Napa’s Scale Wine Group finds a new balance for top sommeliers

Napa’s recently launched Scale Wine Group assists small wine producers to showcase their products.

Working as a hired sales and marketing team, this group of wine experts provides a collection of selected, mostly local, wine brands the ability to obtain broader exposure throughout the United States. Other companies do this type of outsourced work, but what’s unique about Scale is that their team includes some of the world’s leading wine sommeliers.

“Our goal is to help our clients have a greater voice out in the marketplace,” said Desmond Echavarrie, a certified Master Sommelier and the founder of Scale. “We basically fulfill the role of being national sales managers and directors of sales for smaller brands who don’t have the resources or experience to compete with some of the more established brands.”

The Scale Wine model provides not only access to a broader wholesale network, it is also a sort of screen that provides an expert’s stamp of approval on the client brand’s quality.

“We are pleased to be included in the Scale portfolio,” said Henry Cornell, owner of Cornell Vineyards, which makes about 500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon from their mountaintop vineyard in the hills west of St. Helena. “Their team, like our own, includes some of the finest wine professionals out there, and that makes a real difference for clients who might be making decisions on which new wine to enjoy.”


Making wine is relatively straightforward, but selling wine is a whole different animal. First, there are legal restrictions to selling wine that vary by state and sometimes even by county.

Whereas producers of wine can sell it directly to restaurants and retail shops within California, most other states around the country require a middleman (distributor) to sell wine to such accounts. And each state often has a collection of different distributors, one of which is typically dominant.

What most smaller wineries prefer is to sell all their wine direct to consumers so that they bypass the distributors altogether. But what happens for the vast majority of brands is that they find a need to sell within the wholesale market. Why? Because if a winery can’t sell all of its wine through the direct-to-consumers channel, most brands hope that the exposure of being in a restaurant or shop will bring more people in contact with their wines.

Yet because of the complications and complexity of wine sales, many of the small producers find it nearly impossible to justify the expense and time of engaging with the wholesale market. So, there you are, a new wine producer who has been toiling away for years to make what you hope is a fine wine. It has taken years to get to the point where you might sell your first bottle. Your hope is that it will sell out in no time because who wouldn’t want to buy such a fine example of wine?

Of course, in the back of your mind you know that there are thousands of similar brands out there all competing for what is a limited collection of wine buyers, especially if your wine is in the $50-plus range. But because you believe in your product and because you’ve done everything perfectly in the winery, you hope your wine will be the outlier. You cross your fingers that your wine gets a 100-point score out of the gate (does that matter anymore?) and that your friends, family and former clients purchase many cases of each vintage.

But what most new vintners find is that none of these things happen as planned.

The trouble is that for smaller brands it’s a real challenge and expense to travel the country trying to convince distributors to take their wine. And if by some act of God distributors do bring your wine into their portfolio, most small producers find that even then, the wine doesn’t sell because none of the distributor’s sales force knows your wine; the accounts don’t know it, either, and what account in New York or Chicago really wants to bring in a new, untested wine from California anyway?

In walks Scale Wine Group

What such brands need is a means to separate themselves from the pack. The team at Scale includes certified sommeliers so they provide what reviewers might have provided in the past — confidence and credibility in the marketplace.

Becoming a top sommelier has been likened to becoming an astronaut — the journey is long and arduous, with only a few making the final cut. To be fair, the numbers might suggest that gaining the coveted title of “Master Sommelier” from the Court of Sommeliers is actually a more challenging proposition than becoming an astronaut. Since its inception in 1969 fewer than 300 individuals have achieved the Master Sommelier distinction, yet within the same time frame, statistics show nearly 1,000 people worldwide have become astronauts.

The Napa Valley has one of the greatest collections of Master Sommeliers in the country with more than a dozen. Two of them are at Scale — Echavarrie and Jason Heller. Also on their team is a Level II sommelier (Master is Level IV), Bryan Lipa. All three are partners in the company, along with Kelly Stetins, director of operations (married to another Napa Somm, Ryan Stetins, co-owner of Compline Wine Bar).

The team has spent years working around the country and valley at restaurants such as the French Laundry and Redd and working in sales at wineries such as Harlan Estates, Staglin Family Vineyard and Dana Estates. Each of the partners has awards and accolades that would impress any oenophile, but what they also bring to the table is a young, fresh approach to wine sales. They also have existing relationships with distributors, restaurants, retail shops and some of the best-known local winemakers, including Thomas Rivers Brown, Celia Welch, Philippe Melka, Francoise Peschon and Aaron Pott.

The changing world of wine

For the last 20 to 30 years, the baby boom generation has largely driven the sale of wine. With their large numbers also came a desire to showcase their affluence and independence by becoming immersed in all things food and wine. And what used to be a bootstrap sort of industry in California has now become serious business — the world of wine-making and sales is not what it used to be. New technologies such as Vivino and Delectable apps allow anyone to find detailed information about a wine — including scores, reviews and where to purchase a wine — in seconds. Huge corporations are no longer content with making jug and boxed wine, so they have been gobbling up smaller high-end brands and then marketing them as if they are stand-alones.

Distributors have continued to consolidate and often have to cater to the largest wine producers who have enormous power as to which wine gets placed where. This was all fine so long as the market for wine consumption was continuing to grow at a breakneck pace. But growth has slowed, and the next generation of wine drinkers is looking very unlike its baby boomer parents and grandparents.

Building community

Talk with anyone under the age of 38 and you quickly find that one thing they mistrust is hierarchy. They’ve been brought up to believe in the power of a group to solve tough problems. Yet when we look back at the history of the Napa Valley, we often focus on an individual who made some impact. In the future, the focus might be on groups and communities as the key drivers of change and business success. Taking that as a cue, the Scale Wine Group recently opened a new office in downtown Napa, where they hope to create a hub for like-minded wine lovers to come and learn about the newest that the Napa Valley has to offer. The office is light and spacious with a pool table, lounge chairs, TVs and, of course, a wine cellar.

“Our hope is that our clients and friends will stop by and just hang out,” Echavarrie said. “Of course we want to be known as a place where people come and learn and discuss all things wine, but we also just enjoy sharing some new, as of yet unheard-of excellent wine from the Napa Valley.”

Echavarrie said that because the Scale team is often on the road promoting their portfolio of brands, they rarely are all in the same place at the same time.

The keys to a fine wine are the same as they’ve always been — quality fruit, hand-crafted and cared-for processing and a passionate producer who is not put off by earthquakes, fires or economic challenges. Couple these vintners with a wine-savvy and talented sales and marketing team and the odds increase significantly that 30 years from now there will be those who look back and recall how a group of young Sommeliers helped usher in a new breed of wine lovers.


Originally published in the Napa Register, August 2018