California’s wine country has some new recruits: Veterans. Valor Winery, founded by a group of Iraq War veterans and named after the cherished military virtue, defies the delicate, cultivated image of the wine industry.
Joshua Laine, a 28-year-old former marine, started the company with about $5,000 in savings and a bunch of credit cards. Valor Winery grows Chardonnay and Zinfandel grapes on five acres in Livermore, Calif., and also buys from local growers. The vets make and bottle wine in a warehouse there, at the far corner of an industrial park.
Laine doesn't talk much about his service. When pressed, he remembers this one time in Fallujah, Iraq. His company was caught in an alleyway. The enemy opened fire. Civilians ran into the sandstone buidlings for cover.
“I was carrying a light machine gun at the time,” he recalls. “I shot down a house with a lot of rounds, and eliminated that threat so my squad could get out and we could kind of regroup where our unit was."
Valor Winery is another effort to regroup for the veterans who are now returning home. Co-founder Kevin Franklin, a medic in Iraq, says it's a safe place for many who don't trust veteran services.
“If I go up to a doc asking, ‘hey look, I'm freaking out. I'm losing it. I'm looking for help’ -- well that could be on your permanent record,” he says. “That could bar you from jobs down the line.”
The winery is something of a place for veterans to relax and talk, but it does try to put veterans in touch with more formal treatment. Hiring vets raises unique management challenges: one man had his lower body blown off in war, so Laine needs to get him a special wheelchair. Many vets struggle with alcohol, so Laine finds himself lecturing them, "You can go out and get hammered, fine. But do not forget the fact when you're out there, you represent my company."
While political parties and police departments are starting to buy the Valor brand for events their host, the local wine market remains a tough one to break into. Valor's chief of marketing is Laine's grandfather, Korean War vet George Laine. He says he gets a lot of rejections from restaurateurs. "It's just been very disappointing." he says. "But we keep plugging away and we're going to do it."
So how are they doing? I went to an expert to find out: W. Blake Gray, an award-winning wine critic in San Francisco. I asked him to do a blind taste test.
He brought a bottle from the vineyards of Italy. I brought Valor's signature Sangiovese. He doesn't know which is which. He takes the first glass, breaths in deeply, sips and swishes it in his mouth. After a few seconds of pensive silence, he says, “I'm not going to say it's exciting. At this point I would call it competent.”
The next wine gets this analogy: " A lead guitarist jumping in to join the band."
And the verdict? "I, given a choice, would probably have both of these in front of me for the whole meal and see which one I like at the end. But I'm betting it would be right."
The one on the right is the Valor label.