Michael Skurnik Wines talk with Joseph & Curtis
The wine world is filled with many interesting people. It’s quite a change for two retired stock traders who use to sit in front of screens (after we each moved away from the CME floor) where in a 6 hour trading day you may speak to 1 person. Two of the most knowledgeable wine guys we happen to have the pleasure of meeting and working with are the Brothers Skurnik (no relation to the Johnson) Harmon and Michael Skurnik, from Michael Skurnik Wines, who have been selecting, representing, and tasting some of the best wines for over 25 years…we got a chance to catch up and learn more about them:
(please turn up your volume when watching the video)
Q&A with Harmon Skurnik
Please tell us about how you got your start in wine…as well as your passion for it?
My earliest exposure to fine wine was as a teenager at my kitchen table in Merrick, Long Island. My parents were passionate travelers and in 1970, returned from a trip to France, where they caught the wine bug. My mom came back a wine collector, and my dad retro-fitted a walk-in freezer in my basement into a 55-degree wine cellar. Mom went on a buying spree, purchasing many wines by the case – at ridiculously low prices by today’s standards – of ’61 and ’66 Bordeaux, ’61 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and wonderful Rieslings from Germany, among other things. And at a time when most Americans were drinking soda pop with dinner, we had fine wine on the table. It is really my mom’s passion that first showed Michael and I what wine appreciation was all about. And, lucky for us, we were able to expand on that passion and turn it into a career, as well as a pretty successful wine importing company that now employs over 50 people. We are ever grateful to my parents for discovering wine when they did.
When did occur to you that you might be able to make a living from it?
For me, it was 1989. At the time, I was on quite a different career path from Michael – I was a marketing research manager at BBDO, the large advertising agency based in New York City, working on accounts like Apple Computer, Pepsi, and The US Navy of all things… Michael actually started the company in 1987, while he was still working for Mommessin (a French Burgundy negociant) as their national sales manager. He dabbled in distribution on the side, utilizing his license to bring in a few cases for his friends from a select few boutique California wineries, and that was the genesis of the company. Michael started to bring in more and more cases, and asked me to help him out in my spare time (I was proficient with the newly released Macintosh personal computer) so I put together his price lists and marketing materials. I always told Michael that if the company could ever support me (I had a small baby at the time), I’d be willing to drop everything and join him. That fateful day came in March of 1989, when he called me to say he had landed a fabulous portfolio of French wines from a guy named Kermit Lynch on the West Coast, and said “it’s time to quit your job.” I immediately did, joining the fledgling company.
Please tell us about your experience w Kevin Zraly and Windows era.
Kevin was an early mentor for both of us, but certainly more for Michael, who worked directly for him as his assistant cellarmaster in the late 70s. After graduating with a degree in zoology (of all things), Michael worked as a waiter at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center. At the time, the restaurant was in its heyday as celebs from Mick Jagger to Jackie O would dine in the main dining room… Michael was making great money (big tips!) but he built a relationship with Kevin aka “wine wunderkind” as they used to call him. Kevin had built perhaps the finest wine cellar in the country up there in the sky…and Michael eventually decided to take a huge pay cut to work as a cellar rat for him. Of course, that was a great (and fast) education for Michael, as everything from 1945 Bordeaux to 1969 Grand Cru Burgundies were opened every night…
I graduated college in 1979, but in the summers of 77 and 78 I worked in the Windows dining room as well, as a busboy and lunch waiter (that money wasn’t bad either for a college student!) and I also volunteered to help Kevin administer his famous Windows on the World wine course in 1989, when it was clear I was going to make wine my career…
What exactly does your company do? I know you distribute mainly in the tri-state area… But you also recently became a national distributor?
What do we do? It’s pretty simple actually. We taste, select, represent and sell to the wholesale trade – quality wines, mostly from small artisanal wine-making families. But yes, we started out as a tiny New York distributor only, with just 6 California wines in our book. Then came Kermit Lynch’s French portfolio, which gave us the “street cred” we needed, and really allowed us to grow (and for Michael to bring me in as a partner!). From there, we expanded into Italian wines with Marc de Grazia Selections, then German wines with the wonderful Terry Theise Selections, and so on…Eventually, we got a license in the Garden State of New Jersey, and now Connecticut too…Our distribution business today is mainly focused in these three states, servicing fine restaurants, wine shops, hotels etc.
In 1999, our relationship with Terry Theise was so good, that he entrusted us with overseeing his national business as well, and we thus became a national importer. Today, we ship Terry Theise Selections of German wine, Austrian wine and Champagne, and an additional portfolio of wines from around the world, to 45 or so states.
As my father used to say, “not too shabby!”
How does Skurnik pick the wines that you will add to the portfolio?
Well, today, it is a little different than in the early days. Back then, we really had to comb the countryside, tasting, networking, always looking for the next hot brand, whether in California or Europe. We were constantly asking people in the business to recommend addresses of the up and coming winemakers who were doing interesting things, and then we’d go visit and taste out of barrel, and if we liked his wines, we’d have to convince him why he should entrust a small company like us to represent him… Today it’s a little different. Luckily, we have developed a stellar reputation in the wine world, so many producers know about us, and if they are looking for distribution, they come knocking. And we usually ask them to send us samples to taste, and if we like them, we will then meet with them, travel to the winery, get to know them, and then finally educate the staff about them.
How do you and Michael divide up responsibilities now?
I’d like to say that we each have our own specialty with distinct responsibilities, but it’s not really the case. We both run the company. We both taste every wine that aspires to be in our portfolio, we both interview every candidate that we hire, and we both manage and review all our employees together. I guess you can say Michael and I are a pretty successful team, because that is truly how we operate. Of course, there are times when we can’t convince each other of a particular point of view – and that’s when Michael reminds me of whose name is on the door – but that happens rarely. I guess our upbringing as competitive – but friendly – brothers, allows us to work through our differences in constructive ways…
How similar are your palates?
Eerily similar. It wasn’t always that way, though, but when you taste side by side for a living with someone for almost 25 years, your palates tend to evolve in similar ways I guess? I think it is fair to say that we both look for the same things in a wine – wines that are “real” and not “manufactured”, wines that are balanced, and wines that speak of the place where the grapes came from. We both feel that oak can be an interesting “seasoning” for a wine – like salt or pepper is to meat – but we abhor wines with too much oak flavor – just like we would hate a steak that was doused with salt!
To distill it down further, though, I think we have both keenly developed our palates such that we can not only tell good wine from bad, but also predict, with a fair amount of confidence, which wines will be commercially successful in our demanding market, and which will not.
How many wines do you taste on a weekly basis?
The weeks vary but I would say we average about 30-40 wines a week (not counting the wines that we gladly pull from our cellar after a hard day’s work and enjoy with dinner each night!)
What region or area do you think is making great wines but not receiving enough love?
I’ll tell you what really frustrates me, and it seems to afflict the so-called “New World” wine regions more than the classics. It bothers me when a country or region gets “pigeon-holed” into a narrow spectrum, so it’s impossible for genuine quality producers to be taken seriously. I’ll give you three examples: 1) New Zealand – land of commoditized Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that sells for $15 and under. That’s what New Zealand is known for, but there is also a small region on the south island called Central Otago, where some small producers are doing extraordinary things with Pinot Noir. We represent one called Pisa Range Estate. But because the wine sells for all of $30 (the average price of a decent Pinot in California!), the market refuses to take them seriously. Frustrates me to no end! Another example is in Chile – home of the “value Cabernet Sauvignon”. Sure they’re great, but it’s a whole big country out there – and in a small region west of the famous Maipo, there’s a wonderful, cool climate region called Casablanca Valley. If you woke up in Casablanca Valley, you would think you were on California’s Sonoma Coast – it really looks like it! It’s foggy most mornings, the climate is very cool, unlike the torrid Maipo, and it’s perfect for varietals like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. We have a great winery called Kingston Family Vineyards from this region, who produces wine every bit as good as most Sonoma Coast producers, at a fraction of the cost, but instead of comparing those two areas, buyers will say the wines are expensive compared to the $10 commoditized Cabernet on the shelf – which is ridiculous! One last example – in South Africa. We have a winery in the fabulous vineyard region of Stellenbosch called Uva Mira. They make superlative Chardonnays, and Bordeaux-style blends. Very serious wines – pulling out all the quality stops! But most buyers say their customers won’t buy anything from South Africa over $15. Come on people! Where is your adventurous spirit?! Sorry to rant there…maybe I got a little carried away…but you can see I’m passionate about that!
There are so many! And I hate to single out just a few, since my other customers will feel slighted. But how about if I highlight my favorite new openings here in NYC? There is a wonderful new Italian restaurant called “Ciano”, ex-Cru chef Shea Gallante’s new place. Awesome. Also, it’s not brand new, but Michael White’s “Marea” on Central Park South, is doing “Le Bernardin-quality” seafood with an Italian flair – I love that place! And of course, there is New York’s best kept secret over in Brooklyn, called “Brooklyn Fare”, where ex-Bouley chef Cesar Ramirez is serving up extremely creative menus every night (if you can get a table – the place is tiny!)
How big of an influence was Kermit Lynch?
A pretty big influence, early on. For example, thanks to him, we learned the value of shipping in refrigerated containers (which are a necessity for fine wine), the dangers of too much (or sometimes too little!) filtration, etc. We did cellar visits with many of his producers and learned what separated the quality producers from the rest. We owe a lot to Kermit for giving us a shot when we were just a couple of “young turks” starting out. Of course, we have progressed plenty from those early days and refined our own palate greatly. All experiences in the wine world build upon each other, and we become a product of all our experiences. So while Kermit was a big influence early, we haven’t worked with him in more than 15 years, and our palates have evolved quite a bit since then… by the way, I’d stack our current French portfolio against Kermit’s anytime!
Who else are your biggest influences?
Terry Thiese (of Terry Theise Estate Selections), for sure. A gentle man who really understands the “soul” of wine. Just read his writings for a few minutes and that becomes clear. By the way, his new book “Reading Between The Wines” shouldn’t be missed!
Marc and Iano De Grazia (of Marc de Grazia Selections). They showed us what great Italian wine is all about. Plus, they are a pair of brothers too and we had so much in common, especially when we were both starting out.
Peter Vezan (agent/broker from France) was, and remains, a huge influence on us, even more so than Kermit. We visit our French growers with Peter every year, and he is an encyclopedia of wine knowledge, as well as an “emissary” of French culture and the unique struggles (and they do struggle!) of the small French vigneron.
Of course, there are also several domestic producers who were great influences as well, from Helen Turley to Tony Soter, Randall Grahm, Cathy Corison, Mia Klein, Ken Wright, Bart Araujo, Robb Talbott, David Ramey, Paul Hobbs, David Hirsch…so many more…
Last, but certainly not least, my father was a great influence on me. He’s been gone for 20 years now, but is still a huge part of who I am, both in business and in life.
Cool, thanks for asking something not wine-related! I definitely have my favorites and they would have to be in no particular order: Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat and the Beatles.
Best movie of all time?
I’m tempted to say “The Jerk” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, my two favorite comedies. But for serious films, I’ll mention a few…”Schindler’s List”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “The Deer Hunter”, “Raging Bull” and “Kramer vs Kramer”
ALL time favorite wine and year?
Well, this is hard because I have so many. But one white and one red stand out to me when I am asked this question: White: 1982 Ramonet Montrachet (tasted in 1995 or so magnificently complex) Red: 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage “La Chapelle” (tasted in 2000 or so and it was monumental). Runner up: 1978 Henri Jayer Richebourg
Do you have a favorite grape? wine region?
I like so many different grapes and regions! But the “desert island” question would have to be Pinot Noir from Burgundy, I guess.
Why do you feel it is important to have a wine cellar? Who is your favorite wine cellar builders:)?
If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it is that storage is CRITICAL if you want to age your wines properly. If you’re going to invest plenty of your hard-earned money in the top wines, it would be foolish (and suicidal to the wines!) not to store them at the proper temperature and humidity…I built my own cellar in 1997 when I moved into my home on Long Island – it is a “passive” cellar, meaning it is completely natural, with no artificial cooling or humidifying…but it is underground and it has worked out great for me. My favorite cellar builders WOULD have been “Joseph and Curtis” had I known about them at that time – instead, I hired a local contractor who built it according to specifications found in Richard Gold’s “How and Why to Build a Wine Cellar”. I put in vapor barriers and the whole 9 yards. I am very happy with its performance, some 14 years later…