Brian Smith is an affable guy whose easy demeanor belies a character full of conviction and passion. He has a fierce independent streak and as a serial entrepreneur, Brian’s ideas have taken him from professional snowboarder, to sommelier at one of the finest restaurants in the country, to wine maker (Loca Linda), and now, tech entrepreneur (Club W/WINC).
I met Brian ten years ago through mutual friends and he and I have kept in touch ever since, often exchanging bootstrapping war stories. Now based in California, I sat down with him when he was recently in New York to talk about the grit it takes to make it and his passion for wine and the people who drink it.
“You can never fully master wine. If you tasted it two years ago and open a new bottle today, it will evolve over times. And at the same time, there’s someone in a garage working with an obscure grape that will change everything. You can spend your whole life exploring and tasting wine but you can never really master all of it. That was exciting to me.”
You started as a professional snowboarder, tell me that story.
It was kind of a lifestyle job. I’ve always been into lifestyle jobs. (Laughs)
It was much different than it is today. Being sponsored, you’d get very little money but you got paid to travel around and shoot different photos and videos and basically couch surf the entire winter. Somehow, I was able to finish college before I did that but snowboarding was really what I dedicated my life to for several years.
But as I continued, I got more interested in personal challenges than filming and taking photos and playing that sponsor game and as a result the sponsors weren’t around as much anymore to support me.
So how did you move from snowboarding to wine? Was there a linear path or did you experience a particular calling?
It was really by chance. After my snowboarding sponsorships dried up, I needed a way to pay for my lift pass and found that through a local liquor store. I could work there nights but still spend days snowboarding as my passion so it was the perfect way just to maintain my lifestyle.
Back then I was a Pabst Blue Ribbon or Crown-drinking guy and I didn’t know anything about wine. I maybe drank some to try and impress a girl but I was basically clueless. So in the downtime of the shop, I’d sit around reading wine magazines. I had absorbed a little but not enough to answer customers wanting to know the difference between a $14 bottle and a $150 bottle. So I read more just because I wanted to be able to answer their questions.
The more I read, the more I wanted to taste and that research became this vicious, passion-driven cycle.
For example, early on I learned that to find great wine in Bordeaux you have to be within a certain distance from a river. If you can see the river from the vineyard it’s gonna be a better Cabernet. I remember thinking that wine had all these great things about it, it’s geographically diverse, it’s historically and culturally rich – there’s so much behind every bottle of wine.
And how did light reading for your retail job turn into you wanting to be a Master Sommelier?
I remember reading about a sommelier. Someone who could hold a glass of wine, look at it, smell it, taste it and tell you where it came from in the world, what the vintage was like, how old it was, how it was made, what the grapes were…. that was amazing to me. After reading about wine, being asked questions I couldn’t answer at the store, taking a trip to Napa, I knew this is what I wanted to do.
So what were the first steps you took on that path?
Well, I got super fired up after learning that being a sommelier was actually a job so I got back from Napa and set up my first tasting group in Jackson Hole. TWR: Teton Wine Research. We got a really diverse group of people, some collectors, some restaurateurs, some ski bums and held monthly tastings.
I was also studying for my sommelier exam so I set up a study group for that. I even convinced the local paper to give me a weekly column (laughs). Basically, I did everything I possibly could to learn about wine so that I could answer any question I was asked while also getting other people excited about wine whenever possible.
My goal was to be a master sommelier and instead of partying every night with my friends, I would be studying and drawing maps. It ended up totally taking my life over.
So you pursued your master sommelier license, was there a degree? How does it work?
It’s all self-study but there is a community of mentors, some great people that can help you to accelerate your learning.
There are four tests to get to the master level. Pre-certificate, certificate, advanced sommelier (which I am) then the masters, which you can only take twice a year and is invite only.
At some point I decided to quit my job in Jackson Hole and I drove to Vegas and volunteered in restaurants around Vegas learning. That’s how I ended up getting a job at Aureole – one of the best jobs in the country, as a sommelier.
For anyone that’s interested, there is a great film called Somm that is worth watching. It follows people losing their minds as they go for the master test.
Were you losing your mind?
If you ask my wife, she’d tell you I was crazy. I basically wrote my own wine book that I still have today, the big black binder of wine.
I would orally record details of different regions and then listen to those tapes in the car and before bed. I would hand draw maps and then post them all over the house, studying them when I took a shower. It was sick, twisted stuff.
You became a sommelier and then moved to Vegas to work in the fine dining scene – when did you get the courage to start Local Linda?
Well, there was nowhere to go in Vegas - Vegas is owned, and there’s very little entrepreneurship - so I took a break from wine and worked in finance in the Virgin Islands for a while, which worked out, but after a while I missed the States and wanted to get back into wine and found some buddies with whom I started a very high end wine bar called Clo.
It was a very ambitious project that was ahead of its time, and we got stuck waiting for permits for the wine bar. I started going crazy again, so I took a trip to Argentina and as soon as I got there I fell in love with the place.
I wasn’t really thinking about making wine, but a friend invited me to Argentina. I went down and as soon as I got down there I fell in love with the place. It was like Jackson, but instead of the Tetons you had the Andes, and at the foot of the Andes were the vineyards. And I was taken.
And I learned that they had really old vines – which are not usually available to someone without money. Also, there was a lot of sharing of tank resources, because capital is hard to get down there, so everyone there was trying to help each other out. On top of that, it was a strong US dollar. So all these things kind of came together and I realized, “This is my shot. I’m never gonna have the pearly gates opportunity. I’m never gonna be in Napa – I don’t come from that family.” But I knew that I could be everything. I knew the market, I knew the wines and the vineyards, I had a footprint in NYC, and I thought I could make something that might resonate with people. Something that would be different, something that I would want to buy, or my friends would. So I thought I’d go for it.
Any rough times in the early days? Dark nights of the soul?
Well my wife is also an entrepreneur and we were kind of in a similar situation where we were both getting off the ground. I worked out of a closet / office in our house, we called it the “cloffice”.
It was five months before we were having our first kid, Loca Linda was going but not really bringing in anything and yeah, it was hard. But, I just kept cranking, really cranking locally while trying to open new markets.
It was scary as hell but I believed in it. I believed in willing it to succeed and ultimately, it did.
I remember talking to a distributor who just didn’t get it. And I remember feeling great, telling this high level executive, “I know in my heart that this is going to happen and you can either be a part of it or not.”
When did you feel it clicked?
I took every opportunity to sponsor and connect locally at events and at tastings. But I remember walking in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and seeing 4 empty bottles in a recycling bag on a curb and I was like, “YEAH, someone is getting after it.” That was great.
The other thing was trying to go after the most discerning sommeliers to get them to pour by the glass while also being approachable for people to consume at home. We were adopted by sommeliers and restaurants that normally wouldn’t serve our wine, and that really informed our momentum. We sell it for $16/liter in the store, and Thomas Keller sells it at $16/glass in Bouchon. That’s really cool.
Those things are great from an ego and validation perspective and they really help build momentum for your product.
Producing something that people touch, interact with or consume and that are enjoyed around great times in their life…. there is something really special and intimate about that between you, the maker of the product, and the consumer.
What opportunities came from Loca Linda, how did Club W come about?
Club W came about when my sommelier buddies introduced me to these really smart people that had some great ideas but maybe didn’t know as much about the wine side. The “directy-ness “ of their idea was super fascinating to me.
It was a culmination of all of my experiences. I’d served wine as a sommelier, sold wine as a wholesaler, I’d imported wine and I’d made wine internationally. I had a 360 view of how things worked and what could be done in a space that was stagnant and it was a perfect fit for helping them find a better way to buy wine.
I became a co-founder 3 ½ years ago. I’d always been a lone wolf so being a part of a dynamic team, the mission, the culture… Loca Linda was just a grind trying to convert palates on the reg. But these are great partners that I’m lucky to have, pushing each other, pushing our teams, it’s something I’ve never done but I find it really fascinating!
Our shared goal is to change the landscape and make it better for wine drinkers.
Lessons learned with Club W?
We’re learning so much because we have this constant feedback loop of so many customers. And looking at data versus to just face-to-face, we have these new insights that you wouldn’t expect and is contrary to current trends/ what the market would expect.
For example, most people think that you can’t sell a Syrah unless it’s French. But our California Syrahs sell really well.
Everyone says Chardonnay is the Queen of whites. We sell very little. And that’s contrary to Nielsen data, which is interesting. And people like Merlot. They don’t know it, but they do.
What are the big opportunities in the wine market?
There’s an access problem for people that don’t live in major markets. Outside of major cities, all the wines available are made by about four or five different wine companies. You may see 50 or 60 labels/SKUs in the store, but they’re all made by the same companies. Because distribution is pretty locked up.
The way alcoholic beverages are sold is really the same as it was right after prohibition. It’s a push model. Suppliers push wine to their distributors, and distributors push it to retail, and retail pushes it to their consumers. The business is so big with these big guys that there’s a lot of pressure to deliver on sales and that trickles down the market. And I think that for the consumer’s sake we need to move toward more of a pull model.
And on the flip side, some of the most exciting things that are happening in wine are happening on a much smaller scale. The people with the least resources are doing the most interesting things.
But because they don’t have the resources to compete with that big push function that’s happening, that’s hard. Replacing push with pull, that’s a big picture thing that’s really interesting to me.
What’s the future for Club W?
Club W is a huge undertaking with a huge amount of risk. Are we going to do it? We said, “Fuck it, let’s go.” By creating our own wine, we’ve ripped everything up and we’ve developed these core competencies that we never envisioned when we set up the company. We think there is value in the product we are building and we just want to remain super curious. Initiate, innovate and continue to delight our customers.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs looking to start up their own business?
Don’t! Just kidding. I feel like everyone’s an entrepreneur now, you kind of have to be. If you’re not cut out to work for someone else, start your own thing. It’s all about diligence. It takes a lot of work and a lot of planning, but it starts with an interest, it turns into a passion, and then you follow that down and that becomes your story, that becomes part of your brand, it’s really the origin story.
Do something where you can truly be an evangelist, and so much so where you turn other people into evangelists.
Never take no for an answer. CHISEL!
Combining a long view while rewarding yourselves in the small victories of the day-to-day leads to less stress. I mean, I don’t do it, I freak out but I have to remind myself that its just today’s disaster, it’s not the end.