High Tech Vintners

Cisco Systems just bought your little start-up for $350 million. Careful though — money without class lands you in a Rockcliffe glass house. If you have instant wealth, you need instant culture. Unfortunately, engineering school didn’t offer electives in Expressionist painting or Russian literature. A liberal education is useful only after you’ve made the big bucks – sadly, it doesn’t get you there.

So settle for something more accessible, something conspicuous you can buy. You’ve already commissioned the yacht in Holland, Donatella Versace is coming to measure Thursday, and the Z8 is on order. What you’re missing is something Old School, something rooted in tradition, yet won’t bore the hell out of you or your friends. Parsing, parsing…. ah, there it is: that 1982 Château Mouton Rothschild worth more than most people’s monthly mortgage payment.

“It’s about ego: who can pay $3,000 for a bottle without blinking,” says Andrew Waitman, a high tech venture capitalist.

You don’t need to be a sommelier to know that money and fine wine make a perfect pairing. What’s new is who can afford it: the pot of gold in this city is at the end of a fibre-optic rainbow. In the last three years, the sale or IPO of Extreme Packet Devices, Skystone, Cambrian Systems, TimeStep, Tundra Semiconductor, Abatis, Newbridge Networks and FastLane have minted more than one hundred millionaires. A former software CEO suggests that, adjusting for other factors such as education, age and geography, the determining variable for buying fine wine is income. That’s just the type of regression analysis that you’d expect from a top techie to even the most casual question.

“It’s boom times for those in high tech,” says Brett Howard, assistant vice president at Alcatel. We now have an interest in things we didn’t have access to before. I used to treat myself to an expensive bottle a couple times a year, but now I’ll buy one every week or so.”

Dr. Adam Chowaniec, CEO of Tundra Semiconductor, started buying wines at Ottawa charity auctions after his company went public last year: “It’s another way to experience wine that I hadn’t been able to do previously,” he says.

Indeed, it requires a Microsoft budget to drink fine wine today. The “cult cabs” of California such as Grace Family, Screaming Eagle, Colgin and David Bruce retail for up to $1,000 per bottle, just three years after release. Despite average vintages, Bordeaux continues twenty percent price hikes each year. The “price-to-enjoyment” ratios for the wines are as whacked out as the price-to-earnings multiples for the tech stocks. And irrational exuberance spurs the dot.com crowd to buy these wines just as it prods the rest of us to buy their stocks. The eternal search is for what’s hot in both wine and high tech: the new, new thing.

But this trend isn’t new. During the ’80s, when most techies were still in diapers assembling their model computers, the Wall Street boys were drinking the best labels. Then the Japanese had their run, mixing first-growth Bordeaux with Coke or Sprite (depending on their preference for red or white).

Wine is also the sunny second career for many who’ve made it in other fields. Take Francis Ford Coppola who produced the “Godfather” triology and “Apocalypse Now”. Today, the Hollywood heavyweight also produces some of the finest cabernets and merlots in Napa Valley.

Then there’s the Australian golfer Greg Norman who probably knows more about driving ranges than yeast strains. Still, that didn’t deter him from teaming up with leading wine producer Mildara Blass to launch Greg Norman Estates. Of course Norman is one of the few lucky enough to be able to afford to make wine. (The way to make a $1 million selling wine is to start with $10 million.)

Australia also beckoned Kent Plumley. He had been legal counsel to and an investor in Kanata high tech clients for more than 25 years when he visited the country in the early 1990s. He was so taken with its scenic splendor, he decided to buy a winery there at AUS$4,000 per acre. Next year, his winery will produce 25,000 cases.

“Before going to Australia, I had toured up and down the coast of California searching for vineyards, but the prices, driven largely by high tech investors, were US $75,000 per acre,” Plumley says. “If you work in Silicon Valley, it’s fashionable to go to your vineyard on the weekend. The traffic is unbelievable – BMWs and Saabs sitting bumper to bumper on the main stretch.”

Alcatel’s Howard has observed the same phenomenon in Canada. “When you have the funds, you buy the lifestyle,” he says. “It’s not simply a love of wine — owning a vineyard fits the image many have of someone who is successful.”

But Plumley believes it’s more than just a matter of wealth. He thinks there’s a link between working in a sedentary, high-risk, high-stress environment, and wanting to relax with something that’s hands-on, sensual, slow and traditional. After all those nights debugging glitches until 2 am, it’s time to get a life. “Just strolling in your vineyard, or sitting on the verandah with a glass of wine, is a welcome change from the high tech chaos,” he says.

While not everyone in high tech can afford to buy a vineyard yet, many are exposed to wine through their business travel and entertaining. Often when they visit a foreign client, they tack on an extra day or two to visit vineyards in the region — either on their own or with customers.

“We spend so much time trying to understand our customers, both their technology and they, themselves, as people,” Chowaniec explains. “Sometimes, if we’ve just wrapped up meetings in California, it’s easy to take them to Napa. It’s more social to share wine than to knock back one scotch after another.”

Wine is also an intellectual pursuit, and appreciating it ties directly to parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotion. “There’s something about the complexity of wine, and its many correlations among blends, vintages and regions that’s appealing to those who are analytically minded,” Howard says. Yet, you don’t have to grind through mind-numbing textbooks and night courses to grasp the subject — you can enjoy it instantly, at least at the simpler sensual level.

However, despite their burgeoning oenophile tendencies, few in high tech participate in the city’s wine clubs compared to those in government and academia, for instance. Frequent business travel means they often can’t commit to scheduled events. They also tend to prefer informal wine tasting at home or in a restaurant with friends rather than at a wine club. At Mitel, for example, an ad hoc group of about twenty-five colleagues gathers after work once a month to chat about wine. The ideas flow more freely around a bottle of wine, says Alain Chamsi, a director at Mitel. In high tech, the folks you work with are often the folks you play with.

The other difference between high tech wine lovers and those from other fields, is that few have large cellars, preferring to maintain a low drag coefficient. (Read: less junk to port when you need to move to Mountainview for your new job.) And tech’s twitch culture doesn’t exactly lend itself to waiting twenty years for a Bordeaux to mature –which may be why most of those interviewed prefer bold, fruit-forward, ready-to-drink New World wines.

Neither are many interested in buying wine as an investment, and instead, put their money instead into their own companies and other tech stocks. In fact, many look down on investing in wine as an activity for “institutional guys” such as bankers, who, I was told, have the time to analyze something outside their own field.

Many wine lovers believe that the high tech crowd will spur better wine selection in Ottawa, both in restaurants and at retail. However, they get frustrated when they discover a great wine while traveling, and then are not able to buy it locally.

That’s improving though. Last May, the LCBO opened its largest Vintages store, the flagship for its fine wines, on Rideau Street. In the past year, wine bars have opened in the Byward Market, and several regional restaurants now offer seriously good wine lists.

“Restaurant wine lists are starting to improve,” Howard says. “A few places now offer great wines, not just the safe, budget brands. The staff is also getting more knowledgeable about wine and food matching.”

Baroness Philippine de Rothschild observed: “Wine making is quite a simple business. Only the first 200 years are difficult.” Their timelines may be shorter, but the high tech crowd couldn’t agree more about starting a business. And while there is no grand theory linking them with wine, the world’s most civilized drink provides a rosé-coloured lens through which to view their nanosecond world.

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