Andy Smith

Andy Smith of DuMol winery

Heard it through the grapevine

A passion that was kindled as a student in Edinburgh has turned into an award-winning business for Andy Smith, the Scotsman behind the renowned DuMol winery in California’s Sonoma County, writes Peter Ranscombe.

Inspiration can strike in the strangest of places: sometimes it comes when you’re out for a walk, sometimes it comes when you’re washing the dishes, sometimes it comes when you’re soaking in the bath. For Andy Smith, proprietor of the DuMol winery in the beautiful Sonoma County in Northern California, that flash of inspiration came when he was lugging boxes around the Bruntsfield branch of wine merchant Oddbins in Edinburgh.

“They hired me because I was so fit that I could run up and down the stairs from the cellar carrying two cases of wine at a time, all day,” laughs Smith. “It was the early 1990s, so the real heyday for Oddbins – it was a great place to work.

“I was a really committed swimmer when I was young and I was part of the 1986 Commonwealth Games team, but when I realised I wasn’t going to make the Olympics in 1988, I started looking for other things to do. My childhood had been dominated by swimming almost completely, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, so it was like when a sportsperson retires – what do they do next?

“I went off to Napier University to study publishing because I was interested in arts and culture and music – I wasn’t a science guy at that time, nor was I into business, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I suddenly had all this time on my hands and I was a student, so I decided to get that job.

“Over the three years that I worked there, I fell in love with wine and so by the time I left Napier I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with wine.”

It was a humble start to a career that has seen Smith rise through the ranks of the winemaking world being named “Wine personality of the year” by Wine Advocate magazine in 2005, one of the “World’s most influential wine consultants” in 2008 and one of the “World’s grape gurus” in 2013, both by Food & Wine Magazine. Along the way, his wines have also picked up rave reviews from famous critics including Robert Parker and the writers at Wine Spectator.

DuMol WineryHis wines have also been served in some very illustrious company too. They were on the menu when Tony Blair visited George W Bush in the weeks following 9/11, during the Queen’s 2007 engagements at the White House and for the first state visit by a Chinese premier when Hu Jintao met Barack Obama in 2011.

Smith has certainly come a long way since those early days at Oddbins in Edinburgh. After graduating in 1992, he worked for wholesaler Alliance Wine for a couple of years, which allowed him to travel to California for the first time and visit Napa Valley, which was at the centre of the growing American wine industry.

“I looked around and thought ‘This is pretty good’,” he remembers. “I met a lot of winemakers and came back thinking there was no reason why we couldn’t do it too.

“I’d travelled a lot with my swimming, so the idea of going off around the world was exciting, it wasn’t anything to be afraid of. At that time, the idea of going to France or Germany or somewhere else in Europe was very dull – those were places you went on camping holidays with your parents. I wanted to go to New Zealand, to Australia, to California.

“So, in 1994, me and my wife, Karen, rented out our flat in Stockbridge and moved to New Zealand. We thought we’d go for a year and see what happened.”

A year turned into two and then three as Smith “followed the vintage”, a well-trodden path that involves budding winemakers swapping hemispheres every six months to work on the harvest. After time with the Matua winery in New Zealand, he returned to Napa, where he harvested grapes for Havens, which had been one of Oddbins’ suppliers, before returning down under to work in Yalumba’s vineyards in the Barossa Valley in Australia.

With three harvests under his belt, Smith realised he needed a formal education to back-up his practical experience if he was to make it as a winemaker. Having turned 28, he didn’t want to spend years tied down to another undergraduate degree and so instead he enrolled on the one-year postgraduate course in “viticulture” – growing grapes – and “oenology” – the study of wine – at Lincoln University in Christchurch, back in New Zealand.

“It was a great degree, a blend of theory and practical, and it set me up – all you need is that piece of paper that shows you understand phenolic chemistry and plant science,” Smith explains. After graduating, he worked at Dry River Wines at Martinborough in New Zealand – but then America came calling.

“The goal was always to come back here to California,” says Smith as we sit tucking into breakfast at the MacArthur Place Hotel in the town of Sonoma. He’s driven for more than an hour for our early-morning interview, before we head to a ‘speed-tasting’ featuring ten Sonoma County wineries and members of the wine trade and press from the UK and Ireland, including Amelia Singer, one of the presenters on ITV’s The Wine Show, Whisky Quarterly editor Sir Colin Hampden-White and Please Bring Me My Wine blogger Mike Turner.

Andy Smith“I was headhunted to come back to work for Ted Lemon, the founder of the Littorai winery, who had trained in Burgundy and was inspirational,” Smith continues. Lemon is one of the leading lights in the biodynamic movement, using natural remedies in the vineyard instead of harsh synthetic chemicals to control pests.

“I worked for Ted for six months and that opened a lot of doors. With Dry River, with Littorai, with my background having worked five harvests and having gained my degree, I was pretty employable. The only problem was getting a visa.

“I met a well-known consultant called Paul Hobbs, who told me he would sponsor me for my visa. He hired me in early 1999 to make his own wines and to manage his clients.

“Suddenly, this whole world opened up and there were a lot of opportunities. He had six or seven clients in Napa and Sonoma and so suddenly I was working with 50 vineyards and winemaking facilities.

“Looking back, you couldn’t have written a better job description. Paul had a lot of knowledge and I was able to learn from him. By the end of 2000, I was ready to do something for myself.”

The opportunity to branch out on his own came at DuMol, a winery founded by two businessmen who were clients of Hobbs and for whom Smith had made wines since 1999. “They told me if I ever wanted to do something for myself then they wanted to partner-up with me. We did that in early 2001,” he remembers. “Paul was a little pissed off.”

Smith continued to make wines for DuMol and also for Larkmead Vineyards, an old Napa brand that he said had fallen on tough times, and for Gemstone Vineyard, which was a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon producer. He let go of Gemstone in 2004 and then Larkmead in 2013 – having picked up two perfect 100-point reviews from Parker along the way – leaving him to focus solely on DuMol.

“DuMol was a tiny little thing when we started out in 1999, with no facilities, no vineyards, nothing,” he says. “We did what’s called ‘custom crushing’, buying in grapes and renting space in wineries.

“But with very good business partners, we realised that, to be successful, you don’t have to invest early, you can grow your reputation and then invest, which is essentially what we did. We grew slowly, but we made sure we worked with very good farmers and bought very good grapes and we were very uncompromising on the quality.

“Fortunately, success came relatively quickly. Parker was very kind to us early on, along with Wine Spectator and the other main critics. But it was more the restaurant business and the customers.

“We were able to build a profitable and successful business quite quickly. We eventually bought our own land in 2004 and planted a vineyard. We built a winery in 2007. This will be my 19th vintage with DuMol this year.”

Smith’s original two partners have now retired from the business, leaving him as the majority shareholder, but backed by two new partners. “One is the ‘money guy’, who doesn’t want to be known as the owner of DuMol because he doesn’t want the focus to be on him,” Smith laughs.

“If I told you his name then you would have read about him in the Wall Street Journal every day. He’s a very high-profile hedge fund guy in San Francisco, but he’s been a customer for 15 years, so he came to it through the wine instead of thinking it would be a great investment. Even though our business is very valuable now, it’s at a scale where it’s a weekend project for him.”

That profitability isn’t something winemakers can take for granted in the United States. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, each state was given the powers to control its alcohol industry and most opted for a complicated three-tier system in which producers sell to distributors that in turn sell to customers.

grapesDuMol and other high-end wineries have enjoyed success thanks in part to being able to sell directly to consumers through their own mailing lists and wine clubs. “That’s what drives the profitability of the company, that’s what allows us to buy the best grapes, that’s what allows us to buy the best equipment, buy the best land for vineyards,” Smith says. “There was a level of entrepreneurship in California that I didn’t see anywhere else during the mid-1990s, neither in New Zealand nor Australia. In California, there was so much opportunity and people were so open and enthusiastic and willing to take a risk. If it didn’t work then they would just start again or do something else.

“Can you imagine a Scotsman in the early nineties going to Burgundy and saying he was going to be a winemaker? They would have laughed at me.

“There’s not a day I live here I’m not aware I’m an immigrant. And there’s not a day I’m not aware I’m Scottish – it’s very much part of who I am.

“Right now, we primarily work with Mexican immigrants. The crew who farm my vineyard are all Mexicans. We come from very different cultures but we have that common immigrant bond. They think I’m funny because I’m a guy who walks and talks like an American, but I like football.”

Smith’s accent certainly has an interesting mixture of Scottish and American elements. His intonation and inflection is certainly Northern Californian, but there’s an unmistakable Scottish lilt in there still. He describes himself as a farmer and is incredibly passionate about capturing the nuances of the different soils in each vineyard and then translating those through to the taste of the 18 wines he produces, allowing the fruit to impart its flavours to the finished wine instead of masking it with the taste of oak barrels or other winemaking techniques.

“Most of my job is farming,” he says. “There’s no magic that happens in the winery – it’s a product of the very good soils, the very good plant material that we originally selected and the very precise farming we practice throughout the season. That’s why my Mexican guys are so important – they’re the winemakers as well.”

He may have spent 20 years in America, but Smith still regularly crosses the pond to see relatives. “We go back to Scotland every year – we still call it home,” he explains. “I read Scottish Field magazine every month and now it’s all about local produce, local sourcing and there are interviews with farmers about their produce – can you imagine that 20 years ago?

“It feels quite funny to see our wines on the shelves of shops back home or on restaurant wine lists. I don’t put our wines up on a pedestal, but I have a lot of pride in them because I know how hard people have worked to accomplish the quality. That’s what drives me.”