Behind every great bottle of wine that you buy, there’s a wine merchant who has worked hard to find it, negotiate prices with the winemaker, and arrange shipping. Besides traveling the globe in search of vineyards, a wine merchant must also navigate through a labyrinth of international, federal, and state regulations in order to bring that wine to the consumer.
It’s a whole world of relationships, logistics, and laws that hovers invisibly behind the scene wherever people get together to merrily clink glasses of their favorite plonk. And normall, that’s just where Stephen Itak, president of Victory Selections LLC, in Cranbury, prefers to be — behind the scenes, finding and distributing great wines. But just this once, he has volunteered to share his oenological acumen at a charity wine tasting he will conduct on Saturday, March 24, at the West Windsor Fire Company #1 firehouse on South Mill Road to benefit the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North’s girls softball team.
“I don’t do wine tastings, but this was a special case,” Itak says, as we sat in his company’s conference room at 339 Princeton-Hightstown Road in Cranbury, sipping espressos, surrounded by the life blood of his business: sample bottles. “My daughter Kelsey’s best friend, Briana Taft, plays for the West Windsor-Plainsboro North girls softball team. She and Kelsey used to play on the same team until they split up for the North and South high schools. Briana is really like another daughter to us, so when I was approached to help with fundraising, I just said I’ll run a tasting myself.” Proceeds from the event will go to help build a dugout for the team.
It wouldn’t be the first time Itak has helped with sports in his community. He and his wife, Jeanne, a director of medical affairs at Johnson & Johnson, have lived in West Windsor for nearly 13 years. Their daughter, Kelsey, attends High School South and their younger daughter, Sara, is an eighth grader at Grover Middle School. “Over the years,” Itak says, “I’ve done a fair amount of coaching, especially soccer.”
What Itak has planned for the March 24 event is no ordinary tasting of a few whites and reds. “We’ll be pouring close to 100 different wines. Most of our portfolio will be represented.” With such a vast selection, this event will be more like a trade show. Attendees will have a rare opportunity to sample literally dozens of wines from around the world. What’s more, since all the wines bear the Victory Selections imprimatur, guests can get a tangible feel for the company’s philosophy — the company’s palate will be reflected in every glass.
Itak and his two partners, Jon Hoffman and Jonathan Schuff, worked for Winebow Inc., a powerhouse wine importer and distributor specializing in Italian selections. In January, 2005, they started their own company, Victory Selections. Since then, they have acquired 250 accounts in New Jersey. “Our focus is on retail more than restaurant distribution,” Itak says. Notable retail clients include McCaffrey’s Wine & Spirits in West Windsor, Glendale Liquors, Wine Library, and Joe Canal’s. Even with an emphasis on retail distribution, the company has managed to place their wines in some very elite New Jersey eateries, including Raven and the Peach in Fair Haven and Scalini Fedeli in Chatham, which Zagat rated New Jersey’s best overall restaurant in 2003.
A big part of the company’s success comes from experience. “This is all I’ve ever done,” Itak says, motioning with a wave to the various wine racks and bottles that fill the room. Perhaps he had a head start because his father worked in the soda business as a district manager for 7-Up. “I think I’ve really come full-circle. I managed a Super Saver, so I’ve done big retail. Then I got to work with so many great producers at Winebow. But Winebow is a very big company. I think there’s a real need for small, boutique wine distributors.”
The boutique approach shines through in Victory Selections’ portfolio. As Itak says, “We love small wineries. Well over half of the California vineyards that we carry are producers who make less than 1,000 cases per vintage.”
As for the wineries, the attraction seems mutual. “We really take a one-on-one approach with the wineries we distribute. Oftentimes, these are small vineyards that may never have had their wine sold outside of their particular region. They’re afraid that their wines will disappear in some phone book-sized catalog. We promise our winemakers that we’ll do the very best we can to place and promote their wines.” Such dedication and follow-through has resulted in a blossoming of new clients. “A lot of the relationships we’ve been working on are coming together right now, so we’re rapidly adding producers. By April, we’ll probably have 100 wineries.”
Victory Selections’ portfolio spans most of the world’s winemaking regions. “Right now,” Itak says, “the mix is about 60 percent California and 40 percent international, mostly Italian, then wines from Spain, Argentina, and Chile.” Along with distributing wine, the company also has an importing license.
So what advice does Itak have for aspiring wine connoisseurs who plan to attend the tasting? Try starting with what Itak calls one of his “value brands,” the Estampa wines from Colchagua Valley, Chile. The entire line retails for under $10 a bottle, so it might be a chance to find your new “house” white or red. The white, a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier grapes, promises delightful aromatics with lush texture. The reds are full-bodied blends based on Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
You then might want to step up to a sip of Laird Family Estate’s Carneros Chardonnay. The bottle normally runs about $30 in a wine shop. “Laird has one of the premier custom-crush facilities in California,” Itak says. “And Paul Hobbs, who uses their facility to make his own award-winning wines, is their winemaker too.”
By moving on to some Pinot Noir from Lost Canyon Winery, you’ll also be sampling the latest trend in California winemaking: Sonoma fruit vinified in brand new facilities along the beautifully renovated stretch of Oakland’s Bay area. The Lost Canyon Pinot comes in around $40 to $45 per bottle. There is also a single vineyard Syrah from Spencer Roloson in Napa Valley that runs $45 on the shelf. And keep an eye out for Robert Young Estate Winery’s “Scion,” a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc from what Itak describes as “one of our superstar wineries.” The “Scion” bottling retails at $55.
You might finish your flight with a splash of Clayhouse Vineyard’s Adobe Red. Located in Paso Robles, Clayhouse employs Tom Eddy as their winemaker. The Adobe Red is a fun, spicy blend based on Zinfandel, with Petite Sirah, Syrah, and a dash of Cabernet. At $15 retail, this is the perfect wine for burgers, pizza, Mexican food, ribs, or just merrily clinking glasses with a few friends.
Wine Tasting Benefit, Saturday, March 24, 2007, 7 to 10 p.m., West Windsor Fire Company #1, South Mill Road, West Windsor. $45 per person; purchase tickets in advance by calling 609-799-1230 or by e-mailing WWPNorthSoftball@aol.com.