Wines Without Vines? Living The Negociant Life

by Trent Moffett

Our latest guest blogger, Trent Moffett of C&T Cellars, grew up in the vineyards of Napa Valley, spending many summers working at family and independent vineyards. Upon graduating from the University of the Pacific with a BA in agricultural business, Trent joined the family business at Livingston Vineyards. There, with his father John Livingston, he learned the appreciation of winemaking from Livingston's first wine maker, Randy Dunn. Trent's multifaceted roles ranged from California sales to cellar master. Within a few years, Trent assumed all cellar operations, collaborating with esteemed winemaker Greg Graham from Rombauer (1992-1996), John Kongsgaard (1996-2001), and Marco DiGiulio (2001-2006). Trent worked a harvest in New Zealand's South Island with Grant Taylor, one of New Zealand's most honored winemakers. In 1993 he introduced C&T Cellars, a négociant wine label.  
What is a Negociant wine? How does the winery or wine label find these wines? How can you be consistent when you don’t own or contract with the same vineyards? How do you put these wines together? These are some of the question I hear travelling around the country selling my C&T Cellars wines.

“Négociants buy everything from grapes to grape must to wines in various states of completion. In the case of grapes or must, the négociant performs virtually all the winemaking. If it buys already fermented wine in barrels or 'en-vrac' - basically in bulk containers, it may age the wine further, blend in other wines or simply bottle and sell it as is. The result is sold under the name of the négociant, not the name of the original grape or wine producer.”Wikipedia

How does the winery or wine label find these wines? The bulk market for both fruit and wine is extremely active with tens of thousands of tons of grapes available and hundreds of thousands probably millions of gallons of wine available. This is not to say that it’s all good wine or fruit, but it’s available. For example, if you look at Turrentine's web site you will see one brokers list of bulk wines available. Turrentine is a medium to large size broker and many of the different companies have the same wines. For me personally, I almost exclusively purchase wine from winemakers I know or wineries that I’ve worked with before. I have developed a great group of friends and winery contacts that will call me before they farm the wines out.

How can you be consistent when you don’t own or contract with the same vineyards? This is a great question and the answer in my mind is that you can’t be consistent. That being said, I’ve been very fortunate to work with the same people for 16 years and am able to get some consistency here and there. I always tell people that my wines will not be the same year to year, but they will provide you with an excellent price to quality ratio. Because I’ve been able to deliver that to my consumers, I’ve developed a great trust with them and the wineries I work with. Why would my winery clients care about the quality of the wine I bottle and sell? Because the wine I get from them is still their baby which they have put a lot of time and effort into. Here is an example from my 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet: A family friend and winery owner produces one red wine per vintage that retails above $50 a bottle. They blend 4 different varietals into there red wine and during blending they had way too much merlot from that vintage. The merlot was made in one batch, treated the same, they just had too much. A lot of the time I will find a winery that is running behind in sales and needs to short a vintage to get caught up. This is a great way to find wine that is ready to go and has been treated well.

How do you put these wines together?
This is the fun part of the job. I love being the Master Blender! People talk about it in different ways. I like to compare it to putting a band together. First you find your “rock star” then you start finding the other members of the band. Without the “rock star” you just have a group of artists together making music, but the “rock star” brings the band and the show together. I hardly ever find a wine that is bottle ready. Most the time the wine will need a little help to fit my palate. Most of these lots are also too small to bottle. For example my 2005 Rooftop Red Cabernet came from three different producers with a total production of 289 cases. Literally I took my truck and trailer to these different wineries and grabbed a barrel or two, with the big lot being the cabernet at 8 barrels. C&T Cellars average production per varietal ranges from 300 cases to 1,000 cases.

There is so much more that can be covered on this subject and I hope to cover it with your questions.