On September 22nd, The Mollydooker Team consisting of Sparky Marquis-Winemaker, Janet Gawith-Sparky’s Mom, and Bryan Janssen-Mollydooker Business Development, rolled into Jacksonville, Florida straight from Southern Australia. After a left-handed handshake from all 3 and an extensive lunch, I got time for some questions for Sparky.
Interview conducted at B.Bs Restaurant, San Marco, Jacksonville on Sept 22nd 2009
Sparky Marquis: Sparky Marquis from Mollydooker Wines
SM: I guess the number one principle for us for Mollydooker is to create a “WOW” impact with all of our wines. Our main philosophy would be to have the wine in the bottle at two quality levels above the price on the outside. So no matter what price people pay, they get a “WOW” experience with all of our wines.
KC: How much of you success in the U.S. would you attribute to some of your reviews from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator etc.
SM: I think it’s always interesting in terms of reviews, and I would never knock back a review, I always take the benefits of those reviews, but it still has to be about the wine in the bottle. When we tasted with the Wine Advocate with Robert Parker in 2006, he said the wines were looking absolutely stunning, we were awarded best value wine in the world for The Boxer, 2 left Feet got 2nd best value wine in the world, and The Violinist and The Maitre’d got equal 4th.
At that time, and there is no doubt that in the very first instant when people saw that, that was phenomenal, but the reality is that the wine already was what it was in the bottle, and if you don’t have that, you don’t have wine that consumers love, then you can have as good of a review as you like. And that will sell one bottle, but we’re talking about selling cases and cases and cases.
The reviews are critical for the startup, but I think that the reality is people tasting the wine, and in our case it’s them telling their friends “I just tasted this Mollydooker and it was unbelievable!”
KC: The U.S. is you main export market for Mollydooker, why is that?
SM: I guess the big thing for us is that 90% of our total production comes here to the United States, 5% to Australia and 5% for the rest of the world. The 5% for Australia is exactly the same proportion per capita as the 90% in America. The 5% for the rest of the world [laughs] doesn’t make them very happy though!
We already had quite a lot of friends in the United States, and when we looked at what we were going to do we started our own import company into the United States, and we really didn’t know a lot of people around the rest of the world, so we looked at developing our market here. For us we don’t even call America an export country for us, we actually call it our home. Australia is really more of an export market for us than America is!
SM: I guarantee what creates the “WOW” factor in all of our wines can only come from something that we call the Marquis Vineyard Watering Program. It’s a program that we have been developing for the last 22/23 years.
When I first went to college at Roseworthy College in South Australia, what the lecturers were telling me was that to create super-concentrated premium wines, you need to have dry grown, low yielding, old vineyards. For me, I looked at that and asked the Dean of the College “Why?” The Dean said to me after a couple of weeks that they didn’t have an answer, and instead of asking why, why don’t you go and do the research and tell us.
So I’ve spent the last 20+ years researching dry grown, low yielding, old vineyards, and what I’ve found out is what people say about that is exactly true! It’s just that people don’t know why! So what we did is that we studied the whole program, the whole responses from a grape vine in dry grown, low yielding, old vineyards, and in Australia because we are a young wine-making country, the opportunity to buy old vineyards is small. So what we wanted to do was to find out if you can replicate that with young vineyards, with commercial crop levels using water, and the answer is yes you can.
So we created a technique that we manage all of our vineyards for that create that WOW impact that, silky sensation, that Velvet Glove with all of our wines.
SM: [laughs] It’s always funny because a lot of people ask that question, and we get to taste wine with a lot of wine consumers and I always laugh because I guess that we’re fairly parochial, or focused in what we do. The reality is that there is only 2 things that Sarah and I drink, 1 is Mollydooker, the other is Jack Daniels.
Sure when I’m out and I’m with friends and they bring a wine along, I’ll always taste it because I’m always interested to see what the wine tastes like, but in terms of opening a bottle myself, I only ever open Mollydooker.
SM: [Thinks for 2 seconds.] Steak, and Mollydooker!
KC: Way to think outside the box!
KC: If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be doing?
SM: Prior to being in wine-making, I was a professional photographer, when I graduated for my photographic degree, I graduated as Kodak’s Young Photographer of the Year for Australia and had a great time doing photography.
Whether I’d still be doing that now I don’t know, I LOVE winemaking, I do it with a passion, it doesn’t consume my life, it is my life. Sarah my wife is a winemaker, we both work together, we have the opportunity to do everything that we do together, and I love everything that we do! Right through from vineyards, to making wine, tasting wine, tasting with people, doing functions and stuff like that, and for me I don’t have any vision of doing anything else other than what we are doing.
KC: Describe your initial meeting with Robert Parker in 2006. I heard you say that you had $17 in the bank up until that point?
SM: Sarah and I believe that we have been absolutely, incredibly blessed.
When we first started making Mollydooker, which was in 2005, and obviously then it takes a year to go through the maturation process before you bottle and release them. In March of 2006 we ended up with just $17 left in the bank, our lawyers were telling me; “Sparky, you need to make sure you are not operating insolvent!” and I’m like “Nah! We’re not insolvent” and I’m thinking “I wonder what insolvent is actually!?!?!”
So I asked them, and they said that it’s when you can’t pay your bills when they’re due. So I said. “Well in that case we’re not insolvent”. We’ve always paid our bills on time, all before-hand, so we didn’t owe anybody any money, even though we only had $17 left in the bank!
So this is the middle of the month, March of ’06 and our accountant says; “Well what about the end of the month?” I said “Oh…. well; we owe $300,000 at the end of the month. So we have two weeks to change the business around.”
Well what happened was, we had an Adelaide business guy randomly walk into our office, I didn’t even know him, and I’d met with him for lunch, just me and him.
And he was like “Well, are you thinking about selling your business?”
And I was like “No, why would I do that?”
“Oh, I was just asking a question mate.” He said
At this point with $17 in the bank, $300,000 due at the end of the month, me and Sarah were thinking, how are we going to solve that.
So he said; “Well look, I don’t know why I’m saying this, but if I could write you a check for $300,000 right now, I’m going to China tomorrow, but I’d really like to talk to you about business, so if I could write you a check for $300,00, would that be of any benefit to you?”
So he walked into our office the next day, wrote a check for $300,00 and left to go to China. As quick as that.
At that point nobody knew Mollydooker, at all. And what he did totally changed our lives, and we ended up never selling any of our business to him. At all. We actually repaid that money, because on the 7th of July we met with Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate and we did a tasting with him in Baltimore. We’d flown in from Australia, but we’d been told a couple of days before that he might not be able to be there because he was in hospital. So we said we’d go to the hospital. Well he ended up coming and I remember it vividly, because he was tasting The Violinist and he said; “Oh man! I’m gonna have this for lunch with some soft-shell crab!” Because they’d just come into season.
The review for those wines technically should not have come out until Oct/Nov for the issue of the Wine Advocate. The reviews came out on the 1st of July at 3am in Australia, and I got a call from a friend in Baltimore and he said; “Have you seen the Parker review?”, I said it’s “3am!” He said “I don’t care, get out of bed! It’s unbelievable!”
Problem was, at that point we had not one bottle of wine in America to sell!
So shortly after, the ship with the wine arrived, and we had our 1st release of Mollydooker in the United States, and it sold out in 19 days.
We then released our Carnival of Love and the Enchanted Path, our high end wines. We released them on the 1st of September and nobody had seen them. Nobody had tasted them. Nobody had reviewed them. Parker had done the review back in June, but the write-ups hadn’t come out. They sold out in 7 days. We ended up with 99 points for the Carnival, 96 for The Enchanted Path. And the after-market went from $60/70/80 a bottle (what we sold them for) to $250 a bottle.
So by the end of that year, the money that we borrowed from that guy, and from my mom and dad, Sarah’s mom and dad, all that sort of stuff. By the end of November 2006, we were able to pay everyone back. So from then it was that sheer explosion of Molly Dooker.
But it was miracle after miracle after miracle after miracle in what we were doing.
SM:The big thing for us is that we believe in a couple of things. One is that we are not going to get any bigger than what we are, our aim is to be a 70,000 case company, because that is what we believe we can do as a family, and have fun doing it. So we’re not going to increase so that every single shop, every person has Mollydooker, what you’ve got is what you’re going to get.
We also want a pure guarantee of quality, we want our Lefty wines (Boxer, Maitre’d, Scooter, 2 Left Feet and Violinist) to be what we call 65-70% fruit weight, if the material doesn’t grade to that quality, we’re not going to use it.
The Party wines, Blue Eyed Boy and Giggle Pot are always going to be 75-80% fruit weight.
The Love wines Enchanted path and Carnival of Love will be 85-90% fruit weight. Velvet Glove will be 95%+.
So what excites us is that we are so committed to the ongoing quality of our wines, that anybody that drinks Mollydooker, the flavors may change slightly because of the different vineyards, and viticulture years, but the quality level, the style level will be identical year in year out. So for us we have a very clear vision of what it is that we want to do, what we want to achieve, and sharing those wines with people.
KC: Any new wines?
SM: The only new wine we have planned is the Charity wine which is called Sip It Forward , but that is actually 2 Left Feet, to which we have taken 1000 cases, relabeled it, and we have decided that we will use the whole proceeds of that wine to charity so that we can change peoples lives in Cambodia.