Kent Rosenblum at work

Kent Rosenblum, an Appreciation

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Kent Rosenblum

Kent Rosenblum (Click for larger image)

I just heard that Kent Rosenblum passed away on September 5, 2018. Mr. Rosenblum, founder of the eponymous Rosenblum Cellars, became famous for zinfandels, sourcing grapes from all over Northern California. But his real fame should be starting the warehouse winery movement.

In 1978, Kent opened his winery on the north end of the island of Alameda, just across an estuary from Oakland. The main feature of that area is the Alameda Naval Air Station. It was an industrial area and, clearly, no grapes were grown there. Instead, he expanded the practice of sourcing grapes from various growers.

Today we take warehouse wineries almost for granted. One of our favorites, Siduri, was started in 1994. Carol Shelton opened her winery in 2000. William and Jack Salerno started Manzanita Creek in 1996. Interestingly both Ms. Shelton and Manzanita Creek have a fondness for zinfandel. Siduri, of course, produces some of the finest pinot noirs anywhere.

California has lost yet another pioneer of our industry. Robert Mondavi brought science to winemaking. Ernest Gallo understood marketing and showed us the way in that field. Kent Rosenblum gets all the credit for rediscovering Zinfandel and bringing it to its current popularity.

I was fortunate to be part of a group that had lunch with Kent about 15 years ago. He was delightful, sharing with us tales of his experience in the wine industry. In his earlier life, he was a veterinarian. He was famous for producing Chateau La Paws, proceeds of which were donated to animal related causes.

In 2008 Diageo made the Rosenblums an offer they couldn’t refuse. With some trepidation, they sold the winery. Today Diageo has turned Chateau La Paws into its own label, producing three different wines.  The winery supports the North Shore Animal League of America (NSALA), the largest no-kill animal rescue group in the country.

NSALA LOGO

(Click for larger image)

Over lunch, Kent also told a story relevant to wine economics. He said that you could take a tanker full of grape juice from Australia, bring it to the U.S., ferment the grape juice, and ship it back to Australia at a total cost of about five cents a gallon. And remember, this was quite a few years ago. Shipping costs are even lower today.

Chateau La Paws

Chateau La Paws bottles

Chateau La Paws bottles (click for larger image)

Writing at IHeartDogs.com, Kristina Lotz describes the relationship between Chateau La Paws and NSALA.

“NSALA’s no-kill efforts and emphasis on education and advocacy align seamlessly with our passion points at Chateau La Paws Wines – we love our furry friends just as much as we love our wine,” says Chateau La Paws.

As a testament to this, their wine labels feature rescue dogs from NSALA.

“We worked closely with NSALA to identify the 28 rescue dogs featured on the label of each varietal,” says Chateau La Paws. “Our goal was to assemble a varied mix of breeds and ages to showcase the expansive selection of loveable pets that may be available in shelters across the country.”

But Chateau La Paws has a much longer history. The Wine Spectator took note of the Rosenblum’s charitable activities in 2007:

Yet another reason to like Rosenblum. The winery’s proprietors, Kent and Kathy Rosenblum, have joined the trend of vintners using their wines to benefit their favorite charity for those on four legs. Starting this year, $6 from the sale of each case of Rosenblum’s Chateau La Paws wines benefits Paws with a Cause, a national organization that provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities. Sales of Chateau La Paws Côte Du Bone Roan California ($14), a Syrah blend, and Chateau La Paws Côte Du Bone Blanc California, a Viognier blend ($14), have thus far generated $21,378 for Paws with a Cause. Although the wine’s name seems tailor-made for the charity, the Chateau La Paws name was in existence long before any charity connection was made. Rosenblum began making the wine in the ’90s after Kent and Kathy took a trip to La Paz (pronounced “la paws”), Mexico. “We were joking around about putting paws on a [wine] label and calling it La Paws as a fun tie-in to [my veterinary background]” said Kent. That “paws” pun morphed into two wines, which now have a combined production of about 11,000 cases.

In my time I drank several bottles of these wines. They were exactly what you would expect: quaffable and very tasty. Notably, the 2002 Côte du Bone Roan San Francisco Bay scored a respectable 85 points and made Wine Spectator’s list of 50 of California’s new red wine values in 2004. The 2002 Amador County zinfandel also made this list, scoring slightly better at 86 points. And the Rosenblum zinfandel also made the list giving Kent three of the 50 best values in California rents for that year.

Wine spectator Chateau La Paws
Wine spectator Chateau La Paws Zinfandel
Wine spectator zinfandel

Exploring the Wine Spectator archives, the earliest release of Château La Paws that I could find was 1997:

Other Rhône reds include the silky-textured Mourvèdre (pronounced mohr VED dra and formerly known in California by its Spanish name, Mataro) and Counoise (pronounced coon-WAHZ), a lesser-known grape whose wine is soft and fruity. Mourvèdre was planted throughout Northern California in the late-1800s, and some of the old vineyards survive, producing intensely flavored, supple wines such as Rosenblum Contra Costa County Chateau La Paws Côte du Bone 1997 (88, $10). Dark-colored and somewhat tannic Petite Sirah has also been grown in California since before Prohibition. This cross between Syrah and Peloursin grapes was created in France in the late 19th century, but is hardly seen there today.

I suspect the label goes back even further, but my time for this project is limited.

History

The San Francisco Chronicle in their appreciation of Kent ‘s life recounted the families early history and their migration into winemaking:

Kent Martin Rosenblum was born in Iowa in 1944 and grew up in Minnesota. “He always loved animals,” said Shauna Rosenblum. “He grew up reading ‘Dr. Dolittle.’ He communicated with animals like Dr. Dolittle did.” Kent Rosenblum met his wife, Kathy, at the University of Minnesota, where he was earning his veterinary degree and she was studying history. They married in 1969 and moved to Alameda two years later.

A passionate skier, Rosenblum joined the Berkeley Ski Club. In 1972, just for fun, the group bought a ton of grapes and divvied them up. Everyone made a small amount of wine, but “my dad’s was the only one that was remotely palatable,” Shauna Rosenblum said. The next year, the club tasked him with making all of the wine.

The Rosenblums, who had never had wine before moving to California, quickly fell in love with their new hobby. They made wine in their garage, drilling holes in the ceiling so that the tanks could fit inside. In 1978, they decided to launch a business, initially using the Dead End Bar in West Oakland as their winery.

“Things kept chugging along, but they weren’t making a profit,” Shauna Rosenblum said. Rosenblum was still working as a full-time veterinarian at Providence Veterinary Hospital in Alameda, where he continued to work through the late 1990s. After Shauna Rosenblum’s birth in 1983, Kathy told her husband that if they weren’t making a profit by the next year, they would have to abandon the winery.

But then something unexpected happened. Rosenblum purchased some Zinfandel grapes from George Hendry, a Napa Valley grower, in 1984, and it turned out to be the wine that changed their course forever. It won Best of Show at wine competitions and earned outstanding scores from critics.

“That launched them into stardom,” Shauna Rosenblum said. That year, she said, they made a $250,000 profit.

There was no intention of selling the brand. But when Diageo approached the Rosenblum family in 2008, “they offered them too much money to say no,” Shauna Rosenblum said. It was a bitter loss for her father, but Shauna Rosenblum said he was also excited by the prospect of starting over. “By that point, he’d been doing much less winemaking than he wanted to,” she said.

That year, father and daughter started Rock Wall Wine Co. Although Shauna Rosenblum runs the business and the winemaking, Rosenblum remained active in the winery until his death. He had recently taken on a new vineyard site in Sonoma County, Maggie’s Vineyard, and was excited to sell fruit from its 130-year-old Zinfandel vines to winemaker friends this year — including Jeff Cohn, his longtime winemaking partner at Rosenblum Cellars.

“All we want now is to do him proud,” said Shauna Rosenblum, who spoke on the phone from the Rock Wall winery, where harvest was under way. “I know that he would want me to be here making the best wine possible today.”

Rosenblum is survived by his wife, Kathy; daughters, Shauna and Kristen; brother, Roger; sister, Pamela; and granddaughter, Skylar.

Rock Wall Wine Company

Shauna immediately took over the presidency of Rock Wall. She continues her dad’s heritage of making zinfandel but also produces 41 other wines. And you could do no better than the view from the deck above her winery. Looking north toward the Bay Bridge you can see parts of the skylines of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Rock Wall view

Rock Wall view (Click for larger image)

In a recent feature in the San Francisco chronicle, Shauna describes the transition:

“I thought I was an adult before,” she says. But suddenly, she had to take up tasks that were completely new to her, all at once: dealing with the city of Alameda for permitting issues (she’s trying to get permission to put up a walkway of murals), negotiating with insurance agents, managing the farming of vineyards that her father had owned or leased. She even became the de facto facilities manager and learned how to patch a roof leak by herself.

She’s embraced this new era with some new, and even unorthodox, business decisions. She started by cutting off her wine distribution in all but three states. “I was losing $19 a case on distributed wine,” she explains, since distributors take a cut of the final price. But she suspected that Rock Wall might be able to sell everything itself, without the help of wholesale, through its tasting room and its 4,000-person wine club. (She sends every wine club member a 50 percent discount coupon on their birthday.) Her suspicion proved correct. “I was able to trim over $500,000 in expenses over the last 10 months,” the new president says proudly.

Shauna Rosenblum

Shauna Rosenblum

Conclusion

California has lost yet another pioneer of our industry. Robert Mondavi brought science to winemaking. Ernest Gallo understood marketing and showed us the way in that field. Kent Rosenblum gets all the credit for rediscovering Zinfandel and bringing it to its current popularity.