Very Important Producer
Starting his winery in 1992, in the heart of the Willamette Valley in the Eola Hills region, Howard Rossbach is now president of the third largest winery in Oregon and the largest producer of Pinot Noir in the area.
Wines Firesteed Oregon Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Rose, Riesling, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Citation Oregon Pinot Noir (which is a Firesteed's reserve). Citation is only produced a few times a decade as it's made in top vintage years and then released eight to ten years later.
Philosophy Rossbach loves wines driven by fruit and aims for better balance, good acidity and modest alcohol. "I don't like big fruit bomb," he says.
Vineyards They've recently received the Oregon certified Sustainable Wine certificate. There are 36ha of vineyards surrounding the winery and Firesteed has long-term contracts of sourcing grapes through other major appellations in the area.
Winemaker Bryan Croft has been with Firesteed for 13 years. Rossbach has travelled with him to Alsace and New Zealand to explore the more delicate cooler-climate wines they produce.
Harpers Wine & Spirit Magazine, June 12, 2009
Pinot noir gets more than 'Sideways' glance...
We sometimes wonder what would have happened if Miles, the uncorruptable wine snob in the movie "Sideways," had extolled the quality of, say, alicante bouchet. Would there be a run on even an obscure grape? Would pinot noir - the grape that, like Miles, needs constant care and attention - ever get respect from the masses without the movie?
Although nominated for five Academy Awards, "Sideways" scored only one: writing (adapted screenplay). But what the movie didn't achieve in Academy Awards it made up in sales.
According to ACNielsen, which tracks market trends, sales of pinot nor are up 16 percent since the movie debuted. Miles love affair with pinot noir had a lot to do with it.
The impact of the movie doesn't end there either. Tourism in the Santa Ynez, non-existent until now, has soared. Hundreds of people are retracing the route, including wineries and restaurants, followed by Miles and Jack. Among the featured wineries are Sanford and Fess Parker, both of which are reporting huge sales of pinot noir.
Even locally, the movie is driving sales. Say Pete Finkelstein, general manager of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, "You would not believe the people who have been coming here buying pinot noir. When we had our dollar day (wines price $1 over cost), every pinot noir in the store got cleaned out." He restocked.
So the attention showered on pinot noir deserved? Yes, for the patient and forgiving consumer.
Made well, there is no grape more beguiling and seductive than pinot noir. It is the grape that puts the silk in great burgundies and the power in Oregon's best wines. But its thin skins make it more susceptible to disease and managed poorly its fickle nature produces as many bad pinot noirs as good.
With prices for Burgundy generally out of reach, we have taken a liking to many California and Oregon pinot noirs. The grape growing regions of the Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara regions, well traveled but the movie's lead characters Miles and Jack, are ideal for pinot noir.
Assuming many of you have caught the pinot noir fever, we have assembled a list of recommended pinot noirs, many of them chose from a recent tasting we threw together. We found some very tasty pinot noir in the under - $13 category, the more complex pinots will cost you more than $30. If you have the bucks, you won't be disappointed.
Firesteed 2002 ($11). Simple, bright berry flavors with no oak and a clean finish. Firesteed is the largest producer of pinot noir in Oregon and always reliable for the price.
"Wine, Etc." Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr, Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits
Here are some odds and ends I uncovered in idle conversation with distributors and wine reps at the Mutual Distributing trade show that precedes the EMF Wine Festival:
It's not often the president of a wine company graces a Triad tradeshow, but Howard Rossbach, head of Firesteed Corp., was in Greensboro to keep that label out in from of consumers.
Rossbach has successfully borrowed on the French 'negociant' business model, creating a wildly popular Pinot Noir from Oregon grapes.
He owns no vineyard. He owns no winery. Instead, he contracts to buy grapes and outsources the crushing, fermenting and bottling process.
Without that overhead, Rossbach has in most years since the early 1990's produced bargain Pinot Noir at about $10. Given price creep over the last decade - particularly with Pinot Noir - that's a remarkable track record.
"We didn't raise our prices in the '90s, and we've made a lot of friends," Rossbach said.
A wine enthusiast and entrepreneur, Rossbach was dismayed to see good Pinot Noir moving beyond the reach of the average consumer. He had no desire to grow grapes or make the wine.
His passion is marketing and sales. These days, he spends a good part of his year on the road, visiting trade shows, chatting up distributors and consumers alike.
Oh, and the 2001 Pinot Noir and 2000 Pinot Gris, both retailing at $10, are excellent renderings of the varietal. The 2001 Pinot Gris should reach the Triad market later this year.
"Odds and Ends From the World of Wine" Ed Williams, News and Record, March 5, 2003
For a Pinot Noir that pours richer then its price tag implies, try Oregon's Firesteed ($10.99). The ultimate food wine, this Pinot has those coveted lush, velvety, leathery, full-throated flavors.
5 Wines - KC Star - 11/24/02
Lighter Pinot Noir: There are few wines with as much berry-like taste as Pinot Noir from Oregon (Firesteed). Even in winter, we often prefer these slightly chilled, because that seems to focus that exuberant fruit a bit. With cold poached salmon on a hot day - well, there are few better summer pairings.
"Chilling Out With Red Wines" Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2002
Firesteed Cellars founder and maker Howard Rossbach has been selling his range of wines in London, the rest of Europe and even Singapore for the past five years or so. "The UK is the crossroads of the world as far as I'm concerned, and this vibrant atmosphere is a great place to showcase our wines, " he said.
Rossbach has been in the wine industry for 30 years, spearheading the advance of Oregon (Pinot Noir) and Italian (Barbera d'Asti) wines under the Firesteed labels since 1992. Firesteed Cellars is known as a 'virtual winery' since it contracts grape growers and a winery to product its wines. Rossbach has also ventured into California, releasing a north coast Merlot called Windy Ridge 1997. However his roots lie in Seattle and he believes that there is more to come from the area. "The industry is less than four years old here, bit it is becoming more professional. And our winegrowers are learning to get the best out of the local growing conditions by selecting the right grape varieties."
As for the pick of this year's bunch, Firesteed's godfather is giving nothing away. "That's like asking a parent to choose his favorite child," he smiled.
"Pacific Northwest Tasting - Meet the Producers" Adam Lechmere, Natasha Hughes, and Tom Chippendale, Decanter.com - Good Living
Firesteed wines here: The wines of "Firesteed" from Oregon have arrived in Indiana. Look for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and the Italian import, Barbera d'Asti. They will retail somewhere around $10 and are well worth it.
"The Wine View" Russ Bridenbaugh, Indianapolis Star, August 31, 2000
It sounded like a good idea. At least Howard Rossbach thought so.
About a decade ago, as owner of a Seattle-based brokerage that helped several Northwest wineries sell their spirits to distributors, Rossbach noticed a trend toward production of higher-priced Oregon pinot noirs for $15, $20 or more.
Why not make a quality pinot noir for $10 a bottle, something more affordable to the average consumer, he thought. Many of the distributors he worked with agreed. So Rossbach peddled the idea to his seven winery clients.
"Here is this demand," he told them. "Who wants to do it?"
Their response: No thanks. Some wanted to focus on higher-class wines, Rossbach says, while others didn't want to commit their equipment and space to him.
What could Rossbach do?
"I didn't own a winery, and I didn't have a burning desire to own the plant and facility," he says. "And I didn't own a vineyard, and I didn't really have a burning desire to own one."
Spurred on by ambition and entrepreneurial spirit, Rossbach decided to sell his Vintage Northwest brokerage and make a value-priced pinot himself -- without owning a single grape vine or fermentation tank.
He created a "virtual" winery called Firesteed Corp. by contracting out the grape-growing and processing work to others.
His atypical approach reveals one way that smaller wineries can survive as Oregon's wine industry becomes increasingly upscale with big investors attempting to turn the Willamette Valley into a world-renowned mecca for premium pinot noir. He reduced operating costs and increased the chances of success by outsourcing, or contracting out work.
Many businesses outsource. Nike has its shoes made in overseas factories. Numerous
e-commerce retailers let other firms design their Web sites. But
Outsourcing has obvious benefits to someone wanting to launch a winery.
There's no upfront money needed to pay for capital expenditures, such as land and grape-crushing machines. With no grapes to pick or equipment to operate, the entrepreneur doesn't need to spend time and money hiring employees to do manual labor and staff tasting rooms. That means fewer headaches filling out payroll forms and government paperwork.
Many winery start-ups struggle to balance the business issues with the more glamorous role of turning grapes into wine.
Perhaps most importantly, outsourcing lets contractors specialize in what they do best.
"It's very hard for a business owner to be all things," says Marcia Pry, owner of Portland-based Business Advocates, a small business consulting firm.
Rossbach's case stands out because he wants to focus on the process of selling wine, as opposed to making it. That modus operandi should benefit Firesteed, Pry says.
"To approach a business from a business perspective is probably better" than from the product side, Pry says. "Whether you're making wine or chocolate chip cookies, people who come from a love of the product get narrowly focused on making the product, and they don't have this larger picture of what it takes to run the business."
Rossbach, a native New Yorker, has ample experience in the selling and distribution end of the wine business. He moved to Seattle to study botany at the University of Washington roughly a quarter century ago.
After finishing college in 1977, he fell in love with the wine business while working for a Seattle wine wholesaler. In 1985 he opened Vintage Northwest. Rossbach sold the company in 1994, two years after Firesteed's first vintage.
Most grow their own grapes
"Most wineries, 99.5 percent, grow their own grapes," says Christine Roth, executive director of the Oregon Wine Advisory Board.
Rossbach avoided this rite of passage. He had access to capital for building a winery, he says, but he preferred to let others make his wine while he did the marketing -- his expertise.
"There were grapes available. I arranged to get ahold of those grapes and arranged for someone to custom crush for me," he says matter-of-factly.
The virtual winery approach that Rossbach espouses is quite common in Europe, where wine-growing land is more scarce.
For example, in Burgundy, the famous wine growing region of France, inheritance laws have fragmented the area into thousands of tiny plots. Individuals often can't afford to make and sell their own wine. With so many small plots, merchants, called negociants, have emerged with the capital to buy grapes or fermented juice and process wine under their own label.
Rossbach followed a similar path.
With contacts made through Vintage Northwest, he found two Oregon grape growers willing to sell him part of their harvest in the early '90s. Rossbach's list of suppliers -- he declined to name them or the prices he pays them -- has since expanded to 10 growers throughout the Willamette Valley whose vineyards range from two acres to 100 acres.
He buys between 250 tons to 350 tons of pinot noir a year, depending on the quality and quantity of the harvest. Fierce competition for pinot noir pushed the average price to $1,650 a ton last year, the highest price of all grape varieties and almost double the price paid seven years ago.
Rossbach prefers to sign long-term deals, mostly three- to five-year contracts, with each producer. The multiyear contracts, in which prices are fixed for each year, help insulate Rossbach from year-to-year price fluctuations, making costs more predictable. The deals also foster better relationships with viticulturists who, in turn, cultivate a more consistent grape-growing style, he says.
One way Rossbach keeps several of his contracted growers happy is by designating a small portion of their vineyards as plots that have the potential to produce spectacular grapes. He may pick out a plot after one or two harvests based on several factors.
"One block may ripen a bit earlier, maybe just a few days," Rossbach says. "But that can give you an edge. Or you may get more flavor intensity from one part of a vineyard than another."
Rossbach pays a premium, sometimes two to three times the normal price, for grapes from the designated areas. Come harvest time, if the grapes turn out to be not as fabulous as predicted, they get blended into the regular production run, but the growers still get paid the premium price.
For the grapes that make the cut, Rossbach has them hand sorted and aged for at least a year in French oak barrels. He has set aside a batch of grapes almost every year since 1994 in hopes of producing a higher quality wine that would sell for at least $30 a bottle. He expects the first bottles to be released early next year.
Bottling at Flynn Vineyards
Even though Firesteed is a competitor, the deal makes sense for Flynn. By bottling 20,000 to 25,000 cases of pinot noir a year for Firesteed, Flynn gets paid for using processing equipment that, at times, would have sat idle otherwise.
"It's a way to get the most money out of the equipment," says Flynn co-owner Mickey Flynn.
The winery also performs custom crush work for others when capacity is available, he says. Flynn and Rossbach declined to disclose the terms of their contract.
Rossbach says that he could probably save money over the long run by building a production facility. But by contracting with Flynn, Rossbach says, he avoids the "headaches and hassles" of allocating money for capital expenses.
Other virtual vintners say the more cases produced, the more it makes sense to become a traditional bricks-and-mortar winery. One of the largest wine companies in Sonoma County, Calif., recently took a step that way by purchasing the bankrupt bottling and storage company it had contracted with for years.
Codera Wine Group chief executive Derek Benham characterized the $6 million acquisition a week and a half ago as a "defensive measure." The 10-year-old virtual winery has become so large -- last year it recorded revenue of $18.3 million, selling 270,000 cases under its Blackstone Winery and Martin Ray Winery brands -- that it couldn't risk any disruptions in production, Benham says.
Considering Firesteed's smaller production runs, Benham says, Rossbach probably would benefit from remaining virtual as long as possible.
"If he can get the quality and volume that he wants out of his setup, it's probably more likely that it's going to cost him less money," Benham says, rattling off a list of equipment needed to produce wine. "There's not only crushers and fermentation tanks. You've got unbelievable piping, plumbing, barrels, forklifts. This business is very capital intensive."
$2.5 million revenue last year
About 70 percent of the revenue comes from sales of Firesteed Oregon pinot noir, found in grocery stores and restaurants. The rest is derived from selling an Italian barbera, Swedish mineral water and an Oregon pinot gris, all of which are also contract produced.
Firesteed's financial condition appears healthy. But the company's revenue growth has slowed to a near standstill the past few years. That has occurred, Rossbach says, despite demand for Firesteed's pinot noir exceeding supply.
Now, he says, he can't locate enough pinot noir grapes to meet the rising demand. Other Oregon wineries have experienced the same dilemma as the reputation for the state's pinot noir has blossomed in recent years.
"There's not enough pinot noir planted in Oregon," Rossbach says, revealing one of the downsides to contracting for grapes. If Rossbach owned a vineyard, he might be able to make up the shortfall he needs to boost sales.
He has hinted of potential changes.
"Even though one is virtual doesn't mean one is virtual forever," he says. "It may be in my business interest to have equity participation in a vineyard. That also could apply to a production facility. At some point it might make sense, in the sense of controlling one's destiny to a greater degree."
Until then, Rossbach will continue doing what he does best -- marketing his wine. Because 95 percent of Firesteed's sales come from outside Oregon, Rossbach spends half his work time traveling, leaving three administrative employees in a downtown Seattle office. He budgets $200,000 a year for visits to trade shows and trips to as many of Firesteed's 125 national and international distributors as possible.
He also logs thousands of miles driving from Seattle to the Willamette Valley every few weeks to visit his grape growers and check on the winemaking process.
"He's here all the time," says Roth of the state's wine advisory board. "He's our ad hoc Oregonian."
"Virtual vintages, real cash" Boaz Herzog, The Oregonian, July 9, 2000
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