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Apr 24, 2014

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The merchant of beer

By Alan Moen

When I first met Charles Finkel about 1980, I was waiting tables at a downtown Seattle cafe near my art studio. It was impossible not to recognize him when he walked in - I'd already seen his picture on a poster advertising the beers that he sold, many of which were carried by the restaurant. In fact, Finkel's company, Merchant du Vin, had introduced me to the taste of British Pale Ale with Samuel Smith's. In those days, a couple of years before the microbrewery revolution began in the Pacific Northwest, Finkel's portfolio was an oasis in a desert of bland and tasteless American industrial lagers. B.F.E. (Before the Finkel Era), virtually the only way to find good beer was to make it yourself, with frustratingly inconsistent results.

As it happened, Finkel and his business associate were seated at a table in my section. I'll never forget his remark after I took his food order. Eyeing me critically as he scanned the drink menu, he asked: "What kind of beer do you recommend?" His question was delivered with the same gravity as if he were asking whether a 1978 Pouilly-Fuisse might be better with his poached salmon than a '76 Gevrey-Chambertin.

I gulped, knowing this was critical. I then suggested a Die Kirch pilsener, an excellent crisp lager from Luxembourg, to complement his turkey sandwich. Finkel nodded, pleased I had chosen one of his beers. I had passed the test.

This Seattle pioneer of boutique beers was born in Oklahoma, the son of a mechanic for American airlines and "the only Jew in town," far from even the beginnings of the U.S. wine and beer market. "I enjoyed my youth," he says, "even though all the Baptists there believed that Jesus drank grape juice. But they also believed that Jews were God's chosen people, and who was I to argue?" While a college student at the University of Oklahoma, where he studied art and graphic design, Finkel got a job managing a liquor store. According to him, it was this experience and the rural nature of his upbringing that sparked his interest in marketing wine as "an agricultural product." Ordering from wholesale distributors in Oklahoma those days, says Finkel, one had to deal with the legacy of prohibition, not repealed in the state until 1959.

"They all had to sell the same products - whatever the top sellers in the state were. The only way they could sell to retailers like me was by offering under the table deals. Because of all the government regulation, they forced people to operate in an illicit way. The liquor board basically existed to prohibit people from drinking beverages."

Growing up in what in this situation in what he calls "middle class middle America" was a benefit in retrospect, Finkel believes. "It's given me the ability to rethink whatever situation I've been in - not just accept whatever propaganda I've been given. I consider the propaganda, then form my own opinion." Finkel excelled in art and English, which became the foundation of his career in graphic arts and marketing.

After graduation in 1965, Finkel got a job in New York with Monsieur Henri, a wine wholesale company operated by the Feinberg Brothers. "They were very brave people," he laughs. "They hired this guy who was wet behind the ears, from Oklahoma, to sell wine in New York. The ultimate goal was for me to go back to Texas and Oklahoma to represent their company."

Finkel loved living in New York, where he had relatives. He found himself working in the order department, and he became exposed to "a broad number of people who had a sensory interest in drinking fine wine. I realized at that time that I had the potential to become as knowledgeable about wine as anybody in America." In 1968, having moved to Houston, Finkel formed a partnership with a friend in the silk-screen printing business and started BondVin , his own wine importing and marketing company ( on a side table in Finkel's Seattle office is a framed vintage newspaper article about BondVin and the excellent wine he had available for $2 a bottle! Times have changed).

"In those days," Finkel recalls, "the number of places where you could get even a reasonable bottle of wine were few and far between. There were almost no producers of wine in California, for example." Finkel and his partner went to Europe (where he had been sent previously by Monsieur Henri) and went about establishing contacts. He picked up wines in France, Germany and elsewhere, got exclusive rights to sales in the U.S., and came back to set up accounts to big retailers such as Harry Hoffman's in Denver. "I sold a ton of wine, even though I didn't make much money myself," he says. In the late sixties and early seventies Finkel visited many Napa and Sonoma wineries.

"My timing was perfect", he claims, since the region was just beginning to develop. Finkel maintains that he added the phrase "boutique winery" to the American lexicon, introducing such now famous labels as Dry Creek, Sutter Home, Kenwood, and Fetzer to the marketplace. "This is where our company really took off," he says. Finkel found a ready American market for the new California wines, quickly overshadowing the imports.

While working the California end of the business, Finkel's career took another twist. In a Corti Brothers warehouse in Sacramento, he discovered Ste. Michelle wines from the Yakima Valley in Washington State. Tasting the wines, he was amazed at their quality, especially considering the state's poor reputation for fortified fruit and berry wines like Haddasim and Pomerelle. "The Johannisberg Riesling was the best American white wine I'd ever tasted," Finkel remembers. He called Victor Allison at Nawico in Seattle immediately and got an unforgettable response: "I can't give that goddamn stuff away!" Finkel flew to Seattle and became the exclusive agent for Set. Michelle in the United States, which along with Associated Vintners (later Columbia Winery) became the pioneer premium variety wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Finkel was one of the few who recognized the future potential of the region, and proved it by making the Ste. Michelle brand popular nationwide.

In 1974, as large U.S. corporations began to diversify, the U.S.Tobacco company bought Nawico, and with it Finkel's company to market the wines. UST moved Finkel to Seattle and built a new winery in rural Woodinville. Styled after a French chateau, it became Chateau Ste. Michelle, with Finkel playing a major role in its design, consulting on everything from its cupolas, stained glass and tasting room to the layout of its corporate offices.

But concentrating his efforts on only one group of wines was not easy for a man who had built his business on diversity. "Those were boring years, in retrospect," Finkel says. "The company had made the decision to get rid of the foreign wines that we carried, which was a big mistake." (much later, as Stimson Lane, UST got back into the importing business.) In 1978, friends in the Seattle neighborhood where Finkel and his wife Roseanne still live approached them about being consultants to a new specialty foods store they wanted to establish. Excited by the challenge, Finkel assisted the store with its marketing, establishing both its name and logo, Truffles, as well as its menu of product lines. "We had the first beer list in Seattle," he claims.

It was a new direction for the wine salesman from Oklahoma, and Finkel decided it was time to move on from Ste. Michelle. He sold his interest in Truffles and established Merchant du Vin in 1978, intending originally to market specialty foods, wine, and beer. To lay the groundwork for his new business, Finkel had earlier purchased a local wine and beer wholesale distributorship. He found that the wines they carried were terrible, but many major European beer brands such as Guinness and Steinlager were also sold by the company. It was to be the beginning of his new career as "merchant of beer."

In the 18 years since, Finkel has brought many great British, European, and even American beers to the store shelves and restaurant menus of the United States: Samuel Smith's, Caledonia (MacAndrews), Traquair House, Ayinger, Lindeman's, Orval. It is an impressive list. Once again, his timing has been perfect; Grant's Ale Brewery and RedHook (started by old Ste. Michelle associate Paul Shipman and Starbucks coffee entrepeneur Gordon Bowker) led the charge in the Northwest and even the nation in 1982.

In 1989, Finkel got into the craft brewing business himself by purchasing an old homebrewer's supply store, Liberty Malt Supply, in Seattle's historic Pike Place Market, where the region's gastronomic roots run deep ( And, coincidentally, my own roots as well: my great-grandfather, Oliver Blanchard, was the first local farmer to sell his produce at the Market in 1917.) He designed the packaging of Pike Place Ale (originally in swing-top bottles), developed a keg trade, and did everything but brew the beer himself.

The Pike Place Brewery (recently renamed the Pike Brewing Company) was too small to have its own pub originally. A tiny storefront on Western Avenue, six stories below its namesake market, the brewery was claustrophobic even for its own brewers. Finkel and new business partner Tom Leavitt soon began plans for expansion while their ales gained in reputation among beer lovers. Finkel had moved his homebrew shop to a new location down the street to make room for the brewery, and then moved it again to a prime spot in a bustling mercantile building at 1419 First Avenue, right next to the main level of the market. It has become Seattle's most upscale homebrewing emporium, complete with tasting taps in the back and a brewing museum in the basement. Homebrew U, Finkel's one day brewing seminar, beer and food tasting , has become an annual event that draws scores of homebrewers to hear beer gurus of national and international stature. Even among amateur brewers, Charles Finkel has helped validate Seattle's reputation as one of the major beer cities in America.

Now under construction in an atrium in the center of this structure is the new Pike Pub and Brewery, a 25,000 barrel production facility with a 200 seat pub attached, scheduled to open in summer of 1996. As we stepped around carpenters and pipefitters in his brewery-to-be, Finkel showed me the future location of pub tables, almost literally among the fermentation tanks. "There won't be a glass wall to separate the brewers from the public," he explained. "This will be an interactive brewery." Along with the new Hart Brewery, further south near the Kingdome, the new facility will undoubtedly be the city's most visible to tourists.

An old sign over the Pike Place Market proudly proclaims "meet the producer." In the showcasing of his own and other craft beers, Charles Finkel is certainly worthy of the title, bringing a touch of Madison Avenue to First and Pike. But what is the secret of Finkel's marketing prowess? He denies that there is one, crediting his success to much hard work over the years. While this is obviously true, no one who listens long to Finkel talk about the beers he represents could miss the real reason. "I'm a believer," he admits. "I only sell beers I personally enjoy drinking, beers of the highest quality, which I present in the best light possible to as many people as I can." Finkel believes his beers sell in the end for what values they represent, not just because of the sometimes considerable hype he has created for them. "I just try to get people to taste our beer," he says." We do two or three hundred events a year for that reason."

For Charles Finkel, marketing is as much of the cost of the production of beer as malt, hops, or yeast. He defends the relatively high prices of his products as a quality issue, and makes no bones about wanting to turn a good profit. In turn, retailers themseves, Finkel believes understand that higher-end beers can mean more profits for them, even higher tips for the waiter in the restaurant (Finkel did indeed tip me well in our first encounter.)

Yet controversy has surrounded some of Finkel's tactics. Although he claims to be "squeaky clean" in his business deals, Finkel regularly reviews beer for All About Beer magazine, in which he also advertises heavily. "When (editor) Daniel Bradford originally asked me to do it, I said it was a conflict of interest," Finkel protests. "I wanted to publish a disclaimer, but he wanted my opinions." In some cases, notably with the Belgian beers Chimay and Piraat, those opinions have been markedly different than his colleagues.

Beer cognoscenti have roundly criticized Finkel as well for marketing Samuel Smith's ales in clear glass bottles, ostensibly an invitation to light-struck beer spoilage. "It was their bottle; I just designed the label," Finkel maintains. Yet this is the same man who actually designed some of Smith's beers from the ground up, including the "celebrated" (a tradition only since 1982) Taddy Porter and Imperial Stout. "I've never had a problem with Samuel Smith's beers going bad because of the bottle," Finkel claims. (Truthfully, neither has this writer). However, as he points out, the newest addition to Smith's line, its East India Pale Ale, will come in a brown bottle.

Finkel's concerns about quality does not extend to lobbying the government for more or better legislation regarding beer. "I believe in the free market system," he says. "Any brewer who is trying to get more government regulation for beer is committing hara-kiri!" Finkel disparages the efforts of the Oregon Brewers Association to require labeling the brewing origin of contract beers, calling them "strange bedfellows" with Anheuser-Busch. In fact, Finkel has no problem with contract brewing at all, having had Pike Ale brewed by Catamount and other breweries on the East Coast. "No matter how good the laws are, we have to keep the government out of this," he says.

On the other hand, Finkel once publicly complained about the Boston Brewing Company and its "cranberry lambic", since it is hardly a true lambic beer. He seems to feel that regulation in this regard is a two-edged sword: while protecting beer quality, it can also inhibit creativity in brewing. And Finkel has had his own battles with the BATF, which even refused to let him use the word "garden" in a name for one of the MdV beers.

As I left his offices recently, a hive of activity on the placid shores of Seattle's Lake Washington, I felt I had met the compleat beer salesman - ad man, designer, promoter- the consummate champion of his own causes. The Oklahoma boy who once dreamed of visiting the fabled vineyards of Bordeaux had come a long way. He had traveled, more than once, the road not taken. It is no exaggeration to say that every beer lover in America has benefited from his journey.

© 1996 Alan Moen

STORIES BY
ALAN MOEN