Now Playing

The Davos party, hosted by Joe Schoendorf (bottom, center) at the World Economic Forum, is like a who’s who of the rich and powerful. At last year’s event, Soutirage sommelier Greg Castells (top, far right), formerly of the French Laundry, talks with John Rossant (far left), chairman of PublicisLive, the Geneva-based group that puts on the forum, and IDEO CEO Tim Brown (second from left).

The VC of Vintage

How a regular “Joe” became the unofficial ambassador of California wines.

The hottest ticket at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at the end of January wasn’t any of the talks by Nobel prize winners or the one by billionaire philanthropist George Soros; it was the exclusive party thrown by one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms, Accel Partners, and attended by the world’s most influential people. Guests at past events have included the likes of Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, former vice president Al Gore, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and food pioneers Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. And although they’ve come for the company, everyone knows that they’ve stayed for the wine—vintages so fine, so rare, and so costly that they’re almost impossible to get on the retail market.
     But that’s exactly what makes Accel partner Joe Schoendorf the driving force behind the event. Schoendorf came to Silicon Valley in 1966 never having sipped a cabernet but now has thousands of bottles in his wine cellar and many renowned vintners as friends. He learned about wine one bottle at a time in a weekly tasting group he formed with electrical engineering friends at Hewlett-Packard. At first, they bought $10 bottles and tried to puzzle out their merits in blind tastings, but eventually they hired an expert from Beltramo’s wine store in Menlo Park to school them in such finer points as body, weight, and viscosity. The club disbanded in 1999 after 33 years, leaving Schoendorf with a sophisticated palate and a desire to share his knowledge about wine. Hence his famous wine diplomacy, which included a party at the Louvre last summer 35 years to the day after the famous Judgment of Paris, in which a panel of French judges deemed some California wines better than their French counterparts. For the past 17 years, he’s been hosting the event at Davos with his Accel partner, Jim Breyer, and in 2002, another partner, Bruce Golden, joined up.
     The theme of this year’s party was California wines made before 2000. Working with Soutirage, a wine company in Napa, Schoendorf and his Accel partners spent months selecting bottlings that would prove that California wine
ages well—the mark of a truly superior wine. The 14 wineries represented weren’t announced until the actual event, but they included a mix of major players and smaller, cult wineries where Schoendorf has friends. Schoendorf’s goal, he says, was “to show what the world is going to figure out in the next few
years—that the old California wines have turned out way better than anybody ever thought they would.”
     “Jerry Brown ought to have Schoendorf on his cabinet,” says Paul Saffo, the futurist who recently cofounded Discern, an economic research company. “The guy is doing more to explain California wine to sophisticated Europeans than anyone.”