This is a part of a continuing series of Q&As with members of the American wine community from across the U.S.
Vintner Magazine will share business and personal insights from Winery Owners, Vintners, Marketing Managers, Sales Directors, QCQA staff and others each month to help you get to know each other better in the industry and learn more to better develop your own brand.
Michael Cook, Director of Sales, Lieb Cellars & Bridge Lane Wine — Mattituck, New York
VINTNER: How has your business strategy evolved to help grow and stay competitive?
COOK: We’re champions of alternative packaging, for a variety of reasons. Our Bridge Lane label offers wines in four different container options: bottles, 3L Boxes, Kegs, and Cans, with the same cuvées going into each container. We were the first New York winery to embrace these alt packaging container options and it does help to differentiate us from our peers. There’s a solid “sustainability/eco-friendly” argument on the side of the alternative container options. There’s also a time and a place for everything, right? If you’re drinking these wines at home: 3L boxes, if you’re going to the beach or the pool or the boat (or the movies); cans, if you’re having a wedding or big party; and kegs. Sure — there’s still a good reason to fill bottles, although we’re filling less of those these days as consumers get smarter about the options. We’ve become an industry leader in quality wines in alt packaging.
VINTNER: Who is your mentor in the industry and why? What have you learned from them?
COOK: It’s an ever growing list that starts with our winemaker, Russell Hearn and our GM, Ami Opisso. They are my role models in the day-to-day. From Russell it’s a knowledge, experience and expertise thing. He’s been making wines for something like 35, almost 40 years now, and has worked in regions all over the globe. He’s also been intimately involved in the sales of his wines and distributor relationships for many years. He’s an expert in the vineyard, in the cellar, and in the market. Ami brings a true Jedi/zen approach to juggling many duties for us and there’s no aspect of our business that she’s not involved in. She is “juggling” chainsaws that are on-fire, while riding a unicycle, and doing it all with pure positivity and joy. She’s my constant reminder that we’re not solving world problems here — it’s just wine and should be fun — and at Lieb and Bridge Lane, we have fun with our wines.
VINTNER: What idea did you or your team come up with lately that has been a big benefit to how your winery functions?
COOK: We’re a pretty forward-thinking group, including our winemaker Russell. We’ve started to work with some hybrids (French American crossings that thrive in NY) in some of our blends. Some of these grapes like Seyval and Vidal, La Crescent, Traminette (as examples) make really delicious wines and can add a lot of character to our blends. They are also much more “sustainable” in the vineyards than focusing exclusively on classic vinifera varieties. I think that this will be the next “wine nerd” topic of conversation in our industry and we’re embracing it — and already having lots of fun playing with these hybrid New York grapes. The potential benefit to the winery here is hard to quantify, but it would improve our sustainability and will “lessen” our impact on the farm. It will dramatically improve our fruit sourcing for our Bridge Lane wines as that label continues to grow, and quite honestly, will improve the wines and make them more regionally unique to our place: NY.
VINTNER: If you had one business strategy that you could implement to better the wine industry, what would it be?
COOK: Lighten up, stop taking it all so seriously! Lose the fancy shoes and the jacket and tie — it’s not a fashion show — or at least, it shouldn’t be. There’s too much pretention in our business … too much comparison of regions and of products that are really not the same thing. I lean toward eliminating the “wine snobbery” that comes inherently with nearly every appointment. If I walk in and say “I have NY wines for you today and they come in 3L boxes, kegs and cans”, half of the tasters have already decided that they don’t like it. I typically just pour the first wine and say “taste this — who cares what it is if you don’t like it, right?” In most cases they do like it, and then we can have a conversation without pre-conceived notions about our wines. Our industry needs more “here, taste this”…”well, what is it?” – “who cares, just taste it and then we’ll talk about what it is.” Also, in general, we need less wine competitions and Somm competitions … it’s just not what it’s supposed to be about. Sure, in some cases we play those games too, but the game is pretty silly sometimes. Just taste the wine.
Photo courtesy Lieb Cellars/Alice Falcone