Interview with Brian Smith, Club W Chief Wine Officer

Brian Smith is the chief wine officer and co-founder of Club W, a tech-enabled wine club that delivers curated bottle selections to your door. Club W takes the guesswork out of the equation -- instead of asking what kind of wine you like they build you a palate profile based on questions like how you take your coffee, whether you are liberal with the salt shaker, and how adventurously you like to dine.

Want to learn more about your wine palate?

On a rare rainy day in Los Angeles, we sat down with Smith at Club W’s Playa Vista headquarters to talk about why they started a wine business, what styles are hot right now, and where to drink when you travel California.

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California Winery Advisor: What is your background and your role at Club W?

Brian Smith: My background is as a sommelier, then moved from somm into winemaking. I was a somm at Oriole in Las Vegas and then I was involved in a wine bar called Clo in Time Warner Center, NY. I moved West a little over two years ago.

As chief wine officer and co-founder at Club W, my responsibility is everything having to do with product -- sourcing, working with growers -- everything from the grape to the glass including branding and positioning.

CWA: What was the genesis of Club W?

BS: Co-founders Xander Oxman, Geoff McFarlane and I all met through a mutual friend who’s a somm, in Colorado, Aaron Formon. The other partners went to him and said, we have this crazy idea: we love the small cool wines that  you turn us on to, but we can’t send them to our friends. There’s no way to connect the dots between customers like us, who want to access these wines or ship these wines to friends or find out about these wines, and the wines on your list. Aaron called me and said these guys are really smart, really young and energetic. 

CWA: So you wanted to be third party retailers?

BS: We started with third party wines, selling other people’s wines was the initial idea. A great example is Kenny Likitprakong, Hobo Wines. Kenny was one of the first wines we bought, he believed in us early on. So initially it was like, let’s try to find him a new audience as a third party  marketer. And that really worked, it kind of took off. Then we thought, wouldn’t be cool if we could actually make something with Kenny -- let’s buy some fruit and make some wine with Kenny. So we went through that process and people really responded, it was really special for our customers, it’s called Brethren of the Road. It’s a term for a gang of hobos, but also Kenny’s a skater, I’m a skater, so that’s how our relationship started, we were brethren of the road. So thus a brand was born.

When that took off we realized we had a really good feedback loop and connectivity with customers and then we started making our own wines based on having that closeness with customers and being able to infer what they liked, then looking at the world and what we thought was cool, and if those sort of fit together -- we started launching projects around that.

CWA: What were you hearing from customers?

BS: Interesting stuff, not behavior or preferences that you might think. One example is we don’t do really well with Chardonnay which is the queen of all wines, or white wines certainly in the United States. Our customers tend to like really aromatic, clean whites instead of Chardonnay. We also do really well with Syrah. If you talk with anyone in the U.S. they’ll say Syrah’s really hard to sell, or people can’t get there on their own. If you’ve got connectivity with people and they trust you, you can potentially deliver something stylistically that they may have some adverse reaction to actually buying it on their own in the store. Still, stylistically, it’s a win for them.

We love to interact with our customers, as any winemaker will tell you, whether they want to hear what people say or not. It’s awesome to be connected to your customer.

CWA: How does customer feedback influence the business?

BS: Having someone that believes in your palate enables you to be a little more progressive and introduce things that you think should exist in the world. We’re pretty innovative, we sell and make Pét-Nat and Valdiguie, that are probably not top of mind, but that people enjoy; we’re able to do those because we listen to our customers.         

We always wanted to make pricepoint approachable -- we want people to drink wine. We’re all about the craftsmanship, we innovate things but we’re all about respecting the past and history as well. We care a lot and we’re really technical when it comes to what we do and who we work with, but we don’t lead the conversation with that. It’s sort of like being a sommelier -- you want to have all the information but when you go to the table you’re really just trying to start a relationship with someone. If the want to talk about SO2 and soil composition you can, but we want to make it super approachable but informed.

CWA: What is Club W’s range and productions size?

BS: We offer international wines and make wines internationally, but we only ship domestically. There are about 100 wines in our portfolio.

CWA: How many wines that you offer are made internationally?

BS: Right now it’s about 35%, based on volume, so maybe 15 wines.

CWA: Who is your audience?

BS: I’d like to think that there’s a significant portion of non-core wine drinkers and we’re kind of helping empower them to become core wine drinkers. That’s always exciting, if you’re into wine or beer, to get people excited about something that might be new to them. There are certainly some barriers to entry with wine.

CWA: After getting your audience established, how did you grow the brand?

BS: Believe it or not we get a lot of people recommending Club W to other people, that’s really important. And that gets back to trust and building community, which has kind of a network effect. Building trust and building community is about always solving for the customer, we want to do things that are great for the customer, whether that’s delivery or the way our app works or how we’re making the wine or the raw material for the wine. We’re always trying to improve the customer experience. It’s all of the elements of what we do adding up to make a better customer experience. That better customer experience builds trust and creates community.

What we do is a palate profile. We ask questions that are non-wine questions. The first box is important, people rate it and that’s an additional indicator of what people might want. Our algorithm is based on an affinity model like Netflix.

CWA: How are you sourcing fruit and where is the wine made?

BS: From multiple facilities. Tiny facilities up in Sonoma where we’re doing organic and biodynamic stuff to larger facilities in Paso Robles for our cabernet program. It’s pretty broadly distributed. We like to focus on sourcing, raw material is really important for us, and then we leverage either partners’ facilities or other custom crush facilities.

Leading up to crush, and crush, is insane for our whole team because we’re checking fruit, and then we’ve got fruit coming in at different facilities, we’ve made it kind of complicated for ourselves. But it’s really fun.

CWA: Tell us about your winemaker, Ryan Zotovich?

BS: Hiring Ryan Zotovich is something that’s really cool about our evolution of going from a tech-enabled wine club to having a wine team that includes who we think is one of the rock stars of Santa Barbara Countyspecifically, and California generally. He’s been with us for about a year, we’re going into our second harvest.

CWA: What does Zotovich bring to the table?  

BS: He has made overall improvements in quality. He’s a thoughtful and talented winemaker. What’s awesome about Ryan is that he has both experience running a ranch, as a farmer where he sold fruit, and then also on the winemaking side and running a smaller facility. He kind of has all of the elements. He walks into a vineyard and knows exactly what’s going on.

CWA: What do you like about the wines he is producing for Club W?

His wines have a real purity to them. He believes in a healthy vineyard, sourcing correctly, picking at the right time, which he’s really good at -- great intuition, great technically -- and he’s done an awesome job at allowing beautiful flavors to develop. It’s about starting with great raw material. But I think the wines he’s working on have a great purity to them and a great freshness.      

CWA: Is Zotovich a traditionalist or an innovator? How is that reflected in the wines?

He’s both. We are too, we do whole cluster cabernet franc, Pét-Nat [Pétillant-Naturel], cool-climate syrah, we’re trying to emulate traditional wines that we’re really excited about, but then we do other things like white zinfandel. We made our second vintage this year and it’s incredible. We’ve got a sparkling program that’s really cool, it’s pretty innovative as well. It’s modeled after prosecco.

CWA: You mentioned some popular trends, like Pét-Nat. So what’s in right now?

BS: Rosé is definitely huge, and it’s got a real lifestyle element to it. We love the American sparkling story because in recent history it’s more approachable. It’s been so long been dominated by prosecco and to some extent cava, and there are awesome cavas out there and there are some awesome proseccos, but it’s become kind of a commodity.

It’s really challenging to make great sparkling wine at a great price in the U.S. because of the cost of resources and the tax included on it. Sparkling wine has a higher tax on it than still wine. It dates back to when the only sparkling wine was coming from France and it was a luxury item so they wanted to tax it higher.

CWA: How have you seen the American sparkling story develop?

BS: There’s awesome raw materials, and you’ve had a couple of long vintages where there’s been a lot of pinot noir and chardonnay (not the case last year). Some friends of ours who are great pinot noir and chardonnay producers started playing around with sparkling

projects. It’s an exciting time because all of that is in the cellar but it’s going to start coming out.

CWA: Do you have any carbonic wines?

BS: We found some Blaufränkisch, which is an Austrian varietal that I’d never seen in California we found some at Pomar Junction Vineyard in Paso Robles. It’s a hybrid between pinot noir and syrah. Tends to be lighter and punchy and herbaceous. It’s in tank right now. It will be coming out under our Field Theory brand.

CWA: You mentioned organic and biodynamic wines before. Can you tell us about yours?

BS: Biodynamic, and even organic, is kind of challenging. For the people we know there are more people that are practicing than are going for certification. Even in Europe, if you talk to a lot of biodynamic winemakers they’re sort of frustrated because biodynamic and organic are theoretically more “natural” than anyone else, yet you’re the most highly regulated with the most paperwork. So what happens is you have winemakers who are practicing but not going for certification.

I do think it’s top of mind for customers and wine drinkers. And people in general. People love having a glass of wine or a beer, or anything you ingest or enjoy, which is a personal experience, and knowing where things are coming from and how they’re being farmed. There’s more demand there.

CWA: How would you say the LA wine industry compares to New York or San Francisco? How is the audience different?

BS: Coming from New York, it’s like the total opposite here. New York is super dense and there’s a little merchant on every other corner and there are these small pockets of people who are doing things that they’re really excited about, but it’s so dense that those things are allowed to develop, but it’s a much more mature market too.

For the last few years that I’ve been spending time here, I’m incredibly optimistic about the LA market. From the people I know and get excited about, you’re just starting to see the second wave of people that are a part of these hospitality programs, or restaurant programs, or wine shops, or whatever it is, and you’re seeing the people they’ve mentored or inspired start to spin off and start other things. To me that’s super exciting. But I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, people doing amazing things, inspiration and leaders. What happens next? Do projects get funded?

CWA: Off the top of your head, where do you drink wine in LA?

BS: Let’s see… Pizza Rustica, Gjelina, Marvin, Salt’s Cure. Matthew Kaner’s places are really great.

CWA: Who has helped shape Club W?

BS: All the people that believed in us in the beginning, because what we were going was so different. The cool thing is that all of those people that believed in us in the beginning are still around and doing stuff with us. I think Kenny is one of the most talented winemakers in California. He’s another guy who is self-started and focused on quality of fruit, every vintage leaving the vineyard in the same or better health than the previous year. He’s all about picking at the right maturity and not screwing things up.

We work with a guy named Chris Pittinger who makes wine in the Sierra Foothills, he makes Gros Ventre Cellars. André Mack from Mouton Noir has been a long time collaborator of ours, he’s a super dynamic guy, his labels are awesome he does great artwork and posters. A lot of these guys and women who are forging their own path.

CWA: If you were building your dream wine vacation where would it be?

BS: We love Santa Barbara county. That was something to me that, before starting to spend a lot of time out here, I wasn’t aware of how diverse it is for such a small area, and how good the wines can be.

I’d go to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, poke around at Tyler and Dierberg. Brit [Zotovich’s] place, Dreamcote is awesome if you’re in Los Olivos.

I hang out in the Funk Zone quite a bit. Les Marchands has great wine and it’s fun to sit outside there. Seth Kunin makes awesome wine. His Jurassic chenin blanc is killer. That’s a great visit too, because he has the Santa Barbara project tasting room and in the Funk Zone. That circuit is a great visit. Los Olivos, Lompoc, and Funk Zone is pretty good trip. Doesn’t suck.