About three years ago, Monte Regier returned to Seattle from a year working on the hospital ship Anastasis off the coast of Liberia. Suffering from culture shock, remembering friends who go to bed hungry every night, he sat with his friend Martin Barrett over a glass of wine and mused on what a dollar would buy.
And then came the Idea.
“You know, Monte,” said Barrett, “I think this glass of wine could feed a kid for a day.”
One can imagine Regier’s skeptical smile.
“Give me 90 days,” said Barrett.
So Barrett started researching this idea of selling wine to feed kids and convinced himself that they could make world-class wine and “do it in such a manner that we can give away a boatload of money.”
At this point, you might be pondering at least a couple of obvious questions:
First, why would a reasonably sane person even consider starting yet another winery in the midst of not only a recession, but also a worldwide glut of wine, world-class and otherwise?
Second, if you did end up making a boatload of money, why would you give it all away?
And then there’s that odd juxtaposition of wine sales and people going to bed hungry, concepts that don’t ordinarily occur on the same page.
Nevertheless, Regier bought the idea, and they started drawing up a business plan.
And then, says Barrett, “We pulled together 15 of the sharpest under-40-year-olds we could find around our dinner table for five or six hours” as a focus group.
“When we were through, we threw away 90 percent of the business plan,” says Barrett.
“The only thing we kept was, the quality of wine has to stand on its own merit, and we have to be absolutely clear about what it does, what’s the benefit behind it: This glass of wine will feed a kid for a day.”
Still, let us consider that little question, How do you create a world-class wine?
Barrett knew his way around the wine business. He and his wife had been involved in the industry in various roles since 1994.
“Our initial thinking was to get a number of boutique wineries that had excess capacity to work with us crafting wine.” So he went around to different wineries, tasting and thinking.
“Most wines in Washington are pretty good,” he says. “As I’d go through the wineries, they were all good. But often a wine or two would stand out.
“And the name ‘Cheryl Jones’ kept popping up.”
Cheryl (Barber) Jones graduated from Washington State University in 1976 with a degree in food science. She fully planned to go into the dairy industry.
But the dairy industry wasn’t hiring right then, so she fell into a laboratory job with Chateau Ste. Michelle. And one thing led to another.
“I knew nothing,” she says about winemaking, “except for a fermentation chapter” in one of her courses.
But the winemaker at Ste. Michelle at the time was the legendary André Tchelistcheff. Apparently, he recognized talent, and a palate, in this young dairy science graduate. He’d call her over, she recalls, and have her taste what he was working on. He became her mentor, teaching her all about how to make a wine better.
Within five years, she was the white-wine maker at Ste. Michelle. In another five, she was the head winemaker.
But winemaking, even at Ste. Michelle, isn’t everything. She quit the vocation briefly, to raise her children, then was drawn back in. In 2001, when she was winemaker at Silver Lake and DiStefano, Washington State Magazine featured her on the cover of our first issue.
Since then, she has built a reputation for her blending expertise, consulting and blending for numerous wineries around the state.
And that’s how Barrett found her.
“When I explained the idea to her,” he says, “she just lit up. ‘I get to craft great wines and feed people at the same time?’”
Kyle Doherty ’07 pours me a glass of Generosity, one of the products of this merger of a great idea and great taste. They call that merger Sozo.
Nicola Towers ’03 runs through the litany: Generosity, a Syrah blend from the Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills; Potential, a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley; Abundant, a Mourvèdre blend from the Wahluke slope; Bountiful, a Yakima Valley Cabernet; Humanity, a Riesling from vineyards north of George. On each bottle is a number, which represents how many meals the sale of that bottle will buy. Generosity buys 10, Bountiful buys 25, Humanity buys 5.
Have I mentioned that Sozo Friends, the nonprofit that produces these wines and distributes the proceeds to food banks, is a winery only on paper?
“There will never be a Chateau Sozo,” says Barrett. “It’s not as fun as giving money away.”
“My office is parked there across the street,” says Doherty. Sozo’s warehouse is Towers’s garage.
Otherwise, here’s how Sozo Friends works:
Having been dramatically immersed in the Washington wine scene for 35 years, Cheryl Jones knows where the wine is hidden. Well, not hidden exactly. Neglected, rather. Deprived of opportunity.
Given the worldwide wine glut, there is some very good wine across the state sitting in barrels or vats with no clearly defined future.
The industry is suffering not just from excess acreage, says Barrett, “It’s excess square footage, excess stainless steel.”
Also, the wine distribution network has consolidated dramatically in the last few years, he says. “That means the smaller wineries have a harder time getting their product to market.”
When Barrett’s idea started to come together, Jones put the word out on the street that she was looking for certain kinds of wine, says Barrett. She was inundated by samples. And started her blending magic.
“It’s win-win,” says Jones. “I find these great wines and buy two barrels. I blend them with someone else’s and we give you cash.
“It serves a purpose not only for Sozo, but for some of these wineries. They kind of get stuck. They’ve got this inventory, but no money.”
I should mention at this point that this wine that Doherty poured me, the Generosity, is really, really good, stretching my wine vocabulary to the max.
Barrett explains how it came to be.
Jones told him she found this great Tempranillo, a Spanish grape that is doing very well in Washington. She gave him a taste. “What do you think?”
“Yeah, but I’ll be back.”
Jones blended it with Syrah.
“I didn’t know anyone blended Tempranillo with Syrah,” says Barrett. Regardless, “Oh that is really good.”
“Except it’s got this big hole in the middle,” said Jones.
He hadn’t noticed.
“Now I see,” said Barrett.
“But I haven’t closed the hole, I just made it smaller. “
She remembered a Petit Verdot that she’d tasted a couple of months before. It became 1 percent of her blend, and she put it all in new oak for six weeks.
“The whole wine came together,” says Barrett. “It’s amazing to me.”
When Doherty or Towers, whose job titles are “community developer,” walk into a restaurant to pitch Sozo wines, they first let the wine do the talking.
Once a sommelier or chef or whoever makes the wine decisions decides he or she is interested, then they get the rest of the story.
In the 18 months since Sozo launched, they have placed their wine in 75 restaurants in Seattle and Tacoma, including Canlis, Lark, Flying Fish, and other restaurants esteemed for both their menus and their wine lists.
When the wine sells, Barrett writes out a check to the food bank or other charity of the restaurant’s choice, then delivers it personally to the restaurant, so they can send it. He does so
both for the sake of transparency—”we said it was going to happen, and it’s happened”—and “to build a sense of community.”
In those 18 months, sales have produced just shy of 60,000 meals.
“Win, win,” everyone agrees. Indeed, who can lose?
Yet there’s one more lingering, as yet not-quite-answered question: Sozo is indeed making a “boatload” of money.” So why are they giving it away?
“We believe Jesus calls us to love the poor,” says Barrett.
“We are committed to great wine. Thanks to Cheryl, we can deliver on that. But our passion is the poor. That’s what drives us. “
“I want to combine my passion for business,” says Doherty, “with how I love serving and being with people.
“It’s a different way of doing business. It’s not just the bottom line, but how it is affecting our community and people around us.”