Mark Estrin seemed to have the magic touch with wine. In the five years since he cofounded California's Red Car Wine Co., the company produced a string of high quality wines that attracted attention for their distinctive labels. But behind the scenes, Estrin was battling brain cancer. On May 7, he died at his parents' home in Keizer, Ore., at the age of 57.
Estrin and his business partner, Carroll Kemp, turned their passion for Pinot Noir and Syrah into their own Red Car label; they specialized in producing those two varietals from purchased grapes from Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Central Coast appellations.
The partners started off in 2000 by making 50 cases of wine in Kemp's Beverly Hills driveway. "Like most people, we didn't know what we were doing and got lucky the first time," Estrin told Wine Spectator last year.
Red Car's distinctive packaging includes memorable, colorful images and intriguing back labels with a film-noir vibe. Estrin, a former screenwriter, spun what he called "existential yarns," inspired by a romanticized, 1940s version of Los Angeles. He said he came up with the name Red Car after reading a book about the history of Los Angeles and becoming enchanted by the bright red trolley cars that used to buzz around town.
Estrin and Kemp met when Kemp came in to buy cigars at a wine shop where Estrin was working in 1995. While considering starting a wine company with Kemp, Estrin opened a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant that read, "The business idea you're thinking of will bring you fame and fortune." Estrin said he took that as a sign.
Last year, after Red Car's initial success, Estrin and Kemp purchased 120 acres on the Sonoma Coast with plans to grow Syrah.
Kemp has no plans to change the direction of Red Car. "The worst thing that is going to happen to Red Car is that I'm going to miss [Estrin] on a personal basis," Kemp said.
Kemp said Estrin was "a humanist. He put a human touch on everything, and that included selling wine. He would get real pleasure; he got such a thrill from sharing his knowledge, his passion for wine with others. He brought that same interest and love to Red Car."
--MaryAnn Worobiec Bovio