I’m not wet behind the ears any more, but not a grizzled veteran yet either. At least I think not. Still, I’ve been around the industry long enough to meet people who’ve set up shop in more than one wine region I cover—producing wine in both Chile and Argentina for example. Yet I’ve never met someone who overlaps with me quite the way Charles Bieler does. I sat down with him at my office last week to discuss Grenache in the Rhône, Malbec in Argentina and even Riesling in the Finger Lakes, among other things.
Bieler is wiry, with tussled hair and an untucked shirt that screams college hipster. So perhaps it's not so surprising that he was pulled from the music world while living in Vermont as a 21-year-old by his father to help turn around the fortunes of their family estate, Château Routas in France’s Provence region.
“It was pretty reckless of him of that time,” said Bieler, now 34. “He basically handed me the keys to the business, because inventory was piling up. He wanted me to rethink it and see if I could help.”
That was in '98, when Provençal rosé wasn’t even a twinkle in the U.S. consumer’s eye. Today it’s one of the hottest categories out there. Bieler caught a rising tide and worked the market well, and in turn helped turn Routas around. When the deep-pocketed Sir David Murray came calling with a blank check in ‘05, the Bielers sold the estate. The younger Bieler hasn’t left the rosé game though—he still produces one under the Bieler Père & Fils label and he sees even more potential for the category.
“Rosé has grown so much in the last 10 years, but right now it’s still viewed as a seasonal thing,” he said. “Yet people will have a cold beer any time of the year, so why not a refreshing rosé? There’s a lot of potential there.”
Bieler is involved in scads of other projects as well, most of which developed after the sale of Routas and were fueled by the wine bug that has nipped Bieler's generation in a unique way.
“The industry has broadened out so much with my generation,” said Bieler. “We don’t really care about Bordeaux, or beer. We’re drinking artisan spirits and hand-crafted wines. It’s not about prestige at all.”
Bieler started first with the Three Thieves négociant brand, which he created with Joel Gott in 2002 when California was awash in extra wine. The value-priced line was packaged in 1-liter glass jugs and offered consistently good quality. While there, he hooked up with the Trinchero family and wound up producing both a California Cabernet and an Argentinean Malbec under the label The Show. The Malbec is sourced from vineyards owned by Sur Andino (the Argentinean arm of Chile’s Viña Santa Rita winery). It sports a catchy label, but also delivers solid value at its $13 price tag.
Bieler has moved across the Andes too, into Chile’s rapidly emerging Leyda area, where he’s crushed a small amount of Pinot Noir for the first time with the 2010 harvest. It could wind up under the Three Thieves brand, or get its own label.
All that might be enough to keep anyone busy, but Bieler had a fire lit under him when a colleague accused him of not coming up with anything innovative in a while.
“That was like a dagger through the heart,” laughed Bieler. “So I had to come up with something new, on the spot.”
That got Bieler, who’s now based in New York City, to think of the Finger Lakes. From there, he quickly zeroed in on Riesling as the best bet.
“New York is a tough place to grow grapes. But clearly the most compelling stuff so far is Riesling,” he said. “And I love the idea of local wine served at local places.”
To that end he’s sourcing Riesling from vineyards in the Lodi area on the eastern side of Seneca Lake, known locally as the "banana belt". To make the wine, he's working with former Lamoreaux Landing winemaker Paul Brock. The catch? The wine isn't bottled, but "kegged," with the idea to market it strictly as a by-the-glass pour, on tap, for local restaurants. The benefits of wine on tap are a reduced cost, first and foremost, along with a reduction in waste.
“By eliminating glass, foil and cork, we take out 25 percent of the production cost. That’s a big advantage at the price point we’re at," said Bielier. "And in addition, the restaurants aren’t having to pay for hauling off all that used glass at the end of the day, so that greener aspect is a huge eye-opener too,” he added.
The 20-liter kegs wholesale for $200 each, resulting in a $7.50 cost per equivalent 750ml bottle, an attractive level for a restaurant’s by-the-glass program.
The ’09 carries a noticeable 1.7 percent residual sugar, but with a pH of less than 3.0, it comes off as dry in feel. While wine on tap hasn’t caught fire on a broad scale yet—the wine has to be pushed by nitrogen rather than the more common CO2 system, and like screw caps, there’s a cultural adjustment for some people to make as well—it continues to gain interest. Labeled The Gotham Project, the ‘09 "bottling" is now being poured at restaurants and wine bars such as Terroir, Dinosaur BBQ, The Breslin, Blue Ribbon and Brooklyn's Huckleberry Bar, while demand for the 2010 harvest is already lined up.
Bieler admits there has been a learning curve with getting the wine into kegs (he’s had to adapt some machinery to make the process more efficient) but he's now looking to provide it as a custom service for other wineries or importer/distributors who want to give it a go. He also notes that the wine does evolve a little more slowly under keg than in bottle.
“It definitely stays tighter and fresher, without that broadening you get with time in standard bottle,” said Bieler [Note: A sample of the wine from 750ml bottle will be reviewed in my usual blind tasting format in the near future.]
As for Bieler’s father, he moved from Provence up to the higher altitudes of the Ventoux, in the Rhône Valley. There he’s growing Grenache, Syrah, Carignane and Cinsault that go into the Bieler’s Lou Bar Rou bottling, made by Clos de Trias winemaker Evan Bakke. The 2007 vintage is the debut; the wine offers a core of roasted plum and fig fruit, held together with graphite, fig bread and black tea notes all followed by a juicy finish, for a modest $16.
There’s more of course—Bieler works with Charles Smith in Washington to produce a rosé from Syrah. And he helped found, along with sommelier Richard Betts, the Sombra brand of mezcal. I don’t cover Washington state, and I’ve tried to stay away from mescal since college, so the overlap between Bieler and I ends there.
Granted, Bieler isn’t a winemaker per se—he isn’t the one growing and crushing the grapes—so purists may roll their eyes at his wide range of catchy brands and ideas. But as the wine industry has expanded exponentially, there’s now a bottleneck of producers—good producers—trying to get their wine to market. Many don’t have the time or expertise to work the market themselves or come up with the ideas that are sometimes needed to get wine sold, no matter how good the wine is. That means there are burgeoning opportunities for folks like Bieler, who can combine creative thinking with a knack for finding a niche, without sacrificing quality. If the result is more good wine being consumed, I'm all for it.