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The Fall of the Republic
By Linda Murphy
Jan 5, 2010
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My heart sank when I pushed my shopping cart toward the checkout line at my local Trader Joe’s store just before Christmas.  There, facing the cash registers, was a huge case stack of wines from Sauvignon Republic, a serious Sauvignon Blanc-only brand based in Sonoma County and producer of wines made from grapes grown in Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, the Marlborough region in New Zealand, and Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Not only was I depressed that these fresh, energetic wines were available at Trader Joe’s (which has a reputation for being a clearinghouse for wines that don’t find more lucrative homes), but also that they were priced at $6.99 per bottle.  They normally sell for $18 to $20, so the Trader Joe’s “sale” meant only one thing: that Sauvignon Republic was Houdini, about to disappear.

With both compassion and the adrenaline rush of finding a terrific deal, I put into my cart two bottles each of the 2008 Russian River Valley, 2009 Marlborough and 2009 Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blancs.  I asked the cashier, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer: “Why are these wines so inexpensive? They usually sell for $18 to $20.” He replied: “The winery is going out of business and we’re moving the inventory.”

Just as I feared: liquidation of fine liquid.  As a fan of Sauvignon Republic wines since its start in 2004, I was depressed by this news, yet not surprised.  Wine brands come and go, particularly during financial crises.  But I had a soft spot in my heart for this particular label, and familiarity with the team that produced it: Paul Dolan (formerly of Fetzer Vineyards, now partner in the Mendocino Wine Co. and owner of Paul Dolan Vineyards); former McDowell Valley Vineyards and Fife Vineyards winemaker John Buechsenstein; chef John Ash, founder of John Ash & Co restaurant in Santa Rosa and a noted author and instructor; and North Carolina restaurateur Tom Meyer.

But because I love a bargain as much as anyone, I overcame the guilt that comes when one benefits from another’s demise, and went back to Trader Joe’s for six more bottles.  I should have bought another case of these energetic Sauvignon Blancs, all with admirable acidity and pure fruit flavors, yet each with its own personality.

The 2008 Russian River Valley bottling has luscious tropical and citrus fruit flavors and hints of grass and minerals.  The 2009 Marlborough is more racy and pungent, all gooseberries and lime juice -- the perfect oyster wine.  The 2009 Stellenbosch is a cross between the two, with bright grapefruit and pineapple notes, moderate herbaceousness and a bit more elegance.  All are approximately 13 percent alcohol by volume, and extremely food friendly.

Buechsenstein confirmed that the Sauvignon Republic tent officially folded on Dec.  31, adding “Although who knows, someone else may take the brand and run with it.”  He provided no other details, so it’s conjecture as to why the Republic fell.  It certainly wasn’t for lack of positive reviews and media coverage.

My guess is that a Sauvignon Blanc-specific brand can’t pencil out into profits, without more expensive red wines in the fold to generate more cash per bottle.  Sauvignon Republic had to purchase all of its grapes, and bear the expense of producing wine in another hemisphere and shipping it to the United States.  The crappy economy, consumer trade-down to wines costing $12 or less, the big drop in wine sales in restaurants, and malaise by distributors and sales agents, certainly contributed as well to Sauvignon Republic’s closing.

I’m sad to see it go (who says there is no such thing as brand loyalty in the wine business?), and disappointed that Buechsenstein, Dolan, Ash and Meyer didn’t meet their goal of making Sauvignon Blancs from other parts of the world, too, including Chile and France.  They started their brand because they believed that Sauvignon Blanc expresses terroir more profoundly than most other grape varieties, and that it is highly complementary to the foods Americans eat today.  Sure, there are thousands of Sauvignon Blancs left from which to choose, but no other brand that I know that gives savvy Sauvignon drinkers expressions of the grape grown in three different countries.  Tasting them side by side by side is a great lesson in terroir.

The silver lining in Sauvignon Republic’s shuttering, of course, is that the wines are a steal at $6.99, as long as they last at Trader Joe’s.  Get there, pronto.  And there will be similar deals in the new year, as other brands bite the dust (and they will).  Many expensive wines will continue to be deeply discounted by those producers without deep enough pockets to ride out the economy, and mid-priced wines will be on shelves for $15 to $20 – discounts of $10 per bottle and more in some cases. 

It’s a lousy time to be in the wine business, yet a great time for consumers to buy wine.  Great deals are out there, though they aren’t likely to be found in winery tasting rooms, nor on winery websites.  Restaurants may reduce their markups and/or offer more interesting wines by the glass, yet there will be few true bargains to be found when eating out.  It’s at retail where you’ll find discounts and closeouts, and when you do, act fast, and purchase by the case.  You never know how long this situation will last.