A spirited toast to all things alcoholic! by Leslie Dinaberg
The wine industry is a notably generous one—you’ll get a warm and fuzzy buzz just thinking about how much donated wine is poured in the name of loosening checkbooks at local charity events every year!
Now that grape-infused generosity has a new twist with the Cultivate brand.
The brainchild of wine investor Charles Banks (who recently purchased Qupe) and his wife, Ali Banks, Cultivate gives back the first ten cents of every dollar in gross sales to nonprofits supporting education and basic human needs in local communities, and has raised over $430,000 for charities in over 45 communities across the U.S. since its launch in 2011. Another interesting twist is that Cultivate does not direct the funds—instead, nonprofits submit their causes and the brand allows customers to vote on its website with the goal of allowing customers to express their values through their purchases and have a voice in determining where the money goes.
And trust me, the wine is good: the folks at Cultivate have produced more than 20 wines rated 25 points or higher in the last ten years.
I recently spoke with Nat Gunter, Cultivate’s director of winemaking, who travels the world tasting thousands of samples of juice to craft the best wines possible at the best value possible from regions all over the globe.
Leslie Dinaberg: What a fun job you must have.
Nat Gunter: It is. It has been tons of fun.
LD: The Cultivate wines include: The Gambler, 100% Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina; Double Blind 100% Pinot Grigio, Veneto, Italy; Wonderlust, 100% Chardonnay, Valle Centrale, Chile; Copa Cabana, 60% Cabernet, 40% Carmenere, Chile; The Feast, 66% Merlot, 34% Cabernet, Alexander Valley and Napa, CA; and Dream Walking, 100% Chardonnay, Mendocino and Sta. Rita Hills, CA.
So tell me about the travel aspect of your work. You’re going to these places, you’re tasting the juice and then are you collaborating in making the wines with these different vineyards? How does that work?
NG: It’s a little different in every area because different countries and different wine growing regions obviously have different customs and different laws and different ways of doing things. With respect to the two California wines we make now, that is made through me personally blending different sources of wine, different bulk wine lots … and then physically doing the blending, the culturing and modeling ourselves. Whereas obviously in Chile, because the cost of doing everything is a little bit lower, we can actually go from grapes to bottle in Chile. It was really about finding producers that would be the most advantageous for the wine we wanted to make in cellar practices and that are also really fun to work with and to visit three times a year and to be in constant communication with. We go sort of through harvest with them, and go from grapes to bottle and I blend the wine together each year with their winemaker.
LD: How many cases are you producing?
NG: We have five wines at the moment: two from Chile, a red and a white, sort of our entry-level price point if you will. And we’re bringing in probably close to 20,000 cases each. … In our middle tier right now we have a Malbec from Argentina, bringing in just shy of 8,000 cases a year of that. In January we’ll launch a Pinot Grigio that will sort of fit alongside the Malbec in our kind of middle tier and maybe our middle range white wine. And we have our two California wines that are sort of our high end wines, if you will, still retailing below $20 a bottle but for the cultivated program they are the high end and we’ve been producing between 5,000 and 7,000 cases a year of those wines.
LD: Is the long-term plan to continue that size of production?
NG: I think in a perfect world we’d like to grow at all levels, because of the business model and with our ten percent give, the more wine we can sell the more money we can put to good use so we definitely don’t want to put any cap on how big we could potentially grow.
… I think because of the way the model is set up we can be very nimble and advantageous in our pursuits and so we knew we wanted to make our value brands … in Chile, and so to be able to find places where I was of a like mind from a winemaking philosophy, and from a viticulture philosophy with the people with whom we would be working is huge.
On the other hand, if someone were to come to Charles and say we would like to produce specifically this type of wine from this place we obviously have within the terroir selections we have sort of family or group intelligence, we have the ability to capitalize on that and make that happen.
LD: Have you always enjoyed the collaborative aspect of winemaking?
NG: I have to say that’s definitely something I have come to only with Cultivate. … It’s only through Cultivate that I’ve really had this much responsibility in terms of style and volume of wine produced. And so I think collaboration has been a necessity and so to know that I can get valuable feedback … and get some honest and candid feedback from people who have been doing what I’m doing, some of them for much longer than I’ve been doing it, but we’re all sort of working with and for the same people and the same goal and it’s really, it’s very gratifying.
LD: I would imagine it keeps you on your toes from a winemaking point of view, but also from just having so many different partners.
NG: Absolutely, and sometimes when I find myself stuck, oftentimes you’ll look for really creative solutions when a logical one will do and sometimes you’re looking for a really logical solution when something outside the box will do. And to have different wine makers on different continents with different backgrounds to bounce things off of, I feel like most of the time we sort of more quickly arrive at more solutions than I would, certainly individually. I won’t speak for the rest of them.
LD: Are the partnerships intended to be one offs, or is it possible that a few years from now you may go back to the same place?
NG: It’s sort of on a case-by-case basis. With our partnership in Chile, we’re into our third vintage on both the red wine and white wine, with two different partners. I spent a lot of time down in Chile early on visiting tens if not hundreds of producers and then taking time to make the wine incrementally better year after year, which I think happens actively and passively through better understanding and time working with people.
With California wines there are, obviously within sort of our group or rolodex, there are some contacts we have in the wine world that we trust. Different vintages bring different conditions and different growing regions bring the ability to sort of capitalize on those, to maybe pull more from Mendocino than the Central Coast one year and vice versa, depending on the quality of that vintage I think it’s certainly helpful to our overall quality.
LD: I love the charitable component of Cultivate. Are you involved with that at all?
NG: Yes, absolutely. Everyone in the organization definitely keeps abreast of the different community based nonprofits that we help. Our first recipient was actually from my home state (South Carolina) and while I wasn’t terribly involved with that organization before, I then struck up a really meaningful friendship with the director of that organization.
It’s a nice reminder from time to time and Ali (Banks) actually is very good about keeping that mission at the forefront and sharing notes that she receives from gift recipients and sort of keeping up with those gift recipients down the road, not just on the day that a check is delivered and finding out not only what our give dollars have helped do but how they are growing.
LD: How much of that, if any, is part of your discussion when you’re looking at vineyards and people to partner with?
NG: I certainly want anyone that we may partner with … to know our mission and our goal and our business model because, certainly from a production end, if you’re giving away ten percent of your gross, that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for any mistakes really. You really need to get everything right the first time. And because Charles and Ali and the rest of us by extension feel so strongly about that give, it is some added motivation to get it right, so making sure that everyone we partner with is aware of that is definitely a big part of it.
LD: What’s your favorite part of your work?
NG: I do think that collaboration is something that is probably the most gratifying to me and I think it comes in many forms. There are two wine festivals throughout the year in which Terroir Selections as a group participates. They are both West Coast, in the spring the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival and then in the late summer, the Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival, and more often than not, every winemaker in the portfolio is together. It’s just a great time to sort of taste everyone’s wine with everyone else and then after that just sort of throw it all out there on the table. And I always leave those occasions feeling pretty dialed in and invigorated about winemaking.
Cultivate founders Ali and Charles Banks explain how their journey through the wine world lead to the creation of Cultivate and its model of giving away 10% of sales to non-profits. Shot in Andy and Annie Erickson’s backyard, as well as the lab, with the Cultivate team. Filmed and edited by 4 Slow Play.
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When she’s not busy working as the editor of Santa Barbara SEASONS, Cocktail Corner author Leslie Dinaberg writes magazine articles, newspaper columns and grocery lists. When it comes to cocktails, Leslie considers herself a “goal-oriented drinker.”