What do you do if your father is the man who made Blue Nun the biggest wine celebrity in the U.S.? If you’re Bettina Sichel, you follow in his footsteps and become a wine marketing expert.
Peter M.F. Sichel was a fourth-generation wine merchant and winegrower, born in Germany but displaced by World War II into the United States. For a time, he served as a CIA agent, but eventually he got back to the wine business, launching the German-sourced Blue Nun at a time when few Americans drank wines with their meals. Long before Yellow Tail and other critter wines, Blue Nun, along with Reunite, was the first generation of super imports. The Sichel family is still prominent in European wine circles, largely as negociants in Bordeaux, but Bettina – born in the USA – decided to go west to California.
There, she became most-noted for working with Augustin Huneeus in establishing Quintessa – the pristine new wine estate on Napa Valley’s East Side – as a prestige brand. She stayed there for 10 years until Huneeus retired, and in 2006 joined Napa Valley Vintners as their head of marketing and also did consulting.
A year ago, she took a big step in putting together a group of investors – none from the Sichel family – to buy the well-regarded Laurel Glen winery on Sonoma Mountain, where she is now director and managing partner. “I’ve never been a winemaker,” she pointed out when we sat down to talk at Harry’s Seafood Grill in Delaware. “And to me, the vineyards are in good shape and our wines are cutting edge. The only thing that needs work is marketing.”
Indeed for those of us who discovered Laurel Glen in the early 1980s as an excellent, affordable Cabernet-only wine that was good to drink and better to cellar, it seems as if the brand has done a disappearing act in recent years, losing share of mind to other North Coast Cabs. Laurel Glen was the baby of Patrick Campbell, a cosmopolitan soul who brought the property in 1977 and produced the first wine in 1981. The premise was, and has been, that Laurel Glen and Counterpoint – an early-drinking version – would be Cab only, produced entirely from the estate’s 16-acre property. The high, southeastern-facing slope allows Cab to ripen when some others in fog-prone Sonoma will not.
Sichel plans to keep it that way. Although she has input and preferences about the wines, she says she relies on her team of viticulturist Phil Coturri – an expert in organic farming – and winemaking consultant David Ramey, both familiar names in the winegrowing industry. Randall Watkins is the winemaker, and Campbell still consults.
The 2006 and 2007 vintages currently on the market were quite different in the vineyards. The 2006 Laurel Gen has a beautiful blending of fruits and oak in the nose, and the fruit is dark and elegant with plum flavors at mid- palate and a hint of chocolate. It has well-integrated tannins and good minerality, but is not lean. The 2007 has both pastel (blueberries) and dark (blackberry/cherry) flavors in the fruit, a note or two of brûlée, more depth to the fruit and structure to the wine. It’s excellent.
Now, Sichel is on the road. “I need to introduce the wines to a new generation of drinkers,” she says. “I’m meeting with all the sommeliers. We need champions.”