InSight – Rosemount Estates President John Gay

Larry Walker

John Gay owes a lot to wine. And not just his daily bread and the mortgage payment. If it weren’t for a job in a wine shop, Gay might have been teaching English at some obscure university, trying to think of articles to write to stay even on the “publish or perish” treadmill.

He also met his wife and got up the courage to ask for a date because of a bottle of wine.

Gay was a student at San Francisco State College in 1960 when he took a job at the Bourbon Shop in San Francisco. He started as a delivery person, but gradually took on more and more work, until the job became full-time and his academic career became part-time.

“I was a TA (teaching assistant) for three semesters at S.F. State, but I became convinced that I had no future as a college professor. The idea of ‘publish or perish’ didn’t appeal to me,” Gay said during a recent interview over lunch at the Swiss Hotel, a few steps away from his office in the town of Sonoma.

It was in the early 1960s that Gay’s wife, Barbara Salmina, was a regular customer at the store. The Salminas are a Napa Valley wine family with roots in the Valley going back to at least the 1870s. Wine historian Charles Sullivan in his excellent history, “Nape Wine”, mentions a vineyard owned by Frank Salmina during that period. Felix Salmina bought Larkmead Winery in 1894 and, according to Sullivan, was “one of Napa’s important transitional personalities between the pre-Prohibition days and Repeal.”

Barbara Salmina’s father, Elmer Salmina, was the winemaker at Larkmead and, according to the late Andre Tchelistcheff, made the best Zinfandel in Napa County.

One day, Barbara Salmina asked Gay to recommend a bottle of French wine for her father’s birthday, saying that her father didn’t believe there was any good French wine. Gay selected a bottle and a few days later, his future wife brought the bottle beck. It was vinegar. In the conversation that followed, Gay replaced the wine and also invited her out for a drink as an apology.

“She said she didn’t even know my name,” Gay recalled. “And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember my name. I did have the presence of mind to go behind the counter and give her one of my cards,” he laughed.

Gay stayed in the retail business for 20 years and was the executive vice-president for the eight store chain that became Marin Wine & Spirits.

“We had the first fine wine shop in Napa Valley, Groozinger,” Gay said. “During the explosive growth of the ’70s, we were an important player in the retail wine business.”

Although Gay lobbied for an end to Fair Trade, the chain’s owner was unwilling to compete in an open market and business began to tail off when Fair Trade was abolished.

In 1980, Gay took a position with Sebastiani Vineyard and, working closely with Sam Sebastiani and later Billy Piersol who joined the winery from Marin Wine & Spirits, helped develop a detailed five-year plan to refocus Sebastiani and move its image away from jug wines.

“Part of the plan was the introduction of the August Sebastiani Country Wines, which was Billy Piersol’s idea,” Gay said. “Our goal with those wines was to lift the quality of California jug wines.” That line of wines is still very popular with consumers.

After a bit over a year at Sebastiani, Gay took six months off (in his academic years it would be called a sabbatical) to consider his future in the wine business.

“I had always worked for a family-owned company and I could see that wasn’t the way to go. I wanted to figure out what I could do on my own. One of my plans was to manage a California winery, but in the end, I was contacted by Ed Everett and we worked together on a number of projects for several years.

“Everett dazzled me with the number of ideas he had. He is just an amazing man,” Gay said.

In 1984, Gay (still in partnership with Everett) was asked to go to Australia to help develop a negociant wine for the U.S. market. “I tasted 300 wines on that trip–it was my first time in Australia–and I knew that I was on to something very exciting. It seemed to me that the general drinkability of the wines was better than what I was drinking in California,” Gay said.

“I had a chance to spend time with a lot of producers and winemakers, but I remember the first bottle of wine I had in a restaurant in Melbourne, my first bottle of wine in Australia, was a Rosemount Chardonnay,” he said.

That was, no doubt, an omen, since Gay is now president of Rosemount Estates in the U.S. It was 1986 before Gay joined Rosemount, which had little history in the U.S. (Ironically for Gay, Rosemount is also family-owned by the Oatley family of Australia.)

“I recommended that Semillon and Shiraz would be their strongest wines in the U.S., and they thought I was crazy,” Gay said. “At the time, neither wine was selling.”

There were some tight periods in the early years when sales were not coming up to expectations. Gay believes the wines may have been priced a little high in the beginning and a drop in prices did coincide with a pickup in sales.

Today, the Rosemount brand in the U.S. sells in the 250,000 case range and the success of Shiraz in this country has touched off a worldwide market for that varietal that didn’t exist before. Semillon still is a challenge.

So how did Gay take a brand from zero to a quarter-million cases in less than a decade?

“I followed a somewhat non-traditional approach for a new brand. The typical plan would be the rifle approach. To build one market at a time or to try and build the brand through on-sale. I took the opposite road. Because nobody had ever heard of us, I had to go where I could find the markets. Fargo, Omaha, wherever. I spent a lot of time on the telephone; I sent out a lot of samples. Our most difficult areas were major markets. The wholesalers in the big markets were not interested in an unknown brand. I offered Rosemount to a major California wholesaler who laughed at me and told me to bring it back when it was a brand,” Gay said.

He said their best early success was with guerrilla wholesalers or small companies that specialized in fine wines in places like Birmingham.

“One thing that we did the right way from the beginning was to form a U.S. company, to store the wine properly in the U.S. so we could sell to retailers in the quantity needed, from two cases to 20 cases. Nobody had to buy a container to get Rosemount wine. We made it as easy as possible for them to buy,” Gay recalled.

Gay also thinks that a key part of the Rosemount success has been a good relationship with the U.S. trade. “From the beginning, we set ourselves in an adversarial relationship with European wines. We never made any attempt to challenge California wines. The Rosemount attitude was that we are guests in this country and we aren’t rude to the hosts. I think that has earned us a lot of good will.”

Rosemount, with worldwide sales near the million case mark, has its eye on future growth. “The Oatley family is investing heavily in vineyards and facilities in Australia. It took 25 years to get to the million-case level. I’ve no idea how long it will take to get to two million, but I suppose that’s the next goal,” Gay said. Among the exports, Gay believes that the new varietal wines coming from the south of France are the major competition.

Looking back over his 30-plus years in the wine business, Gay believes we are at a point where the political attitude is changing, thanks to research on wine and health-related issues.

“The future could be bright, if we don’t do something foolish and if we can make the social attitude toward wine change with the political attitude,” Gay said.

“We need to be more aggressive and more pro-active in promoting wine in the company of food and families. We need to bring wine into the typical household environment. I believe that children should be exposed to wine at an early age so it becomes familiar to them.”

Gay believes we are on the “cusp of a revolution” in wine drinking. “There has been a dramatic improvement in the overall quality of wine the last 20 years. New consumers who come to wine now as a result of the health issues will be more likely to have a positive reaction. Most wine now tastes good.”

And we toasted that sentiment with a glass of delicious Rosemount Shiraz.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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