This is a story of two friends who started a wine company over many barbecues and countless bottles of wine. As their wives had been roommates in college and best friends since, Chris Nickolopoulos and Elijah Pfister had known each other for over decade. As Chris was in the wine trade and Elijah’s beloved uncle owned one of largest wine and liquor retailers in North America, the conversations inevitably gravitated towards wine.
Wine and fine cuisine had always been part of Chris’s life. He grew up in a Midwestern restaurant family and all of his closest friends spent their youth, summers, and college years toiling away in kitchens and dining rooms. Some were great four-star establishments, some were absolute dives, but they all became serious and passionate about food and wine at an early age.
What some saw as a means to an end to get through college, Chris viewed as a serious career path. In 1990, he and his best friend moved into a noisy little apartment next to the Addison “El” tracks in Chicago’s Wrigleyville so that they could immerse themselves in Chicago’s developing culinary scene. Chris went to work tending bar at the swanky Spiaggia, which then led to various management roles in the wine trade that culminated in leading the fine wine division of a noted Chicago distributor. During this time, he formed close friendships with many winemakers and growers which would prove to be useful later on. In 2001 he was chosen to lead a respected international fine wine sales organization which required him to move to San Francisco. Chris spent the following five years traversing the globe, tasting great wines and building several of the most respected wine brands in the US today.
Elijah Pfister grew up climbing oak trees on his parents' farm in Northern California where at an early age he learned to garden, hunt and developed an affinity for the agrarian lifestyle. When his family moved to the Bay Area, he looked to neighboring Sonoma and Napa to fulfill his rural yearnings, and gained an appreciation for viticulture and winemaking which was enhanced when his fine wine retailer uncle, “J,” came to visit bearing bottles of wine to explore.
Young Elijah was influenced by his family’s embrace of enterprise. One winter his mother, an accomplished home baker, decided to establish a wholesale cake business and his brothers and sisters were conscripted to help in the kitchen. It was excellent experience in starting a business from the ground up. While in his teens, Elijah still dreamed of farming but his uncle J guided him into pursuing an education first and then deciding on his life’s direction.
While obtaining his MBA from Stanford, Elijah knew that he wanted to be involved in the wine trade but did not want to take the route taken by many of his MBA brethren; stuck in a corporate office 3,000 miles away from the action. He wanted to be in the middle of it.
Since 2006, Chris had been working as the US marketing agent for three international producers. In January 2009, he founded importer Maritime Wine Trading Collective with Elijah as its CFO.
That summer, Chris and Elijah were approached by a high-end winemaker friend who had some extra Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: could they do anything with it? Samples were sent and both were greatly impressed with the quality. Moreover, given the recession at the time, it was available for pennies on the dollar. They took it all. Desiring a fruitier character in the finished wine, they also purchased several lots of Merlot and spent two weeks experimenting with blends until they hit the sweet spot. They branded the wine Ministry of the Vinterior (MOV) and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon was their first négociant wine.
While the gents were blending Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir for their MOV line, word quickly spread among winemaking estates that there was a discreet home to be found for the glut of wine that was in the market, and hundreds of samples came their way. Concurrently, retailers seeking proprietary blends learned of their efforts and they began to fulfill requests for them. It was an excellent business model in that stellar juice was obtained for a fraction of the cost and the consumer received appellation-specific wines that over-delivered at the price point.
In early 2012, Chris was approached by close friends who owned Nine North Wine Company. Established in 2001, Nine North released wines that were second labels of two high-end Napa Valley Estates. Chris and Elijah recognized the opportunity to significantly grow their négociant business with an established brand and the sale was completed in December.
Today, Chris and Elijah continue to have exclusive access to top notch California wineries and vineyard plots and release appellation-specific Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel Petite Sirah, and red and white field blends under eight brands.