By Michael Cervin | Photos by Carol Oliva
There are 90,000 wine brands in the United States. That should be a daunting number for most wineries. But for Eric Stiefeling, Managing Director for Aril Wines in Calistoga, “There’s always room for one more.”
Born on the East Coast, Stiefeling developed a love for wine after moving to California. “I grew up in New York City, and it was pretty much a beer and whiskey class,” he says in his pronounced New York-New Jersey accent. At first, wine wasn’t in the cards for him. “Most of my life was in bonds, working for a municipal investment banking company.” He tried his hand as the wine director for the Pine Creek Sporting Club in Okeechobee, Florida, making frequent trips to Napa Valley and soon becoming a fixture at area wine tastings. The allure of the California wine business slowly took hold, and he moved to San Francisco, albeit to work for a securities firm in San Francisco. “I went from drinking Italian and French wines to Napa wines. I got to know a lot of the winemakers and winery owners, who became very good friends.” He became president of the Golden Gate Wine Society, unintentionally, and connected with even more people in the wine industry.
After he retired from the financial sector, Eric started thinking, like so many do, that starting his own winery might be his proverbial dream come true. “But when I put it down on paper and calculated the actual costs, it was insane,” he admits. So that idea was abandoned. Soon enough, fate came calling in the form of Joanne and Harmon Brown, who started Aril Wines in 2008.
“I knew Joanne from New York. She approached me to find her a winemaker for Aril Wines, which I did,” Eric says. Aril was initially making about 50 cases, moving into the waters slowly. “Later, she called, saying they were bumping up production and she wanted to sell more. I said, ‘That’s great, how are you going to do it?’ She said, ‘I want you to do it.’” Pause. “What, are you kidding me? I don’t know anything about the wine business, I’m a bond guy!” But he did know about the wine business, and the sedentary nature often associated with retirement was not for him, so he moved from Pacific Heights to Calistoga and started selling wine. Aril wines include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir, with grapes sourced from exceptional vineyards. “You start with the winemaker and where the grapes come from,” he says. “You can’t make good wine out of crap.”
The wine business is a competitive and crowded field. “More and more wines are coming from unexpected places like China and India,” he admits. Which begs the question, will people buy local, thus pushing Aril out of the market? Probably not. Eric sees that, between consolidation in the wine business and the unfortunate shuttering of insolvent wineries, opportunities abound. However, some opportunities have a way of cheating you, at times; as Aril was getting set to break ground on its new winery facility, the Tubbs Fire broke out, sidelining that project. But there are also upsides. Currently, Aril is in Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Florida, and Texas. That’s enough for now, according to Eric, who aims to keep Aril a boutique project, at less than 3,500 cases. “I love the idea of building something, making something out of nothing. It’s still a lot of fun.”