Gewurztraminer is the first wine that Adam Beak remembers sampling. A family friend managed Navarro Vineyards' tasting room, and brought the unfinished bottles to dinner.
The taste, or perhaps the name, made an impression. It's an aromatic white. "Gewurz" means spicy in German. Beak, 49, was only in eighth grade at the time-"we were tasting a little, not getting schnockered"-but formed an interest. Now, he's the one handed the wine list at business lunches.
Beak worked for a time at a commercial-finance company where part of his job included inventory auditing, including wineries. When an opportunity came to begin lending to winemakers, he took it, and built up the business. In time, he became CFO to a small winemaker, where he learned more.
Beak, who jokes that perhaps he was born to winemaking, having debuted in "Champaign," Ill., is currently senior vice-president and manager of Bank of the West's North Coast Agricultural Banking Center/Premium Wine Group, based in Napa, Calif. The group, with an $800 million-plus portfolio, banks all winery and related businesses-even down to suppliers of corks. "We lend up and down the business," he says, from the wine giants to the many small, often family-owned labels. (To read more about banking the wine business, click here.)
Can someone not be a wine enthusiast and still bank the trade? Beak pauses, as if sampling a new vintage: "There are probably a few out there, but it would be difficult. I can't imagine a vegetarian lending to a feedlot operator."
Lending is his day job. Since 2005, Beak has been an investor in Sean Minor Wines, producer of a label by the same name as well as the Four Bears Winery brand. Should you visit California, don't bother trying to visit the Minor tasting rooms or vineyards. There aren't any. Sean Minor, managed by Sean and his wife Nicole, is a negociant. A negociant acquires grape juice, fruit, or even basic lots of completed wine, with the latter for blending.
"It's a dirty little secret of the wine trade," says Beak, that there are plenty of winemakers who don't grow their own grapes. They may not even own a production facility, but contract the work. Instead, they concentrate on the end results. Beak says negociants can achieve greater year-to-year consistency in flavor, much as blended-scotch producers mix single malts for consistent taste.
Beak's role in Sean Minor, in addition to helping write the original business plan and putting in his stake, consists of financial advice. The Minor family has the winemaking and marketing expertise.
The traditional winemaking cycle requires patient capital. Beak says it takes several years for vineyards to establish themselves, and the production and buildup of inventory takes more time-about six years in total. "We were looking for a disruptive model," says Beak, and being a negociant helped. The wines include a cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and a high-end red blend. They are drawn from five California growing regions. Sean Minor wines have received numerous awards and favorable ratings in wine publications.
Beak's personal favorite? "That would be like asking me who my favorite child is."