Wisconsin- Home of Beer, Brats, and Brandy! A Fine Wine Perspective from a Secondary Market

Gary Binter, CWE , Director of Fine Wine- General Beverage Sales / Prestige Wines Wisconsin

February 13, 2021

Wine has been a vocation, and avocation, my entire adult life. 

I grew up in my parents’ restaurant business, that they started in 1963. 

It was a typical Wisconsin ethnic German restaurant. 

Yes, I was a “pearl diver” at the age of thirteen- for fifty cents an hour! 

Subsequently, I became a budding “wine geek”, and unbeknownst to my Dad, I purchased six bottles of 1967 Chateau d’Yquem for the restaurant, for $11 a bottle.

When my Dad found out, he was furious!

I quickly explained that this was the greatest sweet wine in the world, from a spectacular vintage.

My dad was dubious, but years later, when I told him how much this wine had appreciated in value, he acknowledged my astute foresight, and he teased me, and asked- why I hadn’t bought more of it!

I credit my vinous career path, to my friend- Doug Sehmer, who gifted me my first wine book in 1970- Grossman’s Guide to Wine, Beer, and Spirits. 

“You like drinking this stuff so much”, he said, “that you should start learning about it!” 

The availability of wine education, and literature, was very limited in 1970. 

That same year, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe, where I was first exposed to wine culture.  

My initial employment with a wine and spirits distributor, was in 1973. 

I was hired as their very first- “wine man”.  

Wine was becoming a thing, so the company needed a- “wine man”. This was my new title!  

Looking back at that term, it is rather funny sounding! 

But at that time, there were no women in the sales side of the wholesale wine and spirits business. None! 

Hard to believe by today’s standards!

Our company had a sister company in Chicago- headed by the late, great- Gerry Hirsch (whose son, Steven, runs Heritage Wines in Illinois), who made a trip up to Milwaukee, to meet the “new hire”.  

At our lunch, I will never forget what he said to me- “Well Gary, it seems like you know a little about wine, and have some passion for it. 

“I don’t know what your goals are in life, but if wealth is one of them, go do something else! 

“At this point, these three things will happen to you- 

“If you stay in the wine business, you will be able to make a living, and take care of your family.  

“Secondly, you are going to meet an awful lot of nice people!

“Thirdly, you are going to eat and drink like a king!”  

So, I thought to myself- Take care of my family. Meet a lot of nice people. And eat and drink like a king!  

Where do I sign up?

In the early 70’s, the market was dominated by imported wines from Germany, France, and Italy.  

A lot of California wines back then were sweet, cheap, and high in alcohol.  

In those days, at off premise (retail stores), one could find inexpensive classified Bordeaux wines, in many savvy shops. 

Perhaps surprisingly, given the tremendous growth in wine appreciation through the ensuing years, Bordeaux wines were available in more locations in Wisconsin then, than they are today.  

Sadly, over time, the prices for first growth Bordeaux wines have made them unaffordable for most people, even for special occasions.  

I fear many new, knowledgeable, passionate, wine lovers, will never taste Chateau Lafite Rothschild, and other rarities.  

I remember my wife, and I, would get together with three-four other couples, and everyone would bring a vintage, or two, of great growth Bordeaux, like Chateau Palmer! 

Adjusted for inflation, that would be difficult to afford now, and availability would be more difficult to source.  

My first trip to the California wine country (on my own dime) was in 1974, two years before the legendary tasting in Paris.  

Napa was not the monoculture, that it is today.  

Walnuts, rusty old farm equipment, and oh, look over there- a vineyard!  

Vineyards were scattered in with other agriculture.  

We visited the usual suspects. There were not that many.  

Beaulieu Vineyards (BV), Inglenook, and Robert Mondavi, were among the few better-known labels at the time. 

Because I worked for the distributor that sold Christian Brothers, which was located in- St. Helena (now- The Culinary Institute of America (CIA)), we were given a great tour, and taken out for lunch.  

Those that have been to Napa, know that it has become a gastronomic Disneyland.  

We were taken to the Silverado Country Club for lunch- some twenty plus miles from- St. Helena, to the northeast side of the city of Napa.  

Why would we go that distance for lunch, through- St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, and Yountville?  

The answer is- in 1974, there was no fine dining in the valley! Hard to believe in today’s Napa Valley.  

After lunch, we toured another Christian Brothers facility- Mont La Salle, west of the city of Napa, in the Mayacamas Mountains.  

I remember being told by the tour guide that there were folks planting vineyards here up in the hills, because Christian Brothers had all the great vineyard sites already taken on the valley floor!  

“Mountain fruit would never make great wine”, he said…  

I came back to Wisconsin, bitten by the California wine bug!  

Now, working for a different distributor, I was given authority to acquire California brands- and we did!  

In 1983, we became Seghesio Wineries first out of state distributor.  

Brands that followed were- Jordan, Ironhorse, Duckhorn, Frog’s Leap, Silver Oak, Spottswoode, Rombauer, Hess, Heitz, Trefethen, Newton, Lake Spring, Burgess, Buehler, Conn Valley, Mayacamas, Diamond Creek, Ferrari Carano, Foxen, and Sanford.  

In the Wisconsin market, we were a bit frustrated, because we had to wait for the market to catch up to the brands that we had acquired.  

Needless-to-say, it has more than caught up over the years!  

Our state still has beer, brats, and brandy. But now there is a great dining scene. Fine wine fits well with, and compliments, that scene.  

One of the best things that happened to accelerate interest in fine wine, was the much greater availability of sources for gourmet ingredients, with the result that an increasing number of people became educated about how to use them, and developed an expanded sensory understanding and vocabulary- for both food, and wine.  

In 2015, I had just been elected to the Board of Directors, of The Society of Wine Educators. 

I was in New Orleans for our annual conference, which is usually attended by three to four hundred people.  

One evening, as I walked around Bourbon Street, I harkened back to a different wine time in my life- it was Mardi Gras, 1968.  

Louisiana had a legal drinking age of 18 years old, so I remember purchasing, on the street, a chilled bottle of Ripple, for one dollar. It was enjoyed!  

Heading back to the conference, forty-seven years later, I was sniffing and swirling with the best of them!