California’s wine country has some new recruits – veterans. A few guys from the Iraq War say they got so tired of chugging down alcohol to numb the pain, they decided to become winemakers instead.
Valor Winery – named after the cherished military virtue – defies the delicate, cultivated image of the wine industry.
When I say “Sangiovese wine,” you probably don't think “veterans.”
Joshua Laine is trying to change that.
Laine is a 28-year-old former Marine who's made a major career change. With $5,000 in savings and a bunch of credit cards, he and a few military buddies started Valor Winery.
Laine jokes, “We love to drink, so why not?”
It’s a serious business. Valor Winery grows Chardonnay and Zinfandel grapes on five acres in Livermore, and also buys from local growers. The vets make and bottle wine in a warehouse 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 buildings 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."
The heart of the business
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 founders want Valor Winery to be 100 percent by and for vets. The company doesn't make enough to offer many full-time positions. Laine says dozens of vets have gotten part-time gigs: harvesting grapes for other vineyards, bottling here, and pouring wine at events.
In the reception room of Valor Winery, there's a wall where vets and their families post photos.
Hiring vets makes for unique management challenges: One man had his lower body blown off in war, so Laine needed to get him a special wheelchair.
Many vets struggle with alcoholism, 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 they host, local restaurants rarely bite.
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. But we keep plugging away and we're going to do it."
The taste test
So how are they doing? I went to an expert to find out.
W. Blake Gray is 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, breathes 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."
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.
Back at the winery, after a couple hours of bottling and dropping a few bottles, Joshua Laine pours everyone a drink.
His grandpa jokes, "Where’s the tabasco sauce?!"
The vets promise Tabasco is not an ingredient they’ll use in the Sangiovese blend.