Charles Bieler: the Dude of price-conscious wines
ASPEN – Sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. In the milieu of late-’90s Los Angeles, that man – at least as the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” had it – was Jeffrey Lebowski, the slacker much better known as the Dude. For the current era, and wherever people are looking for a wine that goes perfectly with this economic what-have-you, that man just may be Charles Bieler.Bieler, a 34-year-old former Aspenite, has never aimed for the snob appeal of wine. Quite the opposite. He began his career making and selling ros, the little appreciated type that made up a tiny niche of the market. Probably because of that involvement, he has stuck to the lower end of the wine market, even as he has branched out into proper reds and whites.”I operate in the value zone,” Bieler said. He grew up between Montreal, France, Vermont and the New York area, attended his senior year of high school at Carbondale’s Colorado Rocky Mountain School, was a member of the University of Colorado cross-country ski team that won two championships, and lived in Aspen in the late ’90s. “The most expensive wine I’m involved with costs under $15. You can still find wines to drink under $12. I stand by that, strongly and proudly.”As the economy soared over the past decade – and high-end wines with it – industry acquaintances looked down on Bieler, whose projects include wine packaged in jugs and cartons.He himself began to wonder. “I was thinking, ‘Am I an idiot?'” said Bieler, who will be serving wine and sangria (some of it out of glass bottles!) under the Grand Tasting Tent during the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. “Everybody I knew was making more and more expensive wines, more special wines. But I guess I wanted to be involved with the kind of wine I’m comfortable with. Any moron with a big bank account can buy a great, expensive wine. I have a tough time buying a really expensive wine. I get more excited finding a wine I love that is truly affordable.”The pile of morons with big bank accounts has dwindled considerably over the past nine months, and Bieler is looking relatively less moronic. Business at his various projects is “doing great,” he said. “There’s a real shift to value. And we’ve been there all along. I chuckle – I wasn’t looking so smart last year. Maybe we were leaving money on the table. Now I’m in a good position.”Bieler’s ventures include Three Thieves, a partnership that includes fourth-generation California winemaker Joel Gott, and produces such products as the Bandit line of wines in a carton and the Jug (explanation unnecessary); Bieler Pre et Fils, a French-based partnership with his father, Philippe; and his latest, Charles & Charles, a Washington state operation that includes Charles Smith, a former manager of punk bands. (Another brand he co-owns, with master sommelier and former Aspenite Richard Betts, and part-time Aspenite Dennis Scholl, is the Sombra mezcal. It retails for $50, a price Bieler confesses troubles him slightly.)Bieler’s road down the food chain of wine began with Philippe. The elder Bieler bought, in 1992, the French estate Chateau Routas. Despite the name, it wasn’t especially grand. It was located in Provence, a fringe grape-growing region by French standards, and Philippe built the vineyard essentially from scratch. His product was ros, and thanks to marginal distribution and ros’s lowly status, Routas built up more of a back-stock of inventory than a reputation. In 1998, Charles got the call: His dad wanted him to put in a year in the wine business.Fortunately, Bieler believed in the quality of the product. And he saw an opportunity in the lack of love shown for ros.”I’ve always felt U.S. wineries do such a poor job at dry ros. How do they miss the mark so badly?” he asked, noting that the European market was far stronger, in both supply and demand. “In the ’90s in the U.S., ros was not on the map. People see ros and they think white Zinfandel.”Bieler, who considers himself a Vermonter at heart, borrowed a trick from fellow Vermont entrepreneurs Ben & Jerry. Just as the ice-cream makers painted a truck in cow patterns and traveled the country scooping out New York Super Fudge Chunk, Bieler got himself a pink 1965 Cadillac Deville and drove around pouring ros.”I had a lot of ros to sell,” he said. “We had to make a splash. The wines were beautiful, but we had to get on a soapbox, give people courage to taste it.”In 2002 Bieler co-founded Three Thieves. It was a lark and a gimmick, an attempt to toy with common notions of bad wine. But they sold their Jug mainly in college towns, for $10, and found that there was an audience for decent, inexpensive wine that had a sense of humor.Bieler is sure laughing now. Ros is having its moment: Food & Wine, in its May 2006 edition, did a taste test, inspired by the “recent glorification of ros.” At the Little Nell, the Pre et Fils ros is on the wine list (for $28), and it is used in the hotel’s sangria.”It’s still tiny, but it’s growing huge,” Bieler said of ros. “People are into it. You feel like an insider, a cool kid, if you’re drinking ros.”And he has no qualms about selling it for slightly more than the average sandwich in Aspen.”It’s tempting to push prices up,” he said. “But ultimately, I felt the occasion for drinking ros was one when you didn’t want to drop a lot of money. You want it fresh and bright and accessible, and not have to think twice about ponying up the money.”email@example.com
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