Posted by Adam Lee
I had planned to use this blog to write about our experiments with Nebbiolo (we just harvested the 2008 Nebbiolo grapes from Stolpman Vineyard this past week), but last night it didn’t seem important enough to write about.
Neither Dianna nor I came from much of a wine-drinking background. I grew up Southern Baptist in Austin, Texas and never drank anything, much less fine wine, until I got to college. Dianna grew up in the small Czech-populated town of Ennis, Texas and, as a Czech Catholic, she drank a lot more than I did, but certainly not fine wine. Nor did we come from money. We started our winery with a combined life savings of $24,000 and worked day jobs at other wineries for the first five years while we grew Siduri and started Novy.
To go from this background to becoming owners and winemakers of two fairly successful California wineries required a lot of luck and a good bit of hard work. It also required the generosity and influence of lots of wonderful people to whom we are eternally indebted. There was no person more influential in both of our career paths than Mike Friend.
Mike Friend was the wine buyer at Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1990s. I had been working in wine retail in Austin for a few years and loving it but had left the safe confines of wine retail to try my hand at working as a wholesale wine representative for a distributor in Dallas. Quite frankly, I was terrible at the job. I was too undisciplined to follow a schedule of my own making and was also horrible at cold calling on accounts that often didn’t want to purchase any wine. The distributor I worked for had never had much success selling wine to Neiman Marcus and so he sent me there figuring things couldn’t get much worse. I met with Mike Friend and we hit it off. He and I talked about the wines of the world, he ordered quite a few cases (mainly German wines) and we began what would be a lasting friendship. Before I knew it, I found myself confessing my frustration at my floundering wholesale wine career to Mike and expressing doubts as to whether I should even stay in the wine business. Somehow, Mike found a way to get me a job at Neimans selling wine alongside him.
Our days together at Neimans were some of my happiest in the wine business. We sold loads of wine—everything from first growth Bordeaux, to fantastic bottles of Burgundy to remarkable California wines. One day I walked into the store to find five cases of Babcock Winery Fathom Rosé. This was a rosé made, I believe, from Cabernet Franc. Rosé wasn’t an easy sell in Texas, and five cases was a lot of rosé for anyone to carry. And if I remember correctly, the wine seemed expensive at the time, something like $17 a bottle. Turns out Mike had met a new, young sales rep who was having a hard time, and he took the time to taste through the offerings, loved the rosé and ordered five cases of it.
The Fathom Rosé became a standing joke between Mike and me. Any time one of us wanted to order something the least bit eclectic we would say, “Well, at least it isn’t Fathom Rosé.” Actually, it turned out that we sold those five cases just fine and, when the last bottle disappeared, Mike asked me what I wanted to order since it was my turn to order something odd and I said, “Let’s order five cases of something even more expensive—the Bruno Clair Rosé.” We did, and we sold that too.
I also met a young lady while working at Neimans—a fellow employee named Dianna Novy, who would later become my wife and partner here in the winery. Neimans was her first job out of college, and she worked in the Epicure Department next to the wine selection. Dating among employees was somewhat frowned upon and so we were very careful not to tell anyone when we started going out. No one, except for Mike.
And when I moved out to California to try my hand in the wine business in California, Dianna stepped into my shoes and worked with Mike in the wine department. She didn’t have the background in wine that I did, but she did have the enthusiasm and the willingness to learn. Mike took her under his wings and shared every tasting with her, loaned her books to read about wine and encouraged her in every way possible. When Dianna decided that she too wanted to move out to California to work in the wine business (and to be with me, I think), she was discouraged to find that most of her co-workers at Neimans and even some of our family were not supportive. But Mike thought it was a good idea and told her that she should follow her dreams.
Over the years since then, Mike worked at a lot of different retail stores in the Dallas area selling wine. He always had a wine tasting group that he led, and we were honored to present our wines to these groups several times. Undoubtedly, he took a number of other “green” wholesale salespeople and gave them the break they needed to continue in the wine business. I don’t know that I ever met anyone as good as Mike at taking people new to wine and, instead of making them feel bad about not knowing much about wine, making them feel good about what they knew and leading them to expand their taste horizons. And he sent a boatload of customers our way, always telling them the story of how we started together at Neimans.
In September, we heard from Mike and learned that he was moving to Kansas City to start a wine bistro, bakery and wine retail store with his brother. I was planning on getting together with him on a sales trip to Kansas City in February. Last night, Dianna and I discovered that Mike suddenly, unexpectedly passed away. There are a lot of unsung heroes in the wine business who never get the publicity that we winemakers do. They don’t have their pictures in wine magazines nor do they get the opportunity to write these blogs. But we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Dianna and I are going to miss our good friend, Mike.
John Wilen — Texas — October 22, 2008 1:59pm ET
John Nelson — Dallas, Texas — October 22, 2008 3:53pm ET
Wilson Daniels Ltd — Galway, Ireland — October 22, 2008 4:06pm ET
Tim Norris` — Dallas and Chicago — October 22, 2008 5:13pm ET
Dave Pramuk — October 22, 2008 5:59pm ET
Marissa Ocasio — Connecticut — October 22, 2008 8:08pm ET
Roy Micheael Mohr — Allen, Texas — October 23, 2008 8:03am ET
Chuck Weintraub — DALLAS , TX — October 23, 2008 11:37am ET
Ken Koonce — Dallas, Texas — October 23, 2008 5:58pm ET
Diane Teitelbaum — Dallas, TX — October 25, 2008 6:48pm ET
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