Tom Hunter- Revel Wine: Facilitating a New Era in California Wine

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The L A wine scene has changed a lot in the 21st century.  In 2001, Tom Hunter recounts going to sell wine in L. A. for a small portfolio and having restaurant buyers tell him that they only carry wine that is sold in supermarkets because if customers don’t recognize it, they won’t buy it. 

Revel Wines started out in 2006 and by 2007 Tom had joined partner Matthew Plympton and a philosophy began to emerge as to the wines that they would sell henceforward.  With importing out of the question because of the cost, the two began representing a new generation of winemakers who recognized what  California had to offer in the way of unique vineyard sites, often beyond the traditional locales.  These winemakers were preoccupied with wines of terroir, emulating making the european wines that Tom revered.  The economics of winemaking invited this new generation to explore and experiment with their sourcing of grapes, whether from ‘non-premium’ regions or with reclamation projects of old, abandoned vineyards. Wines from unfamiliar grapes started appearing.  

To fully appreciate the influence of a given vineyard site on impressionable grapes, these winemakers did away with unecessary inputs: cultured yeasts and other winemaking substances, the flavor of new oak barrels and what was then the trend to overextraction that favored fruitiness over savory and mineral flavors. Kevin O’Conner of Lioco was the first signator for this new regime and soon a long list of like-minded producers supplied Revel’s portfolio.  For a reference point, Jon Bonné’s “The New California Wine” is riddled with Revel portfolio members.

Like some other sucessful fine wine distributors, the ultimate success of Revel is in its understanding that the progress of the company must be horizontal not vertical.  Its producers make small batch amounts that by definition vary by each vintage. Therefore, their customers must appreciate the variation that is the charm of the artisinal.  Large vendors and chain restaurants demand consistency and volume of product.  Revel’s clients are small and so are their producers.  Neither can scale up much.  For Revel to expand, they bring in other small producers under their tent. Or they start selling cider.  Or they expand their international portfolios. Their points of distribution remain small-scale.  But it’s not that much of a concern because, as Tom says, he doesn’t have to be very rich and he wants to work with people he likes.

In our talk, Tom describes the development of the company and answers my questions about its details.  He is generally breezy and candid with his answers and I can’t help but think that the success of the company and its impact on wine drinking in the past ten years is really an afterthought to Tom that has been suppressed by the day to day rigors of selling his products.  Regardless, it must be said that the Revel portfolio has had an outsized effect on the wine drinkers of Los Angeles and beyond.

Notes on the podcast:

* I mention 2 things I took away from the Jon Bonné article properly titled “Why Is the Wine World So Un-woke?” first I describe to Tom, the second I forgot to get to in our interview.  It is: “Why buy wine from assholes?”

* At some point in the Interview I mistakenly refer to ‘sulfites’ as ‘sulfates. 

* In the discussion of ‘organics’, i should have made a distinction between ‘wine made with organic grapes’ which is what I was really thinking of and ‘organically made wine’ which is more problematic from the labelling standpoint. After all, ingesting glyphosate or other chemicals from the vineyard (which has been documented) should be of more concern than the conscientious application of tartaric acid, for instance, in high-end winemaking.  In general, I should have had this part of the discussion laid out way better.  I did the subject a bit of a disservice and was not as prepared as I should have been.