Though the wine part of the business may not have been fully formed, the intent of the business was clear. “The words ‘Justice’ and ‘Grace’ say much about my fundamental operating touchstones. My business mission is simply to show that companies should be created and established to help society benefit as much as any individual,” says Eric.
This philosophy is at odds with his previous career in the hyper-competitive industry known as Wall Street – though that experience is also what led Eric to wine.
“I didn’t grow up with wine at all,” he says. “My parents used to keep a…jug of Riunite in the garage for whenever guests would come over.” It wasn’t until he started work in New York City in the 1990s that the beauty and magic of wine came to his attention.
“I started attending dinners and events where I was exposed to world-class wine and I was immediately captivated,” Eric says – and he was hooked.
It started with reading wine magazines every month and blossomed into books about wine, then winemaking textbooks and even books on wine chemistry. But after a decade of reading and drinking, it took a chance encounter to push Eric over the edge from researcher to hands-on wine guy.
The story offers an important lesson: talk to the person next to you on the airplane. He just might happen to be the winemaker for White Rock Vineyards in Napa, and he just might invite you to crush grapes during harvest.
For the next four years, Eric worked the crush at White Rock as well as several other wineries. He also used the opportunity to observe the process of turning grapes into wine, and ask lots of questions along the way.
“Having come from the business world where…knowledge is considered a trade secret to be protected at all costs, it was unbelievable refreshing to see how open winemakers were to sharing ideas and answering questions,” Eric recalls.
Then, in 2003, Eric made his first wine under the Shoe Shine label – two barrels crafted from a ton of petite sirah grapes from Tenbrink Vineyards, still a source of fruit today.
Which brings us back to Eric’s passion for the underdog, which infuses everything from grape to label. To wit:
Petite sirah “has long been a superstar blending grape for many esteemed wines, but rarely a recognized star on its own,” Eric explains. His interest in the varietal came when he tasted a 20-year old petite sirah from Ridge’s York Creek Vineyards. Despite its age, the wine was still delicious – and sent him down yet another research rabbit hole.
“I was drawn to the fact that this underdog grape was so inherently intense, that the winemaking challenge was one of diligence and delicacy…[the grape] lent itself perfectly to the commitment that only a small and dedicated winery could afford,” Eric says.
Indeed, Shoe Shine Wines produces only a few hundred cases a year of its wines, all vineyard-designated petite sirah. Eric sources from sites that use organic, biodynamic or sustainable farming techniques and that have the specific micro-climate he is looking for.
But he doesn’t just leave the vines in other farmer’s hands – he’ll get in the rows, helping with such details as hand-sorting fruit on the vine.
Once the grapes come to the winery, Eric’s hands-on approach intensifies. He is the sole winemaker; and hand-bottles, -labels and –capsules the wine. (Don’t get him started on his involvement in the business side of things: he also handles sales and marketing, making deliveries, handling PR and legal issues…you get the idea.)
But it’s not just the grape and manual production that show Eric’s passion for the little guy. He picked the name Shoe Shine Wines “to convey my respect and dedication to the working class and exploited members of our society.”
In addition, the wine’s labels are LGBT-friendly: They show a couple’s legs in silhouette and online consumers can pick from two men’s legs, two women’s, or a man and woman.
But wait – turn the bottle around and look at the back. Shoe Shine lists the wine’s ingredients on the bottle, a transparency that shows the wines are made with minimal intervention.
Further, for an industry that Eric describes as “fairly progressive in their farming practices,” the standard choices of aluminum, tin or plastic to cover the top of the bottle don’t fit that eco-friendly ethos.
“After spinning my wheels on this,” he says, “I decided upon fabric – often vintage – as the most beautiful and effective solution atop every cork.” These fabric capsules are literally works of art: they were featured in SFMOMA’s 2011 exhibit “How Wine Became Modern.”
Given the intense efforts that go into the wine, you might think that expansion plans would be in the works – and they are. Eric plans to release a second label early in 2014 “dedicated to being a resource for…oppressed people or causes from around the world.” Down the road, he also plans to restructure the business “with an entirely unique model designed to benefit society just as much as myself.”
But don’t think for a moment that this growth will change what happens in the vineyard or bottle. “Wines from Justice Grace Vineyards will always be made by using my hands and getting elbow deep into all of the fermentations. I expect to always…live up to my standards and make wines of authenticity.”