Paul Zitarelli is a smart man in more ways than one. Not only is he booksmart, he has also figured out a way to make pursuing his passion for wine into a living. With support from friends and family, he walked away from a good job and a Harvard education to start Full Pull Wines; a web based service, where afficionados can sign up for notification whenever he gets new, select local wines, order what they like and have it shipped or pick it up later. A simple business idea but the local aspect is what sets Zitarelli apart, because not only does he sell the wine, he actively researches and visits individual wineries.
I met with Paul at his warehouse in Seattle’s Sodo district, where he was kind enough to show me what he does and tell me about his passion.
AP: You basically binned a Harvard degree in applied Math to learn business and sell local wine. That seems like a huge leap. How did you find the courage?
PZ: Well, it’s kind of you to characterize it as an act of courage. Somehow I think of it more as an act of desperation. I emerged out of college with that degree, a profound sense of entitlement, and no clue how to apply what I had learned in any meaningful real-world profession. I proceeded to spend much of my 20s having the sense of entitlement beaten out of me (thank goodness!) and exploring a broad variety of jobs, trying to shape how I wanted to spend the rest of my life and career. But even that exploration wasn’t as purposeful as it should have been, and I found myself in my late 20s feeling directionless. And so I did what the directionless frequently do: I applied to grad school.
One of the joys of a two-year, full-time graduate program was finding myself with time: time to think; time to reflect on my career to date and what I wanted it to look like in the future. As I did that, I kept returning to food and wine. No subject has ever engaged me in such a visceral way. Even as a little kid, I used to freak my parents out because I could name a food that I ordered at a restaurant eight months ago; and then I could rattle off what they ordered too. As I dove deeper into wine, I came to see it as a topic that combines the visceral with the intellectual. That combination was too tempting to pass up.
Fortunately, I was in a position where I could take a risk: no kids, no mortgage, and a spouse with a good, steady job (and health insurance). It seemed like a now-or-never moment; if I didn’t try this venture now, I would settle into the comforts of post-MBA life. I took that sense of desperation and let it fuel the urgency that allowed me to launch Full Pull just a few months after graduating from school.
AP: You have focused on local wine from Washington State. Why is it important to you where the wine is from?
PZ: Consistency is a quality that I look for in much of what I eat or drink. From low-brow (when Wendy’s pumps out a square hamburger patty on Thursday, I expect it to taste the same as the patty they pumped out on Monday) to high-brow (each time I order the cassoulet at Café Campagne, I better get one duck confit leg, one sausage, one piece of pork, and a bunch of garlicky white beans in a tiny Le Creuset pot), I value the comfort that comes with familiarity.
But wine is the exception. Because each bottle of wine is a living creature, it changes constantly. The same bottle will taste a little different after one hour open than it will after four hours open. Two of the “same” bottles opened years apart will taste different. The same producer using the same varietal from the same vineyard can produce vastly different wines from one vintage to the next; and I don’t grudgingly accept these inconsistencies; I love and celebrate them.
Wine emphasizes terroir: the notion that each bottle comes first and foremost from the soil, sun, and air of a particular place. The wines I love the most (which are not always from Washington) are those that could only come from that specific place where they’re produced. What I did see in Washington wine was a disconnect between the real and the perceived when it came to quality and terroir-expressiveness. The way to close that gap is to tell the stories of these bottles and then let people experience the wine for themselves.
PZ: I’m not sure I can emphasize enough the importance of a strong network. An entrepreneurial venture like this can be a lonely undertaking, especially in the early stages, so the support of friends and family has been invaluable. My lease started on July 1, and we transformed the warehouse space over the three-day 4th of July weekend.
My wife and friends gave up the possibility of trips out of town and other fun activities to spend a weekend scrubbing brick walls, sanding beams, and painting floors. And beyond that; they never made it seem like a burden, and in fact made the whole process ridiculously fun; much more fun than those activities had any right to be. Honestly, I get emotional just writing about it. I’m glad this isn’t a video blog or I would be blubbering at this point.
AP: You opened for business less than a year ago yet you already have hundreds of clients and dozens of wineries attached. How did you achieve this with a marketing budget of $0?
PZ: The lack of marketing budget has been more out of necessity than purpose. I always envisioned Full Pull as a self-funded, bootstrapped operation, and achieving that meant living within pretty tight monetary constraints. So the question became: what is the cheapest kind of marketing? Fortunately, the answer to that question is also the answer to: what is the most effective kind of marketing – word of mouth.
My goal, then, shifted more to the quality of the experience of dealing with Full Pull, for both customers and wineries. For customers, the idea was to make the experience so positive at every level that they would want to tell their friends, family, and colleagues about our little company. We tell compelling stories; we make the purchasing process scarily easy; and we pour great wines down at the warehouse on our pickup days.
We give wineries plenty of love too. It’s relatively rare for retailers to actually go to Eastern Washington and visit with winemakers on their turf. Frequently, wineries present their wines at distributor tastings next to 60 other wines, with buyers making thumbs-up/thumbs-down decisions in three seconds without asking a single question about the wine or the winery. And that system works, but from my perspective, it does relegate wine to the realm of commodities, and as I mentioned, I don’t see wine that way. Neither do most winemakers.
In the end, it has not been that complicated a formula: we have endeavored to treat everyone we deal with in the right way, and the best customers and wineries seem to find us if we don’t find them first.
AP: What’s next? You’ve taken the plunge and gotten off to a good start. What are your goals and dreams for the future of Full Pull Wines?
PZ: That question was eerily reminiscent of one that I got a lot at the end of my MBA program when I told people what I was doing: “What’s your exit strategy?” My typical response was: “um, retirement.” But that’s super-long-term.
Short term, I have a few goals. One is to pursue more unique opportunities that fit well within our model of selling: items like library wines, verticals, and tasting-room-only wines. We have only scratched the surface there. Also, I have been unable so far to source some of the best wines in the state, because they are heavily allocated to their mailing lists and long-established brick-and-mortar retailers. As our reputation continues to grow, I hope to be able to offer wines from wineries like Cayuse, Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, and Betz.
I’m frequently asked when we’re going to expand and offer wines outside of Washington. The reality is that Washington produces more than 3000 wines in any given year, and we offer fewer than 200 of them, so we still have plenty of this state’s corners to explore. Long term, the dream is to become the premier source of boutique Washington wine: a source of both the wine itself and the stories behind those wines.
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