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Tercero Wines – More Than Numbers

September 29, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Santa Barbara County 2 Comments

Robert Parker has it out for Larry Schaffer.

In the most recent issue of Parker’s highly influential publication The Wine Advocate, Larry’s Tercero Wines, were eviscerated by the East Coast King Maker. Parker took the numerical and verbal gutting so far that he happily ignored his own rule of not publishing ratings lower than 85 points. Aside from one wine, which scored an 86 and was called “a superficial red with no real depth or layering,” the other wines scored in the low 80’s. Some of Parker’s critiques included gems like:

2007 Cuvee Christie: “(64% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 18% Mourvedre), the Cuvee Christie is tart with excessive acidity and not enough fruit or texture.  80 points.” (Wine Spectator scored it 91)

2007 Mouvedre Camp 4 Vineyard: “Totally without any ripeness, the 2007 Mourvedre Camp 4 Vineyard is largely a failure.  No Rating.” (this wine was recently in the top four at the LA Rhône Ranger tasting)

The King had spoken and quite forcefully at that.

It was more than the King’s awe-less scores that were of concern to Schaffer, who routinely receives ratings in the high 80’s to low 90’s for his Rhône focused wines; it was the words of the King, the deplorable descriptors, depicting his wines as fruitless, flaccid, peasant vinegar. Parker seemed to be sending Schaffer a clear message, as if parading him through town after being tarred and feathered.

There is some speculation this is a consequence of Schaffer’s sometimes vocal participation on Parker’s forum (eRobertParker.com), which is not always in agreement with the critic’s views. Some of this speculation comes from Schaffer himself. Whatever the case, be it honest and pure critical assessment or some lager statement Mr. Parker was trying to get across, Schafer is taking the critique, absorbing it, and doing what he did before: making wines he and plenty of others love.

There are two sides to every sword, even the sword of the King. Yes, the ratings were bad, but they most surely caused people to take note of them. Parker made Larry a “problem child,” he made him stand out from the crowd. I imagine many read their recent Wine Advocate like this:

88 – Napa Winery (skip)

90 – Napa Winery (skip)

96 – Napa Winery (I need to get a second mortgage on the house ASAP!)

86 – Paso Robles Winery (skip)

90 – Santa Barbara Winery (skip)

82 – Tercero (huh?)

80 – Tercero (what’s going on?!)

No Score - Tercero (WHAT?!?! HOW CAN THIS BE?!?! WHO IS THIS GUY???)

Across the Country, people who had never given a second thought to the small producer from Santa Barbara County were forced to take notice. People with British accents with names like Harvey, Nigel, or Lord Mayberry, and that perpetually wear tuxedos and monocles were standing around cocktail parties, Petrus in hand, saying things like, “did you see what happened to that Schaffer lad in the journal? Poor old chap!” In fact, a few days ago, I was speaking to a winemaker in Northern California and happened to mention a friend who had been on the wrong end of Parker’s pen. “Larry Schaffer!” she replied before I even finished my thought.

But any press is good press right? Larry is trying to see it that way. “It’s an opportunity,” he says about the reviews. The poor ratings have given some of his fans the chance to voice their support for Schaffer and Tercero on sites like cellartracker.com. “My case is made by others and that’s really satisfying,” he says.

But Larry Schaffer’s story, is not a David vs. Robert Goliath. He is not out to take on Parker or any critic. He never bad mouthed Mr. Parker or seemed to harbor any ill-will towards the well respected but controversial critic and I do not intend to imply otherwise. Scores alone do not make a story make. So…let’s get to it!

Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines is a winemaker from the Santa Ynez Valley. This is his story.

I worked with Larry to find some time to interview him for nearly six months. He is a busy guy, to say the least. During the day, he is one of two Assistant Winemaker at Fess Parker in the Santa Ynez Valley (the other is Dave Potter of Municipal). On the side, he has his own label, Tercero. He is a father of three. He involved with Rhône Rangers. He is the Vice-President of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association where he is a tireless promoter of the region.

His story is one of sacrifice and extreme dedication. Like lava spilling from the cracked earth and rushing to the sea, Tercero is new ground, only beginning the stage of weathering that will shape the brand over the years to come. Just as the elements of time reshape a landscape, Tercero will be shaped as Larry’s experiences as a winemaker deepen. It is time that he is willing to put in.

Like so many others, Larry gave up a successful career to pursue winemaking. For a guy who doesn’t drink copious amounts of wine and never has, the obvious question I had was, why wine? “Because pro volleyball was out of the question,” he says with a laugh.

“I was at a point about ten years ago where I had done about everything I had wanted to do in the industry I had been a part of. I was in the music industry. I had wanted to be on the marketing side, [but] I was in the finance side. I was a number cruncher, which kind of reminds me of being at Ben and Jerry’s and loving ice cream and never getting to taste any. I [also] worked in the educational publishing field and I had achieved all I had wanted to do. Life is way too short to not enjoy what you do for a job. My wife Christie is the one who suggested wine. She said, ‘you know, you always enjoyed it.’ I was never a wine collector; I was just infatuated by the process.”

Larry figured he could use his background in marketing and turn it into a career selling wine, but Christine saw it differently. “If you are going to do it, do it,” she told him. He called UC Davis the next day. On the suggestion of an admissions counselor he took on a few part time jobs at wineries in Temecula to test the work out.  He enjoyed the work and realized this was what he wanted to do. After a year and a half of Jr. college classes and part time winery work, he was accepted to Davis, and the real grind began.

“So I would get on a shuttle at three in the morning on Monday morning to take me out to Ontario to get on a 6:15 a.m. flight to get me to Sacramento by 7:30 a.m. to get me to Davis by 9 a.m. I would take classes Monday thru Friday and the get on a flight Friday afternoon [back to Ontario].”

“Yeah, it was a pretty tough couple of years. It was about 20 months of that. Thank goodness for Southwest, [who] made it somewhat reasonable, but my wife and kids put up with a lot. I considered myself half a student, because I wasn’t there for the weekend social aspect and half a father and husband at that point as well…So there was a price to pay.”

In 2005, he accepted an offer to join Fess Parker, so Larry, his wife, and their three kids made the move from Orange County city life, to the Santa Barbara wine country. “We were driving up and my kids said, ‘what’s that?’ And I said, ‘those are cows.” It was a big move for the Schaffers.

The kids adapted well to their new environment, as did Larry, and in 2007 he was made one of two Assistant Winemakers at Fess Parker. He was also producing his own wines under the Tercero label. But he wasn’t done there. Maybe the twenty months of college commuting built into Larry a need to push himself, if not punish himself, but he threw himself not only into his work, but the work of promoting the region and Rhône wines.

He became active in Rhône Rangers (check out what they are doing with Pneumonia’s Last Syrah) and well as his time with the Santa Barbara Vintner’s Association. He stays active in social media; which he uses tirelessly to engage others, not only in all things Tercero, but all things Santa Barbara and Rhône.

“Business is becoming less personal,” he complains. “I was trained luckily by my Father who was an old school marketer and by other businesses that understood the value of one on one relationships.  I probably spend more time than I should sometimes dealing with things that aren’t going to yield me the greatest return, but I need to communicate with people.”

While it’s possible some of this communication may have put him in the hot seat with a certain critic, he feels compelled to engage people with his adopted profession.

“I feel it’s an obligation of our industry to educate people and I feel our industry does a pretty crappy job [doing it]. I love breaking down stereotypes and generalizations in what we do…From my personal perspective, people think the wine industry is pompous and that’s not the way things should be. I tell people all the time, it’s not what the label looks like, it’s not the pricing, it’s the juice inside. If you like it great! If you don’t, I don’t care what it looks like and I don’t care what rating it has, you shouldn’t drink it.”

ALP: So what’s the big picture for you?

“To continue doing what I’m doing. I think that the future is bright for Rhône wines and I’m excited to be a part of the Rhône Rangers and actively kind of changing the function of that organization. Santa Barbara County has tremendous upside potential, so I am really excited about being a part of that as well. I kind of think we all need to be Mondavi Jr’s in general, in terms of looking at a bigger picture, not just looking at ourselves…We will each succeed if we all succeed.”

“I put a lot of energy into small amounts of time. That’s what I do with Rhône Rangers, that’s what I do with everything I do. It’s the only way I can. I can’t put 100% into anyone thing or everything will fail.”

ALP: Do you have a favorite aspect of what you do?

“My favorite aspect is talking about what I do and finding out what makes other people tick.”

ALP: So you enjoy the conversation?

“I really enjoy finding out why people like what they like.”

ALP: What has been the inspiration for you?

“The learning curve, there is so much to learn. The winemakers I respect the most are the ones that don’t except the past as being the truth, that constantly tinker. Scott McLeod who was the winemaker at Rubicon, until recently, I went to work on my master thesis with him. Here’s a guy who makes arguably one of the best blends in Napa, who walked into the lab one day when I was there and said, “Larry, you gotta smell this Syrah!” And I smelled it, a ton of white pepper and he said, “you know what I did? Instead of fermenting with stems, I ground stems up with a blender and added it.” He was just so infatuated with discovery. My masters Professor at Davis, had this youthful enthusiasm of intrigue that inspired me…There is so much to learn and there is no right and wrong.”

As I left Fess Parker on a late Friday afternoon and headed south on Foxen Canyon Road, I passed a field of cows grazing in the fading light. I stopped and stood watching them for some time. It’s a long way from Orange County. The air was quiet and the oak trees were illuminated by the warm glow of a late sun. There is much more to wine than the wine itself, much more than can be discerned by a swirl, a smell, a sip, and a spit. There are lives behind every bottle. There are sacrifices of families. There are the stories of a vintage, the challenges it presented and the friends it was shared with. And sometimes, there are new beginnings.

In the vain pursuit of meaningless scores, the story is defined by a few seconds spent with a wine and a number. Years of effort are summed up with an arbitrary number as either meaningful or pointless. It is an unavoidable consequence of wine reviews on a mass scale.

For Larry, the story of Tercero is much more complex and delicate than a number. The story is one of personal challenge, of the voyage of a family, and a story of a new life.

The edges of new land are rough when they are first formed. Gradually, with each passing year and with each grain of sand that assaults its surface, the surface changes. Each vintage, like those grains of sands, gradually shapes who the winemaker becomes. Who Larry will become as a winemaker, as a advocate of Santa Barbara wine, is still being shaped, by the vintages, by time, and by sheer determination.

Tercero Wines

There is a story brewing in me on critics and my thoughts on them.  Without going to far into it now, I will address Parker’s Tercero scores. I didn’t love everything Larry did, but they were all solid wines. Larry was kind enough to give me the gift of his time and a bottle of Grenache. His time will stay with me. They Grenache was drank and very much enjoyed by me and my friends on a camping trip that weekend. So while there maybe some rough edges to smooth out, when it comes to wine scores, don’t believe everything you read.

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. Phil C. says:

    Great article. Larry is an amazing guy and I’m proud to call him a friend. Without him, I probably would have been stuck drinking Napa cab and chard. He has opened my eyes to Rhones, but more specifically, to the beauty of Santa Barbara. My wife and I haven’t gone back to Napa/Sonoma since we met Larry…we love it way to much in the Ghetto, Sta. Rita Hills, and Los Olivos.

    Larry’s wines didn’t deserve those scores and harsh words…but by Parker bashing him, he has drawn even more attention to his wines…which I think is a good thing. People won’t understand the scores when they drink the wines.

    Keep up the good work Larry!

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