The story (as best as we can recall):
This is a story of two friends who started a wine company over many barbecues and many bottles of wine. Chris is the “wine guy” and Elijah is the “biz guy.” Says Elijah, “Chris and I had known each other for over a decade, and since his background was in wine and my family is in the trade, too, it was a conversation we naturally gravitated toward every time our families got together for a meal or party.”
“Wine and fine cuisine has always been part of my life,” says Chris Nickolopolous. “I grew up in a Midwestern restaurant family and I and all of my closest friends spent our youth, summers, and college years toiling away in kitchens and dining rooms. Some were great 4-star establishments, some were absolute dives, but we all became serious and passionate about food and wine at an early age.
What some saw as a means to an end to get through college, Chris and his friends viewed as a serious career path, and in 1990 he and his best friend moved into a noisy little apartment next to the Addison “El” tracks in Chicago’s Wrigleyville so that they could immerse themselves in Chicago’s developing culinary scene. Chris went to work tending bar at the swanky Spiaggia, which then led to various management roles in the wine trade. After 10 years, he was chosen in 2001 to lead a respected fine wine sales organization which required him to move to San Francisco. Chris spent the following seven years traversing the globe, tasting great wines and building many of the most respected wine brands in the US today.
Elijah Pfister grew up climbing oak trees on his parents' farm in Northern California; he learned to garden, and hunt and fend for himself fairly early on. For him it was just ‘life on the farm,’ but the experience would catch up with him later in life. When his family urbanized and moved to the Bay Area, he looked to neighboring Sonoma and Napa to fulfill his rural yearnings, gaining an appreciation for viticulture and winemaking as a result. Spending his formative years in the Bay Area, he began to realize he’d either work in Silicon Valley or Napa Valley. While most of his friends chose the former, he knew he’d rather be a farmer than a chip designer.
While the farm was calling, Elijah was heavily influenced by his family’s adeptness at enterprise. “My mother is a fantastic baker and one winter just started her own wholesale cake company. We all worked in the kitchen; it was great experience to learn how to start a business from the ground up.” Additionally, Elijah’s uncle owns one of the largest wine and liquor retailers in North America. “Uncle J had a big impact on me in my teens, but he always guided me away from getting into the agrarian side of the wine business and encouraged me to stay in school. I always figured though that eventually I could jump into the wine trade when the timing was right and marry my two backgrounds.”
While obtaining his MBA from Stanford, Elijah knew he was finally going to make the leap to wine, however he did not want to take the route taken by many of his MBA brethren. “I knew I had a lot more interest in the industry than being another biz-analyst stuck in Connecticut 3,000 miles away from all the action.
“Chris was busy working with Graham Beck Wines of South Africa, and I figured if I needled him enough, I could goad him into starting a wine company with me.” As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. Through Chris’s connections, they assembled a portfolio of imports, and with the blessing and support of Mr. Beck and George and Jules at Jules Taylor Wines, New Zealand, they launched Maritime Wine Trading Collective in January of 2009.
“Right away we had plenty of opportunities, but we wanted to keep a focused portfolio of imported wines,” explains Chris. “But one opportunity that did stick out was our connection to many top retailers who needed assistance developing their proprietary bottling.”
Elijah: “We receive hundreds of samples of wine each week, and it was pretty easy for us to find what our retailer friends needed. It was fun, too! By day we were building our import portfolio, and at night and on weekends we were “in the lab,” so to speak, working on our négociant wines.”
As it turns out it was a great business model for the time, given the recession, and the guys quickly began to identify small lots of superior wine from stellar vineyards from around the world that could be had for pennies on the dollar. This translated into an excellent value for the consumer. And since, more often than not, there was more wine available than the client ordered, Chris and Elijah decided to market some of the wines themselves under their own labels.
Chris: “It’s an ideal scenario. We have winemaker friends worldwide who send us samples of truly tasty and well-made wines that are in need of a home. We have several ways of getting these wines to the consumer for a fraction of what most wineries would have to charge.”
In the fall of 2010 Chris learned that his Napa-based vintner friends of 20+ years, Jim Regusci and James Harder, founders of Napa Valley’s Nine North Wine Company, were looking for more time to spend with their families, less time on the road and pursue new wine ventures.
In December of 2012 Regusci and Harder passed the baton of Nine North Wine Company, along with Nine North’s head winemaker, Charles Hendricks. Founded in 2001, Nine North has established a reputation for producing appellation-specific wines that over-deliver for the price; a philosophy that mirrors Chris and Elijah’s own portfolio of négociant wines.
Elijah and Chris agree: “We’re really excited to build on what Jim and James worked so hard to develop. We’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do right by our customers and make the best wines.
“It’s especially exciting to continue to work with Charles Hendricks, who’s been making the Nine North wines since it was founded and has served as consulting and head winemaker for some of Napa Valley’s most sought after small production cult wineries. Charles has a real gift for blending unique wines of character and balance, and anyone familiar with the skill of winemaking will agree that the real art is in the blending.”