On a consistent basis, I have people reach out to chat about their new wine label, or their attempt at entering the industry. Normally, those are short conversations that all sound exactly the same. Truthfully their reasons to join the industry roughly match my own almost a decade ago, so it’s easy to be as understanding as possible, sometimes without the ability to be truly helpful.
Sometimes though, one of those conversations introduces a wine label where I feel passionate about helping in any way that I can.
Yesterday was one of those such conversations, as I was introduced to one of the former firefighters behind Smoke Eater Wine.
Smoke Eater Wine is a new, virtual wine label brought to you by a long time wine importer, as well as, a group of retired NYC firefighters. The concept is simple enough and a model well known in the industry. Use your connections to bring in some good juice and then bottle it and sell it here. What Smoke Eater does differently though, is what they do with the profits. Instead of pocketing them (although I do hope there’s some of that as well) they give them away to firefighter and first responder charities.
Although I’ve never fought a fire in my life, I can clearly see the need for such support on more than one a few levels.
First, I grew up in San Diego. It’s interesting because one of my first memories of living in Southern California was being sent home from school during 1st grade at lunch, only to find ash falling in the air and then spending a night at a hotel downtown. Welcome to wildfire season. In fact, of all the places I lived in San Diego as both a child and an adult, the only spot we weren’t evacuated or under some type of wildfire evacuation warning was when we lived in Coronado, which is an island.
More importantly though, at the end of my time in college, I had a roommate who worked for Cal Fire over the summer and fall. That was my first real experience in what a firefighter actually did and while I know that forest firefighting and urban firefighting like what the folks behind Smoke Eater Wine did, are totally different, it was a good introduction. Scott would leave our house, often at all hours, grab his go bag and be back, well…..sometime later. Turns out he was a smoke jumper, evidently those guys aren’t just characters in Planes Fire and Rescue, but an actual job. He, along with a group of less than 10 others, would be helicoptered behind the fire line with nothing more than an axe, chainsaw and their protective gear. Their job was to cut fire breaks as best as they could, without access to water. It was, as I hope you’re picturing, dangerous stuff and what he looked like when he’d show back up at home, told the tale. While he was often black sooted to the point of being unrecognizable, that wasn’t the most shocking part. To me, the shocking and saddening part happened when he was asleep and you’d hear the coughing, literally for weeks after he was home. That coughing makes me understand where Smoke Eater truly comes from, because that’s exactly what he was doing. After all, he didn’t have a clean air source.
Lastly, I’ve written about the effects of fire on the wine industry and specifically Napa and Sonoma here a number of times. Wine and firefighting are going to be linked moving forward in ways that no one could have imagined a decade ago.
Ok, so I feel strongly about the charity aspect of this, but what about the wine?
If anything, there’s one thing that I always judge these virtual labels on-what are you sourcing and why?
The first Smoke Eater Wine that has been released, is a Pinotage from South Africa. For some of you, Pinotage is going to be new. It’s a relatively unknown grape, bred in a South African lab as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. In many ways, it carries the light bodied feel we remember from our last Pinot, while adding the gamey notes of Cinsault. Frankly, it’s a wine variety which hasn’t quite caught on internationally and even among parts of the South African expat community I’ve spoken with, can be divisive as it only exists because of the exact setup which gave us Apartheid.
You may wonder why I bring all this up and that’s a good question, but I’ll ask you this, if you were sourcing a wine for easy sales, would you choose a Pinotage?
Of course not.
There’s only one reason to choose a Pinotage as your initial wine for your brand. You feel strongly about the exact wine that you’ve found.
So we’ve got a wine label that clearly cares about wine, otherwise they’d have chosen something different to start and the profits from the label go to a good cause.
What’s not to like?