It has been just two years since retired businessman Matt Talbert purchased the struggling JanKris Vineyards in bankruptcy court. The Templeton winery had endured more than two years in Chapter 11, during which sales declined and the quality of the wines and the vineyards unfortunately suffered.
But what a difference two years can make. Described as a “self-made international entrepreneur,” Talbert has taken his energy and marketing talent and has grown the winery to sales of more than 30,000 cases this year, with plans to expand even further if he can find production capacity.
“We’re aggressively looking to buy another facility,” Talbert explained, “because we’ve outgrown everything.”
The company has even changed its name to Veris Cellars. Veris, the Latin word for “spring,” is a reference to its remarkable new growth. So how did this happen?
“I went full bore and started to promote the JanKris brand immediately after I bought the winery,” Talbert explained. He went from one distributor to 36 in just two years. “So we’ve been very successful with the JanKris brand.”
But he recognized some of the negative connotations associated with the brand’s last few struggling years and wanted to establish a different brand. Thus he began to develop the identity “Veris Cellars, home of JanKris.”
But before Veris was even introduced, another brand “kind of fell into our laps,” Talbert said. It all started with a limo drive in Los Angeles, when the driver made an interesting suggestion.
“He said, ‘You should think about doing a Ben Hogan label,’ ” Talbert recalled. “And I said, ‘Who is Ben Hogan?’ ”
Often referred to as “the greatest golfer of all time,” Hogan won 63 professional golf tournaments between 1938 and 1959. Golf labels have been tried before, but virtually all have failed. Talbert, not a golfer himself, thought he could make it work.
“So one thing led to another, and ultimately we decided to do it,” he said. “And it has taken the golf world by storm.”
This year, he plans to sell more than 8,500 cases of the Ben Hogan label — which features a famous photo of the golfer — and he plans to expand it internationally next year. The distribution is mostly through country clubs, but it is also gaining a wider retail audience.
“This is a real brand now,” Talbert said. “It’s well beyond the golfing community.”
Working with Talbert since January 2009 is Chris Cameron, an Australian winemaker with an international reputation for making exceptional wine. Cameron is making five varieties under the Ben Hogan label, and he has just earned a gold medal for zinfandel in the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
The winery is also promoting the Hogan brand from the tasting room. It is considering the possible installation of a driving tee where visitors can drive golf balls into the vineyard.
(Talbert isn’t quite sure about this latest idea promoting “drinking and driving.” He fears some may get the wrong idea.)
The driving range is just one element of a new landscaping project he expects to complete sometime this summer. Together with a remodeled and expanded tasting room, Talbert hopes it will be a destination for major wine events.
For these last two years, Talbert has made sweeping changes to the wines, vineyards and brand strategy of JanKris, and the financial investment has been substantial. And he has more projects in the works.
Asked if this is what he planned for his retirement, the self-described “type triple-A personality” replied, “This is not what I thought it would be, but I love it!”
Veris Cellars, home of JanKris and Ben Hogan Wines
Address: 1266 Bethel Road, Templeton, CA
Owner: Matt Talbert
Winemaker: Chris Cameron
Tasting room: Daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at email@example.com.