The following appears in the September issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
SONOMA—Andy Wahl and Bill Kerr wanted to tell a story. Not with words, but with wine.
They hail from two places that couldn’t be any different from each other, their families believing in completely different ideologies. But what Wahl, 32, and Kerr, 37, had in common was a bonafide love for and connection with the outdoors. So what better way to start a business and tell their stories than through the bottles of wine they hoped to sell to fellow sportsmen and -women across the country.
So here’s a story within the story from 2014 that would become Wahl’s and Kerr’s Sonoma-based company with the nontraditional name – at least relatively speaking for the historically buttoned-up wine industry – Ammunition (707-938-8322).
“This guy in (Austin) Texas, where we kicked off this brand, calls me and says, ‘Are you guys in Texas yet?’ I said, ‘No. We launched just two weeks ago.’ And he said, ‘I live in the country with my wine and my guns. I have to get Ammunition.’ It turns out he’s an ex-Marine,” recalls Wahl, who was thrilled the man offered to buy a case of red wine, with plans to keep some for himself and give others to coworkers, family and friends. Wahl was happy to oblige.
“He said, ‘Well, hell, throw in a few business cards and I’ll give it the old college try’” to see if anyone else is interested. “He picked up three accounts – restaurants in his city based off of him bringing in wine that he bought from us and giving them our business card. Because he had a personal connection with the wine. He said, ‘This wine was made for me.’ And it was. That’s the story we wanted to tell.”
Fast forward about three years, and Ammunition – “Wines of the Highest Caliber” – has evolved into a still-growing company here in the Sonoma Valley, every bit the world-class locale for vintners as the neighboring (and more celebrated Napa Valley). With five major varietals, Ammunition went from 150 cases sold in fall 2014, to 2,000 the following year, to 6,000 in 2016.
So it’s that kind of uptick in success that’s made this venture quite satisfying for two newbies to winemaking and weren’t sure what to expect.
“We’re looking at about 15,000 (cases) this year,” Wahl forecasts.
Sharing the same market with Sonoma County wine giants like Kendall-Jackson, Sebastiani, Alexander Valley and others, Ammunition doesn’t aspire to be the biggest dog on the block. But as it’s now available in almost 40 states, hunters, anglers, adrenaline seekers and those who appreciate fine wine at a good price point are becoming more and more happy to buy into the messages about family, the outdoors and the memories Wahl and Kerr share.
“If we tell great stories about our childhood, our upbringing and how it matters to us, other people will see something in themselves in that brand,” Kerr says during an interview at their warehouse in Sonoma. “And if we make the wine kick ass, they’ll keep coming back.”
IT’S A LONG WAY between Hastings, Nebraska, and Santa Rosa, California. Google Maps says it’s 1,543 miles, and it feels even further considering Bill Kerr’s and Andy Wahl’s backstories. Kerr is a proud Nebraskan who grew up in a conservative household that worshipped Cornhusker football (how the University of Nebraska fares on fall Saturdays is the state’s beating heart) and hunting. Kerr joined family and friends on countless hunts in America’s Heartland and beyond. Hastings (population, 24,000) is located in southcentral Nebraska, and his family owned a hunting lodge to the south in Red Cloud, not far from the Kansas border.
“I grew up in a family of outdoorsmen; my dad’s a competitive trap shooter. My fondest memories of being a kid were when my dad taught me to shoot a .22, which was the rite of passage,” Kerr says. “A lot of bird hunting – pheasant, turkey. Whitetail deer hunting is huge.”
He and his dad, who spends part of his time in Tucson, Arizona, once shared a memorable hunting adventure in Africa. Arduous tracking for a zebra finally hit paydirt, though the animal made its way into a pond before falling in 5 feet of water.
And then came a moment of equal parts excitement and fear that only outdoorsmen can relate to.
“Everything that you hit in Africa can run. The PH, my dad and me wandered into the water, and we were to going to pull that zebra out,” he says. “And there’s a 4-meter-long croc sitting across the way just hanging out. As we’re about hip deep, that thing goes under the water. And I’m like, ‘Done!’ Ultimately we got back in there and pulled that zebra out. So I had to do the leap of faith.”
Over in the San Francisco Bay Area north of the Golden Gate, Andy Wahl grew up the son of a Novato firefighter who left Southern California to be close to the redwoods and settled in with the family in a pastoral setting in the Sonoma County seat of Santa Rosa. Wahl’s childhood, while still connected to the outdoors, was every bit not the experience of his future friend and business cofounder.
“The complete opposite of my family,” Kerr says.
His dad’s schedule at the firehouse meant a series of days on and then up to a week at a time off, which meant fishing and camping getaways to Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. (He proposed to his wife Sarah, who handles the company’s marketing, during a fishing trip to Cabo.) But hunting?
“My parents were always, no guns. My mom and dad were kind of hippie parents from Southern California who wanted to get into that open space. My dad had a big wooly beard,” Wahl says.
The Wahls lived in a gorgeous rural setting (the area around their home was a favorite go-to filming location for director Alfred Hitchcock). So there was plenty of room for Andy and his brothers to get their hands dirty and play, though Andy would have to sneak in some opportunities to shoot a gun at a young age.
“We became scouts and went to Cimarron, New Mexico, where we learned about fly fishing and how to shoot muskets,” he says. “So here I had my parents tell me I couldn’t shoot guns and I’d purposely fail my shotgun merit badge every year so I could just take it again and shoot some more. And I never got the merit badge.”
Still, Wahl didn’t get his first hunting license until three years ago.
“I was the only one who went that route. But we all grew up fishing.”
And drinking wine. Sort of.
“I grew up tasting wine but usually being the designated driver for my brothers and my mom. ‘You’re 16 and got your license? Guess what? You’re driving us around to the wineries.’ It was so interesting to me when I’m 16 and not drinking and perceiving how people engage in a winery atmosphere.”
But after studying business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and working as an accountant, little did he know that he and a Cornhusker would eventually create their own harvest.
LIKE HIS FUTURE PARTNER, Bill Kerr studied business, but he had a knack for graphic design and moved to San Francisco to make a living at it. Kerr still works with companies to help them create or redesign logos and labels, including wine and spirits companies. But when a mutual friend introduced him to Wahl, they both decided to invest into something totally new together.
“I happened to be back having dinner with my dad and some friends and we’re sitting around a table. He’s ordering the wine at the table at a steakhouse and looking at the wine list, and I can see that nothing’s kind of resonating with him and sticking,” Kerr says. “And I realized really quickly that, My god, nobody’s making a legitimately premium wine brand with this guy in mind.”
When they began talking seriously about making wine, Wahl, a history buff, was already pondering telling stories that would be reflected in the product. He first pitched a former U.S. presidents’ theme. Wahl suggested a George Washington-inspired cherry- and cola-flavored cabernet to honor the legend of the tree-chopping story.
But they also realized their shared love for Mother Nature and the role it had on shaping their childhood.
“If you’re in Oklahoma or Kansas, why do you buy a (specific) wine? What’s your tiebreaker? Why do you buy wine? Is it 100 percent price? Is it because there’s a story related to it? And I want to tell a story,” says Wahl, who along with Kerr knew they needed to strike the right chords with the label that would adorn the bottle. “Bill showed me some initial designs that he had for over a year. And I’m thinking that this is perfect. We actually took the first wine that we wanted to do and made the concept of what we wanted to do was a picture – just of the label and the design. And we went back to his home state, Nebraska, and said this is what we’re thinking about doing. And the distributor said, ‘This is gold.’”
Ammunition’s main concept logo features not a gun-toting hunter but a majestic bald eagle clutching a cluster of wine grapes (a colleague of Kerr’s designed it).
“You don’t see camouflage all over our packaging. It’s based after vintage Remington advertising, which had a classic American strength to it,” Kerr says.
And there are signature touches on some of their other primary varietals. Badgerhound, a crisp zinfandel, is named for the English translation of the German word dachshund, the “weiner dog” breed of which Kerr and his wife own two, Alfie and Winnie. Alfie was the model for the canine logo, brandishing a wine bottle in one paw, a stick in the other.
“I was watching a mobster movie marathon one weekend and there was a Godfather saga showing (an extended version of the first two films shown together),” Kerr says. “There’s a scene where Michael Corleone is hiding in Italy and the car pulls up with the two henchmen behind it. He’s got a stick and a bottle of wine. That’s how we drew my dog. He’s protecting the barrel.”
Then there’s Trollop, a chardonnay. Like Badgerhound, there’s a story to tell with this wine dating back to Kerr’s Nebraska home.
“(Trollop) is an antiquated word for a salacious woman,” Kerr says. “My grandmother actually called someone that when I was a kid; she was like 4-foot-10 German grandmother in Nebraska. I asked my mom, ‘What’s trollop?’ And my mom’s like, ‘Nothing.’ Women love that brand, because it’s saying something a little saucy. But we’ve modeled it after the saloon girls of the Old West.”
WINE CUSTOMERS HAVE NO shortage of options when perusing the wine aisle at Costco or the neighborhood grocery store. The Ammunition guys’ target – get it! – audience is outdoorsmen and -women. So why not pair some of their wines with wild game and fish (see sidebar)? Generally, the market test for most vintners is how the wine will pair with beef, lamb or chicken, but Wahl and Kerr wanted to go a step further.
One of their most most versatile wines is the Equalizer, a red blend that is a natural fit with your average beef fillet seared on the grill. But hunters and anglers will have a better idea of what game pairs with which Ammunition varietal.
Early in the process of creating the wine (using grapes from various local vineyards), one of Kerr’s buddies brought him some backstrap from a deer harvested in Michigan. After the venison was cooked up in the smoker, they washed it down with a test bottle of what would become Equalizer red blend.
“I think the greatest timing with this is that it’s kind of a hipster revolution, and you look at the chefs, it’s the farm-to-table revolution,” Wahl says. “And a lot of people don’t realize that it’s either an arrow or a gun that’s actually taking that and putting it into the chef’s hands and then cutting it up. A lot of our wines are pretty versatile.”
And getting more and more popular. Wahl and Kerr made their first batches late in 2014.
“We lost money on every bottle we sold for the first vintage,” Kerr recalls. Wahl adds, “I’m no quitter, but there was a point where I was like, ‘We need to close this thing down.’ In every business there’s a point where you’re thinking, ‘What the @#$% were we thinking? This is not smart for us from a finance standpoint and our home lives.’”
“And then, probably the beginning of 2015, my whole strategy was, ‘Let’s go to these states where we’re going to be wanted: Texas and Arizona.’ That’s where I wanted to go. And I ended up connecting with these sales guys across the country saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to hire a national sales rep, but I live here in North Carolina and can get you distribution.’ And that’s where I thought I’ve got feet on the ground. And then it went boom, boom, boom, and within eight months we had opened up 15 states. Holy crap.”
Ammunition’s wines are reasonably priced (most bottles go for $23, and the company’s wine club program can also provide some great deals). Their growth has made it clear this is a business that should continue for a while. They’d like to eventually open a “saloon-style” tasting room where wine and whiskey can be sampled “in kind of a cigar bar atmosphere,” Wahl says.
Kerr knew something was up while visiting his parents in Arizona. At dinner, he saw and ordered a bottle of Ammunition from the wine list. When he told the server he was part of the team responsible for the wine, she replied, “Get out of here.”
In 2015 when he really wasn’t sure if the concept was sustainable for the long haul, Wahl was pouring wine for a potential distributor and guests in Huntsville, Alabama. An ex-general who lived in the area was so impressed and told him, “You’ve got something I’ve never seen before and you guys are sitting on a gold mine here.”
Gold, silver or bronze, it’s all about finding a niche with potential customers who can relate.
“I love wine, I love drinking wine and I love telling stories,” Wahl says. “So I just want to keep on doing that, moving onto the next vintages and keep on growing it.” CS
VARIETAL “The Equalizer” red blend (merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon)
ABOUT “Medium to full-bodied with a fruit-forward character … Its nose has plenty of blackberry, black cherry, baking spice and vanilla notes that are both intense yet elegant.”
WILD GAME TO PAIR WITH Most big game. Also, skirt steak, carne asada and blackened or spicy dishes.
ABOUT “Light golden in color, this medium-bodied Chardonnay is vibrant and fresh with a creamy texture from the barrel fermentation. Baked apples and pears with a hint of citrus dominate the palate.”
WILD GAME TO PAIR WITH Salmon, ducks, upland birds. A great choice with chicken.
VARIETAL Pinot noir
ABOUT “Sweet plum and cherry flavors with subtle oak tones that are wrapped [in] smooth silky tannins make this a wine that is enjoyable now, but will continue to improve for several years.”
WILD GAME TO PAIR WITH Wild turkey, and just about everything else, including aged cheeses.
VARIETAL Badgerhound zinfandel
ABOUT “The 2015 vintage presents appealing aromas of crushed raspberries and blackberries framed by vanilla and cigar box notes. This wine shows sweet concentrated fruit in the mouth with plenty of oak, tannins and acidity to balance the ripeness.”
WILD GAME TO PAIR WITH Wild pig. The zin matches wonderfully with classic barbecue.
VARIETAL Cabernet sauvignon
ABOUT “Ripe bright cherries and complex tannins highlight this medium- to full-bodied wine. Long mouth feel through the midpalate and pops with cherries and hints of spice.”
WILD GAME TO PAIR WITH Venison. Any red meat is delicious with this wine. CS