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Always ahead of the curve

Dec 7, 2012


By Karl Klooster
Of the News-Register


Any mention of Firesteed Wines must include Howard Rossbach in the same breath.

Over the course of the last two decades, the winery’s enterprising founder has built a nationally known brand quite literally from the ground up. His success is a prime example of that archetypal business adage, “Find a need and fill it.”

By 1992, the year he launched Firesteed, Rossbach already had 15 years of exprience in wine marketing, distribution and sales.

A Bronx native, he initially envisioned a career in academia. His interest in the biological sciences took him to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he majored in botany.

He then segued into serious consideration of a career in environmental law. In this, he was encouraged by his father, a federal judge, who had distinguished himself for his work developing broadcasting regulations with the FCC during the Truman administration.

But neither professor nor attorney was to be his ultimate career path. After graduating from UW in 1975, Rossbach, who had just turned 21, took a job at a wine shop to keep a roof over his head and food in the fridge.

“My father always said follow your passion,” he recalled, “and it wasn’t long before I discovered how much I enjoyed wine in every way. My mentor was Bob Betts, who became one of America’s first masters of wine.”

Two years later, he took a job with a small wine distributor in Seattle. During his eight years there, he rose from salesman to general manager and helped grow the company from 10 to 150 employees.

In 1985, he left to form his own marketing firm, Vintage Northwest. For seven more years, he represented Oregon wines nationally, becoming closely acquainted with the countrywide scene augmenting his already well-honed, on-premise sales skills.

Rossbach’s in-depth understanding of the marketplace told him that both retailers and restaurateurs would respond well to a competitively priced, high quality Oregon pinot noir. The state’s reputation for the variety was on the rise, but established wineries relied on a markup that put them at the higher end among premium wines.

By the early 1990s, he was convinced that the pent-up demand had reached a point where the opportunity could no longer be overlooked. Connections at all levels of the industry allowed him to contract for selected lots of pinot noir grapes at the quality level he needed and reach an agreement with a winery to produce the product.

He then put together a network of distributors in key markets that could efficiently sell to both off and on-premise accounts. That gave Firesteed immediate cachet, not to mention cash flow.

The combination of information, intuition and connections paid off. In its first year, Firesteed sold 7,000 cases. The production pathway led rapidly upward from that point.

Always a strategic business thinker, Rossbach set up the brand for wide distribution at the outset. He continued expanding his distributor base until it was not just national in scope, but actually international.

A point of particular pride for Rossbach was the fact that soon after Firesteed came onto the market, it became the house red for the Clinton administration. It was served at the White House from 1993 to 2000.

Today, Firesteed wines can be found in all 50 states and 17 foreign countries. “We do have good supermarket presence in the Pacific Northwest,” he said, “but less than 25 percent of our wine is sold here.”

These days, that 25 percent represents some 13,000 to 18,000 cases depending on the vintage.

Total acreage planted in both estate and contracted grapes runs about 350. In a higher tonnage year, such as 2012, total production can run upward of 70,000 cases.

Rossbach bought the Flynn winery north of Rickreall in 2002 and made that Firesteed’s home base.

The facility came with 100 acres of contiguous vineyards, which constituted an estate on the classic European model.

Three pinots and four other wines make up Firesteed’s portfolio. They include Oregon Pinot Noir, the lead value product; Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, a cuvée with additional bottle age; and Citation Pinot Noir, an older vintage of special lots, released slowly from the winery’s cellar collection.

Few wineries have the capacity to consistently offer bottle-aged wines in any quantity, if at all. For restaurants and connoisseur appreciators, this represents a special opportunity and a rare treat.

Citation Chardonnay, Oregon Pinot Gris, Oregon Pinot Gris Rose and Oregon Riesling are also offered under the Firesteed label. The 2008 Firesteed Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, retailing for a modest $30, was among the highly recommended wines selected by the Oregon Wine Press tasting panel in October.

What may be a first for any Oregon winery is a Barbera d’Asti imported by Firesteed and available at the tasting room. Following Firesteed’s value philosophy, it sells for under $10 a bottle.

In pursuit of other international connections, Rossbach was among the first Oregon producers to make Japan a priority.

“Japan was an early target for us when I started Firesteed in 1992,” he said. “It is a sophisticated market from a culinary standpoint, and I knew our wines would match well with their traditional cuisines.”

When you go to Japan, he said, “Know what you are looking for. Be prepared to go several times, as relationshis are vitally important there.”

Rossbach’s most recent move is the launching of Cayalla, a new Washington brand. It will feature Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys.

Firesteed Winery is located just two miles north of Highway 99W’s intersection with Highway 22. The tasting room is open daily from 11 am to 5 pm.

The phone number is 503-623-8683 and the URL www.firesteed.com.

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at kklooster@newsregister.com or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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