, is to not show my hand in winemaking but really let the vineyards show themselves with this really subtle and elegant grape.”
What drew you to wine?
What drew me into it was—just the experience was something that I felt—it’s beyond just enjoying a glass. It was an intellectual pursuit as much as it was a hedonistic, predilection for wine. Having a brain that dissected musical performances and compositions, I kind of treated wine in the same way in that I wanted to get deeper into not just what it was or describing what it was, but how did it get there? How did it become that, how do you create a compelling and beautiful wine like that? What are the steps to go from growing grapes to an experience in the bottle that’s absolutely transcendent?
I just knew that there was more to it than just an appreciation, it was an intellectual pursuit falling down that road of chasing all the details on the wine appreciation side until I got to the point of, wow, I want to figure out how it’s actually done not just what comes out the other end. It was an all-consuming thought process that I felt like I couldn’t really let go of until I came out here and found out how it was done. I wasn’t sure if I was just going to document it, I didn’t know that I would be making wine, but it was really just trying to get to the bottom of ‘how’? That one question—how does that happen?
Why Pinot Noir?
When I moved to California—you know I appreciated all sorts of wines from every region on the planet really—but as I got into experiencing local California wines, it was the one grape that I felt like really had the opportunity to transcend, to really make amazing wine, and to have that experience be something that you can’t recreate elsewhere. And I also would say there’s gotta be a little bit of ego in there—if you decide to write a string quartet as a composer, you’re instantly up against the greatest composers who have ever written—Beethoven. You know you’re not going to be compared to some guy in the town next door, you’re going to be compared to the greatest people that ever touched paper to pen. So, I’ll admit there’s some ego in that it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to want to take a grape notoriously hard to grow and notoriously hard to produce into a fine wine and see if I could measure up, to see if we could produce wines that would be on par with the greatest wines that exist in Burgundy or anywhere else on the planet using that grape. And to have that be an experience that’s a wonderful experience because of the subtlety and the nuance rather than a big kind of wallop-you-over-the-head experience.
I think one of the things that I did when I was working at Minnesota Public Radio—my focus both at work as much as I could bring it in there and on my own time—was that I was a big fan and follower of living American composers. I interviewed composers like Lou Harrison, Meredith Monk and Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and they were all people that followed their gut instincts even though it didn’t lead them, obviously, in a path that was profitable or fruitful. They just had no other choice than to go in the direction that they felt tugged. And ultimately through perseverance and amazing ingenuity on their part, they basically discovered their own language in music. Not that I compare myself to them, but talking to them and having these interviews, Meredith Monk, in particular, basically she just wandered off into the wilderness and created an entirely new style and form of music and hearing her say that you just have to have the courage to keep on going even though you don’t know that it’s going to land you anywhere positive, it really was her words really rang in my ears when I was like I’m going to go see if I can find a place [in wine]. You gotta keep your eyes open, and you’ve gotta improvise, you have to have that persistence of vision that you’re going in the right direction even though you can’t see where you’re going to land.
If I had taken off out of the Twin Cities, I wouldn’t have pretended to dream that I could actually become a winemaker and have my own winery in five years time. That was just too big a dream. However, by putting yourself in a situation where you are—you kind of have to live off your own skillset, you gotta keep doing things that you can do to keep feeding yourself and at the same time always be looking for those open doors that you can walk through or knock on to at least ask for an opportunity to participate. It’s a difficult thing to do sometimes. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s stressful, but if you’re always in control of your own destiny, that even if it doesn’t yield something that’s wildly profitable or successful, as long as you’re moving in the direction to get to where you want to be, it’s worth doing. That, I attribute right back to composers like Lou Harrison and Meredith Monk who had no idea that what they were doing could ever be interesting to anyone but themselves, but they kept doing it and they’re viewed as the mavericks of American composition.
So it’s more of an inspiration in that. They were my inspiration to trust that you can go out and do it and land on your feet eventually. It was really believing that there was something bigger that I wanted to find within myself, and those composers that have done such amazing things—and it took them years and years and years to do—kind of gave me the courage to at least give it a shot. I could always have gone back to public radio, I think, but I would have just kicked myself forever had I not given it a shot after dreaming up the idea. And it wasn’t easy. Had you asked me 17 months into the process if it was worth it, I probably would have said no because I just didn’t see a way, you know I was doing things that I believed in and I had created a lot of content that I loved and that was appreciated but it wasn’t until I got hired by Crushpad, you know making a tech salary in a competitive tech market that I thought, ‘wow, that was all worth it.’
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business and what advice would you have for others?
On the business side of things, I think the best kind of advice or strategy—I took a class from a woman, her name is Anisya Fritz, and it was a wine entrepreneurship class at Sonoma State University, and she and her husband Glen own LynMar Winery in the Russian River Valley. She and her husband were very successful in business and they started the winery after being successful in business and poured a lot of money into it, and she came to the realization that they weren’t running their winery in the same disciplined fashion as they ran all their businesses. So they kind of had a moment where they stopped and they re-did everything, and she just tore it down to nuts and bolts and really kind of looked at it as a very dispassionate thing. It’s really easy to get involved in something that seems to have a lot of glamour and romance to it, but if you’re not disciplined and run it like a business, then your dream is going to stay a dream and you’re going to lose your fortune and you’re going to have to find something else to do with your life.
But I think the best advice that she had was, and I don’t think it came directly out of her mouth, but what I learned from that class was, you have to rest on your talents and to improvise and build something new. There is no cookie-cutter pattern for building a successful wine business, in particular. Because the business itself—you know if you ran a Fortune 500 company with margins that even the most successful wine businesses have, you’d be fired within a week. Because it’s so unforgiving, you have to improvise and use every tool that’s at your disposal to try to make your brand stand out from the rest and then to continually deliver on that promise to your customers and give them something that they can’t get elsewhere. And nobody can tell you what that is, except you have to pull it out of yourself and play to your strengths and really build something that’s really innovative and new. You can never sit back and say, this is done, now I’ll sit back and watch it run. Which is good for me, that’s something that I get bored with very quickly, so it’s a good business for me to be in. But really it’s that idea that you always have to be watching for how you can be better than you were the last time you did it, whether it’s the wine making or a club event or whatever it is, to always be innovating and improving and to be very, very methodical, to be paying attention to what that is. It’s one thing to be creative and wacky and try new things, but you gotta know if it works or not to know if you want to do it again.
I guess that’s fairly basic business knowledge in a lot of fields, but in the wine business it’s kind of hard. The wine business, the big brands are kind of calcified and they do what they do and they don’t know why it stops working at times until somebody has to come in and rejuvenate a brand or they just kind of go. There’s kind of a natural arc to a brand. It can be being bought out and reaching mediocrity, and it might just be a good nut for whoever bought them out, but there aren’t that many brands that have been on the forefront and stay there for years and years and years without some innovation and renewed content, creativity.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced thus far?
That I’m one of a billion people trying to do it. Serena and I, I feel like we’re trying to do a lot with very limited resources. We didn’t make our fortunes elsewhere, we’re kind of bootstrapping this with savings and our own efforts, it’s not like we hired a bunch of people to launch a brand and hired a big name winemaker. A lot of those things, if you’ve got the money, you can kind of buy. If you hire a big name wine maker, suddenly you’re in the game at a higher level. So I think the biggest challenge is just keeping the energy up to stay out there everyday, and you just have to be unrelenting. Its tough where there’s just two of us doing 95 percent of the work. There are a few things that we can outsource like design or labels and things like that, but I do all the wine making, Serena does all the finance and so trying to keep enough creativity in our brains while we’re doing all the legwork to keep the thing afloat is just a lot of work. And then it’s a crowded marketplace, a very crowded marketplace, and most everybody has deeper pockets than we do, so we’ve gotta get noticed in as many other ways as we possibly can.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Basically knowing that what we are doing everyday is something that’s completely of our own making, and we’re building it and we’re in control of it. The actual hands-on wine making, you know there’s nothing ever routine about it. There’s always something to learn and be excited about, and as an avid gardener and person who likes to create things, whether it’s radio programming or wine or cider or whatever, pickles, I feel incredibly lucky that I am engaged every day in creating something that really comes directly from the hard work that we’re doing, the both of us and everybody that’s helped us along the way.
I don’t know if I can even answer that. It’s tough. Which kid is your favorite? It’s that kind of thing. I don’t want to be wishy-washy about it. I’m drawn to wines that have just really high levels of complexity but in a really soft and subtle way. And in that respect, I think that our Floodgate Vineyard designate wine from the Floodgate Vineyard in the Russian River stand out as really classic examples of what the Russian River can give us, and I feel like I’ve kind of hit my stride with that vineyard. I understand it enough that I feel like there’s a really good—my interaction with that vineyard and those grapes—has brought the best out of the grapes from that vineyard that I could. And then alternately I think the Perli Vineyard in the Mendocino Ridge appellation also is a vineyard that I feel like I’ve finally had enough history with that I know what to do as the grapes come in, even though the vineyard always wins as long as I don’t screw it up.
And it’s true, as long as I treat the grapes in the appropriate fashion to that vineyard and that year, then I’ve been incredibly proud of the wines that have come out of both of those vineyards. So I would say from the two regions, those are our top performers right now and ones that I know will age well, and I’ve kind of hit that benchmark of trying to make a domestic Pinot Noir that will age very well and that will impress with subtlety and nuance rather than brawn and power. Even thought they have some strength to them, but it’s not strictly a big bottle fruit and oak, they’re impressive because they’re extremely complex and they kind of draw you into the wine rather than have you sit back and experience it.
What local food artisans/vintners do you admire and why?
In Sonoma County in general, we’re blessed to have some of the greatest chefs and wine makers that are in the country, I think. You know wine making wise, there’s a really exciting group of younger wine makers or wine makers who have jumped in from other careers. I think someone who’s doing really great stuff with grapes from the Rhone style wine is William Allen from Two Shepherds Winery. William is a good friend, he’s an amazing marketer, but he also has a great palate and, very true to his palate, he doesn’t follow the shifting sands of style, so he’s one that I’ll buy. I’m in his wine club and will take any wine that he produces. He’s really got a great thing going, and I expect him to do very, very well.
Food wise, we’re very lucky, I don’t know if you’ve been to Scopa or Campo Fina – Ari Rosen is behind both of those restaurants, and he’s the real deal. There’s a lot of them here in town, but I believe that he’s a fabulous chef and just doesn’t miss. There are restaurants where there are things you don’t like and things you like, I’ve just never had a bad meal at any of his restaurants, which is pretty impressive, I think. Dino [Bugica] at Diavola in Geyserville is awesome.
There’s other wine brands that I think are doing great stuff. I think the brand Idlewild, Sam Bilbro is behind that, they are doing some really wonderful stuff. And then Arnot Roberts—Nathan [Roberts] and Duncan [Arnot Meyers]. They have been at it at least 10 years, but really just have really grown into amazing palates. I think between the two of them, they really stand out. They’re also working with a lot of Rhone varieties. It’s fun, they do a lot of different grapes, like they do a rosé of Touriga Nacional, they’re doing some fun stuff and really coastal vineyards, like a Syrah that gets ripe every two or three years if they’re lucky. So they’re kind of fearless when it comes to sourcing their grapes but always turn out a really compelling wine.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, what would it be?
Wow, I can’t imagine what a heartbreaking choice that would be! Wow! That’s an incredibly difficult thing. My last meal would be easier, I think. Boy, I think I don’t know if it would be one of our wines or if I’d have to go with—I had a DRC Burgundy from Domaine Romanée-Conti, it was a Echezeaux – it was just the most compelling Pinot I’ve ever had. If I could experience that again maybe I’d do that.
I don’t know, but it might just be a simple one of our latest release of rosé. You know if I was going down, I might just want something that’s fun and pretty and enjoyable rather than make it something to try and contemplate. It’s like you pick your finest bottle out of the cellar that you’ve supposedly aged to perfection and often it disappoints. But a nice, beautiful, lively rosé, you know what you’re going to get, and it’s just pure sunlight and joy, and I think that might be what I might pick actually.
Favorite Healdsburg area food/chef/resto?
For local chefs, we are really lucky. Ari Rosen (Scopa and Campo Fina) really has the golden touch. Dustin Valette at Dry Creek Kitchen just keeps getting better, and Shane McAnelly has done a great job quickly establishing Chalkboard as a great spot. Nearby, Duskie Estes at Zazu is a local celeb and deserves the attention, and Dino Bugica does a great job at Diavola in Geyserville.
Photos courtesy of Alan Baker and Serena Lourie, Cartograph Wines.