In this AfroPreneurs profile, BlackSpeaks.com decided to feature Raymond Smith, founding CEO and owner of Indigene Cellars, a small family-owned winery located in the upper Carmel Valley region of Monterrey County and California’s central coast.
A native of Oakland, Calif. and a journalism student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Smith was a ship joiner, which is known as an employee who builds the woodwork in a ship, and a grocery clerk.
In the 1980s, he moved to the central coast town of Paso Robles, which is located between San Francisco and Los Angeles and is known for its hot springs, wineries, olive oil and almond vendors.
There, Smith learned the wine business. Over the decade, he assisted in creating and developing a series of wine bottling concerns, which he later owned and operated.
From January 1980 to June 1985, he started out by working as a checker/stocker for Lucky Stores, a supermarket chain founded in Alameda County, Calif. in 1935 and is operated by Save Mart in northern California.
Overtime, Smith sought work as a print journalist/columnist on wine and attendant lifestyles and industries. From January 2007 to June 2011, he became owner and president of Performance Bottlers.
Smith forged relationships with growers and producers in the area and expanded his skills to create wine with his grasp of “grape-growing conditions,” new concepts and “cellar practices” as his website, http://www.indigenecellars.com, and his Linkedln profile state.
Part of his trademark includes starting with Bordeaux and Pinot Noir varieties, “focusing on distinguishing aromas, transcending earth-tone textures, [achieving] a balanced but fruit-driven palette, and a well-structured tannin sprinkled finish … “ Most of his creations have won state, national and international wine competitions.
Today, Indigene Cellars boasts a strong following, offering club memberships, discounts off wines, access to newly-made wines and library releases, quarterly newsletters, special events and free bottles with referral signups and is planning a new marketing strategy and website.
The following is a Jan. 23, 2015 phone interview between BlackSpeaks.com and Smith, who is in California:
1) I had the chance to view your company pages and Linkedln profile online and received contact information from my boss and founding president/CEO F. Zaria Chinelo.
What were the trends in the wine industry when you first started in the late 80s? Wasn’t that nearly 30 years ago as your website stated? What are the trends now that you are founder of Indigene Cellars?
For example, in the 1980s, there appeared to be a leaning toward dry wines from Europe. In the 1990s, there seemed to be a tendency toward light wines from such places as South Africa, Latin America and Australia. Now, in the millennium, Americans seem to have returned to wines from California. I am no wine expert but is this all of this fair to say? Please correct me if I am wrong.
I think the industry has definitely has changed back to the California Bordeaux and Burgundy style of wines. I think that is because there is a wider spectrum of wines coming out of California.
Where in the 1980s there was more of Napa Valley and that is what you had when it came to quality wines, now you will find good quality wines in the Santa Maria Valley, San Joaquin and Paso Robles areas as well as Santa Barbara and Monterrey County.
There are different areas where the fruit speaks from the earth in different ways but the whole idea of winemaking has grown to the point where they are getting great wines from a lot more areas than just Napa Valley.
The varieties has grown in terms of quality of wines in California and that’s a fair way to assume the way that the California trends have grown in the last couple of years because of the quality of wines and the quality of winemakers.
I have a unique opportunity of starting a business of Mobile wine bottling — a tractor-trailer that is full of equipment that you use to custom-bottle and label wines for wineries all over California. This trailer is mobile. It grew from, first, for me growing into a company to me taking over the company and expanding. In that amount of time, I have a unique opportunity to go all over California and taste wines from all over the state.
I may have sipped Cabernet from 50 different areas and in the last 30 years. In that time of constantly tasting them every year, you get an idea of how taste profiles change, which areas seem to be more friendly to the Bordeaux style of wine that Cabernet is, what areas speak well or speak better or are more conducive to that style of wine.
It wasn’t as if I owned this company in the ‘80s. I owned another company so I had a grassroots and unique way of being exposed to the wine business because I was all over California tasting wines.
With that, I learned from the bottom up, so to speak. I was able to go out and learn from the different winemakers. I was getting brand-new, innovative ideas every year. I knew all of the technologies because I bottled from the big-acre wineries that had the $5 and $8 bottles to the smaller, super-high-end wineries that produced only 500 cases of $150 bottles and everything in between.
I was able to get a round idea of how wine was made and what technologies worked well for me. I got an idea of creating my company literally 15 years before I even started it.
At that time, I was a journalism major. I started work at a brick-and-mortar winery. I worked on barrel maintenance, which started me working on the wine and taught me how to bottle and label the wine.
I left there in three years to go back to school. For the summer, I was helping some guys who started the business, which was, as I explained, a truck-trailer — like the 48-foot trailers that are on the freeway — but inside, there is a conveyer that goes in like a U-horn and comes straight back out.
In that truck are six different machines that provide a step to get wine in the bottle, cork it, put the seal on it, put the label on it, put it back in the box and put it up for sale.
Literally, the truck would go up to the winery, you hook your hose up to a wine vat and you pump your wine into the truck. What came out of the truck was a sealed case of wine ready to sell.
After a few years of doing that, I bought a truck from one of those the guys who used to work for the company so that I would be able to expand so I wouldn’t just have to work for these guys.
It really was because I didn’t have any partnership in this business or anything because I was going to be stuck there, running these machines for these guys. I figured I would start the business on my own.
I would have to sign the non-competition clause, not go after any of their Accounts and start out with my own business, getting new accounts and bottling and labeling wine for these new accounts.
Once I did that, my business started to grow and their company closed down. Since I had helped build the brand-new bottling trucks that they had, I was able to buy those trailers and expand my business. I went from one older trailer to two brand-new, state-of-the-art trailers and one older trailer.
In that, it was always a question of going all over California, bottling and labeling wine, getting new accounts and making wine. All the time, you make relationships with these guys. For some wineries, you will go to six or seven times a year. For some wineries, you only go there one time a year and these guys trust you with each thing that they did for the whole year.
You form quality personal relationships. Every relationship that I’ve had and that I’ve started with in bottling I still have right now. Those people have stayed very close to me.
I know their children and their homes. They are welcome to my home. I never forgot anybody that I did business for. In that, I was always learning more and more about wine, not just bottling. I was always asking questions.
I always wanted to be able to provide a better service in bottling by knowing how to bottle wine from a winemaker’s perspective. The only way you could do that was to learn how to make wine.
I went from making two barrels to four barrels to making large amounts of wine one year to small amounts the next. I was learning more and more innovative ways to make wine and to provide a better service for these wineries.
Eventually, I get more and more suggestions from these guys who I was bottling for: “You need to go out and make your own product. You can make wine better than these guys out here who are making a ton of wine who have been doing it for years. You’ve formed a knack for it. You’ve formed your own style. It only makes sense for you to go the next route, which is to start your own winery.”
2) What are your goals as president of Indigene Cellars? What do you want to accomplish that you haven’t before? What is the size of your business and your profit margin yearly or the value of your stock shares? Are you, in fact, publicly traded? How many employees work for your company?
I don’t have full-time employees for Indigene Cellars. I also have another business that I still run that is in wine packaging. I run two different companies. It is not publicly traded because it’s still a smaller boutique-style winery, closer to 1,500 to 2,000 cases a year.
Just like anybody else, I am trying to increase profit margins but also to bring and to do my part to the art of winemaking, to make the best product possible. I have one blend that is called the Philanthropist. Every year, I find a local charity to donate 40 percent of the proceeds of this particular blend.
For the last two years, instead of doing that, what I’ve done is go up the coast and to California and do a wine-tasting for ten different charities in ten different cities. For the last two years, we’ve changed the whole idea of the Philanthropist blend and what it does and made it a broader spectrum.
Because of that, I will have to make this blend, the size and the amount of wine needed for it to grow. Traveling up the coast of California has afforded me the opportunity to bring more people’s attention to local charities in California, from Los Angeles all the way to San Francisco, and to also get a higher profit margin.
At this point, because of the amount of time it takes to make these wines, I use contract labor. There is a database of guys who are really knowledgeable on different parts of winemaking. I know this database of people and I know where certain strengths are at certain times a year. Because of that, I hire those guys at that time of the year.
But then I am bottling and performing the first parts of the winemaking, which is anywhere from November to June.
For the mobile bottling lines, I had employees. I had two employees per truck. I have guys that I train myself and I slowly told about relationships with the wineries myself who were there to represent my company.
But when it comes to the winery, it’s a much smaller operation and there is no need for full-time employees at this point. When it comes to the point where I can’t handle doing all of the work myself, I’ll hire a contract employee for that particular time.
The winemaking process harvest in this hemisphere is on and about the area from September to November. Usually, depending on the varietal, the grape vine has a cluster of grapes, which produces the maximum amount of sugar at a certain amount of time. Now that’s when you know it is time to pick the grapes.
That time from September to about November is harvest time. At that time, depending on the grapes and the blend or varietal, you decide what type of yeast or you’ll be going native yeast, what type of blend or what type of varietal, what type of flavor profile and structure this wine is going to have.
Besides that, when you crush these grapes, you’re constantly tasting them all of the time. At that time, you want to have them. You want to imagine the grapes like a bag of tea. The bag of tea hangs inside of a cup of hot water. The contents of the tea slowly seep out of the water, flavor the water and make it tea.
It’s almost that same concept with winemaking. You crush the wine and the grapes. The grape juice and the berries are all in one vat. Slowly, the character of the grape skins go into the juice and it gives it its color, structure, flavor profile and phenolic compound or acid base — everything that is going into combinations. They can make this a very beautiful wine or a regular wine. And that takes from November to January or early February.
At that time, you press the wine off the grapes and you get it into the barrel and that is when it’s fully fermented from a high amount of sugar to zero sugar. The alcohol will climb relative to the way that the sugar drops in the fermentation process.
The sugar is in the form of a measurement called brix. Usually, it’s around 25 brix. Brix is to measure the sugar and the amount of grapes in the grape juice. When you crush these grapes and you add yeast, the yeast eat the sugar and produce alcohol. It is totally relative. The sugar content goes down and the alcohol content goes up. The juice is getting the character, flavor profiles and things of that nature from the skin.
[From March to October] for red wines, which I specialize in, the wines are put in barrels and they are put in barrels for about 18 months. That is the secondary fermentation process that changes the malic acid to lactic acid. If you cut an apple in half, the apple will start to turn brown. That is the lactic acid and the oxygenation.
It’s called wine now instead of grape juice because of the alcohol content, which is usually right around 12 to 14 percent alcohol and you put that in oak barrels. It gets this process of aging and reducing.
Oxygen will permeate through those oak barrels and in a minimal amount so that controls the amount of alcohol that ages this wine. The extra water in the wine will come out in evaporation.
You have to Rack these barrels up three or four times in the life of the barrels, which are 18 months. It also has the oak properties slowly going to the wine to give it that chocolatey or hazelnut type of finish to it, which is called a tannin. It gives it that toasty taste.
There are only two ways that you can get tannin in an oak barrel: oak tannin or grapeseed tannin. Part of your tannin, when you crush the wine, you get from the grapeseeds and the other part of the tannins are part of the barrel aging process.
3) Do one of your goals include educating consumers about to select, drink and appreciate wines and different categories of spirit? Do they include giving tours of your cellar facilities? How about providing a networking space on your properties for African-American wine connoisseurs and entrepreneurs? If so, what are some the challenges you will face in doing so?
The way that I get people to gravitate to my wines is that the industry has a series of competitions every year that you can enter your wines into.
Additionally, they have a couple of magazines such as the Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator. Magazines like that will evaluate your wine. You send in your wine. They’ll taste it and they’ll write something about your wine.
If you look into the Wine Spectator — for instance, the Wine Enthusiast in August — there is Indigene wines in the high 90s which is optimum for wine sales, wine attention and wine marketing.
In November, August, September and February, actually, you’ll find that every one of those months feature Indigene Wines. They have wine competitions like the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. It’s one of the bigger wine competitions so there are wines all over the world.
You have to get high marks. I had a wine that was best in class — that is, the best out of all the best of the gold medals that were entered in there. It has a lot to do with what you do to these wines, the quality of wine and what-have-you.
This is the same wine that I entered in the Central Coast competition, which is in Paso Robles, but it’s about a 100-mile radius and in a bunch of cities. That wine won the gold medal in that.
The San Francisco Chronicle wine competition is the biggest and most prestigious wine competition in North America and, that was just last week. They announced the winners. I had a wine that was best in class in there. That is going to gravitate attention to my winery and to my winemaking process and get people curious about the wines.
All I need is the attention. Once I go around and pour these wines, they have other people who have these for charity or to be able to buy wines. They have these big events where you have a bunch of guys get out and pour the wine that won the biggest awards for the competition. This will be in February also.
This will be the time where I will be exposed to 4,000 people. I give them a broad answer for all of the questions that they have but, over the last couple of years, what I’ve always done is to educate people about wines as much as I could, also to get them to respect their own palette and what type of flavor profile they like.
When it comes down to it, the wines could be good but I am in the business to sell the wines. I could tell you all about my wines and explain to you why you should buy them and you probably buy them once or twice.
If I explain to you about wine and get you to appreciate it, you find out what you like. If you like my wines, you are going to buy those wines constantly. My base of customers are people who rely on me to produce a product that they like and they experience for the first time in a certain scenario such as a tasting or at my winery or something.
Not only will they like the wine but they’ll remember the whole ambience. They’ll remember the whole experience. With that, I try to always get them to respect what their flavor profiles are or what they like. It’s my job for me to figure out what you like more so than for you to tell you what you should like because I want you to like the wine and support me.
I find that my customer base is bigger with people who I have educated about wine and got them to appreciate the part that they like, the tannin structure, the fruit characters, the velvety part of wine and then it’s up to me to watch that trend and be able to emulate that so you can appreciate the art that I am making.
I do wine tastings by appointment with the larger crowds of people. Without seeing where the winery is located, it is 10 miles away from the coast in Carmel Valley and it’s a ways out. It’s off the beaten path where the wine-tasting rooms are in the middle of town and it’s really a small town.
You can pass right by this place and not even see it. It’s on 250 acres but it’s only 43 production acres. It’s so far away from the gate that you may not see it. Most people who come to the winery come for tastings by appointment.
I usually pour the wines but I usually take them through the cave where the barrels are. I have them taste the wines that are young and have them get an idea of what the winemaking process is, how the wines are starting to grow and what this wine is going to turn out to be in the next 18 months. I take them through the cellar where I have them taste the wines out of the tank that are freshly blended and about ready to bottle.
I try to make it an experience instead of just coming in, tasting some wine and leaving. I try to make it an experience so that you come in and spend 45 minutes to a couple of hours.
Because of that, I did not want to go away from the question of having people there to network or having wine aficionados come in there or people who like wines. I would be totally open to that. It’s just that I would struggle to try to find out how I can get more people to come out to the winery.
What I did was I had a couple of static pictures on the website. I had an aerial and a newsletter where I constantly sent out information about the winery and pictures of the cellar and explain to them about the blends, the weather, the barrel rooms, the size, the structure and music that I play. I explained to them every subtle intricacy about making the wines.
At this point and, in the next 60 days, I am going to an entirely different website and marketing strategy. I will be able to show more pictures to tell more about the winery than just what’s on the website right now. This website is about to go out right now and a newer state-of-the-art website is scheduled to come up.
4) Have you joined any business organizations, professional trade organizations and other groups such as the chamber of commerce? If so, which ones?
Actually, I am not a member of any organization. There is a small organization in Monterrey County — Winemakers Association — and, unlike Paso Robles, they don’t do a bunch to advertise for the wineries. They don’t do as much as I can do myself on the website. I am not a member of that.
They had an African-American winemakers association in California but that association is closed down at this point for some reason. I don’t think it’s still in existence right now. I am not sure exactly what went on with that.
This year is going to be a whole new endeavor, a whole new idea of thinking. The organizations that I will be a part of will probably be three or four but I am not exactly sure, which ones it will be.
Because of the unique part about living in Paso Robles, half of the fruit that goes in my wines is in Monterrey County. Another part is in the Santa Maria Valley, which is more southern and is about another 243 miles away from the winery.
The name “indigene” is like the French word of “native.” The concept of the name and why I call it this goes back to working on mobile bottling lines and traveling all over California. I learned what type of wine styles I like from certain wineries.
There are wines that are really good that I make that come from the Carmel Valley area but there are some wines that would be better from other areas. I am not going to insist that you take a wine that I would think is not my best wine just because I made it from that area.
What I do is buy those grapes from that particular area and bring them back to my winery and make them there. The name “indigene” is like the French word for “native” or to find wines that are native to certain climates, unlike my own.
5) What made you leave Oakland for Paso Robles, Calif.? How specifically did you enter the wine industry? How did you gain an interest in it? Who inspired you?
I was looking all over California for a job in journalism. I gravitated to Paso Robles because I had good friends there and I got a job there in my search for journalism. It was an entry-level job at a winery just to finance my looking around California for a journalism job.
I couldn’t find one in the Bay area. It was a smaller town and it would be easier for me to find. I grabbed this job at the winery just to be able to make money to live and then this whole process happened.
One more thing about Paso Robles that I’ve noticed: I have friends out here, I visited some friends at one time and we had this big elaborate party where we stayed up till 1:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Then everybody went to bed. At 4:30 a.m., these big alarms went off. These are really loud, screeching alarms. Everybody got up and started putting their clothes on. I didn’t know what it was and I got up and started running too.
We went and this party that I went to was on the property of a winery. Without saying the name, there was a road where there was a bunch of wineries. We got up to do a frost protection which is, when it gets really cold, the low-lying areas will get moister and it will freeze the grapes. It will destroy the grapes.
We did what we could for frost protection, which was turning on the fans, turning on the water and whatever else we could do to stop the frost from destroying the grapes. This process took about another hour and a half.
When we finished, we went back to our place where we were staying and we had coffee and talked about it. I found out that we did all of this work for the winery next door, which was the competition.
I had never seen anything like that in Oakland. I never saw a competing business go out of their way like that to help the guy next door. That kind of stayed in my mind. The Paso Robles area has been like that. It always was that small town area where people would go out of their way to help each other in times of need.
6) In the face of the Great Recession in the millennium, how is the wine industry faring? How is Indigene Cellars affected by the economy?
For me, it was more of the opposite. I think that I am in a business of expendable income. Where you would think that it would be one of the first things to go was their expendable income.
I think it had the opposite effect. For most people who buy my type of product and appreciate it for what it is — if they were to scale back on it and buy a lesser quality wine for a less amount of money — every time they tasted that wine, they would be reminded of the recession.
They would be reminded about why they are tasting a lesser value product because of the financial situation. I did not really see a giant drop off in the area where I was. One thing that you have to remember is that the area in which I live, Paso Robles, there is a ton of great artist making wine. I have a lot of accolades and a lot of accomplishments with wine.
I give a lot of credit to a lot of these guys in the area in which I live. For a lot of these guys, if you’re not at the top of your game, producing optimum wines, you don’t belong here. There is a fraternity of overachievers here in this area where I am. I do what I can to continue to belong here.
I didn’t see that much of a drop off in the economic part of wine sales and the market that I was in, which is like a small boutique-style winery with a $25 bottle that you had available, which was a high-quality wine at a fair price point. I did not see much of a drop in sales because of the recession.
7) Walk me through a day of work for you as president of Indigene Cellars. What are your day-to-day responsibilities? What clients or customers are you seeking to attract to Indigene Cellars? How do you want to serve your customers? What kind of suppliers and services does your wine cellar require to thrive every day? What would you call a good day at Indigene Cellars? What would you call a bad day at Indigene Cellars? Please be specific.
A bad day at Indigene Cellars is when I wasn’t in the frame of mind to be creative. I wasn’t in a frame of mind to be able to help in sales or production. I wasn’t taking the company forward in some type of way.
I think a bad day at Indigene Cellars would be me not conceptualizing how to take the company forward, not focusing on blends or varietals or what I could do.
[On a good day], if I am not physically working with a wine at that time, then I am mentally making a picture of what bottle of wine should be in, what quality cork it should be, what the marketing strategy should be and what the limitations are.
I am thinking about what type of people are discriminating or discerning enough to want my product compared to another product and what I could do to feed that part of society and make them rely on me to get them to buy the product that they want or they like from now. This would increase my relationship with the public.
8) Do you see enough African Americans and other racial minorities as successful as you are in the wine industry? If so, who? Do you feel that you can help young African Americans who may have some difficulty breaking into the industry? Do you see enough young blacks and minorities serving in leadership and management roles such as yourself as an owner of a business? If so, why or why not?
Not at all. There are guys but there are probably 12 big-name wineries in California that are black-owned. Some were born into it and they’re a massive family operation. They have a ton of employees. It’s limited as to which signature they could put on the wine because of that.
It’s not to say that it is a good or bad thing but that is the optimum spectrum. Then there are other people who got into the wine industry through the marketing perspective. They don’t own a vineyard.
They just buy the wines and put them together. They put a label on them and say that they are from the winery. They don’t have the facilities to entertain. It’s a wide spectrum for a small amount of people.
The wine industry as a whole states that there are 7,000 wineries. In that 7,000, there is a massive number who just buy wine and put it together themselves. There are many who have wineries where they entertain.
There are many that are small and make a really good product. There are many that are big and make a ton of wine at an $8-a-bottle price point. We have all of that in the 11 Black owned wineries that we have. I don’t know what it is going to take to get more people to gravitate toward this type of wine.
I thought it would be the African-American winemakers association I mentioned earlier but I hope it comes back because I don’t know how to recruit a couple of young men to come out of high school, follow this industry and follow the lifestyle for them to appreciate it.
There is a lot more than money to this lifestyle that I appreciate and that emulates me.
One of the things that I think about on a daily basis is what type of person will I look for. Will I look for a veteran who got out of Afghanistan and does not have a job? Am I going to look for a high school student who is ambitious? Is it going to be a young guy like me? Is it going to be a black woman? Will it be a guy in sports? Will it be someone like me who had a whole different career in mind and they need a career change?
My part in this is to find out what part am I going to aim at and how I am going to influence them. I think that I just need to get my hands on them. I just need to get them here and get them to experience the harder parts and not-so-good parts of wine-making. I need to get them to experience the good parts and get them to make a conscious decision.
When it comes right down to it, there are bottles of wine in Cleveland that only I made and people love them, they have never met me. Those wine just say me. There is a picture of me drinking a glass of wine that has gone viral that has been all over the world. I just e-mail some people all over the world and it’s got hundreds of thousands of hits.
There is a lot to say about individuality. At this point, you have the opportunity to be one of the best guys in the industry who are a minority because for several reasons. First, there are not that many. Secondly, you can get in while it’s hot. You get tons of information. There are guys who are available to help you, including me. I just look to preserve the industry at this point.
Short of making the best possible product and making this wine to retiring and leaving it to my child, where she can hit the ground running, I feel a part of society and not just an African-American person with a chance to be able to look at this industry, learn from it, grow into it and be a big part of it.
I do career days at high schools where I talk to people. I do wine tastings. I do blogs. In the city where I grew up in Oakland, I go to the high school football games and talk to guys. I go wherever I can.
I want to influence somebody for the art of the craft. I don’t need somebody to come in and say, “You need to buy the wines because I am black and you will support a black-owned business because I am black.”
I want to make the best wines out there and then you could find out I am black later on. In the industry that I am in, I am trying to exceed the level and raise the bar of excellence in this industry and happen to be a black dude also.
9) What advice would you give young businessmen and women in business in terms of management and leadership and advancing their careers?
I see a deficit of minorities in leadership roles. I see a responsibility of people like me to be able to help and be a part of helping this trend to change or just be a person to complain about it.
I want to be seen as a guy who is deep into his career but I also want the public to see a regular guy. Much of the time and in a lot of ways, that is just what I am. There really isn’t anything complex. There is no way about me that is different from the average black guy walking down the street.
I found something that I love and I immerse myself into it. What you have to do is find your passion. This is not work that I do. This is my art that I am creating it. It’s in me to make this thing grow and to be better all of the time. I am making this business and making it grow constantly.
When you find that, you want to take the leadership part of this as your passion. It is more than just people finding something that they can be a leader in — for people to find what it is they are passionate about, to want to make it grow and to make it reflect them. I always said that my wines are a reflection of my diversity. I have blends that are made like no other wines.
Every envelope that there is, I push every one to be different and want to make these wines shout out my name and shout out my production.
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