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Small-town wines make big time sales

Linden winemaker Dave Pechan keeps his estate label thriving by shipping truckloads of wine to be sipped in Shanghai and Seoul

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Posted: Friday, May 16, 2014 8:01 am

Seated at a large walnut desk in his second-floor office in Linden, Dave Pechan peers across the room at a large map of the United States, covered in thumbtacks and pushpins. There’s one marker there for every distributor to whom Pechan has sold Miramont Estates wine.

But there are some key customers who don’t fall on that U.S. map, including buyers in Vietnam, Japan and China.

Looking out the window, however, Pechan sees mostly cattle ranches, and acres of vines. How does a farmer from the small town of Linden sell his products halfway around the world?

A passion for flight

Globalization through the internet has changed how small business owners work. But it hasn’t changed Pechan’s day to day life of waking up with the sun, and coming home in the evening with dirt under his fingernails.

Years before his winemaking obsession took hold, Pechan knew he wanted to be a farmer. From birth to age nine, he spent time on his uncle’s farm in Minnesota. It wouldn’t be until his 40s that Pechan saved enough money to buy land and start his dream.

But in the meantime, he was a pilot. A stint in the Air Force stationed Pechan at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento, and one of his buddies gave him his first ride in a plane at age 19. A few weeks later, Pechan was driving home and passed a field as a crop duster flew low over the plants. That’s when he made a commitment to getting his pilot’s license.

“I figured it was pretty close to farm work, so it was in the right direction,” Pechan said.

Pechan worked for five years flying crop dusters. He also was a commercial pilot for United Express. Now he uses his personal four-seater plane for charity work through Angel Flights and Pilots and Paws, groups that help transport cancer patients and shelter dogs, respectively. Over the years, Pechan has worked construction, owned a gas station, a restaurant, and Dave’s Auto Works in Pine Grove.

Farming is the most enjoyable business Pechan has ever owned.

“The place is beautiful. You can’t beat the work environment,” Pechan said, looking around at the open blue sky, green buds on the vines and farm equipment in a tidy line. “And the wine industry has the best people. I’ve never gotten a bad check from a winery owner.”

Pechan bought the ranch in 1997 with his wife, Patricia. They had a contract to sell every winegrape that grew on the 40-acre ranch, but the prices were low. Then the buyers didn’t come through, and Pechan faced a choice. He could let all those grapes die on the vine, or he could harvest them himself, make his own wine, and keep the profits.

“The grower is truly at the mercy of the buyers. The minute you convert the grapes to wine, you have the power to hold the product, and have control over the pricing,” Pechan said.

In 2001, Pechan paid for custom crushing to make his first vintage. Since then he’s expanded to nine varieties, including a rose of Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Old Vine Zin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a few red blends and sparkling wines. On the grounds, Pechan and his wife Patricia grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. They buy grapes and bulk wine from growers in Lodi, Auburn and Calaveras to fill out their wine list.

“You work for basically no money for the first five years. It’s nerve wracking because you’re broke, but it’s still exciting,” said Pechan.

Challenges and opportunities

Pechan’s winemaking world is not without challenges. Theft on Linden-area farms has become more commonplace, leaving farmers scrambling for ways to safely lock up their equipment. Last week, a bright orange Kubota RTV was stolen out of Pechan’s driveway. It’s a two-passenger truck used to check over the 30 miles of grapevines on the property. Pechan was forced to borrow one until insurance money comes in to pay $9,000 for a replacement. But the insurance doesn’t cover the additional equipment stolen from the back.

“I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’ve never had anything stolen before last year,” said Pechan, who plans to purchase a shipping container for more secure storage. “This is a big expense, and we all pay for it.”

Breaking into the world of international wine sales changed his company permanently.

Pechan discovered Alibaba.com, the largest international business to business trading site in the world.

The site brought Pechan’s wine to the attention of buyers in Vietnam, Japan, China and Canada.

“This is pretty amazing for a place that had a four-party line phone 30 years ago. I’ve got this little tiny operation in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “This business model has changed my work completely.”

Now he’s selling through distributors like Gold Coast Wine Group.

Pechan has visited China and South Korea on trade trips with California agricultural groups, including Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross. When he’s able to say he stayed in Shanghai or Seoul, a prospective buyer’s ears perk up.

“They like that you have taken the time to see their half of the world,” he said.

Nearly 25 percent of Pechan’s trade is now with international customers. On a recent weekend, a team of wine distributors from Vietnam stopped in to the private tasting room to try the product and pick Pechan’s brain on his winemaking process.

Frank Gayaldo, an independent consultant for international wine sales, says Pechan proves small guys can compete on a global market.

“It’s exciting because everyone knows Gallo and Mondavi are capable of selling to the world. But even really small players can do something big and important. Dave and wineries like him are putting Lodi on the world map.”

Gayaldo sees Pechan as a example of American work ethic.

“You don’t need a contract with Dave. His word is good,” said Gayaldo.

Recognition overseas

The wines are doing well on the international stage. Pechan holds two medals from the China Wine and Spirits Awards. His Eclipse California Red Blend and the estate Cabernet Sauvignon both earned a gold ranking. He keeps the certificates on the winebar.

The tasting room is no longer open to the public. Pechan now uses the space for case storage. The barrel room is packed full with 400 barrels of wine that must be monitored. To keep product moving, Pechan brings in a bottling truck once a week.

Buyers from Asian markets order wine in bulk, not just a case or two.

Think huge quantities like a full shipping container with 14,400 bottles of wine — the product of 18 tons of grapes.

Despite the growing numbers, Pechan still feels like a small fish in an ever-expanding ocean of winemakers. That doesn’t diminish his zeal, or his work in bringing area wines to more markets.

“We’re still a small player. But it’s important for small wineries to know you can get into this business,” he said.

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