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Phillip Dubé

Founder & Winemaker

Whipsmart Wine Company

and Winemaker

North Coast Wine Company

Petaluma, California

Past affiliations include associate, Covington & Burling, Becker & Poliakoff

JD University of Virginia

MA (Oenology) University of Adelaide  

BA (Biology) University of Richmond

Drinking in a dream career in wine

phillip dube.jpg

On the two ways lawyers typically get into wine

On what to do if you are struggling and not sure whether to leave law

On choosing satisfaction over money

Listen to interview:

Full Transcript

EXJ:  With us today is Philip Dubé who is the founder and winemaker at Whipsmart Wine along with being the Winemaker at North Coast Wine.


EXJ:  I was looking forward to speaking with you because we had just days ago, a really good interview with Mark Meyer, who founded Wigle Whiskey out of Pittsburgh in 2010, and he wound up selling that business over the summer to the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was not something that he always wanted to do. This came to him later in life when he was trying to come up with a business which could involve his family. I’m going to guess that in your case becoming a winemaker had to have been a passion of yours from early on.

Phillip Dubé:  It was. I’ve always enjoyed wine, and my original sort of inspiration came in college and law school.  In college, I was a biology major. I really enjoyed the science.  Between college and law school, I lived with a few buddies in Richmond, Virginia, and we started to brew a lot of beer, which got me into the fermentation process and what that entails.

By the way, brewing beer is a fair bit harder than making wine. The chemistry is a little different, so you have to be a lot cleaner and a lot more precise when it comes to beer brewing.  And that same year, I worked at a very nice hotel in Richmond, Virginia, both as a bellman and in the dining room.  And in the dining room, we would have wine reps come through and taste us on different wines from their portfolios. So, I got to taste some interesting wines and really started to enjoy wines that way.

EXJ:  You get out of college. You enter law school.  The idea is you’re going to be a lawyer. Wines and winemaking is kind of in the back of your head.  It’s not something that you think you’re going to act upon necessarily.

Phillip Dubé:  I’m not sure that winemaking exactly was in the back of my mind. I knew that I enjoyed wine. I knew that I enjoyed the science of fermentation. And this might have something to do with my undergraduate education in the sciences.  I was never really told when I was getting my biology degree that being a brewer or being a winemaker or being a cheesemaker was a career option.  It was never discussed. Either you were going to go to medical school, law school, or you were going to go get a graduate degree and teach.

It never really came into my consciousness that I could be a maker of wine. I just know that I enjoyed wine and I enjoyed the amateur process of it.  But no, certainly when I was in law school and as a young lawyer it might have creeped into my mind slowly, but I could never pick one point that it was there. That I’m going to make wine as a career.

EXJ: So out of law school, you’re at Covington for what looks like 7 years and then a smaller law firm. But, while at the smaller firm you were also getting a master’s degree in oenology from the University of Adelaide in Australia.  How did you manage that?

Phillip Dubé:  it was an interesting setup. I was at this firm in Florida called Becker and Poliakoff.  A wonderful, mid-size, regional firm.  I really enjoyed it there.  3 years into it I got admitted to the University of Adelaide; Master of Oenology program. There were about maybe 20 of us in the program.  So, my now wife and I moved to Australia and I started in the program.  I did, however, stay as Of Counsel for Becker and Poliakoff, which entailed some legal research and keeping some of my cases going. I kept my Bar membership active, so it was a nice little supplemental income and a good way to transition from the practice of law to something else.

EXJ:  Looking at your LinkedIn background it really is a traditional working your way up story.  You start as a Cellar Hand and then start climbing the ladder.

Phillip Dubé:  Cellar Hand is sort of the dishwasher/prep cook equivalent in a kitchen. It is the folks doing the hands on work.

EXJ:  If you could walk us through the steps you took after your entry level position.

Phillip Dubé:  Sure. There are really two ways to become a winemaker or own a winery, if you will.  One is what lots of former lawyers turned winemakers have done, which is essentially you buy a winery, or you’ve got the cash to start a winery from scratch and have it going for a few years before you sell any wine.  And then there’s the way that I did it, which is essentially just start from the bottom on up.  I had a little bit of a leg up having a master’s degree. But I started as a harvest cellar hand in the southern hemisphere in Australia and then in South Africa. That is just doing the hands-on manual labor.

Winemaking is a little different from baking bread or making whiskey or making beer, because we essentially get to make wine only once a year.  The grapes are ripe in the fall, during the harvest season for 2- 2 ½ months.  75% of wine making happens in that time.  All of these wineries have to really staff up.  So, when I was at the wineries in Southern Australia and South Africa they would hire 20 Harvest Cellar Hands to do all the manual labor. And we’d do that in California, and most of the world does that because you need to staff up. So that was my first job.  I worked at a little place up in the Hunter Valley in Australia for about a month and a half, worked in McLaren Vale Australia for a couple months, came back here, worked in California for three or four months in that position and then I went to South Africa where I did the same thing.  It was menial, hands-on laboring. 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. It’s a pretty intense schedule because a lot of work has to be done.

EXJ: In the midst of that kind of laboring did you find yourself saying to yourself, on occasion I’m a lawyer what am I doing here?

Phillip Dubé: Never. It didn’t matter that I was a lawyer when someone had to jump into a tank full of fermented grape skins and dig it out. More often I was really happy that I got to do that work.  That’s the real work of winemaking. It’s physical, satisfying, and hands-on. It was nice going home from work with a sore back because I was physically challenged rather than because I was sitting behind a desk all day.

EXJ:  What then are the next steps leading up to the ultimate, being a winemaker and having your own label?

Phillip Dubé:  The next real step is getting that first full-time position.  I was very lucky the timing worked out well. The operation that I had worked at in California called Carlisle Winery in the Russian River Valley had just moved into their own facility. They had been making wine at what we call a custom crush facility, which is sort of a co-op with other wineries.  So, they had bought their own facility. They then had a need for a full-time person in addition to their winemaker and owner. I had just been their harvest intern and they liked me well enough, and I liked them well enough that I got that first full-time job, which was Assistant Winemaker.

I was there for 4 or 5 years in that role, learning, getting to see a few different harvests, getting to see different varieties come in.  And then I moved to another winery for a year called Anaba Wines, which is in Sonoma Valley.  Carlisle is really an old vine specialist for the most part, a whole bunch of old vine zinfandels, some syrahs, some other things.  We did about 24 different wines every year at a 10,000-case winery. Then I moved over to Anaba in Sonoma, and they were more of a Pinot and Chardonnay specialist.  

So, I got to see different varieties, different styles of winemaking, different regions. I learned a little bit more about the craft that way. And then this position opened up at North Coast Wine Company where they were looking for, at that point, an Associate Winemaker, which was really just the Winemaker at that facility. I applied and got the position and that eventually turned into the full Winemaker title, though my role didn’t

change all that much.  I’ve been doing that for four and a half years.

It was during my time at Carlisle that I started Whipsmart Wine Company. It’s my personal label and a labor of love. I originally started it so that I could see the whole process from the beginning. That included the administrative and regulatory work of setting up the corporate structure and becoming a licensed, bonded winery. It also included finding good sources of grapes and all of the hands on winemaking work. And finally it required selling wine – my least favorite part.

EXJ: It strikes me that you really have to have incredible dedication because unlike say someone who starts a bakery or launches a new sneaker brand this is a very long climb until you get your first product into the marketplace. Wow, so admirable.

Phillip Dubé: Oh, thank you.  As I said, you could do it a couple of ways. You could essentially buy yourself a winery, maybe even an ongoing concern that already has wine in a bottle and sort of take that over probably with a consulting winemaker or somebody who knows the technical side of things.

But as a former attorney and a former litigator, I really believe in the importance of expertise. And I think the only way you really get to be an expert in a field is to work your way up from the bottom.  And that was appealing to me for a number of reasons. One, because I really wanted to know all of the nitty gritty, learn the little things that you learn in a cellar that seem maybe trivial, but ultimately, as a winemaker, you come to realize how important they are.  You only gain that knowledge from seeing what is done on the floor.

EXJ:  Yes. I saw on your website that you had referenced learning to pay attention to the little things as an attorney.  What other aspects of your time spent as an attorney and in law school do you think helped you get to where you are now?

Phillip Dubé:  A few. One being a work ethic. As I said, harvest is an intense time. As winemaker, I work honestly 14-16-hour days, seven days a week for three months. So just having that sort of fortitude and the wherewithal to get through that. The other thing is really interesting. There’s a fair bit in common with litigation and winemaking. In litigation you do your due diligence, your discovery, and then you have a set of facts that you have to work with to make the best case you can and to persuade people, be it a judge or a jury, that you’re right.  Winemaking is very similar. You get out there in the vineyards during the growing season and you do your best to get your grapes in a good position. But ultimately the grapes come in the door and that’s what you’re stuck with, just like your facts.

There’s not a whole lot you can do about it. You can really highlight the good parts of them and try to downplay what is not great about them and then tailor them to your ultimate audience, be they consumers or a jury or a judge.

Phillip Dubé:  It’s really hard for a lot of winemakers in poor growing seasons to get up the energy and the excitement needed to make wine because they know what comes out the other end isn’t going to be fantastic, because you can’t make fantastic wine from so-so grapes.  The same with a case if you have bad facts.  All you can do is do your best and go through the process.  And the process is really what I enjoy and it’s quite a challenge if you’re a lawyer working with questionable facts or if you’re a winemaker working with not the best grapes.  Because that’s where your skill really comes into play and your education, and your experience to make the best with what you have.

EXJ:  When it’s not harvest time, what’s a typical day for you?

Phillip Dubé: There are no real typical days. When you get to be the winemaker, in most places it’s as much management outside of harvest as anything else. Making sure the team has what they need, making sure everyone’s on the same page, making sure everyone knows what the marching orders are going forward.  Some days we’ll do blending trials, we’ll do fining trials, we’ll be getting wines ready for bottling. It’s really just sketching out the next few months, figuring out what we’ve done, what we have coming down the road, if it’s a bottling, if it’s a filtration, if it’s something else, and just making sure that we are in the position to take care of everything.  We have to make sure we have the staff we need, and they know what the calendar is and we’ve got enough time and the equipment to do it. Luckily I do get to spend sometime out in the vineyard outside of harvest making sure that everything looks good and is progressing as we want it to. Knowling that the quality of grapes is a limiting factor on the quality of the wine I need to do what I can to maximize that quality.

EXJ: How does marketing play into this? And who do you market to? People or distributors that in turn sell your product to restaurants and other venues. Or do you go directly into a restaurant and say, here’s my wine?

Phillip Dubé:  We are subject to the wonderful three tier system in most of this country. So actually, a decent chunk of my job now is getting out there in the market for North Coast Wine Company. So, in every state, we work with distributors to sell our wine. In California, it’s a little bit different.  We can sell some directly because of the state laws.  But for the most part, we go through distributors. So, when I get out in the market, it’ll be me driving around with one of our distributor representatives, going to accounts, tasting them on the wines, answering questions they may have, maybe doing some events, some wine dinners, some tastings, that sort of thing.

For Whipsmart, it’s different. I only make a few hundred cases a year of wine from some unusual varieties and vineyards. While I sell some to local wine shops and restaurants, I manage to sell most of our wine to our mailing list members. A few times a year I’ll email them about our offerings and ship directly to them.

EXJ:  I’m trying to remember. I believe there was a time you could not ship alcohol to consumers in another state.  

Phillip Dubé:  Yes, it has changed a lot over the last 20 years. I think it was the Granholm decision and the Supreme Court essentially saying that states can’t preferentially treat their own wineries better. So, for example, in Pennsylvania, if they wanted their wineries to be able to ship directly to consumers in Pennsylvania, they had to let wineries from other states to do that too. That really opened up direct-to-consumer shipping. Before that, there were just a handful of states that you could ship to. 

EXJ:  What type of advice can you give say mid-level associates in law firms or the young attorneys in law department that are really grappling with leaving the practice of law to be able to do something else?

Phillip Dubé:  I think that the first piece of advice is you’ve got to figure out what you are interested in and what motivates you.  And then it’s a question of putting yourself in a position to do that thing. And until you know what that thing is, it’s hard to leave a lucrative position at a law firm, at a company or any other relatively secure law position, unless you know what the next step is.

We as attorneys tend to be rational folks. We tend to be planners. And so, to succeed in your next thing you really have to know what that thing is so you can properly prepare.         Figure out what you’re interested in and figure out what jobs there are available in those fields and be creative and be interested and talk to folks and figure out what is this job really like?  What can I really expect my life to be like after I leave the law.

But keep in mind that if you’re a member of the Bar and you’re a good lawyer and things don’t work out for some reason, you can always go back to the law.  And maybe when you go back you find a position that you are more interested in or you realize, you know,

you don’t have to be on a partnership track or become a partner. You could be in-house or you could work for an organization.

EXJ: One of the things that that entrepreneurs we’ve spoken with tell us is that, take a bakery, for example. if you really love to bake and what you want to do is bake, starting your own bakery is not the best thing to do because you’re really not going to be doing the baking. You’re going to be doing the marketing, the numbers and everything else but the baking.

Phillip Dubé:  I think you’re right.  I think it’s in the law, too.  If you rise up through the partnership ranks, eventually you get roped into more managerial and administrative things, too, that maybe you don’t enjoy quite as much as practicing law.

In my own job, I spend more time at a desk than I would like.  But that’s partly on me. I can get myself away from my desk.  I can get into the cellar, out in the market, into the vineyards.  It’s just it takes a little more effort on my part.  But, you know, understanding that whole process is partly why I decided to start at the bottom as a Cellar Hand and really see every aspect of making wine in working my way up.  Otherwise, I could have tried to come in at a managerial level, but that’s just not the sort of thing that I enjoy.

EXJ:  Final question is the cliche question, but it’s usually important, is there anything in your journey that you would have done differently that might have made getting to where you are a little easier.

Phillip Dubé:  Not really. The only thing that I probably should have done, looking back in retrospect, is gone and worked a harvest in a cellar before I went and got my master’s degree.  I could talk to people, but you never really know until you do it.  

EXJ:  This has been great, Phillip. Thank you.

Phillip Dubé:  Thank you. If I could just say one more thing to the people reading or listening to this who want to be an entrepreneur.  It is something I didn’t realize or think about much when I was making the transition but is actually quite important.  That is, if you do want to transition out of law into something new, you have to really change your mind set, your state of mind and your framework.  In law I worked with folks who are now partners in law firms or General Counsels.  They make more money in a year than I may make in my entire career making wine.  You have to be okay with this. The understanding that your choices and decisions are leading to satisfaction and fulfillment in your life.  Not more money. 

Because if you try to compare your income with your former colleagues still in law you’re not going to win on that front.  You’ve got to change your frame of mind and think and understand that you are doing something that is more satisfying to you.  Something more valuable to you than money.

EXJ: That’s a wonderful piece of advice, I think, for all entrepreneurs, those that are interested simply in making more money, they really should stay in the law because their new endeavor will in the vast majority of cases pay less than they would make as lawyers.  But realize if you do stay for the money, you may well be giving up a chance to do something you truly love. And, as trite as it may sound doing what you love is priceless.

We have a lot of attorneys tell us that they feel trapped, desperate. But I think the advice you gave a little earlier is spot on.  Do not leave the practice of law until you actually have a passion that you can try to turn into your own business or that can motivate you to take on that first position in business or with say a not-for-profit.

Phillip Dubé:  I think that’s right.  We as lawyers tend to be rational folks. And at a certain point you figure out that the unknown might be scary. But is it any scarier than what you know your next 20 years will be like if you don’t make a change?

EXJ: Philip, thank you so much. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Phillip Dubé: Great. Thank you very much.

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