The story of Michael James and his wine project in Walla Walla is a great example of what I love about the Internet. You can find stories of interest just as close as your "own back yard." I couldn't wait to get ahold of Mike to find out the scoop of his up-and-coming wine project, named 8-Bit Vintners.
W5: Mike, I first heard about your wine project on my daily subscription to Google Alert. However, the website I checked out was not about wine. For me, it seemed a rather obscure website - - a gamer’s board named, Kotaku.com. I have to admit, I am rather clueless about gaming, even though I've been known to whoop some butts during a mean game of Ms. Pacman. But what was so surprising, and of course the most interesting to me about this website is you were listed as a finalist in a contest as having the "Most Unique Job" (a vintner)! So how did the contest end up?
Mike: It makes me so happy that you found me the way you did. It illustrates how the Internet can be such a great tool to promote a new or existing product with little or no marketing budget.
Anyway, so yeah, I'm a geek. I'm really into video games and I always have been. I remember the first time I picked up a controller to play Super Mario Bros. for Nintendo and I was mesmerized. I had a good buddy who lived down the street from me and when we weren't at school or playing sports, we were in his basement, or mine, trying to beat the newest game. I really cherish those times. I used to love reading the newest gaming magazines every month. Seeing all the upcoming games and picking the ones I just had to have. Unfortunately, most of those magazines have either gone under or web sites have replaced them. The site you found, the story about me on Kotaku is one of the most visited and well respected video game news sites on the web. When I found out that I was a finalist for their most unique job contest, I was pretty excited! To me, the best part was thinking of all the people that would see what I was doing with my wine. But, after three days of collecting votes, I came out on top and won a $1400 gaming laptop from Dell. It was a cool experience!
W5: I understand you just graduated from the Center for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla. What was the driving force that sent you to the school? Your background?
Mike: I did just graduate. I had a great two years at the college. Next to marrying my wife, it was the best decision I (we) ever made. I graduated college in 2005 with a business degree and had been working various sales jobs and was really unsatisfied. I had been really passionate about wine for about three years at that point and decided it was time to make a change. I visited Walla Walla once before on a road trip around the western U.S. I loved the wine and the people of Walla Walla and remembered someone talking about a two-year Enology/Viticulture program. So, I applied. We moved up before the following new fall semester. I have always loved history and hand crafted things, so grape growing and wine making were an instant attraction. I worked my first harvest in 2007 for Bergevin Lane under Steffan Jorgensen (who makes fantastic wine). Then I was offered a tasting room position at Seven Hills Winery. That position turned into a sales/production position and I currently am the national sales rep for Seven Hills Winery as well as starting my own label, "8-Bit Vintners."
W5: Tell me more about your new winery project, "8-Bit Vintners" and your soon-to-be released wine named, "Player 1." Also, how about your gaming and how it ended up blending with viticulture?
Mike: "8-Bit Vintners" is a concept that I came up with when I was driving wheat truck for a local family in Walla Walla the first summer we moved here. You get a lot of time to think when you're up in those hills. I really wanted to do something different in the industry. Something that was totally unique and niche driven. I knew it had to be something that represented me and my passions, or people would see right through it. First however, and above all else, the wine should over deliver on both quality and price. I feel like you can go one of two ways when creating a wine label. You can either be incredibly broad and try to reach every demographic or be incredibly focused on reaching a very specific one.
I obviously chose to be specific. Incorporating my love of games and the nostalgia I have for the games of my youth seemed liked a no brainer. I feel like there is this untapped amount of people who grew up playing Mario, MegaMan and Contra, who now get zero attention in the wine industry. I hear all this stuff about marketing to Millennials and I struggle to find one wine label that does it effectively. Anyway, I knew it was incredibly risky, but with so much wine sitting on store shelves, I figured it was better to stand out than get lost in the shuffle. Currently, 8-Bit Vintners is producing wine in collaboration with Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery. My first wine, "Player 1" is a red blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Tempranillo, 10% Cab Sauv, and 5% of Carmenere and 5% Malbec. "Player 1" will be around a 250 case production. And next spring, I have plans to create a white wine called "Player 2."
W5: And what will the future hold for 8-Bit Vintners?
Mike: My dream, is that this is only the begining. I am working with a very limited budget and a lot of prayer. I would love to have my own facility one day and create a place that is carried on by my kids. I'm realistic to the challenges of starting a new label, but I never want to look back and say I should have. Oh, and I want to be the first to have a Pacman machine in my tasting room.
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