A talk with Cat Oster
By Scott Douglas
Cat Oster, age 34, and her husband, Doug Watts, own SoPo Wine Co., a distributor of small-label and independent wines. The two founded the company last March after several years spent working for other distributors in Maine, Nashville and elsewhere. They run the business out of their home in South Portland, and maintain a storage facility elsewhere in the city. The company’s Web site is sopowine.com.
The Bollard: You came here from Nashville, a much different kind of environment. Are tastes in wine different here in Maine?
Oster: I would say restaurant-wise, Portland and southern Maine and the coastal region is pretty sophisticated…. I would say Maine is a very price-conscious state, so I think that plays into the wines that do well here.
Are there differences not just in terms of sophistication and price, but that people here like different types than elsewhere?
I would say that we follow pretty much the trends.
Meaning everyone wants Pinot Noir now?
Yeah, but that’s sort of phasing out. The trend now is within Australian wines. Not just to have an animal on the label, but we as consumers have spent between $8 and $12, and now the trend has been to shift between $12 and $15.
I’d say in Maine now, where I had seen it a little bit earlier elsewhere, there’s also a big trend with Spanish wines.
Are there differences within Maine?
Yeah. Like our Two Hands [a brand of high-end Australian wine]…. When we went up to the Midcoast, everybody knew what it was, whereas I think there was more of an education process when we were down [in southern Maine]. In the south, we compete more with the fact that [retailers] are so close to the New Hampshire liquor stores.
Which are a lot cheaper?
Yeah, because the state is the wholesaler and the retailer, so they’ve made a lot of money, but nobody knows that — they just look at the price. The luxury for us is that a lot of the brands we have aren’t in New Hampshire. They didn’t get in before this weird shift where they started to reevaluate their market in New Hampshire.
How do you get your wines into a place, either a restaurant and a retail establishment?
I’ll take restaurants, then retail, because they’re kind of different monsters.
One thing we offer is not being in Hannaford and Shaw’s. For a lot of restaurants, that’s something they want, believe it or not, because it gives them the luxury to make more money and to present wines that aren’t everywhere.
Going to a restaurant involves the initial meeting with the person, and then our job is to look at their wine list and see what holes they may have…. Looking if countries are represented; if price points are represented; if the restaurant is French-based, looking to see if they’re missing a region, and that’s how you present to them initially, saying, ‘Oh, I noticed you don’t have a Loire Valley wine.’ And then you start looking at brands they have that you think you have a better value at.
Restaurants can be a lot of legwork. They’re busy, they have only certain times they can see you, there’s a lot of back and forth. Retail stores, a lot of our brands have great ratings, so it helps when we walk in the door. Decisions are made really quickly in a retail store, whereas a restaurant might take months. You can work on a restaurant for six months before you get a placement.
Why is that?
Sometimes people change their wine list only quarterly or yearly. They’re much more limited in their space than retail stores. Usually a restaurant has only 30 wines, whereas usually a retail store might have 250 or 300. So the competition is pretty fierce.
In all of these places, are you dropping off samples, or more hoping to sit down with them and taste and talk?
Legally, we can give samples to restaurants, but I want to sit down with them. If you just drop it off…
The dishwasher’s going to drink it?
Well, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And nothing against restaurateurs — people are busy.
It’s an easier sell if you can put something with the wine. If you just throw a bottle of wine at someone, yes, it might be the best Shiraz you’ve ever had for $15, but so what? But if I tell you the story behind the Shiraz, there’s a lot more tie to that wine to you than if I just slap that bottle down and leave it with pricing information.
You said you’re not in Hannaford and Shaw’s. Is that a conscious choice?
Hannaford is very aggressive in their wine efforts right now. I would say it’s a choice right now…. We’re small, and some of the wineries we represent, they might make only 100 cases of a certain wine. Do I want that all going to one chain? No, I’d rather have it with the people who care about the wine….
The wine business, just like everything, is getting a little homogenized. For me, being in the wine business as long as I’ve been, it’s a little scary. There are like eight shelves in Hannaford of Australian wine that all come from the same person. There are now California labels that all came from the same person with multiple shelves. Big corporations are buying wineries and they’re getting bigger and bigger and bigger. In some respects, I think that offers people better values, but not in all respects. My big thing about our wines is that you get a sense of where they come from, and I think a lot of wines have lost that.
Are they driving prices down, or are they trying to pretend they’re small, indie wineries, and driving prices up?
Both. They produce some things that are done just for value, and they produce some things under indie labels so that they seem more cult-like. My biggest chuckle is to see something that says ‘limited production’ and for me to know that they make 400,000 cases. And then I look at some of our winemakers, and they make 900 cases. To me, that’s limited production.
Working with someone who makes maybe 100 cases of something, how much is it you going to them and saying, ‘Let us have your stuff’ versus them coming to you and saying, ‘Sell our stuff’?
Lately it’s almost 50-50. Before it was more 80-20, with the 80 us. But Doug and I have a lot of relationships from the years we’ve been in the wine business, so that’s given us a luxury — they find out what we’re doing, and they’re not here, or they were here 12 years ago but have had no ordering since then, and they’ve been contacting us. But I’m not above begging.
What about the thing in Maine where you carry, say, the Magnificent Wine Company’s House Wine, and so you’re the only ones allowed to sell that in the state? Is that unique to Maine, or is that the case everywhere?
It’s pretty much the case in 17 states, and that’s not including the states that are run by state liquor.
What is the rationale behind that?
Ideally, the rationale is that it protects small guys like me. It means that if we build a brand like House Wine and make it the brand that it is now, where we’re selling 150 cases a month of it, then the owner of Magnificent Wine Company can’t just decide one day, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to go to [the distributor] Pine State,’ and leave us stranded after all our work for him.
There is a grey area in there where it hurts people, where if you’re registered with a large distributor, and they haven’t ordered from you in years, they still have the right to represent you, unless they want to give you up, or you want to sue them.
On your Web site, there’s a very long list of wines you carry. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re currently carrying 100 different wines. That’s 100 out of trying how many?
I would say if we carry 100, we’ve probably tried 600.
Are there situations where you have one sip and immediately say, ‘Forget this’?
Because the taste doesn’t match up with the price?
It might be the price. It might be that where it’s from, it could be from anywhere. Doug and I just turned away a wine that, its name alone, was great for Maine for the summer of next year. We tasted the wine, and it tasted like it could be from anywhere, and it sort of wasn’t what we believe in. It needs to fit a criteria. We believe that the wine should taste like where it’s from, if that’s South Africa or Sonoma. It should be good for the price point that it’s in.
Sometimes we subject our friends to blind tasting…. It was great in the beginning to fall back on people who maybe just buy wine by price point, or maybe buy wine by labels, or maybe buy wine just by what they like. Wines are like food — everybody has a different impression of it. I can say, ‘This is the best wine you’ve ever had,’ and you can taste it and say, ‘This sucks.’ What we try to do is find a good value for each category.
Have you heard from any Maine winemakers?
No, actually. I ran into someone who’s a winemaker here, and they deal more directly. I passed on her name to people who might be interested in what she’s doing. It’s the small guys in Maine, and we all try to sort of support each other.
What kind of wine would be made here?
A lot of fruit wine. And a lot of the other Maine wine you see, if you read the label carefully on the bottom, it says ‘American Wine,’ which means that they are buying the juice from Washington state, California and Oregon, and then making the wine here. Grapes growing here? Obviously, grapes that do well in cold weather, so Riesling, Chardonnay.
How much wine are you guys drinking a day?
I grew up in a household where my parents had wine with dinner almost every night. I would say we have wine with dinner almost every night.
During the day, people say, ‘How do you taste all day long?’ Well, we spit. It’s not like we’re swallowing all the wine all day. I’m not a proponent of getting hammered, but Doug and I will tend to have wine while we’re working at night, sometimes just trying to decide whether we want to carry it or not. Right now, we have a case of wine we need to work our way through like that. So I guess a bottle of wine a night between us.
Is it hard to separate just having it for pleasure versus analyzing it?
Yes. Even if we go out to eat, we wind up discussing the wine in business terms…. I’m hoping that at Thanksgiving, I can just enjoy the wine I have.
Do you ever get sick of it?
Yes. Last week, I probably went three days in a row where I didn’t want any wine. It’s like when I went to wine school several years ago in California, and when we’d get out, I’d be like, ‘Can I have a beer? Can I have a glass of water?’ The last thing I’d wanted was to taste wine. So if we’ve had a day where we’ve been tasting all day, even if the wine is good, I will not want wine that night. I’ll just want water or ginger ale, like anybody else.
Say someone is having a special occasion. Is the difference between a $10 and $20 bottle of wine greater than the difference between a $20 and $40 bottle of wine? Where do things really start being different?
I think the jump from $10 to $20 is a significant jump, but $20 to $40 is a huge jump in quality.
Would most people be able to appreciate the degree of difference?
I think so…. I don’t know if they’d like the difference.
Why is that?
If you don’t like really rich wines… Let’s just take that difference in a Cabernet. From the $20 to $40 price point, it might be richer and darker and more tannic, and that might not equate to you as something you like. But you’ll definitely be able to sense that in what you’re tasting. There are some exceptions to the rule, where there are some $10 wines that taste better than a lot of $20 wines.
With the two of you owning your own business, how is the labor divided?
Right now, as we speak, my husband is doing excise taxes. He handles that, and I do most of the purchase orders. I deal with the truckers. It’s split pretty much down the middle. We both meet trucks at our warehouse to unload them. We both go out and sell.
Do you ever feel like you have do extra to prove your knowledge in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry?
Very much so. The first time I encountered that was in Nashville, where I was the first woman there in some of those positions, and I busted my butt to get there. Then I came here, where I thought I might be in a bit more enlightened environment, and while there are more woman salespeople here than in the South, I think we all have to work a little harder, regardless. I think there are a lot of people who know about wine who will turn to my husband over me every time.