When I saw a job posting for an admin position at Hillersden winery, romantic thoughts of sweet-smelling blossoms on a heavenly vineyard filled my head. I had always wanted to tap into the world of wine, but never knew quite where to start. Meeting New Zealander Caleb Forlong of Hillersden Wine was the start of a journey that I hope will follow me for the rest of my life. The philosophy and the energy I found working for a small family winery has been refreshing and rewarding, but also eye-opening and challenging.
Even as a so-called wine-lover, I really had no clue about wine before starting this job. As wine importers, tapping into the perspective of a New Zealander in America was also fascinating, and I quickly learned some differences in how Kiwis do business. Did you know it’s illegal to not provide snacks and drinks for your employees down there? Or how about mandatory paid lunch hours? There is also a level of trust and respect in the Forlong family that, at least in my experience here in The States, is rare to find.
My first week on the job, we moved the USA office from Caleb’s living room to a unique office space appropriately placed between the streets of Vineyard & Field Avenues in Los Angeles. Their dedication to these wines is infectious, and I got caught up right away in wanting to learn more, know more, contribute more. Diving into The Wine Savant by Michael Steinberger and How to Import Wine: An Insider’s Guide by Deborah Gray got me started.
Watching our creative cornerstone videos also gave me an immediate feel for the reasons and ideas behind the wines (check them out on the site or on their Vimeo!). Pouring over wine blogs like Wine Folly and online profiles of sommeliers gave me insight into the world of wine, and I quickly had hundreds of new Pinterest pins for inspiration. Resources I used frequently were the Beverage Trade Network, The Wine Institute, WineBusiness.com, Wine Spectator, Youtube videos like The Wine Down, and of course one of my favorite documentaries ever, Mondovino.
Talking with winemaker Adam Kubrock has been inspiring. He is just this abundant soul bursting with wine knowledge and excitement. I first met him at an elegant winemaker’s dinner, complete with each one of our wines specially paired with each of the five courses. With each sip I was discovering scientific processes I had no idea about—and I haven’t even been to the vineyards yet! We talked about knowing the right time to harvest the grapes, that more sugar equals more alcohol (which—surprise!—isn’t the ultimate goal), learning about sustainable practices like falcon-nesting to keep other animals from eating the grapes, and so much more intricacies in winemaking.
What really got me hands-on in learning more was the family’s ambitious vision for distribution in the US. We put our goals up on the walls—maps, strategies, and Lynda links. I discovered that the infamous three-tier system is either a blessing or a curse depending on who you talk to in the country. We spent hours on the U.S. Dept of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau site learning all these state and local laws, including the important distinction of a control state vs. a non-control state. We individually researched countless distributors in almost every state, talked to sales reps, and recorded our steps along the way. Now we are finally seeing real progress after sending our sample packages to the people we know we could make a real connection with.
Since I started this job with Caleb, the office has grown from two people to six, we are in double the amount of states than this time last year, and have officially sold out of the Riesling! Even with all the wine awards on the walls, cases being packaged, and even more growth in sight, my favorite part in all of this is still sitting back to relax with a glass of wine. But now that I know so much more about what goes into this fine liquid, I have a real sense of appreciation and respect for all those in the wine world.