From one Vineyard to another – Martha’s Vineyard Times

from-one-vineyard-to-another-–-martha’s-vineyard-times

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It’s been an interesting journey for Sam Decker and his wife Katy. The two grew up on the Island, and after high school they both followed their passions. Sam went off to Oberlin College and majored in creative writing. Katy began working in the kitchen at Atria in Edgartown when she was 17 years old, and in the off-season she traveled the world.

After graduating from college in 2006, Sam, a gifted fiddle player, did the indie-rock-band thing in Brooklyn for a couple of years, but got disillusioned with that music scene, and returned to the Island, becoming an assistant editor at The MV Times.

On the Island, Sam and Katy’s paths crossed, and they began dating. “We hadn’t been dating for that long,” Sam said, “and then the recession hit, and we could feel the American dream crumbling before our eyes.”

What happened next would prove to be a game-changer for both Sam and Katy. Katy was offered the opportunity to open up and run a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and she asked Sam if he wanted to join her. “San Miguel was a beautiful, high desert town with a very Vineyard kind of feel to the community,” Sam said, so the two embarked on their new adventure.

Sam would get a chance to write the Great American Novel while he was in Mexico, while he and Katy immersed themselves in running the restaurant — a Vietnamese noodle bar called OKO.

San Miguel de Allende was located in the mountains in the midst of a burgeoning wine district, and wine producers would often come to OKO for lunch and talk about their business. Decker had always had an affinity for wine; he had even taken a course in wine while he was studying in Florence.

Now that he was surrounded by vineyards, he began volunteering at local wineries to get some hands-on experience. Plus, he took a two-year remote program in oenology from University of California Davis. Sam was all in on wine.

Katy’s mom died, and after four years of running the restaurant, the couple decided to sell OKO and return to Martha’s Vineyard. Sam’s obsession with wine paid off on the Island when in 2014, Chef Christian Thornton of Atria hired him to run Atria’s wine program.

Sam found himself training staff and running the floor, and he particularly enjoyed sourcing wines from all over the world and presenting them to customers. He genuinely thought that he had found his niche, and then, to broaden his knowledge, he enrolled in the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. If you’ve ever seen the documentary “Somme,” you’ll understand how absurdly difficult it is to become a master sommelier.

There are four levels one must pass to become a master, and after three years Decker was working on the third level. But as much as he enjoyed the learning process, something was bothering Decker. “The Court was insular,” he said; “everything had to be so precise, but it sort of ignored the broader ecosystem.” The Court was also coming under a lot of criticism at the time for sexual harassment and lack of diversity.

Meanwhile, Katy had gone back to school pursuing her degree in psychology and taking a lot of social justice classes. “I was studying stuff like the sub-appellations of the northern Rhone, or the 13 grape varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Decker said, “and she was studying systemic racism in America, and one day she said, ‘Why are you spending so much time doing this; shouldn’t wine be about more?’” Sam realized Katy was right.

“Wine should be inclusive, not exclusive,” Sam said. “It should engage the community who care about things like the planet, and social equity, and diversity, but once you get into the wine zone, it all goes away, and it’s all about quality.”

Sam and Katy had many discussions about the broader implications of the wine business, and those discussions were the impetus for Sam dropping out of the Court — and for he and Katy to start their company, Wine + Peace.

The idea behind Wine + Peace is to give people a marketplace to find wines that are not only of the finest quality but that also match their personal values.

The Wine + Peace website offers wine from around 30 of the finest vineyards in the country, screened to meet rigorous standards. “This category of vineyards,” Sam said, “produce what we refer to as handmade American wine.”

Each vineyard’s annual production must not exceed 100,000 cases. Grapes must not be sourced from a vineyard that exceeds 100 acres. They must have equitable labor practices, and champion sustainability, both social and environmental. And they must seek alternatives to synthetic fertilizers.

Just as Alice Waters introduced the world to eating food that is fresh, local, and sustainable, Wine + Peace seeks to do that with wine. They’re not a retailer, they’re a conduit that connects wine consumers to vineyards that share their values.

In 2018 Sam and Katy and their baby daughter Lilou went to Montreal to check out a design firm called Akufen to help them build their website and roll out their brand, and were so knocked out by both Akuen and Montreal that they canceled their flight home and found an apartment, and today, Montreal is their home and headquarters. Sam said that being from the Vineyard and living in Mexico, you get used to being apart, and that was part of the appeal of Montreal as well.

In an email to me, Sam explained that they launched the beta version of their website in May 2020, forgoing their commission and passing 100 percent of the revenue along to the wineries. They saw that as an opportunity to chip in and help out at a time when wineries were reeling from all the restaurant closures. It was also an opportunity for them to prove their model and jump into the fray of what seemed like a pivotal moment.

However, Wine + Peace’s official launch — when they first began taking revenue and the wines became available across the U.S. — was just in mid-December of 2020.

So in a strange way, the pandemic actually benefited W + P. With virtually every restaurant in the country shut down, and wine distributors having no one to sell to, winemakers were forced to sell directly to customers, and Wine + Peace gave the winemakers a way to do just that.

“It was our moment to shine, and our model proved to be very important,” Decker said, “and as a result, our numbers started flying through the roof.”

So let’s raise a glass to Wine + Peace. And to a couple of local kids who had the courage to follow their dream.

Check out Wine + Peace at wineandpeace.com.

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