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Hot brand Josh Cellars propels Napa Valley's Joseph Carr Wines from near bankruptcy to success

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With a wine brand selling millions of cases a year, it could be hard to imagine that two decades ago Joseph Carr was couch surfing at a Napa Valley winery, looking for help with his dream to be a vintner as his finances were stretched nearly to the breaking point.

Napa Valley-based Joseph Carr Wines has rocketed to production of nearly 3 million cases this year, and plans call for that to grow to 5 million in coming years. The company produces an eponymous luxury-tier brand ($20–$40 a bottle), but much of that rapid rise has come in the past several years from Josh Cellars, an ultrapremium brand ($12–$15, $20–$22 for reserve labels) dedicated to his late father, also named Joseph but usually called Josh.

“I’m not a complicated person, and I just did something I always dreamed about doing,” Carr said. “It’s an American dream concept. And I’ve been very fortunate.”

From his first taste of the wine business while in college four decades ago to the launch of his wine company, Carr has been driven to succeed. Born in upstate New York to a Vermont lumberjack father and general store bookkeeper mother, he hitchhiked to California at age 18 and literally got a taste of the Napa Valley wine business and was attracted to the mixture of cultures from Spain, France and Italy.

On returning home and starting college in the late 1970s, he landed a job as a busboy at Big Tree Inn, an exclusive French restaurant. The owner challenged him to read up on fine wine to become a wine steward, and he passed muster at age 18. By age 22, he became a sommelier. That positioned him for jobs in the 1980s as a sommelier at Hyatt Regency Tampa and wine director at The Sagamore Hotel on Lake George back in upstate New York, where he won acclaim for his list design.

The hospitality world spring-boarded Carr into the production side of the business, with Australia-based Mildara Blass, which eventually became Treasury Wine Estates. He rose through the ranks in the 1990s to eventually lead U.S. operations for the Beringer unit.

PIVOT POINT

The dramatic shift in priorities for many after 9/11 also persuaded Carr to take his early adulthood passion for wine to an entrepreneurial level. After a “long, long talk” with his wife, Deidre, they decided to start Joseph Carr Wines in 2002. They dipped into the equity of their rural New York home, and he shuttled to Napa Valley and back on trips to supervise winemaking. Deidre Carr died in April 2018 at age 70.

The venture is based on the negociant model, a French term for a vintner that buys grapes or wine. That’s opposed to the domaine model, where the vintner is also the grower.

The first help he sought was from Ted Edwards, the legendary winemaker of Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley.

“I showed up at his door one day and told him I quit my job and was wanting to start making wine,” Carr said, a pitch that seemed incredible. “And then he realized I was serious when I told him I refinanced my house, so he let me sleep on a sofa.”

While there, Carr learned about winemaking and blending. The first cabernet sauvignon wine under the Joseph Carr label was released in 2005.

CRISIS AT LIFTOFF

But that was the same year Freemark Abbey was caught up in the bankruptcy of its financier and sold in court in early 2006 to Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines. Carr had to find a new home for the brand.

That led him to Tom Larson, Sonoma Valley proprietor of Larson Family Winery, Ultima Mobile Bottling and vineyard management for a number of producers. He pointed to the idea for Josh Cellars while sitting in Larson’s kitchen, tasting barrel samples from various vineyard he managed.

“I think we drank two bottles of wine and started laughing and talking about our dads,” Carr said. “You hear these crazy marketing stories about research and all that, but this was just two guys that had a lot in common.”

Josh Cellars launched in 2009 with 1,200 cases, which Carr said he sold from the trunk of his vehicle while traveling from venue to another. The wine was made at Larson for the first couple of years, but then the brand took off. First was a key plug by celebrity chef Bobby Flay and placements at his restaurants. Then in 2011, the Carrs inked a sales and marketing deal with what’s now called Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, an influential Connecticut-based family company whose portfolio includes big brands such as Yellow Tail from Australia and Vintage Wine Estates’ Girard from Napa Valley.

Production of Josh Cellars reached 300,000 in 2014 and nearly 1 million two years later.

After Josh Cellars outgrew the Larson winery, it moved to one of Vintage Wine Estate’s Mendocino County wineries. Vintage and Deutsch have business relationships going back to 2011, when Deutsch took over sales and marketing representation for Girard.

DON’T BE A SELL-OUT

“Selling out” usually is an accusation leveled against a company, brand or figure who twists core principles and practices to meet what’s expedient, often for commercial gain. But in the wine world, selling out of a year’s production is often a bragging point, communicating the desirability of the brand.

But Carr realized early on in his brand’s rise that to be a sell-out would be deadly to the viability of the brand. Two years the release of the first wines, he received an offer that was almost too good to refuse: to buy all the roughly 5,000 cases produced.

“But I’ll tell you, at the time, I needed the money,” Carr said. It was a tough conversation with his wife that they had to turn down the $80,000 offer. “Because I knew if I locked myself into one guy, I was at their mercy for the rest of my life.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Contact him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

Corrections, July 22, 2019: Freemark Abbey Winery is in Napa Valley. Carr is not a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

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