So you probably haven’t heard of Thomas Halby (pictured middle in the photo), but you HAVE seen his wines before.
Halby is the importer responsible bringing into the U.S. everything from Moselland Zeller “Katz” Riesling (the wine in the cat shaped bottle pictured below) to Santa Alicia wines from Chile and even Dragon Seal wines from China. Thomas Halby’s new project is a range of Napa Valley wines bearing his name, the Merlot of which was recently added to the wine list by Virginia Philip (Master Sommelier) at The Breakers in Palm Beach.
It could also be argued that Thomas Halby is partly responsible for the massive success in the early days of Kendall Jackson…read on for more!
How did you first become involved in the wine business?
Well after College I was drafted to Germany, it was peace time thank God! I drank a little wine over there, but Germany was mostly beer.
I then travelled to France and Spain and I couldn’t believe how much they were drinking! All of this intrigued me, so I wrote my Mother and told her to send me as much information as she could on Californian wine. And well, you know Mothers! [laughs] She mailed me mountains of books and articles, this was back in ‘62, and I remember to this day, the consumption in France was 29 gallons per person per year, in Italy it was like 26-27 gallons per year, and then there were a bunch of countries and Germany was 16th!
I said to myself ‘My God! Germany is a beer drinking country and they are 16th!’ and then all the was at the bottom was the U.S. with around 2.5 gallons per person per year! I remember thinking that if U.S. could ever get this upto 9 gallons per year this would be huge business!
So long story short, being in Europe had really convinced me that was what I wanted to do. I had gotten married, and then started in the wine business in California with Inglenook as a salesman. After Inglenook was sold, I then went to work for Louis Martini and worked my way up to VP of Sales, and I was with them for 10 years.
I can’t remember my wine business history that well, but was that before Gallo bought out Louis Martini?
Oh yeah! Way before that! This would have been the middle ‘70’s.
Ah ok! A little before my time, no offence…
[laughs]. None taken!
So I started my own wine distribution company 27 years ago, I contacted one of the people I had met along the way, Jess Jackson (of Kendall Jackson fame). He told me to come up to Lake County to meet him. Here’s a guy that had maybe a 100 acres in Lake County, in a run down winery and today he’s the richest man in the wine business. So I drove up to meet Jess, and he decided that I would be the right thing for his company, but he asked for some time to think about it.
Anyway, he asked me back and lined up 6 or 7 wines for me to taste. I told him that I thought they were perfect for the American taste: a little sweetness, easy to drink and the palate was perfect.
He said “Ok, I want to hire you but I only want you to sell Kendall Jackson for the first year.”
I told him back “Jess you are only making 12,000 cases, I can’t make a living off that.”
He said, “Well, we could do 50,000…”
I looked at Jed Steele the winemaker at the time and I asked him “Jed, is that true?”
Jed said “Oh yeah, we could probably do a little more. They’re in the tanks, they’re in the oak, we just need someone that knows what they are doing and to go out there and sell it.”
So we made the deal, and Jess Jackson owned 30% of my company. Well…..in the first year I did 60,000 cases, the second year I did around 108,000 cases. In the second year of my company I signed on another few wineries, Hahn Estates / Smith and Hook, Mark West and Napa Creek, but they were still only about 20% of my business, Kendall Jackson was the other 80%.
Jess came back to me and and “Look, give up the company and just come work for me.” He offered me $90,000 which back then was a lot of money, it’s still a lot of money today! I told him I would if he gave me a contract. He told me that he didn’t believe in contracts.
I said “Jess, you’re a lawyer! You wrote our contract! What do you mean you don’t believe in contracts?”
So we went backwards and forwards and he still wouldn’t give me a contract, so I told him I couldn’t do it. He decided that he would honor the last year of supplying my company with wine and then that was it. Well 6 months in he pulled his wine, he wouldn’t sell me any more wine for me to go on and sell. So unfortunately I sued him, and won $236,000. It was $1 a case, that’s what we had it up to for a case of KJ back then.
Was that a tough decision to make?
Of course it was, but one of the things I worked out in the wine business was that if you don’t own the label, you’re going to lose it. The last one was Smith & Hook , I helped them develop the Hahn label, took it to over 100,000 cases and they figured a way to get out of the contract.
So I said that’s it, from now on I either own the label or I own the import rights, and that’s where I am today. Right now, 95% of my business is importing. So in 1998 I decided I’d develop my own label. I called a bunch of winemaker in Napa that I knew and asked them that if they had excess juice I’d like to buy it and bottle it under my own label. And these were high end wineries, I can’t necessarily mention the names, but this was some high end juice. They agreed to supply the wine, and in the beginning I made a Cab, a Merlot and a Chardonnay and they were really successful. Now I’m making 5 wines from Napa, 2 from Sonoma, a Central Coast Pinot and a Grenache from Santa Maria.
Under the Thomas Halby name?
Under the Thomas Halby name. And then I developed the Sidecar label and the 786 label which is our address in Sonoma, and those wines are under $10 on the shelf. I have 5 French wines that I import, but my Cognac is my big thing out of France.
So how do you decide which wines you want to deal with?
Well, I travel to Vin Expo every 2 years and I meet a lot of people, a lot of it came through contacts. About 7-8 years ago I took empty Vodka bottles to Germany and I told them to come up with packaging. They came up with the Moselland package with different scenes from around Germany. We have now expanded and do over 50 “scenes” from around the world, even one for the Jupiter Lighthouse in Jupiter, Florida all with Riesling in the bottle.
Any new labels on the horizon?
Well, in this trip we decided that we will do the St. Augustine Lighthouse, it’s the same wine, same UPC barcode as the rest of the Landmark Series.
And I see that you are the importer responsible for Moselland Zeller “Katz” Riesling (the wine in the cat shaped bottle). How well does that sell?
I did 14 shipping containers of just the cat bottle last year. We have just introduced a pink cat (Mrs. Halbys idea) which we decided we would donate $6 a case to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. We have already raised about $7,000.
Thomas Halby wines are available to retailers through Opici Wine of Florida.
For more information on Thomas Halby wines, go to Halbymarketing.com