Young Wine Dealer Having a Corking Good Time of It

February 28, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

BETHESDA, Md. — The aura is not that of a man who has made his fortune in rare wine.

He seems, first off, too young to have made a fortune, and too unpretentious to be dealing in fancy wines, appearing more like a friendly character from "Animal House" who has been stuffed into a pin-striped suit against his will.

At an age when many people are still in business school, 24-year-old Jason Korman, college dropout, is already where most of those students aspire to be: driving his DeLorean to the bank to make use of his line of credit. Buying, selling, trading. "Cutting a deal," as he likes to put it.

Owner of Petaluma Winery

His current challenge--the biggest yet, he says--is an effort to attach some cachet to the wines coming out of a small California winery in Petaluma that he recently bought when it encountered financial problems. He bought it, he said, partly to counterbalance his bigger business, dealing in high-priced foreign wines while taking advantage of the currently strong American dollar.

The International Wine Exchange specializes in moving rare wines, anything from $10 Austrian Rieslings to the 16 bottles of 1945 Mouton-Rothschild Red Bordeaux that Korman lists at $625. Per bottle.

"It's cyclical," Korman says of the wine market. When California wines went down recently, foreign wines went up. And if the cycle reverses itself again (he says it will), Korman will be on both sides of the game, able to tilt the balance whichever way the wine-purchasing wind blows.

And his so-called peers will still be in school.

"I come across those guys all the time," said Korman, who has the easygoing nature of a kid who grew up not that long ago in Great Neck, Long Island.

Korman is still a little-known figure in the wine industry, partly because his rare wine exchange operation is relatively small and unusual.

Columnist Peter Meltzer of the nationally published Wine Spectator says Korman "represents a refreshing exception" to the philosophy of the run-of-the-mill wine dealer, "namely that in America, it is well-nigh impossible to specialize solely in fine wine. Despite his youth, Korman has demonstrated that an aggressive and well-conceived buying program can result in a commercially viable and satisfying endeavor."

Korman's La Crema Vinera wines are beginning to get favorable reviews in wine publications, but to help spread the word Korman has hired Gray & Co., Washington's largest public relations firm, whose fees are such that a Saudi prince and several entire countries are among its clients.

Korman is the antithesis of many common practices. Instead of living in the suburbs and working in the city, he shares an office in this Washington suburb, commuting to a rented Georgetown townhouse in the heart of the city.

At a time when higher education is becoming astronomically more competitive, technical and important, Korman is a college dropout who left George Washington University business school after one year, soured, he explained, by an argument he had with his "Introduction to Business" professor. The assignment was to write a resume that would count one-third of the final grade, and his professor did not believe him when Korman listed his experience working in his father's garment business, setting up his own gourmet food cart business, and making and selling wines. At the time he took the course, Korman was only 18, not old enough in many states to buy wine, much less sell it. (When he was 14 he had even tried to grow Johannesburg Riesling grapes in his parents' backyard, but that didn't work.)

Told to 'Drop Dead'

"He thought I made it up," Korman said. "He told me to drop dead, basically."

So, that was his Introduction to Business, and his Goodby to College.

"I don't think it's as important as everybody makes it out to be, to be in school forever," Korman said. "If you're going to go work for a Fortune 500 company, that's one thing. But if you're going to be in what I consider to be the real business world where it's doing business and it's making deals and it's trying to make a buck, it's not really the way they teach it. . . .

"My personal belief is all you need is the desire to sort of win and to be able to work and have a fair amount of common sense."

Example of common sense: what Korman calls the Gucci theory.

He bought some $10 bottles of wine that tasted terrific, so he put them on his dealing list at $30 and recommended them highly to his customers, "figuring I'd make an incredible killing on it," he said. "Nobody wanted it. And the reason was: It was too cheap. On the next list a month later I put it on for $75 and sold every bottle we had."

Korman knows quite a bit about wine, but that is not the key to his success at all.

'Wine or Widgets'

"It could be wine or widgets," said Korman. "This is a commodity business, like the stamp business or gold futures. You have to know what the market is and play the market. And in order to do it you have to really be on top of things."

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