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
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
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not repealed in the state until 1959.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
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
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
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
But concentrating his efforts on only one group of wines was not
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
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
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
Now under construction in an atrium in the center of this structure
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
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
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
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
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