Reminder: November's Virtual Tasting is the 2009 Owen Roe Abbot's Table Red Wine. The tasting takes place on Wednesday the 17th. Read more about it here.
In October of 2009, I wrote about the opening of a Washington wine-dedicated retailer called Full Pull Wines. The business model was unique. Hand pick high quality, hard to find Washington wines and offer the wines, along with an engaging story, to an e-mail distribution list (read my original post about Full Pull here).
One year later, Full Pull Wines is still going strong (and continually taking a bite out of my wallet). Full Pull's Paul Zitarelli has shown a knack for identifying exceptional wines across a range of styles and price points and conveying stories that bring the bottles to life.
Below I talk with friend and founder Paul Zitarelli about what it was like starting a small business in one of the worst economies in decades and what he's learned along the way.
WWR: You launched Full Pull wines one year ago (last) month. What was it like starting your own small business this past year, especially in the midst of the worst economy in 50 years?
Zitarelli: Mostly terrifying. Early on, I had many mornings where I woke up wondering if I had frittered away my life savings. But it turns out people still drink wine about as much during lackluster economies as during boom times (although probably for different reasons). And there have been advantages launching into a bad economy too. I have been able to gain access to wines that would have been impossible to source if I had launched three years earlier.
WWR: What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
Zitarelli: Saying no. I taste a lot of wine, and most of it is made and/or represented by really good people. But the wines aren’t always really good. So I have found that I have to be ruthless when selecting our offerings, because in the end, we’re only offering about 200 wines over the course of a year, and those wines all need to represent exceptional value at their price points.
WWR: What has been the most rewarding part for you about starting Full Pull?
Zitarelli: Getting to know two groups of people. First, my mailing list. I have worked in other wine retail environments, and I have never seen a group of wine buyers like this: intellectually curious, enthusiastic about experimentation, and confident in their palates. It makes me always look forward to Thursdays, because I know I’m going to spend the whole day geeking out about wine. What could be better?
And then there are the growers and producers I work with. Even before I had sold a single bottle of wine, I was met with warmth and generosity by almost every farmer and winemaker I met. They have shown a great willingness to share the stories behind their bottles, and it has been a joy to represent them.
WWR: Any surprises – positive or negative – for you along the way?
Zitarelli: I have been surprised by how quickly we have been able to work with some of the best producers in the state. I have been surprised by just how positively the winery community in Washington has responded to our model. I had envisioned that wine aficionados would love the model for buying wine, but I didn’t realize that, for producers, this model for selling wine is much more pleasant than many of their retail encounters.
WWR: One of the most important aspects of Full Pull, in my opinion, is talking with people at the wineries and telling their stories and the stories about the wines. What have you learned from your experience talking with growers and winemakers over the last year?
Zitarelli: I do think you have correctly identified one of our most important aspects. We’re trying to convey, over e-mail, some of the experience that you get when you actually visit these farmers and winemakers. The first year has definitely underscored for me the importance of the grower community here in Washington. Everything starts with them. They know it, and the winemakers know it. Also, growers are some of the most fascinating people out there in the wine trade, and their stories are massively under-told. What this means for Full Pull is that I will continue to increase the number of vineyards I visit in addition to the wineries, and I will continue to seek out even more site-expressive, single-vineyard wines so that we have more opportunities to tell the stories behind these people and places.
WWR: How has your opinion about wine in general or Washington wine in particular changed as a result of your experiences this last year?
Zitarelli: Well, I’m completely down the rabbit hole at this point when it comes to wine. It’s an incredibly complex topic and an utter joy to explore. As for Washington, I continue to believe that our wines belong on the world stage and can compete at the very highest levels, especially in terms of quality for price. But there is a mismatch between the quality of the wine and the strength of the marketing. It’s easy to misread that fact when we’re here in Washington. But when you try to talk to national wine buyers and sommeliers about the differences between Syrahs from Yakima Valley and Walla Walla Valley, you get a lot of glazed looks. So I think we still have room to improve our storytelling, but that’s the better problem to have. I would rather have outstanding wine and room for marketing improvement as opposed to killer marketing and crap wine.
WWR: Washington wine has obviously received a great deal of accolades over the past several years especially. What changes do you expect to see in the industry in the next few years?
Zitarelli: My crystal ball is blurry, Sean. There are gusts blowing in both directions. As you mentioned, the accolades only seem to keep increasing from national publications, which is a clear tailwind. But the lousy economy is a headwind, as is the fact that three of our best varietals (Merlot, Syrah, and Riesling) remain a bit unfashionable. But economic conditions change, and wine fashions certainly change, so as long as we stay laser-focused on quality and try to not be too swayed by fashion trends, I think we’ll see continued growth and success.
WWR: Any changes that people can expect from Full Pull over the next year?
Zitarelli: As I mentioned, you might see a slight uptick in focus towards growers and an increase in single-vineyard offerings. And you might see some new producers added to the portfolio. Year one was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. My hope for year two is a smoother, more polished version of year one, with more exhilaration and less terror.