Drunk with Power
Standing in the low-ceilinged basement of a rundown Seattle bungalow, among the shiny steel vats and plastic tubing that constitute Animale winery, the wine merchant Jon Rimmerman swirled his glass, sniffed its bouquet, took a sip and moved his mouth around as if chewing. A fair-skinned, dapper and somewhat elfin man, Rimmerman wore Kelly green jeans, a lavender sweater and a black-and-white plaid sportcoat. Salt-and-pepper curls bushed out from under his Greek fisherman’s cap as he bent over a white plastic bucket. Spitting out a great purple jet of wine, Rimmerman signaled to the winemaker Matt Gubitosa that he could taste exactly one more vintage before leaving.
From the outside, Animale — named for Gubitosa’s dead but still-beloved cat, whose image has appeared on many Animale bottles — looked more like a methamphetamine lab than a winery, with an overgrown lawn, a faded gnome statue and reflective insulation covering all the basement windows. On the inside, Animale was clean and well lighted, with all proper licensing, classic R. & B. on the radio — “a little bit louder now!” — and a sleepy kitten.
“That’s the Dolcetto?” Rimmerman asked, as Gubitosa poured.
“Two thousand ten, yes. You need some pizza with that. I use cultivated yeast, but no mechanical anything.”
Rimmerman is the founder and sole owner of Garagiste, the world’s largest e-mail-based wine business. With 136,000 subscribers, Rimmerman says that Garagiste does, on average, $30 million in annual sales offered exclusively through his long, florid, self-mythologizing daily e-mails. “Dear Friends, somewhere along the path to wine-related enlightenment” began a recent one, which later evoked “the incredulous 1970s chemical salesman, dumping buckets of toxic pesticides” onto the vineyards of poor Chambertin, Margaux, Latour. “At some point, the land gives up. It must be resuscitated over decades to fully escape the poison (similar to smoking — the body eventually cleans itself and regenerates, but a certain scarring remains).” He then conjured lovely Sardinia, Europe’s “truest untouched terra firma,” source of the obscure 2011 Rigaterri Mirau — “Djarum cigarette in your glass . . . massive pine forest, clove, resin,” a “once-in-a-blue-moon” steal at $18.61 a bottle.
Despite Animale’s admirable smallness, Rimmerman was skeptical going in: only months earlier, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave Gubitosa’s 2009 Petit Verdot a stellar 92-point rating; Rimmerman has built his reputation by differentiating his tastes from those of other critics, favoring the austere, eccentric and putatively authentic over what you might call the merely delicious. But now Rimmerman spit out another purple mouthful and said, with evident surprise, “That’s the most unusual wine.” He looked Gubitosa in the eye. “I mean, not to say whether it’s good or bad, like or don’t like.”
Gubitosa, a burly, thin-haired 50-something who works for the United States Environmental Protection Agency when he’s not cranking tunes, petting kittens and making fine wine, nodded. Point taken.
“But it has a personality.”
“Yeah, it’s not for everybody,” Gubitosa conceded.
“The pepper, it’s incredibly crushed on the nose and through the palate, with those hard tannins,” Rimmerman said. “There’s nothing fun about that.” This was a backhanded compliment. Wines of integrity — wines of “character and terroir,” to use Rimmerman’s term — aim not to please but to express what Rimmerman calls, in all seriousness, “vinous truth,” meaning the honest expression of a particular grape varietal, grown in a particular place, in a particular year. “People have distilled my life down to, He’s in pursuit of the truth, more broadly, in all things,” Rimmerman says.
Rimmerman shook Gubitosa’s hand, explaining that he had a flight booked for later that evening, over to the wine country of southeastern Washington, for a few more days of tasting. From there, Rimmerman had a flight booked to Washington, D.C., where his first East Coast warehouse is under construction. Rimmerman says he has spent about half of the last 15 years on the road, hunting wine and story in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, Turkey, Israel, three Canadian provinces, northern Mexico and 13 American states.
The vineyards of the Savoie, in the French Alps.
Stepping into the Seattle downpour, Rimmerman trotted delicately across the sad lawn, climbed into the car and insisted that his personal preference — the question of whether or not he would drink Gubitosa’s wines in his own home — was irrelevant.
“What I’m trying to uncover is something that is culturally important or of the moment, which this definitely is,” Rimmerman said. “This is cutting-edge Washington State winemaking. So, first: Are the wines sound? And then, would people that read everything that I write, every day” — in those Garagiste e-mail offers — “be interested not just for the wine but for the story, the cats, the meth lab, the geologist, the maybe-no-woman-in-his-life. Would they like to kind of taste that story in the bottle.” The answer was maybe: Gubitosa’s wines were not “immediately crowd pleasing, but he was trying to make something real, that was not doctored.” In Rimmerman’s cosmology of the wine industry, which holds that a vast majority of wine on the U.S. market goes through industrial processing aimed at pleasing Robert Parker, this was high praise indeed.
Driving through Seattle’s streets, he rattled off various nicknames he claimed to have been given by unnamed others: “The Wine Whisperer. The Pied Piper of Wine. The Great and Powerful Vinous Oz. The (Real) Emperor of Wine. The Emperor Who Has Clothes. I’ll get you a list.”
“The Wine Whisperer” refers to Rimmerman’s conviction that he, along with his partner and their 6-year-old daughter, all have superhuman tasting powers that may or may not qualify them as what are called “supertasters,” a distinction thought to have a legitimate anatomical basis. In addition, Rimmerman will say that his daughter has a genetically enhanced tactile sense — that she is a kind of superfeeler — and that he, personally, by simply looking at a label, can recall the taste of any wine that has ever crossed his lips, a number running into the many tens of thousands. This is an aptitude that, he feels quite sure, even Parker cannot claim. “This is something that people have called a photographic memory of wine,” Rimmerman told me. “Or they’re not quite sure what it is. It hasn’t been categorized yet.”
Those two “Emperor” nicknames, playing off the Robert Parker biography “The Emperor of Wine,” evoke the doubtless pleasant fantasy that Rimmerman — despite being a salesman with no medium beyond his own marketing copy — might somehow displace Parker as the great American wine tastemaker. “I don’t think of myself as a retailer or an importer,” Rimmerman likes to say. “I think of myself as a writer and a conduit of culture.”
As we parked near Seattle’s deepwater cargo port, Rimmerman said he has also been called the J. Peterman of Wine, “being able to tell vivid stories in a catalog where people buy trunks from India they have no use for.” He tried to put all this together for me: “There is an aspect of J. Peterman. There is an aspect of Oz. There is an aspect of the Pied Piper leading people over the edge where they’ve never tasted before. But no one really knows who I am and how I do this. When other people try to copy what we do, I’m very floored by that. It’s wonderful, the admiration.”
Stepping into the rain, just then, he opened an unmarked door in a concrete wall and led me into his cavernous warehouse filled to the ceiling with countless cases of wine. His partner, Shira Young, stood nearby, a striking woman with jet-black hair, dark eyes, golden skin and a soothing and sensible demeanor that reflects well on the manic Rimmerman. She and one of their daughters, Gigi, hovered near a tall round table covered with olive oil both in bottles and on plates.
Rimmerman asked Gigi if she had tasted them.
Shira replied for her. “She tasted the entire table.”
Gigi did not look up; she was busy drawing her little hands through a plate of olive oil and then dreamily rubbing her fingers together.
Rimmerman with his partner, Shira, and their daughters, Gigi, 6, and Pip, 3, in the South of France.
Garagiste, which gets its name from a French winemaking movement, has not advertised since its creation in 1996. Rimmerman built a Web site only two years ago. Before that, you had to hear about his list through a friend, copy the e-mail address, then send in a polite request to join — analogous, in some ways, to the nightclub without a name, creating desire precisely by its disinterest in attracting you. Even today, the Garagiste Web site — through which you can now sign up for the e-mail list — has no e-commerce function nor even a blog post of Rimmerman’s daily offers. You get the memo or you don’t, and Rimmerman rarely offers the same wine twice. Though he blackballs people who might buy in volume to resell — the words “no sales to retailers or wholesalers” appear in every e-mail offer — he claims that competitors skulk around the list nonetheless, under fake names, even sending him anonymous death threats demanding an end to his dangerously low prices on both inexpensive wines (he sells plenty for under $10 a bottle) and pricey ones, like his recent offer of 2009 Romanée Conti at $25,821 per 12-bottle case. (“Please limit requests to 1×12-pack per person,” said the accompanying order information, as if that were necessary.)
Rimmerman makes ordering easy enough, and also remarkably human: every offer says something like, “reply to this e-mail or send Nicki a note,” referring to his longtime assistant. But he also requires a tolerance for deferred gratification, shipping only twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, when Rimmerman says extreme heat or cold are less likely to destroy the wine in transit. In his wine offerings, he told me in a personal e-mail, he strives to reach his entire demographic simultaneously, “from Brooklyn ‘coolio’ (Williamsburg, Red Hook) to waning coolio (Park Slope) to Upper West Side to Scarsdale,” as he puts it, “with vastly different levels of disposable income.” Thus, obscure cheap wines for “the lowest-disposable-income group with the most cutting-edge knowledge of the wine world and the most time to spend on their computer (23-to-33-year-olds in Brooklyn, the Mission, Echo Park in L.A., etc.)” are offered in the same e-mail as wildly expensive ones, the whole thing stitched together by, say, “Beach Boys songs and bizarre, little-known facts or idiosyncrasies of Brian Wilson.”
Rimmerman was born in 1966 and raised on Chicago’s North Shore until his parents divorced and Rimmerman’s mother and stepfather took him to live in rural Wisconsin. He remained close to a father he describes, with characteristic brio, as a kind of supersalesman — claiming he invented commodities-trading algorithms “before computers,” created “one of the first pro-athlete management agencies” only to sell it before it became profitable, and helped the N.F.L. develop the whole idea of staging exhibition games overseas.
“He made millions and he lost millions and he was never afraid to go for it,” Rimmerman told me. “That’s definitely my personality and the impetus for Garagiste — no fear, believing in yourself.”
Garagiste itself emerged from an ad hoc wine-tasting club at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After finals one year, Rimmerman and a few classmates celebrated by pooling money to buy a 1979 Krug Champagne and 1982 Dom Pérignon. “It was one of those ‘Oh, my God’ moments, there’s something of a higher order here,” he said. “I sat with those wines for 15 hours.”
It soon emerged among the group that Rimmerman had the most sensitive palate and a gift for spinning great stories about interesting wines, and it wasn’t long, he says, before he found himself faxing an informal wine letter to friends scattered around the country.
for buying wine at your local shop.
AVOID THE MIDDLE
The eye-level rack at your market is usually dominated by shelf space “owned” by local distributors. Some of the top, smaller production examples are represented by tiny distributors that cannot pay slotting or marketing fees demanded by grocers for eye-level rack space. Beat them at their own game — look at top and bottom shelves or in poor visibility areas of a display — my gut tells me you will find a number of gems lying in wait.
ALCOHOL CAN FOOL YOU
High alcohol does not equal high interest. Alcohol can obfuscate the true nature and nuance of a wine — even with normally high-alcohol examples like Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Alcohol levels have risen to blackout levels over the last 10 to 15 years, spurred by a variety of sparks: a certain critic’s preference and possibly global warming. Don’t give in to the rise! Challenge yourself to look for reds under 14 percent and whites under 13 percent. My sweet spot is 12½ to 13½ percent for reds, 11½ to 12½ percent for dry whites.
TRUST OTHER DRINKERS
Use your smartphone to create a level playing field: community-based Web sites like Eric Levine’s CellarTracker (cellartracker.com) give you the opinions of your peers, those who have actually tasted the wine in question — not the opinion of a distributor or a magazine. You can easily pull them up while standing in front of a wall of a dozen unknown New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and all will start to make sense in a jiffy.
During Rimmerman’s years at DePaul University law school, he landed a summer job in Chicago, at the first American Starbucks outside Seattle. While jerking espresso and sweeping the floors there, he happened to meet the company’s founder, Howard Schultz.
“So I was part of the whole genesis of, whoa, what Starbucks was,” Rimmerman says. “I’ll never forget the incredible passion he had for a very simple idea that he was absolutely 100 percent certain would be important to the culture of the United States in the next 20 years.” Rimmerman says he learned from his time at Starbucks “the beauty of retail marketing, of conceptual ideology with consumer goods,” an idea that can be roughly translated as defining a crystal-clear brand identity and then ensuring that everything from the product to customer relations reinforces it.
Rimmerman was living in Seattle when his own simple idea fell into place. “That was right around the same time as the whole Seattle, Nirvana, Internet, you know, boom, of incredible creative energy,” he says, aligning his own origin story with those. “I met all these incredible, smart people inventing all these things called, like, Adobe. I mean, Bezos was running Amazon out of a garage. And everybody knew them!”
He realized he had the seeds of his own start-up in that wine letter. He’d already switched to e-mail, picking up several hundred new subscribers who often asked where to buy the wines. It was a no-brainer to start selling them. All he needed now, Rimmerman decided, was a clear sense of mission — a brand identity, in other words, centered on making the world a better place instead of just making a buck. Rimmerman claims that he made two lists — things he liked about the wine business, and things he did not — and decided that his company’s goal would be to transform the industry until his “don’t like” column was empty.
He’s a little vague about what was actually on those lists — you suspect that he has, to be generous, lost the originals. But he is consistent in characterizing his primary don’t-like: an intolerable gulf between winemakers and wine drinkers caused by a legally mandated separation of importers, distributors and retailers. “It’s one of the only systems in our country — women’s right to vote, all these things that have changed over time, the whole racial thing that happened in the ’60s — that the government never wanted to look at,” Rimmerman says.
By cutting out all those middlemen, Rimmerman could offer lower prices at higher profit margins, while becoming the “Sub Pop Records of the wine trade,” scouting talent and connecting old-school vintners to discriminating consumers. He could also be “the Erin Brockovich of the wine trade,” pointing out that pesticides have been found in bottled wines at every price point including world famous Bordeaux. In addition, many wineries use additives and processing agents like egg whites, milk, fish extract, animal gelatin (sorry, vegetarians), sugar, toasted oak powder, the color-enhancer Mega Purple and dimethyl dicarbonate, a chemical so toxic that merely inhaling it can be fatal. Bringing attention to all this, and to little guys doing it the old-fashioned way, Rimmerman appeals to the moral and intellectual vanity of his subscribers before even mentioning anything as tawdry as the per-bottle price. Only a chump would buy top-dollar status-symbol wines secretly saturated with chemicals instead of the far-cheaper real stuff favored by true insiders.
Rimmerman is neither the first nor the only wine merchant to have built a brand identity around the distinction between industrial and artisanal winemaking. Kermit Lynch, for example, a minor legend in the international wine trade from Berkeley, Calif., who says he has never heard of Rimmerman, has been importing French wines of this stripe since the 1970s. Then there is Chambers Street Wines, a brick-and-mortar retail shop in Manhattan that makes a comparable commitment to selling noninterventionist wines.
But Rimmerman has discovered some of the great noninterventionist standard-bearers, like Frank Cornelissen, who was toiling in obscurity high above the snow line on Sicily’s volcanic Mount Etna, before Rimmerman found him resurrecting abandoned vineyards and vinifying the juice in the strictest of Old World methods. According to Alder Yarrow, a Garagiste fan and author of the influential wine blog Vinography: “Cornelissen just takes a bunch of grapes, throws them in buckets, stomps them, comes back six months later and puts it in bottles. They are the most natural wines in the world.” The result is cloudy with visible sediment, and even prone to refermenting in the bottle. “But when they are good, they are unbelievable!” Yarrow says. “Rimmerman likes that kind of thing, wines that to most Americans are like eeuwee!”
Rimmerman considering a cask of Sagrantino in Montefalco, in central Italy.
Of all the purported nicknames Rimmerman offers, the most telling may be “the Great and Powerful Vinous Oz” — celebrating, as it does, a certain Emerald City quality in Garagiste. Rimmerman has doubtless traveled around the world seeking great wine, but he also appears to find at least some through traditional distributors and importers — one of whom, asking to remain anonymous because he does business with Rimmerman, explained that Garagiste can be a convenient way to move a lot of inventory in a big hurry.
Alice Feiring, a New York-based wine writer, claims that Rimmerman has even discovered wines through her blog posts. (Rimmerman, who considers Feiring a fellow traveler, insists the timing of their discovery was merely coincidental.) “He’s not a tastemaker,” she says. “He is picking up on a trend. He is a businessman.” Feiring adds, however, that she knows “people who are very, very, very faithful to him, and give him a lot of money all the time.” Other industry insiders have told me similar things, raising one of the greater curiosities of the Garagiste phenomenon: Rimmerman’s act seems to appeal most powerfully to people with no illusion about how it works. David Schildknecht, for example — one of the most prominent wine writers in the world and a critic for The Wine Advocate, and therefore a man deluged with free wine samples — chuckled over the phone, saying: “I buy wine from him regularly. . . . .It’s pretty amusing to me.” Michael Terrien, a boutique Napa winemaker, calls Rimmerman’s daily e-mails “wine crack,” adding that he has to unsubscribe periodically to stop the financial hemorrhage.
Rimmerman’s personal theory about how it all works — how the Garagiste business model and those idiosyncratic e-mails compel such vigorous spending — fetishizes the human element, the obvious imperfections, like telling his administrative assistant to leave typos and grammatical errors in his e-mail offers — preserving the immediacy of his writing — and never including photographs. “Psychologically, it’s very important,” he says. “If I told you that story but you didn’t like the look of the label” — Animale’s cat, say — you might doubt the pitch. (“This is something I’ve carried for 18 years,” Rimmerman told me, as if confessing a terrible secret. “I’ve never told anybody this.”) He also cites a broader cultural shift working in his favor — “It’s almost like ‘everything old is new again,’ ” he wrote in a personal e-mail to me. “Or the music scene going back to turntables or . . . vintage 1960s tube amplifiers — people crave warmth, whether its auditory or in business, and eventually they come around to what makes them feel good, what keeps them warm — sensory or mentally.”
This idea of analog musical warmth is central to his thinking. In Walla Walla, Wash., after a long morning among the giant grain silos, vast wheat fields, not-so-vast vineyards, and smelly horse corrals of the area’s rural fringes, we stopped at the relatively elegant Waters Winery. Jamie Brown, a vintner who made a living selling bootleg concert CDs during the Seattle grunge scene of the 1990s, is now a sort of Falstaffian rocker/poet/artiste who has sold many wines through Rimmerman. Inside the barrel-aging chamber, Rimmerman tasted multiple vintages of Waters syrah and cabernet, free-associating toward a sales pitch: “This is cabernet sauvignon for cabernet sauvignon’s sake . . . not for oak’s influence, Napa Valley, prestige, Robert Parker.” He spat into a floor drain and took a second stab: “This is the Old World that has come to America. This is like Ellis Island in Washington State. How about that for a quote? That’s a big thing for me to say, because I’ve never found that anywhere.”
Four months later, offering a Waters syrah called Tremolo, Rimmerman instead wrote about Monteverdi inventing musical tremolo about 400 years ago. “He never could have imagined . . . Liszt would use it as a palpitating piano technique or Bo Diddley on the guitar. From Floyd Rose reinventing the double-locking wheel, to the classic blackface circuitry of early 1960s Fender Twin Reverb amps (or Vox AC30, Silvertone, etc.).” He followed this arguably absurd but possibly masterful massaging of his audience with a reassurance to all that Tremolo had an impeccable Old World anti-mainstream taste — “mineral salts . . . natural (ripe) acidity, 12.5% alcohol.” Then he took a quick detour into his global travels — “scurrying about on back roads in Turkey, Croatia, Ribeiro, Sicily” — and made a brief pause to make sure we all knew he really had been in Walla Walla, personally, shaking that winemaker’s hand. “When I first sampled it a few months ago with Jamie,” Rimmerman wrote of the wine, “I was so taken with its truth that I asked to put the offer out then and there (on my BlackBerry, in typical Garagiste fashion).”
I have no recollection of this exchange, nor of any whispered conversation between Rimmerman and Brown beyond my earshot. But Rimmerman swears it happened and, at $39.99 a bottle, it almost certainly doesn’t matter.
Daniel Duane is the author of “How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession.”
Editor: Ilena Silverman