Aug 132012

Ross during filming of The Winemakers

For those who are willing to make significant sacrifices to live their dreams, there are often many paths, some with more stones than others. When it comes to Ross Outon, winner of the 2009 PBS reality contest The Winemakers (Season 1), I am reminded of a quote from Morgan Freeman’s character Red Redding in the film The Shawshank Redemption, “Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” Winning The Winemakers reality show may sound like an express pass to winemaking nirvana but for Outon, his rocky path included start and stop filming for two years, divorce,loss of his house to the bank, loss of his job, the unexpected passing of his beloved dog, threats of legal actions to obtain his prize money, other prizes never honored and post harvest unemployment. But though it all Ross came out “clean,” at least until his arms are elbow deep in the first bins of black Pinot Noir grapes from the upcoming harvest. Here’s Ross Outon’s story.

In 2006, Ross’s wife passed along a flyer announcing the Austin, Texas casting call for the PBS reality show, The Winemakers. By that time Ross had worked in various levels of wine retail for 11 years with stints in a grocery store, wine wholesale and a respected local liquor store chain, Twin Liquors. He was ready for the next step in his wine evolution and the show offered endless possibilities. At the audition, Outon stood out from the professionally attired hopefuls, taking the stage in his black t-shirt sporting cropped red hair, tattooed arm sleeves and chest length red goatee.  After six months passed with no contact from the show, Ross assumed he did not get the part. But the call finally came.

Ross (left) with fellow contestants
The Winemakers (Season 1)

The 12 contestants were divided between six men and six women. Six wine professionals and six enthusiasts, six from California and six from other locals within the US. The show was filmed at Justin Vineyards outside Paso Robles in central California and focused on Rhone varieties such as Syrah, Mouvedre, Grenache and Viognier. The contestants, who Ross described as “12 wine lovers who were inherently jovial” met for the first time on the set in the fall of 2006. Ultimately the filming of six episodes spanned two years, had a rotating set of judges and was not ready for broadcast until 2009

As with many reality shows, the contestants were given wine-related tasks such as harvest work, food/wine pairing, business plan development and finally blending their own wine to be judged. Each episode resulted in one or more contests being eliminated by the judges. Ross was an immediate standout, for his confidence and wine knowledge in addition to the tattoos and goatee. “I left the first filming knowing I could win,” Ross stated. And win he did.

Three contestants remained for the final episode. They were judged on their wine marketing business plan, wine label and of course their wine. Ross was rebuked for his wine label and name 45RPM, a tribute to the Austin Music scene, for not being “adventurous” enough for what the judges perceived to be an adventurous wine. However, the wine, a blend of Grenache, Mouvedre, Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel won high praise from the judges. One judge spoke about being “moved” by the wine while another compared it to “a fine Rhone wine….and could have been fooled in thinking I was drinking a Coates du Rhone from France.” Ross appreciated such accolades for a novice winemaker from Austin, Texas.

The extended filming schedule, many trips between Austin and California and work in Austin took a toll on his marriage that resulted in a separation from his wife and a protracted divorce. The divorce settlement was complicated by the fact it took Ross over two years to receive only a portion of his cash prize from the show’s sponsor, the recently defunct Sonoma-based custom crush facility, Crushpad. In addition, the “two-week all expense paid trip to the Rhone Valley to discover the wonderful wines we make there,” offered to the winner in the final episode, never materialized.

Crushpad offered Ross a commission contract based on the sales of his 45RPM wine. Crushpad would make the wine and distribute it and Ross would receive payment. Between 7,000 and 8,000 cases were blended from what Ross described as “inferior bulk wines” from those he used to make the original 45RPM. The wine was sold at a much lower price point than Ross expected diminishing his cut. 45RPM did sell out rather quickly once the show aired. Even at the lower price, Ross was to earn about $50,000 in commission. The prize, which was to be a lump sum, was only partly paid over two years, in 20-30 small arbitrary installments after threats of legal action.

To make matters worse, Texas liquor laws do not allow for a wine retailer to receive income from a wine producer. Once the first installment hit his mailbox, Ross’s sales position at Twin Liquors amicably came to an end. At this point winning The Winemakers had cost Ross his marriage, his house and his wine retail career even though he had only a small portion of his cash prize and no French wine excursion. Ross said, “If I had gotten only half of my prize from Crushpad in a lump sum, I could have moved to Sonoma, bought some grapes and made a few hundred cases. It would have been much easier.” Ross remained as determined as he was during his audition to become a winemaker, even if he started at the very bottom. Ross considered winning The Winemakers was “a sign he was on the right path.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Ross’s luck was about to change in the fall of 2009. The Food and Wine Foundation in Austin asked Ross, fresh from winning The Winemakers, to co-host a dinner with heralded Sonoma Pinot Noir producer and former Austinite, Adam Lee of Siduri Wines. The two Texans hit it off and Ross appreciated the fact that Adam, like himself, is a self-taught winemaker. After Ross expressed an interest in moving to Sonoma to make Pinot Noir, Adam said, “Why don’t you come work for me?” Five months later Ross “showed up on Adam’s doorstep,” to work as an intern during the approaching harvest. During the 2010 harvest, Ross learned all he could about Pinot Noir production from the bottom up, but reluctantly returned to Texas in early 2011 to “tie up the loose ends of his divorce.”

As the summer of 2011 approached, Ross was committed to moving to Sonoma and finding full-time employment in an environment full of part-time and seasonal jobs. To make his transition more difficult, Ross was competing against younger candidates with winemaking degrees from U.C Davis and others. “I’m always learning,” Ross said of his hands-on winemaking education. “My nose is always in a book or a wine glass. I watch while I drive past vineyards to learn how they train their vines. Where else do you see a pickup truck with two bins of grapes headed to some garagista’s home to make wine? I find it all so energizing.” With a U-Haul packed to the gills Ross returned to Sonoma and landed another harvest intern position at Pratz and Hall. But as is the nature of harvest intern positions, Ross found himself unemployed again once the harvest season concluded.

Ross prepares for harvest 2012
at Siduri Wines

Determined not to return to Austin with “my tail tucked between my legs,” Ross started looking for work. With his wine sales experience a tasting room job would have been fairly easy to find. However with most wineries, entry level positions are either in sales or production (winemaking), rarely both. Though he thought he had enough savings to make the move, Ross found the sticker shock of living in California wine country quickly drained his bank account. In addition, the credibility Ross assumed he had earned from being named The Winemaker carried little weight within the viticulture establishment. The Winemakers, he found, was not widely followed by wine industry insiders. However, with family emotional and financial support, Ross was able to survive a few months of unemployment. Now he says, “I’m back with the people I know and love, Adam and Dianna Lee of Siduri in a hybrid position,” Ross said of the friendly and outgoing Texas winemakers. During slow production seasons, Ross uses his sales skills in the tasting room and will move back into wine production once the first grapes arrive from the vineyards.

The future Ross Outon now sees is bright but not without challenges. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be worth it,” Ross quips “and as difficult as it has been, if it were not for the show, I wouldn’t be out here (Sonoma) doing what I love.” As he continues to hone his winemaking skills with the help of Adam and Dianna Lee and other mentors, Ross hopes to begin making small batches of Pinot Noir in the next few years.  Ross will continue to pay his dues but says, “When I was cast on the show, I felt like I stopped treading water and started swimming in a positive direction. It has been hard going, but I am relentlessly sure of the idea that I am headed in the right direction.”

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