Last Updated on December 19, 2022 by
Erik Miller is the Owner and Winemaker of Kokomo Winery. He started the winery in 2004, naming it after his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana. Kokomo Winery currently produces over a dozen different varietals and several single-vineyard designates farmed by Erik’s partner in the winery, grower Randy Peters.
Erik started in the wine industry after he was offered an opportunity to work as a seasonal harvest intern at Belvedere Winery in 2002. After spending some time in the winery, he realized that the artistic expression of being a winemaker and the diversity of the job was a perfect fit for him.
Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:
- Erik Miller’s story of moving to California for a better life
- Naming the winery after his hometown in Indiana
- Erik talks about how his appreciation for wine started
- Laying the foundation for Kokomo Wines
- How Randy Peters became a partner in the winery in 2008
- Erik explains why winemaking is a generational thing
- What is the difference between natural wine and organic wine?
- Erik talks about Breaking Bread Wines and the target audience
In this episode with Erik Miller
Destiny works in mysterious ways. It does not matter how much you plan; you will end up exactly where you are supposed to be. How do you lay the groundwork for a winery as someone who did not grow up in the industry?
Building connections and networks are critical in any business, especially in the wine industry. Erik Miller proved this as his brand rose from a small winery to one of the most prominent ones in Sonoma County.
In today’s episode of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast, Drew Thomas Hendricks and Bianca Harmon welcome Erik Miller, Owner and Winemaker at Kokomo Winery, as he talks about Hoosier hospitality and how he infused this into his tasting room team at Kokomo.
Resources Mentioned in this episode
- Barrels Ahead
- Drew Thomas Hendricks on LinkedIn
- Bianca Harmon on LinkedIn
- Erik Miller on LinkedIn
- Kokomo Wines
- Breaking Bread Wines
Sponsor for this episode…
This episode is brought to you by Barrels Ahead.
At Barrels Ahead, we know that your business is unique. That’s why we work with you to create a one-of-a-kind marketing strategy that highlights your authenticity, tells your story, and makes your business stand out from your competitors.
Our team at Barrels Ahead helps you leverage your knowledge so you can enjoy the results and revenue your business deserves.
So, what are you waiting for? Unlock your results today!
Welcome to the Legends Behind the Craft podcast where we feature top leaders in the wine and craft beverage industry with your host Drew Hendricks. Now let’s get started with the show.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 0:19
Drew Thomas Hendricks here on the host of the Legends Behind the Craft podcast, where I talk with leaders in the wine and craft beverage industry. Today’s episode is sponsored by Barrels Ahead. At Barrels Ahead, we work with you to implement a one of a kind marketing strategy. When that highlights your authenticity tells your story and connects you with your ideal customers. In short, we help wineries and craft beverage producers unlock their story to unleash their revenue. Now he recently just kicked off a new solution to help wine club wine club members, or help wineries reengage with some of those wine club members that have dropped off and may have been members a couple years ago. If you’re interested in trying to reengage with some of your loss lists. Give us a call and we can help you out. Today we have Bianca Harmon’s joining us again. She’s one of our DTC strategists. How’s it going Bianca?
Bianca Harmon 1:08
It’s going good Drew excited to be here and talk to Erik today?
Drew Thomas Hendricks 1:12
Yes. Today we have Erik Miller on the show. He’s the winemaker and founder of Kokomo Winery in the Dry Creek Valley region in Sonoma County. And he recently just launched a new winery called Breaking Bread winery is dedicated to natural wine. Welcome to the show, Erik.
Erik Miller 1:27
Thanks for having me, guys. Super stoked to be here and tell you about my story. We’re stoked
Drew Thomas Hendricks 1:34
to have you on. So Erik, you Harold from Indiana.
Erik Miller 1:38
Yet the great old state of Indiana, people always say, Don’t you miss it? I do. I miss the people. I love the people in the Midwest that the weather you can take and the topography? No, it’s I graduated from Purdue University in 99. And I think it was 1997 I came out to California on a spring break, know and love and decided, You know what, I’m moving there when I graduate. And what’s interesting wasn’t, you know, people, I think, hear my story. And they always go right to why you moved out there for wine and you made your dream come true, and so on. It’s like, oh, like, I didn’t move out here with the aspirations of owning a winery or even being in the wine industry. I moved to California for what I call quality of life, and you know, better weather, better typography. And I knew that the time to do that was right out of college before the cost of living thing really crept up on me. So I did that right after I graduated from Purdue, moved out here and have a business degree from Purdue. So I said, Well, I gotta find a job. So I was in ads in the paper at that time, you know, for jobs, or maybe it was monster one of those things, but it was before some of today’s technology finding jobs anyway. But I found a job doing finance. And I remember kind of like that first day of work. I come in, I got the suit and tie kind of thing on. And I’m pretty excited. It’s like, wow, I made it you know. Two weeks in, I was kind of like, No, man, this isn’t me. This is me. You know, this is not a suit and tie kind of guy, you know? Yeah. So anyway, right about that time my girlfriend and I moved out with for Purdue. Got a job in a tasting room. Belvedere winery to be around in Russian River.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 3:34
Is that where did you locate to the Russian River? Right when you? Santa Rosa. Okay.
Erik Miller 3:40
Yep. Santa Rosa was the town that I wanted to move to and, you know, really thought that that was a town big enough that I could find a job but smaller than San Francisco as a little bit intimidated Midwest guy to move to such a big city like San Francisco, so I thought Santa Rosa would be a good fit. So yeah, she took that job as assistant tasting room manager at Belvedere winery. And I think it was yeah, like I said about two three weeks into my job. She says hey, you know, we’re hiring for harvest help. So what’s very commonplace in the wine industry is getting ready to come up now. August so there’s a we hire harvest interns. It’s a lot of work. That all happens at once when we bring in all the grapes and do harvest. So we’re always looking for, you know, temporary help for that. So I said, Well, that’s interesting. That’s an interesting opportunity. I stood on that for I think another week or so. And I said, You know what, I think I’m gonna put this finance thing on on hold. I want to do a two month stint and work harvest. I did that worked at Belvedere there. And I think I was done the job for not even a week, maybe maybe maybe a week when I contacted UC Davis, and said, Hey, I’m gonna go back to school for winemaking. I had no clue coming from Indiana that you could be a winemaker as a major in college in my time, you’re just not hip to That being from Indiana, right that that that would even be a possibility. So, so yeah, I did that and I worked that harvest completed that harvest. I got hit a little bit with, Hey, you don’t have quite the prerequisites to go into this master’s program for analogy. So I had to take some chemistry classes, you know, at the JC to get those prerequisites met. I kind of got disenchanted at that time, a little bit of like going for that full degree and decided, You know what, I can’t miss a harvest and be in a classroom. You know, so then I went to work at a really small winery that was in a bar, and got a whole different side of winemaking. Still obviously, fermenting grapes, like we do but done in a, I’ll never forget being a Belvedere and the winemaker gave me that classic quote that you hear in our industries, you know, how to make a million dollars in this industry? Start with 5 million. Yeah. And that’s kind of what people think about of our industry, you know, because it’s like, you see all this shiny stainless steel and all this equipment and so on. And it no doubt it does take some money, but we were making wine in this barn. And we were using all open top fermenters doing all punch downs, we didn’t have a single single stainless tank, we had poly tanks that we bought all out. And it really opened my eyes up to, you know, a way and we were still making world class wine. Right. So our wines still like, you know, getting top honors, so on. So that was really cool for me to kind of see that and really work in a small winery that I got to see all aspects. We were about three quarters the way through harvest that year in 2004, which was that second year working at this small winery and the farmer comes up, because we’re on this 140 acre vineyard. And the farmer says, you know, hey, I have some Cabernet that’s unsold, you know, this year, and I’m kind of like, you know, the guy from Indiana is like, wow, I didn’t realize you would have sold grapes. I figured they were all so that happens in our industry. So his solution was like, hey, because I don’t have a buyer for it. And obviously, grapes are very perishable. We’ll make it into bulk wine. And then I’ll have wine that I can sell or an item I could sell for multiple months or even over a year if you have bulk wine because it’s, of course not as perishable as fresh grapes. So we were making this wine that we brought in or making these, you know, this Cabernet, that we brought in the grapes and knowing that time that it wasn’t going to be for our program, and I was just kind of like wow, you know, what, what are we selling it for? You know, so I talked to the farmer, I ended up negotiating a deal where I was like, I took a portion of that Cabernet that year and turn it in finance
Drew Thomas Hendricks 7:42
background comes in, you’re able to get the economics of that.
Erik Miller 7:47
Yeah, economics were interesting, you know, speaking of that, like Yeah, I took the plunge I made 20 barrels, I think of Cabernet that first year 2004 For Kokomo one SKU. And then you go like, Okay, now the fun part. How do you sell this?
Right, as we know, in our industry making wine stuff enough, but selling it might even be a little more difficult. So luckily, I named this thing, Kokomo. After my hometown onco, Indiana, which was a very gutsy move. I’ll tell you that. Now. You know, Kokomo is a very blue collar town. It How did the town get its name? The town got its name after an Indian chief.
Bianca Harmon 8:29
Say it had to be something Indian related. Right. And then
Erik Miller 8:33
and then here comes this song by The Beach Boys in the 80s. Yeah, we’re counting KOKOMA right. And so man that everyone’s just sure that I named it after his Beach Boys. Of course, I thought I’ve heard the name and I’m like known and and we were around before that. It’s actually named after my hometown. But anyway, what that did is it gave me a story. And it also gave me an opportunity to sell wine because I sold that whole entire first vintage in my home state of Indiana. Oh, everybody loves a good story. Everybody and everyone loves a good hometown boy. Good or something. So I was supported by people that I still don’t forget some of this retailers. We try not to be in retail so much anymore. We’re more on premise. We want to be in restaurants, but not be in a boutique producer. But there’s a couple of those retailers that really started off with me that I’m like, you know, I never want to forget you guys. You brought me to the dance. Make sure they have inventory of our wines and like that. So yeah, that’s kind of got the ball rolling got me some income coming in quicker than I would have.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 9:40
Now, did you know to pause your story for a second now, did you grow up in a wine drinking family or where did your appreciation for wine come from right out of college? Most people are still in the whiskey and beer stage.
Erik Miller 9:54
DREW That’s a great question. You know, I always say you know, because around here people grew up with wine on the kitchen table, you know tell you, like I grew up with milk on the kitchen table from the West, right? Milk on the table along with a lot of, you know, meat and potatoes yet milk. But anyway, so no, I did not grow up in a particular wine household like that. And if you ask where my passion for wine comes from, I always go back to that first harvest. I remember a particular instance, you know, similar to that epiphany, ya know, people who like had this bottle of, you know, whatever it was, it just rocked my world and really got me into wine. You have those wines that a lot of people in our industry that that got them into wine. My epiphany moment, I see the winemaker come in with a ziploc baggie full of berries of grapes from a berry sample from the vineyard. And I’ve been like power washing floors and getting ready for harvest, you know, wash, wash, wash and get ready. And it was the first sign I saw grapes actual course I knew wine was made out of grapes. But there was something about seeing that. And then of course, we smashed up those berries and got a sugar and a pH and you know, some of the parameters of ripeness there. But that was really cool for me because it was like, wow, we’re and then and then of course, as the grapes started coming in, you know and making the wine it was really so my love of wine came from that harvest came from actually making wine. And it’s not that I didn’t drink wine because I did a bit worse didn’t have the palate that I have now as much and so on. But it was really that the act of making wine the agriculture, the bringing it in, and the having worked with a suit and tie being in a desk and now being in T shirt and jeans and actually like doing physical labor, but not mindless physical labor, where we’re digging ditches, we’re actually crafting and are artistically you know, creating these grapes into wine and it just hit me like, man, perfect. And I still look at this as I couldn’t have found a better match for for me as far as a career.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 11:54
That’s fantastic. On the say it’s a it’s the whole like process of it that really evolved in the for the first year you get you did your 2020 barrels of cab. And that was just an happenstance that you were able to find this extra juice. How did you lay out the groundwork to actually build Kokomo to what it is today?
Erik Miller 12:12
That’s a great question as well man and so basically that after that vintage after that 2004 Vintage right after modeling in that barn, that winery and I was the assistant winemaker there moved up to a different location, which is across the valley. We were in Dry Creek, but we were on West Dry Creek and we moved across the valley to dry creek road to this facility called timbercrest Farms. Okay. And when we first moved in, I got to know the owner and the farmer. The farmer was a basketball coach, varsity basketball coach and he’d been a basketball coach for 25 years at that point. I’m from Indiana. We you know, basketball the deal. We hit it, we hit it off. His name is Randy Peters. He’s the farmer and he farms you know at that point is farming 200 plus acres and Alexander Valley Dry Creek and Sonoma coasts. And so I remember talking to him saying like, Hey, you got this Sonoma Coast Russian River vineyard You got any Pinot available? This is 2005 Okay, sideways just hit high. Yeah, you couldn’t find Pinot. I mean, even even Pinot that wasn’t coastal. This one happens to be eight miles off the customers like superb site, but Pinot was the hottest commodity and he was like, you know, I think I might be able to slide you off a couple times. And sure enough, I got four bins or two tons of his Pinot Noir that year. And then I said you know, how about some stuff in Dell. And so from the estate here at timbercrest, which is my now home, I got into this old vines in which is in this 120 acre vineyard. So from 2005 I started getting timbercrest Zinfandel and Peters vineyard Pinot Noir, okay, which really set the course for what Kokomo became I wouldn’t say we make a good amount of CAP no doubt about it but I’d say people probably know us person and Pino even more than cap now that first Pino I knocked it out of the park and was able to get a big Wine Spectator store. I think even more importantly than that, Randy just really loved the wine that I made with that 2005 Peters vineyard and that wine still shows beautiful. So I got his attention.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 14:37
That was him highlight is highlight all the fruits of his
Erik Miller 14:40
effort. Yeah, and he’s big on that Peters vineyard. You know, he always wants to taste the wines before he lets anybody put it in your designated name on it because it’s only 38 acres planted, and it’s a lot of high end wineries that get that fruit it’s just such a special vineyard that he planted in 1982. So yeah, that was that was really cool, but I got to know Randy more Are you know, and through the years there, I got to know him even better when to some of his basketball games such in 2006 I think I started even buying. I did, I bought mirlo from his home ranch that year that I still make from Pauline’s vineyard. So starting to get even more fruit from him, I think it was about 2007 When I started to lay the groundwork for like, Hey, man, what do you say you come on as a partner, you know. And that was a big move for me too. And he’s like, partner, I got everything to lose, like, I have all these vineyards. And, you know, but truth be told, he’s passionate about wine. His great grandfather owned a winery. He’s fourth generation in Dry Creek, but he’d never been affiliated with a winery and and there is that kind of, you know, pride in taking it from great clear the bottle and so on. Like, I always joke and say, you know, he plays golf. He can’t hand someone on the golf course. Here’s what I do for a living a Pinot Noir cluster, because it’s like, well, it’s got seeds, it’s okay. But he could have Filipino right made from his vineyard. So I think that piece of the puzzle was kind of interesting to him. Anyway, I got him to sign up as a partner. And at that point, we built the building. We’re in the tasting room here, up on the vineyard. And so we moved in January 2008. Here, and that really changed Kokomo dramatically, because at that point, I was all distribution was in Indiana. But I picked up Ohio and Texas, a couple other states by that time, but because I didn’t have a tasting room. The brand was all distribution,
Drew Thomas Hendricks 16:34
excuse me, was the bulk of it going out of California?
Erik Miller 16:39
There was really no, I mean, I had a couple of local accounts in California, by far and away, yeah, those three states were taking most all of my production. Excuse me, when we opened up the tasting room, then now I have a tasting room. Now I can start a wine club, I can start direct to consumer on that, really, I don’t know what year it was probably 2010 2011 that it really shifted to more direct and distribution. Now the way we sit, we’re probably 70% direct to consumer out of the tasting wine club, and so on 30% distribution. It’s a big part of our business.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 17:18
Yeah, so 10 years, that’s that’s a pretty good shift over 14 years to go from mostly distribution. And that’s also a testament to the flavor and the quality of your wines. With most of those people sign up having already tasted it.
Erik Miller 17:32
Yeah. And you know, as much as I’d like to pat myself on the back for that and say, yeah, just look how great of a winemaker I am. I would say there’s two other keys to that one, one location. I’m on dry creek road. We’re connected to the town of Healdsburg. Healdsburg has just gone up up up Michelin restaurants so on, it’s become certainly our destination of Sonoma County to come visit. So being right on dry creek road, and having neighbors like Papa, Pietro Perry up here is really good too. So we got some good exposure from where we’re at. And secondly, and certainly very important is hospitality. And we pride ourselves on our tasting room. Ross. James has been the tasting room manager here for 12 years. He is a hospitality wizard. And certainly, I let him know in Indiana, we have this thing we call Hoosier hospitality. And Hoosier hospitality. We call ourselves Hoosiers, the Hoosiers we I’m a boilermaker from Purdue. So it’s not the Indiana Hoosiers. But all of us that were born in Indiana are kind of classified as Hoosiers. So anyway, we have this thing called Hoosier hospitality, which is, you know, really important in the Midwest in the south to have that, that level of hospitality. And it’s something that we really pride ourselves on here is when you come in here, it’s always a welcome. And it’s a and you know, our vibe with the barn wood and kind of maybe I’ll give a little tour around before I get off. But But I think that that also is really important. People go Wow, it’s really unpretentious in there and it’s like, yeah, I take our wines very serious. And we make wines at the best level that we could possibly make them. But you don’t have to be pretentious.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 19:16
And that’s key. That’s key, especially, especially in the region that you’re at, there’s a lot of wineries that we won’t name them. Their their version of hospitality is not one that we commonly consider hospitality. very hospitable. You’re
Bianca Harmon 19:32
there becomes a lot of entitled, we’re lucky to be here. Yeah. Comes a lot of entitlement around wineries these days, unfortunately.
Erik Miller 19:40
There can be Yeah, and I and it’s just like, you know, and I, I do tell people I don’t want to go down this soapbox. But it’s like no man wine is the more noble beverage than other alcoholic beverages. Those are typically made out of grains. Those are made out of row crops. Wine is very special because we make it out of 6080 90 year old vines. We get once a year to make wine where you have these grains that you make beer and spirits out of that you can make those products any day of the year. So it deserves its specialness. It deserves its, you know, it is a very special beverage, but it doesn’t have to be pretentious, like, say rock grapes for God’s sakes, right? I robbed them in a very close theater with my eye on him and so on. But it’s what I do for me grapes. So anyway, speaking of which, I started a second project.
Bianca Harmon 20:30
Yes, I want to talk to you about are you going to the second project I just asked you what is the logo? I’ve been your
Erik Miller 20:36
it’s a tree. Yeah, my tree logo. So
with Kokomo I think one of the first things I really thought about was like, wow, I’ve got to remember I was at that other winery in a barn. And he had this PR person working for him. This lady and I was like, so excited about this, like, I got this new label, you know, and I showed it to her and she was like, You can’t call it Kokomo. People are just gonna think of this song. It wasn’t because of my hometown or anything that people can think of the song you can’t. And I was kind of nervous. And I was like, Well, this is kind of my story. And I’ve already picked it out. And this is where I’m going. I went forward with it. I’ve since seen her, which was awesome. And I didn’t you know, just like, do you remember when you told me not to call my winery, Kokomo. But, but I was worried about being where people would think that’s I think I was trying to get people away from that tropical Tom Cruise cocktail way down in Kokomo vibe. And I decided you know what the coastal Cypress to me represents my move west. It’s the furthest growing West tree. It’s on the coast. You know, I come from Indiana. And now my logo represents my move west, which is this coastal Cypress. I just love it. So I had to I had to ask. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it makes for good gear and stuff and a cool logo. But yeah, that’s kind of the story behind my cypress tree logo.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 21:58
That’s, that’s a good logo. Now. We’re gonna get into this brand new venture. But I think it’s before we get into it, the culmination of the last, you know, 20 years or so of your making wine. How is your winemaking style evolved over the last 20 years?
Erik Miller 22:14
You know, that’s that’s interesting asked that too, because it certainly has, I mean, it’s evolved. And if I look back on it, to be quite honest with you, it’s evolved by the coming a winemaker. It’s like, you know, this trade is typically handed down from your grandfather to your father to you. It’s a generational thing. You don’t and you know, as a young guy, you’re like, I don’t need that I know how to make wine. I didn’t know how to ferment grapes, these finer touches to winemaking. These little details and these finer touches are so important. And it’s just something that takes time to learn. It takes time to have confidence and security with where you’re at. You can sometimes dip your feet deep into a barrel and smell that wine and go like Oh my god, I’m ruined. It smells like you know, earthy sweat stocks, whatever. You know, like I mean it. It’s like, chill out. So going through my lactic sound smells when it does that that same way without doing anything to it. Two months later, all of a sudden smells like what you would expect it to smell like so there’s that piece but you know.
Yeah, my winemaking. The cool part about that question Drew is that my vineyards have remained the same since the beginning. I do say to people, I think my vineyards and the level of quality of vines or of grapes I’ve been working with has held me up until where I could catch it with the winemaking. I feel like I finally caught up to that with the winemaking. As far as doing it serious justice. I never put out bad wines. Notice just those nuanced things. And you know, like for instance, like I say it takes 10 years to get to know that seeing it through 10 vintages you think you know what, after the first year because you have a character but that was also it was a character of that terroir, no doubt about it. But there was also a vintage there that dealt you whatever, when, I mean, if the first vintage, you seen something was 2020 You’d be like, Oh my God, you know, some issues and there was smoke around and there was different things like that. So that you know, and then you see it through 2017 When we saw 115 degree temperature versus 2011 When we saw early rains and a very cool year, so it takes you you know a good 10 years just to get the fill on the vineyard. And then along with that is like how about which barrel to put on that day. And that just takes time, because it takes time for that wind to age in that barrel. And then furthermore, after you bottle the wine, you know, being able to see how it evolves and seed you know, so you’re really looking for the best match for Cooper’s which is the barrel makers. You know, I, for instance used to use a lot of American oak on Zinfandel, and I’ve since decided that American was a little too heavy handed for me for my Zinfandel in particular but also I picked my Zinfandel less ripe than I used to Get More rice, which got some pretty high alcohols which would kind of match that American up as I leaned up the alcohol and picked it less ripe with better acid. Of course, I needed to move to French, again, even Eastern European have to be more elegant with that. A biggest change that I’ve made by I think, by far, but you know, and of course, the people I’ve worked with, you know, I have had my college roommate working with me at first and he was awesome work with me for 10 years. And then he went on to pursue his own thing. And then I brought on Jeremy Parsons, who’s now co winemaker with me, hired him as like a monologist. And he worked for a couple years and became assistant winemaker. And finally, you know, what, and he came from working at Raimi for a long time winery in different places. And he’s a chemist and has you know, so he brings a lot to the table as well. And I think that has to be said, but one of the biggest things that he brought this to I didn’t really start doing this until 2016 When he came on board, native yeast. Oh, I’m now 100% native yeast to Kokomo. I remember his first harvest and he’s a chemist from UMass. Like, okay, we’re gonna inoculate this Pino. And he was like, I have no clue how to do an inoculation. I’m like, You’re kidding. Like, it’s not that it’s difficult. I’m like, I’ve never done it. Because we’re he worked at Ramy. They had never inoculated it was all native yeast, you know, so. And it gave me the confidence to go wow, you know, some of these larger wineries are doing that so on. So now we go complete native yeast and don’t don’t use any commercial yeast. And I think that, you know, I was I was intimidated by that. Yeah,
Drew Thomas Hendricks 26:40
it’s easy to be intimidated, when you have a lot can go wrong. Oh, we’ve all seen a lot of things go wrong.
Erik Miller 26:46
And you know, you’re like, what’s the alcohol tolerance on this? Native yeast? I have no clue. And it gives up on me with, you know, I’m left with a stuck fermentation. And, you know, so you really want to make sure that you know, you know, some of those.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 26:59
Now, did you isolate the native yeast, and then now, now, whatever it is, is what it’s going to be.
Erik Miller 27:06
Whatever comes in, and you would think that year to year that could be different, you would think certainly that the winery would have some bits of like, luckily, I’m in a winery with zero wood. The tasting room is environment. But in the winery where the production is, we don’t have any wood on the walls or anything. So that helps us to keep things really, you know, sanitized. And to keep that these population number we are in a winery. So you do have that. But no, it’s kind of cool. When you bring in the grapes you have that. I realized by the big guys don’t do it. The larger wineries, because you’re waiting five, six days, you pick the fruit of 58 degrees, it takes a while for it to warm up to start fermenting. Yeah, you know, so you’re trying to turn fermenters over and a larger winery or where I’m like, I’ve been in here for a week and it’s fairly fermenting, you know, and it does take more time, more patience, and so on like that, but I’ve had nothing but success. And it just feels right to not add anything to the wines. I really even with Kokomo just believe that the best way excuse me to make wines is to be you know, make them in the vineyard and just try to shepherd them into the bottle as raining and say, is a winemaker. So
Drew Thomas Hendricks 28:12
yeah, and that’s kind of a perfect segue to your new venture, which is a completely separate type of winemaking style, but also is kind of the next step of the evolution now that you’re kind of using native yeasts. And you’re just kind of allowing the wine to do with the wine does it Kokomo. Talk to me about this Breaking Bread? I’m fascinated about it.
Erik Miller 28:31
Yeah, that’s been really cool for me, you know, I would start off by saying, you know, we all kind of if you’ve been in the wine industry, for a while, I’ve been a fan of wines and so on, we kind of all remember this thing that happened in about, you know, 2007, or eight or really 2010, maybe when it started where everyone was like lower alcohols. We’ve got parkerized, they call it because everyone was making these big, big, big lines. I mean, in pursuit of balance, which is this group that a lot of people were following, which was like lower alcohol stuff. And then all of a sudden, I started see this natural wine coming on the scene as I’d be working markets, and particularly like some of the best restaurants in New York and LA and stuff, were into this natural wine. And it really just, you know, got my attention. And at first it was kind of like, wow, this is just a fad. This is just a thing. And, and then and then I kind of liked was like, I think it was my Georgia distributor that really, you know, had a lot of those natural wines. We went to dinner and tasted some of them. And I was like, wow, like, it’s delicious. You know, that’s really good. Now for our listeners.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 29:33
Define natural wine because a lot of people have a different mental image.
Erik Miller 29:37
Yeah, you know, the tough part is that there is no like formal definition. I mean, if you were to define organic wine, because there’s a formal definition, you have a parts per million of events or two, that’s a threshold that you would you know, go up to 30 parts per million. And of course, the fruit has to be grown certified organic. But you can add anything to those wines that you that you would want to add to those wines as long as it’s certified organic. Right. So you can add nutrients, you could add commercial yeast, you could add tannins, enzymes, any of those things that you may want to add to that wine as long as it was certified organic. Really, and I have to say that because of the natural philosophy is I say it’s kind of a nod to winemaking, 1000 years ago, 2000 years ago, is to add nothing to the wine, maybe a bit of so too, because so to kind of keeps bottle variation at bay, at least at bottling, but most natural wine makers and natural wineries really don’t use that so to maybe until bottling, so even through primary fermentation. So although there’s certainly working with at least certified sustainable, no glyco phosphates, but preferably organic farm and even preferably, you know, certified organic or biodynamic, as the two main vineyards we work with, with Breaking Bread or organically farmed, and one of them certified, one of them will be certified here the next year. But so those are definitely kind of parameters. But there is a flavor profile, and a uniqueness to natural wines. I mean, first and foremost, and I think it’s really cool and how it’s changing the wine industry a bit like it’s okay to see a wine that’s not been sterile filtered, it’s completely clear. And I’m not saying like floaties in the wine, but like maybe you’ll have a little bit of leaves on the cork. It’s okay not to have to cold stabilize, and he stabilize your whites. You know, we add bentonite, which is a natural clay, it’s not a big deal. And it’s organic to these two white wines just so we don’t have to make them heat stable. And it finds the wines and the proteins in the wines just so we don’t have a haze. A slight are clear, right? Or they’re clear, you know, and it’s like, I get it when you pick up that bottle at the market. And that’s 70 on Blanc is crystal clear, delicious. But we may change the conversation and people may actually find that they everyone I drink that’s got a little bit that’s not clear has more complexity and flavor and so on. And, you know, so, so there’s there’s that and then there’s this kind of they’re always when you mention the natural wine on reds, there’s always this not Cru Beaujolais. Yeah, part of that goes to the philosophy of making wine like 1000 or 2000 years ago, we didn’t we don’t step it’s all clustered.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 32:23
Yeah, yeah, back in the day I used to sell a lot of Kermit Lynch wines. And he’s got he going for pine unfiltered the Gang of Four. So whenever I think natural, and I’m thinking a lot here and my father’s
Bianca Harmon 32:37
excuse me, yeah. Shelf Life gonna be the same on these natural lines. Or can they are the advice shelf life? I mean, like the age ability, Can you are you going to be able to age these cabs?
Erik Miller 32:48
Yeah. So what’s funny that you don’t see a lot of cab the natural wine world, you know, it’s funny that you don’t see so that the category as a whole to fresh wines, wines that are delicious, that would be so they’re not like Kokomo i it’s imperative that I make these wines that in 10 and 15 years, show beautiful and show their age ability. Because with a classic brand, you want to attract a collectors and you’re not attracting collectors unless you have a stability with Breaking Bread wines. It’s not about that it’s pop and go. It’s not even about the camping so much. I don’t want to say that they’re not worth the time to DeCamp because a little air to him can actually show complexity. Actually, these rents, we’d like to drink with a little chill on him. Oh, yes. You know, slightly chilled, you know, and stuff. So the category with the pet gnats, and the natural reds. And some of this stuff is like really? So yes, they definitely had a 2019 Last night, my Breaking Bread Zinfandel. It’s not like under cork that they’re going to spoil, but they’re not really meant to age in the same way. So think of them as like traditional wineries, seven year old Blanc and Rosae. Not to the degree like I have to have this year’s fresh vintage, but yeah, meant to drink a little bit more fresh.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 34:00
But that being said, some of those like going back to the game, and for some of those bushlands age incredibly well,
Erik Miller 34:05
And that’s true. And I want to I want to think that some of these reds with natural wines are able to do that. And certainly there are others people that make natural wine that maybe go hey, I’m trying to make mine that really do. Ah, I mean, one of the things you have in natural wines when they’re making reds is you have this whole other and we could have a whole segment on this carbonic maceration, which includes the stem in fermentation. And so for me, and then something else to be said about the natural wine category, low alcohol. I always say, you know, when I grew up, and I went to my family and my parents, the anniversary dinner was a birthday dinner where we go in the Midwest, which was Steakhouse, like that was a fancy restaurant at a nice steak house. Well now, moving forward, you know, it’s a different deal and people are eating at these farm to table shefa and restaurants that cuisine has lightened up quite a bit and they don’t need a big bold wind to be paired with them. You may lose the food, it may be a little over So these lower alcohol more delicate wines tend to pair better with some of these lighter dishes and so on to. So in saying that lower alcohol means what? lower alcohol means picking less, right? Yeah. And when you do that, you can have actually what I call searing acid. And searing acid hurts your palate. You can also have green tannins. Right and green tannins are not necessarily plush and easy to drink. So in California to make low alcohol wines with our amount of sunshine, and our lack of virus, that’s another kind of, you know, topic as well, lack of virus, everything comes from UC Davis heat treated, and we have all these, you know, virus device, they go up to 26 bricks, and they haven’t even started to CNS, we still have green leaves, it’s not even turned yellow yet, right. So to make low alcohol lines, where we’re picking at 22 bricks, a sugar, lower sugars like that, you have the threat of a lot of like I said, green tannins during acid. But what is really cool about that, taking a nod from Beaujolais is that when you do the whole cluster, you have the stem included in fermentation, and that stem has potassium, that potassium raises the pH converts that searing acid do like a crunchy acidity, that gives us a big shift in pH up so it is really a way to be able to make these lower alcohol wines more balance. I
Bianca Harmon 36:20
love it too, though, because you know, these are good wines that are affordable. And you’re not feeling like you have to like feeling guilty when they are go to open it or it’s like oh, is this ready to open yet? I don’t know. We probably need to hold on to this more. I mean, this is like, grab a nice bottle of wine that’s ready to drink now. You don’t have to feel bad when you open it. Yeah, I mean,
Erik Miller 36:42
it’s awesome. Maybe even a weekday wine. Yeah. Yeah. All the time. Yeah. All the time. Yeah. So
Drew Thomas Hendricks 36:50
when you’re saying low alcohol, what are you talking about?
Erik Miller 36:53
I got a great nosh that I put out a red or nosh that I put out 11 Seven alcohol loving. So that’s pretty low. That’s the lowest. But that’s like, I mean, and that thing is like shares better with a little chill on it. Symphony del maybe 13 to pet NAT in the 1112 range and Rosae like that. So yeah, the reds, nothing, nothing ever goes above 13% alcohol, you know, or 13 Five alcohol or something. Which
Drew Thomas Hendricks 37:22
is which is kind of funny, because now I’ve got a I’ve got a wine cellar, and I’ve been selling wine since the doubt 93. So I’ve got wood, wood, wood, you know, wood barrels, not wood barrels, the wine boxes, going back to the 70s. In Napa, in all the big names are on there. And I see the alcohol every time I go in there. And back in the day, all the alcohol was 13 to 13. Five, that was your standard before because the yeast couldn’t get until the 90s when they had the super strains of yeast, he couldn’t really get more than 14% out of out of the out
Erik Miller 37:55
of the let’s face it too. You had the farmers on the other end that was like are we going to pick yet? Yeah, because as grapes get ripe for they may dehydrate. As they dehydrate the weight goes down the farmer gets paid per ton. There was a lot of us also being able to raise the price to the farmer to have them hanging that fruit out there riper. And then the farmer came in the winery and saw you with a hose putting water into their grades. Because you picked them so right that you needed to bring the sugar down. And they’re just horrified by the fact that you let their fruit hang out there that long to start to pucker up and didn’t perfectly, you know, only to put water in it thought so. You know, I mean, ya know, there’s a there was a lot to that, but now and there’s certainly still wineries and great wineries that make big, rich right wines and certainly a target audience for those so
Drew Thomas Hendricks 38:50
so you’re a couple of vintages in now to Breaking Bread.
Erik Miller 38:53
I am yeah Breaking Bread has allowed me to be fun with labels man, you should see my labels I wish I had in mind me but like the labels on the Breaking Bread stuff is more colorful. A little so I can I can you know, let’s be honest that well, the category of people or the demographic of people who are really hot on natural wines happens to be younger millennials and things which is so cool. I mean, you know,
Bianca Harmon 39:16
you’ve got one with a girl playing that looks like a ukulele on it I think
Erik Miller 39:23
yeah, I’ve got an octopus I’ve got
Yeah, so just I got some mushrooms on what money
Bianca Harmon 39:30
are you making total that because I’ve only seen four.
Erik Miller 39:34
Okay, I think I have about six seven SKUs for Breaking Bread probably bring on another seven this year so I’m having fun with it. You know, I mean and at the same time let’s talk about it’s not so I’ve been wanting to do the sheen on cat from natural cat frog all her pluster I love those wines. They’re so delicious. I have cat from planet and my wife and I’s vineyard you know, organic vineyard and I two years in a row 219 and 20 or excuse me, 20 and 21. Two years in a row, I brought this fruit in for Breaking Bread whole cluster. And it went south. It got really high VA and I had to dump it in a you know, before it was even done for many I didn’t even press it first it was like it had that. And so you learn a lot, you know, when you don’t ask them to to grade when you bring them in, you’re playing with fire. And I always say that everything’s a success there. Certainly those and that was 1000s of dollars. You didn’t I mean, you know, I didn’t it wasn’t like, there wasn’t I don’t make huge productions, but it cost me 1000s of dollars to dump that. You know, and so yeah, that was
Drew Thomas Hendricks 40:38
to see a sheen on style cap frog domestic. And that’s my go to wine on the week is that we drink a lot of unknowns in our house.
Erik Miller 40:46
I’m gonna go with third year, my partner Randy’s like you’re done, you’re putting I make it for Kokomo. Do the cap drop, right the stem and don’t do that whole cluster, I pick it right. But I had asked her to, and it turned out gorgeous. And it’s like, oh, man, you know, so. But what I’d like to share that story because it’s it’s real.
Bianca Harmon 41:06
Is it a lot less work making these natural lines then
Erik Miller 41:09
Interesting enough, it’s like, I don’t have to run them through December. But there’s a lot of sorting that comes through because you want to make sure there’s no leaves, there’s nothing in there at the diesel clusters, there’s nothing I tell that you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it in my bed, you know when we’re sorting through it. So there’s that piece. There’s not a lot of punch downs because it’s done carbonic like that. After the wine is made, we top it twice as often as we do our classic wines because they know so to ever. So we were really afraid of oxidation. So I want to make sure that, you know, every other week, at least that we’re topping these wines, make sure there’s no head space in that barrel, which would be oxygen, which would be detrimental. So a little more work on that front. It’s just the one thing you don’t think about it, these natural lines, when you do carbonic, everything’s sandpit. So I’m trying to come out with these price points that are in the mid 20s. Retail. One way you can save money is say, okay, you can machine harvest my fruit, we can’t machine harvest this style, it has to be hand picked, it has to be carvaka Will cluster the stem and everything and
Drew Thomas Hendricks 42:15
get a bunch of butterflies and caterpillars and all types of stuff in there.
Erik Miller 42:19
Right, and you wouldn’t have a whole cluster permit like that. So you know, workwise it’s like you it’s still a law, I’ll be honest, it’s getting easier every year as I come up with kind of a protocol for it, if you will, like those first couple years, it was like, Dude, I have no idea where we’re gonna we’re gonna go for this, like I’ve read about it, how other people are doing it, and so on. I’m gonna stick to the philosophy but really not adding any asset to it or not, you know, when you say SOC, that’s one thing. How about nutrients, and I’m working with old vines then I’m running with 80 year old vines and when that comes in it is low nitrogen. Those vines don’t pick up nitrogen from the soil in the same way young buying wood because they’re very old. And typically those hands which are used available nitrogen, one of the first things we look at, to to add nutrients, you would see those you’d be like, Wow, this these nutrient, because it’s going to have an off fermentation. There’s not enough nitrogen to get through. So but we stick to the philosophy of nothing at it at all. I think this natural category really got its legs underneath it for what was going on in the wine industry, with these large production wines, adding a lot of concentrate, adding a lot of products. We’re all familiar with that makeup purple, which is the name when people know but other products as well to try to hit a palate profile. And it’s like, hold on a minute. Luckily, these young kids were like you’re putting my wine and it’s not it’s not on the back label because you don’t have the ingredients on the back. Yeah.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 43:47
So Erik, we’re on. So this Breaking Bread? Is this all direct to consumer? Is this in distribution at
Erik Miller 43:52
all? The Breaking Bread is the way Kokomo started. It’s 100% distribution right now. Oh, is it okay? I mean, I show it here. We have a couple tasting rooms here Kokomo so there’s definitely the ability my appointment to taste drinking red wines here. And we do certainly because we have trained people and stuff that come up and want to taste it but really, yeah, by far and away, I plan to open a tasting room. You know, at some point for Breaking Bread. It’s just right now I want to really focus on getting the brand built getting it out there and it’s in probably 1520 states. Oh wow. And so yeah, I mean restaurants is where we try to focus we feel like it’s a food wine. Hence the name Breaking Bread.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 44:31
So it looks great. I love your about a story kind of takes the course of a staggered meal from them amuse boosh all the way down to the desert. Very creative with the way you wrote that
Erik Miller 44:45
letter when I had my wine club. My dad had, you know a little bit so when I had my wine club, I’m gonna call them the bread hands. Nice. Right? Like it like
Drew Thomas Hendricks 44:57
yeah, give us a give us a tour as we’re winding down here. Erik where can people learn more about Kokomo and Breaking Bread?
Erik Miller 45:03
You certainly can come to our website, you know, kokomowines.com, breakingbreadwines.com and come here to the winery. We’re open seven days a week. We love to have people see my Kokomo Jersey up there. I have I do have Purdue love but then this whole wall here is everything from Kokomo. Old stuff from Kokomo that I’ve just collected over the years. I love it. It’s random, but it’s kind of me and it’s definitely eclectic. Like I said, we don’t take ourselves too pretentiously here. We have this huge roll up door and looks out to the vineyard there. And then my welcome to Kokomo Simon’s the mayor sent me. Oh, look at that. hometown of Erik Miller. Right.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 45:52
That’s great. drive into town.
Erik Miller 45:56
Right. Yeah. So anyway, yeah, that’s that one and then I have yet another tasting room in here, which we have people tasting. That’s okay. And then this room looks like this. Some of the variables. bar there. And then I have my fancy barrel roof there with my new concrete for Minar, which is my favorite toy right there. Oh, yeah. Those are cool. And then that’s my chandelier with a barrel turn inside out
Drew Thomas Hendricks 46:34
there. I haven’t seen that one yet. That’s pretty cool that now if you made that, have you used that concrete? fermenter yet?
Erik Miller 46:40
This will be the first year for the concrete. fermenter Yeah, that’s
Drew Thomas Hendricks 46:44
super cool. This
Bianca Harmon 46:45
is mad, some really great mineralization.
Erik Miller 46:49
Yeah, I’m super. They’re expensive, but I’m super stoked to make my
Bianca Harmon 46:54
been using them for years. But they’re now like the past 10 years is become really popular out here. And they’re awesome.
Erik Miller 47:01
That’s my manhole cover from Kokomo, Indiana that I turned into a table. That’s great. City serve. So yeah, that’s, that’s my show off on my place, man. So
Drew Thomas Hendricks 47:11
no, it’s great. I can’t I can’t wait to visit.
Erik Miller 47:15
But, ya know, it’s been a lot of fun. You know, overall, I have to just, you know, sometimes pinch myself, you come from Kokomo, Indiana, you start a thing and actually works.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 47:25
You know, that’s got to be proud of that. It’s
Erik Miller 47:27
been amazing thing. And then to think that I could start a second label and Breaking Bread. And I shouldn’t say second label, I always make sure to say it’s not a second label. It’s an entirely new thing. And for me as a winemaker, very cool, because it’s a whole new challenge and a whole new different way. So
Drew Thomas Hendricks 47:44
no, that’s fantastic. Well, Erik, thank you so much for joining us today.
Bianca Harmon 47:48
Erik Miller 47:50
My pleasure. You guys really enjoyed Vietnam with you guys. Thanks for showing me the time and yes, we’d love to host you guys when you come up this way.
Drew Thomas Hendricks 47:57
Absolutely. You have a great day and successful harvest.
Erik Miller 48:02
Thank you. Thank you. All right, maybe.
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