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Importer on the Rise: Roy Cloud and Vintage '59
By Michael Franz
Feb 20, 2007
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Here's a nightmare scenario for you:  A life filled with nothing but boring, soulless, formulaic wines made by industrial producers.  That's all you get, night after night.  Wines that are technically flawless but hardly perfect on that account.  Wines with no character because they don't express a particular winemaker's character, having been made instead by recipe to appeal to some focus group mainstream.  Wines that taste like they come from no place in particular because they are made to sell everyplace.

I shudder at the prospect, and so should you.  So what stands between you and this horrible vinous fate?  Who are the heroes who stem the tide of stultifying wine?  Conscientious retailers and restaurateurs offering interesting wines that don't "sell themselves" make a significant contribution.  And I'd like to think that writers spreading the word about handmade wines from small producers help a bit as well.  But it seems pretty clear to me that the most important person involved in getting you a great glass of something distinctive and compelling is the importer of artisan wines.

Based on this conviction, I devote a couple of columns each year to importers doing exemplary work by connecting us to terrific wines from some corner of the world.  In that vein, I'm pleased to introduce you to Roy Cloud of Vintage '59 Imports.  Now importing more than 30 French domaines, Cloud and Vintage '59 are selling an exceptionally interesting portfolio in 36 states, including every major U.S. market.

Having done the math, I was recently alarmed to realize that I had already been acquainted with Cloud for ten years before he went into wine importing nearly ten years ago.  And though his business is now really taking flight (January 2007 sales up 300% from January of 2006), I must say that when he took the plunge in 1997, he seemed to me a rather unlikely prospect for importing fame.  Hardworking but conspicuously modest and thoughtful by reference to the importer norm (which leans toward the brash and aggressive side of the scale), he just didn't seem to fit the type.

Wine importing is a very competitive field in which success can involve--indeed, require--frequent conflicts with producers as well as customers.  It isn't necessary to be an eats-glass-for-breakfast hammerhead type to get ahead.  Nor must one fit the glad-handing, pseudo-politician mold to succeed.  But either of these would help.

That being the case, when you know a soft-spoken, cerebral guy who is heading into the importing business, you wonder a bit.  And when he's heading more specifically into importing French wine despite the fact that he doesn't speak French and has hitherto concentrated on American wines, you worry that he's going to end up as road kill before long.

Obviously he didn't, and clearly my fears were misplaced.  I recently sat down with Cloud to learn how he beat the odds to become an exemplar in his field.

He was first bitten by the wine bug while a college student at Hampshire College.  Although he had always liked wine, several encounters with fine German Rieslings showed him that it could be profound as well as pleasant.  He started reading widely and buying what he could afford, and gained on-site knowledge through winery visits after his parents provided a base for explorations in California by moving to Berkeley.

After a stint as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, Cloud relocated to New York for graduate studies in writing and English literature at NYU.  While studying in New York, he worked at "Tastings-On-2," "5th Avenue Grill" and "Greenstreet Café," all of which were wine-intensive establishments enabling him to expand his horizons.  After completing his MA, he relocated in 1987 to Washington, D.C. to be near his future wife, Helen Michael.  To pay the bills while working on a novel, Cloud took a job at MacArthur Beverages, a wine retailer with a national reputation.

Working with MacArthur's highly knowledgeable (if chronically irreverent) staff, Cloud proved a quick study.  Before long he was responsible for buying all of the store's American wines.  In that capacity, Cloud got to know Jacques Schlumberger, a California vintner who bought a majority interest in Domaine Michel in 1993, transforming it into Michel-Schlumberger.  Several years later, Schlumberger decided to set up an importing company to sell French wines through his distribution channels.  Cloud was asked to work with a company executive to arrange interviews with D.C.-based candidates for the wine buyer job.  Midway through that process, the executive working with Cloud decided that it was he to whom the job should be offered.

Why accept such a job?  A member of Cloud's family had nearly died from an accident shortly before this time, and life seemed short and precarious to him as a result, impelling him to seize the opportunity.

Although Cloud had been specializing in American wines, he had actually come to prefer French ones, having fallen out of love with California Cabernets that seemed riper and sweeter every year since 1991 (the last great vintage, in his view).  He set out for France to assemble a portfolio in September and October of 1997.  Since he then spoke little French, he took his francophone brother Joe along with him--unbeknownst to Jacques Schlumberger.

Finding top-flight producers who didn't already have U.S. importers and then establishing relationships with them was no mean feat.  Interestingly, several importers generously offered suggestions or introductions despite the fact that Cloud was setting himself up as a competitor, and he notes Robert Kacher as having been especially helpful.

Aside from a few relationships that were established with the help of others, his general procedure in the various regions of France was to request tasting appointments with the best producers--even if they already had importers--to establish benchmarks for quality.  Often these producers would recommend friends or colleagues who were making excellent wines, and Cloud also checked the European wine press for praise of vintners whose wines weren't sold in the U.S.

Daunting tasks remained even after the portfolio was compiled.  Selling the wines in the U.S. was a very different task than selling Michel-Schlumberger wines from California, so arrangements with wholesalers had to be extensively revamped.  Getting notice for the wines required lots of work with the press, and getting orders placed with wholesalers required a constant effort to show the wines in retail and restaurant settings around the country.  Cloud engaged in these efforts with John O'Neill, director of sales in Michel-Schlumberger and current partner in Vintage '59.  (Both were born in 1959, which explains the name of their company.)

This process was very expensive, and Cloud notes with evident regret that they spent a lot of Jacques Schlumberger's money, and not all of it well.  More problematic for Schlumberger was the post-millennium market crash, which compelled him to pull the plug on the import venture just as it was about to break even in 2002.

Having invested five years of his life and believing that the company was valuable, Cloud committed to buy it in installments as the majority partner.  After dumping some inventory and changing a few distributors, Cloud and O'Neill were able to add a few producers in 2004 and 2005, and to expand in earnest during 2006.  For example, four new producers from the Loire Valley were added last year, giving Vintage '59 one of the two or three strongest lineups from the region in the American market.

Looking ahead, Cloud thinks he might be able to add another 10 producers or so, but doesn't want to get so big that he would need to hire a large support staff.  He doesn't represent any negociants, and virtually all of his producers are straight family operations, working entirely from estate vineyards as domaines under French wine law.  In virtually every case, he works directly with the families themselves, rather than agents or middlemen.  An interesting twist is that the portfolio includes two American producers (Lang & Reed from the Napa Valley and St. Innocent from Oregon's Willamette Valley) that--in Cloud's words--"share a European sensibility when it comes to winemaking."

Generalizations are perilous when dealing with a group of small production wines that aren't the result of some overarching "philosophy" imposed by the importer, so I won't even bother characterizing the portfolio as a whole.  Better simply to review some favorite wines and invite you to explore on your own.  With one suggestion:  Pay attention to the back labels and have a look at the company website at www.vintage59.com.  You'll recall that Cloud was and is a writer, and whereas the verbiage on most back labels is forgettable, self-serving filler, those on Vintage '59 actually convey something illuminating about the producer and place involved.  The website's producer profiles are so far above the average for commercial sites as to set an industry standard, and I really believe that you'll find the wines more enjoyable as a result of learning  a bit about the individuals who made them.  And as if this were not enough, a look at the website's "About V59" page ( http://www.vintage59.com/about.php ) will show that Cloud and O'Neill are a couple of good-looking cusses to boot.

Whites:

Lilbert-Fils, Champagne (France) Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 1999 ($77, Vintage '59 Imports):  This house makes stunning Champagnes from high-class Chardonnay sourced from Grand Cru vineyards located predominantly in the famous village of Cramant.  The non-vintage bottling is always very dry and elegant, with a lean, linear profile that marks it as a serious wine for Champagne connoisseurs.  It is a steal at $47.  This vintage-dated bottling from 1999 offers notably greater concentration and depth of fruit, with a richer, softer texture, yet it retains the same stylistic profile of lean, restrained elegance.  Complex aromas and flavors of brioche, toasted nuts, lemon curd and fresh mushrooms are marvelously interesting.  94

Henry Natter, Sancerre (Loire Valley, France) 2005 ($24, Vintage '59 Imports): I hesitate to term this a "classic" Sancerre only because it is so far above the norm that it might not remind others of the general run of bottlings from this famous Loire appellation.  Quite expressive aromatically and deep and long in flavor, it is impressively concentrated and substantial, yet it displays this profile without overt influence from wood.  Moreover, it shows lovely mineral notes and fresh acidity in the finish, retaining regional typicity despite being atypically flavorful.  The flavors and finish are both wonderful, but the bouquet of this wine is the prime attraction, showing lovely notes of lemon/lime and green apple with supporting accents of minerals, hay, nuts and fresh bread dough.  Intricate in its details but still symmetrical and convincing as a whole, this is a beautiful wine.  92

Thierry Merlin-Cherrier, Sancerre (Loire Valley, France) "Le Chêne Marchand" 2004 ($30, Vintage '59 Imports):  Sourced from a small plot above the village of Bué, this delicious Sauvignon shows impressive concentration and depth of fruit.  While atypically good for Sancerre, it is not atypical in the negative sense of being tough to place.  Thanks to prominent minerality, ripe acidity and some nice little nuances around the edges, it just seems like more Sancerre than usual rather than something alien to Sancerre.  90

Le Rocher des Violettes, Montlouis-sur-Loire (Loire Valley, France) "Cuvée Touche-Mitaine" Sec 2005 ($20, Vintage '59 Imports):  Really great Chenin Blanc from the Loire is amazing stuff, but most American consumers get deflected from it by sugary Vouvrays or painfully expensive Savennières bottlings.  This lovely rendition shows subtly flavored notes of stone fruits that is nicely offset by mineral notes and acidity that is so ripe and well integrated that it enlivens the wine without distracting from its flavor components.  This bottling is made from Xavier Weisskopf's youngest Chenin parcels, but I slightly preferred it to the old vine "Cuvée La Négrette" Sec 2005 as a result of slightly greater vivacity.  Both are superb and earn the same score, and neither was remotely diminished over the course of five days of tasting from open bottles left in my refrigerator.  Amazing!  89

Domaine Richou, Anjou (Loire Valley, France) Blanc "Chauvigné" 2004 ($16, Vintage '59 Imports):  Anjou Blanc rarely gets a second look from me when sighted on a store shelf, but this bottling will change that forever.  A terrific rendition of Chenin Blanc, it features fresh but seriously substantial fruit recalling ripe apples and stone fruits, with excellent definition from zesty acidity and impressive grip from high levels of extract that could only be explained by admirably low yields.  If I were a $40 bottle of Savennières, I would not want to meet this thing in a dark alley.  89

Domaine de la Garrelière, Touraine (Loire Valley, France) "Cuvée Cendrillon" 2005 ($16, Vintage '59 Imports):  A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, this wine is certainly as complex and interesting as any I've ever tasted from Touraine.  The Sauvignon lends a citrus note that works very nicely with the pear and baked apple notes that seem to stem from the Chenin and Chardonnay.  Of these latter two, the Chenin notes are much more prominent, and the overall impression from aroma to midpalate to finish has the wine starting and ending with fresh Sauvignon notes, with the middle filled in with rich, high-class Chenin.  This works very nicely in practice, and I hasten to add that my account isn't as seamless as the wine seems when experienced directly, which is very much to its credit.  89

Alice et Olivier De Moor, Chablis (Burgundy, France) "Rosette" 2004 ($32, Vintage '59 Imports): This is one of two very fine Chablis bottlings from this producer, and it struck me as the slightly more complex of the two, with beautifully balanced fruit and prominent minerality.  Wood and lees contact seem to have imparted an influence that could hardly be more subtle while still being discernable, suggesting that this is the product of very careful, tasteful winemaking.  90

Alice et Olivier De Moor, Chablis (Burgundy, France) "Bel Air et Clardy" 2004 ($25, Vintage '59 Imports): Although this release is a bit less nuanced than the "Rosette" bottling from Alice et Olivier De Moor in 2004, it is every bit as delicious in its way.  The fruit component (which recalls green apples above all) is a bit more prominent, and the acidity is likewise more immediately present on the palate, riding right through a long, symmetrical finish.  89

Alice et Olivier De Moor, Bourgogne (Burgundy, France) "Chitry" 2004 ($20, Vintage '59 Imports): Generally speaking, buying straight Bourgogne Blanc goes beyond a crap shoot to being sheer stupidity.  The things are almost always thin, nasty, screechy and fruitless, and you couldn't be blamed for giving up on the whole genre and turning to beer.  Then you taste something like this.  Lean but precise in its balance of acidity to fruit, with just the right indirect influence of oak to advance the wine's maturity but not flavor it overtly, this is clearly made by careful, thoughtful people (whom I've never met). Intensely mineral through the finish, this is a faith-restoring bottle.  88

Domaine Claude Branger, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (Loire Valley, France) "Terroir Les Gras Moutons" Sur Lie 2004 ($16, Vintage '59 Imports):  This wine could totally revise your sense of Muscadet if you've never tasted a bottling that tries to achieve something more than being a neutral backdrop for a plate of oysters.  Notably more concentrated than the Muscadet norm, with admirably ripe apple fruit and nice mineral accents, it is nevertheless quite refreshing and lifted in profile.  88

Domaine Alain Normand, Mâcon La Roche Vineuse (Burgundy, France) 2005 ($16, Vintage '59 Imports): Really good Mâcon is not only really good, but nearly indispensable. Most Chardonnay from California, Australia, Argentina and the like are too sweet and obvious to work with moderately robust foods like grilled fish, which are in turn indispensable for those of us who wish to live to ripe, old ages.  Most Chardonnay from Burgundy is either too expensive to make sense with such foods on a daily basis, or too thin and acidic to measure up to the challenge.  Sure, there's lots of insipid Mâcon available, but you'll have no difficulty distinguishing this wine from the run of the mill.  It shows lovely apple fruit with a little peach undertone, along with nice minerality and subtle notes of spice and yeast lees that hover just below the level at which they'd announce themselves as distinct elements in the wine's aromas or flavors.  88

Reds:

Domaine Joseph Voillot, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Champans 2004 ($65, Vintage '59 Imports):  This gorgeous Volnay is an object lesson in the peerless ability of this Côte de Beaune village to produce Pinot Noir that is at once charming and impressive.  The charm side of the equation is derived from lovely perfume and tender texture, whereas the impressive elements are deep, persistent flavors of black and red cherries.  Delicious now but capable of improving for another five years, this is a lovely red Burgundy.  92

Domaine Cheze, Saint-Joseph (Rhône, France) "Cuvée Prestige de Caroline" 2004 ($37, Vintage '59 Imports):  Saint-Joseph can--but rarely does--produce compelling Syrah that can rival the famous wines of Cornas, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie.  This is one of those rare renditions that plays in the big leagues despite a relatively affordable price.  Intensely aromatic and deeply flavored, it features masculine notes of blackberries and roasted meat but also a more delicate floral accent and ripe, fine-grained tannins.  This producer's 'Cuvée Ro-Rée' is nearly as good for about $5 less, and either would be wonderful with roasted lamb.  91

Chateau Haut-Monplaisir, Cahors (Languedoc-Roussillon, France) "Pur Plaisir" 2002 ($45, Vintage '59 Imports):  This excellent Malbec-based wine is rich and ripe and soft, with quite dark color and excellent depth of fruit, yet it shows full ripeness without showing the overt sweetness that mars many Argentine Malbecs.  Oak is notably present but not overbearing, and indeed it lends some welcome structure.  Given how well this performs even when made from the iffy 2002 vintage, I can only imagine how impressive it might prove from the 2005 growing season.  89

Chateau Haut-Monplaisir, Cahors (Languedoc-Roussillon, France) "Prestige" 2002 ($19, Vintage '59 Imports): Argentina has captured the world's attention with its renditions of Malbec, but the current releases from Chateau Haut-Monplaisir suggest strongly that France is not content to concede international primacy.  Both this bottling and its big brother, "Pur Plaisir," show great color and concentration that are more than a little suprising given their 2002 vintage dates.  Although this wine doesn't have quite the heft or the oak bracing of the Pur Plaisir, I found it very nearly as good in critical terms and even a bit better integrated and more harmonious with food.  Dark berry fruit is the lead note, but you'll also find a distinct minerality that marks this--very agreeably--as an Old World wine.  88

Chateau de Caladroy, Côtes du Roussillon Villages (Rousillon, France) "Cuvée Les Schistes" 2004 ($12, Vintage '59 Imports): You might be able to find a wine offering more flavor and fun in a stylish package than this for twelve bucks, but I'd bet against it.   Blended from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre, it is medium-bodied, soft in texture, and intensely aromatic and flavorful.  Red cherry notes from the Grenache are quite prominent, but every sniff and sip brings out another nuance that keeps this wine enduringly interesting.  88

Château Haut-La Péreyre, Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France) 2003 ($12, Vintage '59 Imports):  Remarkably generous for a $12 Bordeaux, but not at the cost of forsaking its origin for a chunky, New World fruit profile, this is a very impressive effort.  Aromas of dark berries, cedar, subtle toast and minerals are all replicated in the flavors and finish, lending a seamless impression to the wine.  This sets a standard that will be very tough for comparably-priced petits châteaux to match.  87

Questions or Comments?  Write to me at:  mfranz@winereviewonline.com