For some people, getting on the mailing list for an exclusive Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a sport. For them, bagging an offering from Tusk would be as rare a trophy as the woolly mammoth that graces the Tusk label.
Tusk's exclusivity is not just about the price tag; plenty of expensive Napa Cabernets sell for more than $500 a bottle. This is different, a private club whose members—who pay $1,111 for a 3-pack of wine—have to be connected to the owners by no more than two degrees. That means only friends of Philippe Melka, Tim Martin and Michael Uytengsu, and their friends, are allowed to join the mailing list. No exceptions.
"If the wine wasn't good, this would be a marketing scam," admitted Martin. But the wine is more than good: The 2010 scored 95 points and is remarkably rich and elegant, one of the most memorable wines I tasted last year. The 2011 (not yet rated) is the current release.
What seems like a gimmick appears to be working. Without doing any marketing, the first four vintages have sold out, and there is a three-year waiting list to sign up.
Tusk isn't just based on opulent winemaking but also on luxury branding. Martin said that Tusk isn't trying to compete with other high-end Cabernets, but rather other luxury brands, like Hermès and Tiffany. The packaging reflects the attention to detail, with hand-wrapped linen boxes, heavy, etched bottles and letter-pressed labels. The name is both a nod to ivory, one of the original luxury commodities, and to elephants' close social groups.
The partners own 65 acres in Oakville and have just started planting a few acres to vines. For now, the grapes, 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, come from vineyards around Napa Valley, primarily from Oakville and Pritchard Hill.
After being picked, clusters are sorted twice and the grapes are removed from non-grape materials. "It's beautiful—it looks like a bowl of caviar when it's ready," Martin said of the grapes. Even with that much care, not all of the wine ends up in the final blend. In 2008, the first vintage, Tusk's owners had enough wine for 1,300 cases, but only bottled 150 cases under its name. In 2009, they whittled down 1,700 cases to 125.
Melka, a top wine consultant, is both part-owner and the winemaker for Tusk. At Lail Vineyards, Melka worked with Martin, who now has his own branding and marketing company, Gauge Branding. The third owner, Uytengsu, is a former investment banker whose family's G.F. Industries food business included Sunshine Biscuits, the makers of Cheez-It crackers, which was sold to Keebler. These days, Uytengsu exports high-end wines to his native Philippines and has created a new sunflower-seed cracker called Somersault.
Martin and Uytengsu met through a the 49ers Foundation charity and have kept that spirit of giving in their own business. They set aside 20 percent of their production for non-profits, last year raising $4 million for charity. "If you do well," said Martin, "you have a social obligation to give back."